India has recently reactivated its Panagarh air base in West Bengal which was developed by the Americans during World War II to fly aircraft into China. This is a bold China-specific military move by India, indicating that the Delhi government, feeling boxed in by China’s upgrades to its military infrastructure, is being forced to take counter measures.
New reports this week suggest that India will now deploy half a dozen mid-air refueling tanker aircraft at the Panagarh to boost the strike range of Indian Air Force fighter planes like SU-30 MKIs, which are already deployed along the Chinese border.
Mid-air refueling planes are vital force multipliers, militarily speaking. But in the context of India’s contingency plans to counter China’s growing military power these planes could hardly be referred to as “force multipliers” given that they are currently based in Agra, which is too far away from the Tezpur and Chhabua air bases in Assam where the SU-30 MKIs’ squadrons are located to be of any use. The reactivation of the Panagarh air base and the eventual relocation of the mid-air refueling planes there would correct this anomaly.
However, the latest Indian move is hardly sufficient to counter the vast military infrastructure that China has already built in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) right on India’s doorstep. Indeed, this is the case despite even if one takes into account that India has also reopened airfields in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) and raised two additional divisions of troops in the northeast.
China has at least a half a dozen air fields fully operational in TAR alone. These have all been built in the past couple of years. In the event of a conflict, China has the capability of bringing trainloads of arms, ammunition, and troops right on the Indian border from its mainland. India does not have this kind of capability even in a planning stage just yet.
Significantly, the Director of the U.S. National Intelligence Agency (NIA) stated in an unclassified report to the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 31, 2012: “Despite public statements intended to downplay tensions between India and China, we judge India is increasingly concerned about China’s posture along the border and Beijing’s aggressive posture in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific Region (APR)”.