DEHRADUN: Uttarakhand saw increased air activity by the Indian Air Force (IAF) at two civilian airstrips in the state this week. On two consecutive days, Monday and Tuesday, a detachment of two Su-30 MKI aircraft — regarded as among the best fighter planes that IAF has — flew from Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun. The Air Force also conducted landings of an AN-32 transport aircraft — which can carry up to 45 passengers and crew — in the newly-constructed airstrip in Chinyalisaur region of Uttarkashi on Monday. It had undertaken a similar landing exercise using the same aircraft in December last year.

IAF officials described this week’s test sorties as a routine exercise “for area familiarisation.” “We are trying to get as many airfields across the country activated as we can for military use. Even though Uttarkahand has areas close to the border, there are currently no airfields where fighter aircraft can be landed. In fact, the closest airfields are in Ambala and Bareilly, so activating air strips in the state has been undertaken,” said a serving IAF officer.

The increased activities have led many defence analysts to suggest that the exercise is intended to serve the dual purpose of strengthening military bases close to the India-China border — Uttarkhand has an almost 350-km long border with the neighbouring country — and also send a strong message to China. Notably, purported incursions by Chinese soldiers have been reported time and again from Barahoti area of Chamoli district since the past few summers. In June last year, a Chinese helicopter was also spotted in Indian airspace over Barahoti.

Defence expert and former Army officer Maroof Raza termed the IAF exercise as “extremely important for securing our borders.” “Doklam is not the last of what we will see when it comes to China's intrusions. Now we are not just looking at securing borders in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh — where civil airfields have been activated — but all our borders with China including that of Uttarakhand.”

He added, “IAF has been trying to increase the usability of the Su-30MKI and though I doubt that any squadrons will be shifted to Dehradun, it is being tested for military use in case China decides to enter into Indian territory through Uttarakhand.”

Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi, another defence analyst, added, “On our other borders with the China, there is heavy military presence but that is not so much in the case of Uttarakhand. Therefore, these measures assume significance in the state because in case there is war-like situation, IAF will play a significant role. Also this will send a very strong message to China in case they are deliberating another Doklam-like intrusion this summer.”

Incidentally, a report by news agency PTI’s Beijing bureau on Tuesday said that China is upgrading air defence of its Western Theatre Command, responsible for mountain warfare at the border area, to “confront any threat from India.”

The agency’s report quoted the state-run Global Times as saying, “The Chinese military has released photographs of a J-10 fighter jet – a lightweight multi-role fighter aircraft – along with J-11, a single-seat, twin-engine fighter jet, flying over the high-altitude plateau in western China during the current Chinese New Year and Spring Festival holiday.”