India is looking to boost air connectivity to the Ladakh region that has been at the centre of a border row with China, with four new airports and 37 helipads being planned across the Union Territory. These new air links will not just boost tourism but can also serve as vital assets for the armed forces and would help deliver quick relief during natural disasters.
ET has learnt that land has been identified for four new airports capable of handling wide bodied aircraft, including an alternate airfield for the town of Leh and a direct link to the Zanskar valley. An airport is also being planned near Changtang that links to Pangong Tso, where border tensions with China escalated last year after the PLA moved in thousands of troops to the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
While Kargil already has a military airfield, land has been identified for an alternate civilian airport in the region as well. The current airfield at Kargil is used by the air force but is yet to get approvals for civil operations as it does not meet at least two criteria set by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
In addition, 37 helipads are currently under construction across the UT, supplementing dozens of such military installations that have been operational for decades. Spread across all remote and inaccessible parts of Ladakh, these helipads will be capable of even handling the heavy Chinook CH 47 helicopters, a vital capability given the role played by these choppers in disaster relief and transporting emergency supplies. A bulk of these helipads are expected to be made operational this year itself.
For the new airports, it is learnt that land identification and preliminary discussions have been concluded and the next stage would be a joint report by key stakeholders like the DGCA, Airports Authority of India and the Indian Air Force.
The larger plan, it is learnt, is to have an airfield capable of handling large aircraft for all major valleys in the UT. At present, besides Leh, the air force airfield at Thoise in the Nubra valley is capable of handling large commercial flights besides all types of military aircraft. The air connectivity plan is in addition to several all-weather road links being built to Ladakh, including a road through the Zanskar valley that would be an alternate to the Manali-Leh highway.
Since the border conflict in Eastern Ladakh last year, the PLA has been rapidly expanding its airbases and converting airstrips for military operations in Tibet. These upgrades include extension of runways, construction of hardened shelters and setting up of new radars and air defence sites across Eastern Ladakh.