In October 2010, China’s PLA carried out its first air-ground live ammunition exercise in Tibet. According to the reports published in the official Chinese Media, troops of air force, armor, artillery and electronic warfare divisions participated in the exercise. The photographs of the exercise shows Chinese made Fēi Nú-6 (FN-6), theFlying Crossbow-6 Surface to Air Missile being fired during the exercise. However, no details were available to confirm if any other air defence weapon participated in the exercise or not, or if the FN-6 units which participated in the exercise were integral to Tibet military district (now upgraded to Tibet Military command) or not.
The PLA Army formations under Tibet Military District (MD) at that time were three Brigades with a Signals regiment and support elements. The identity of the AA unit in the Tibet MD, if any, was not known and it was more than likely that the AA Regiment participating in the exercise was not part of Tibet MD.
Two years later, in July 2012, PLA reported that it had carried out live test firing of new SAM system, later identified as the HQ 16 which had been operationalized by the PLA in 2011 only. The test firing was conducted by Lanzhou Military Region in area opposite Ladakh and involved at least three separate launches against enemy targets in ‘South East’ direction. Though it was ostensibly meant as a message intended to counter increasing US presence in Asia, the location of the tests made it clear that the message was equally targeted towards India also.
The HQ 16 missile units participating in the test firing, besides the firing itself, were tasked to gather technical information about the missile performance at high altitude areas and the attendant logistic & technical issues for it was the first time that the missile systems were being test fired at an altitude of 5000 meters (16,400 feet). This experience would stand in good stead when PLA conducted its next exercise in the region.
It was in May 2014 that PLA carried out an ‘anti-air’ drill in Tibet in which the HQ-16 Surface to Air Missiles(SAM) were once again the centre of attention. Unlike 2012 when only test firing was carried out by the missile system, this time around the exercise included deployment exercise as well as live firing.
As the identity of the participating unit was not revealed by PLA, it was left open to speculation if the deployment exercise was merely a ‘proof of concept’ or a permanent deployment.
Just a couple of months later, a post in the Chinese Defence blog revealed that the missile unit was part of 651st Independent Air Defence Brigade.
It could now be confirmed that the HQ 16 unit was part an integral formation of the Tibet MD and that it was in Tibet to stay.
No details about the 651 Independent Air Defence Brigade could however be known and remained unclear.
The only known Air Defence unit, with the same numeral designation, was the 651stAnti-Aircraft (AA) Artillery Regiment but it was known to have been equipped with AA guns only. If one was to consider that the Regiment had by now been designated as a Brigade and at least one missile unit (equipped with HQ 16) was part of it, it was fair to assume that 651 AAA Regiment had, like other PLA Regiments, undergone reorganization to be converted into a Brigade.
In 2017, when the two Asian giants had a standoff over Doklam, PLA carried out large scale military drills in the Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR). The PLA press release talked of “two exercises” and that one of the exercise involved “scenarios such as rapid deployment, multi-unit joint strike and anti-aircraft defense”. The videos and photographs leaked online revealed that the PLA had moved HQ 16 SAM and HQ 17 by rail to TAR, making it a first that HQ 17 had been moved to Tibet.
As is the usual practice, no details of the Air Defence units was revealed by PLA.
It was much later in 2018, again from the Chinese Defence Blog, that the details of 651 Independent AD Brigade came to be known. The Brigade was reportedly the enlarged 651st Anti-Aircraft Artillery regiment which had been reorganized in 2012 with the HQ 16 SAM unit coming on the order of battle of the Brigade. The other AD systems held by the Brigade were said to bePG59 (57mm AAA) guns, PG99 (35mm AAA) guns and also the HQ-7A SAM, HQ-16 SAM and NH-6 MANPADS.
Going by standard organisations, it can be assessed that the 651 has a unit each of HQ 16 and HQ-7A missiles systems while the guns systems and the portable NH-6( probably the FN-6 ?) equip at least two units making a total of four units in the Brigade.
The details of the unit equipped with HQ 17 missile unit which was moved to TAR in August 2017 are yet to be confirmed, and whether it is now forms part of Tibet Military District or if it was moved to Tibet only for the exercise.
As is wont, one piece of information revealed by China may clarify one detail but it also adds a new puzzle to be solved.
The complete picture of ground based Air Defence troops in TAR is yet to be known.
PLA unit of the day: 651st Independent Air Defense Brigade, Tibet MD ,China Defence Blog, June 24, 2018, http://china-defense.blogspot.com/2018/06/pla-unit-of-day-651st-independent-air.html
B Raman, PLA CONDUCTS FIRST AIR-GROUND LIVE AMMUNITION DRILL IN TIBET, OCTOBER 26, 2010 http://intellibriefs.blogspot.com/2010/10/pla-conducts-first-air-ground-live.html
PLA conducts first air ground live ammunition drill in Tibet
Zhao Lei, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau site of PLA war games, China Daily, 2017-07-17http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-07/17/content_30133519.htm
CHINA’S PLA READYING MISSILES TO STUN INDIAN AIR POWER, Indian Defense News, August 28, 2017, http://www.indiandefensenews.in/2017/08/chinas-pla-readying-missiles-to-stun.html
China missile test unveils fear of US in Asia Pacific https://defencereport.com/china-missile-test-unveils-fear-of-us-in-asia-pacific-24/
Zi Yang, China’s PLA readying missiles to counter Indian air power, August 217, 2017, http://www.atimes.com/article/chinas-pla-readying-missiles-stun-indian-air-power/
People’s Daily Online, February 13, 2013 http://en.people.cn/90786/8128497.html