Special Operations: Out Of Thin Air In China


September 8, 2016: Every year since 2010 China has been sending one or more battalions of paratroopers to Tibet so they can conduct one or more combat parachute drops. The first of these occurred in 2010 with a battalion landing in an open area of the Tibet plateau. This was significant because the average altitude on this vast plateau is 4000 meters (14,000 feet). This means parachutists have to jump from a higher altitude on account of the thinner air and the longer time it takes for the parachute to open. The reduced air pressure also causes altitude sickness for many troops, especially after something as strenuous as a parachute jump, and the frantic activity following the landing. The Chinese Army wanted to find out how well prepared it is to deal with these problems. Since that first drop the Chinese Army has adapted.

For the 2010 exercise parachute troops went through altitude acclimatization training beforehand, as the Chinese already know what happens when you send military units straight to the high plateau. This became painfully obvious 2008 when there was an uprising in Tibet. Many of the troops sent in soon fell ill from altitude sickness. The acclimatization training detects those troops who would get ill quickly, and the worst of these are kept closer to sea level.

The Chinese airborne units were not given all this special training just to reinforce Tibet. The Chinese point that most of their southern border area are covered with mountains and hills, averaging 3,000 meters (9,300 feet) in height. Training in Tibet gets the paratroopers ready to operate in all these areas.

The paratroopers involved in all this belong to the Chinese 15th Airborne Corps which has been around since the early 1990s and now consists of three airborne divisions and an aviation brigade. This is the primary airborne infantry force in the Chinese military and the primary rapid reaction force as well. China has enough air transports (Il-76s, Yu-8s, Yu-7s) to move one of the 11,000 man airborne divisions to anywhere in China within 24 hours. Moving a division anywhere by air on such short notice was first done in 2008 when one division was sent to Sichuan province, to assist in earthquake relief. The first large scale movement by air took place in 1988 when a division was moved to Tibet. Many of these early movements were experimental. A lot of mistakes were made but they were fixed and by 2010 battalions and brigades could be moved reliably by air on a regular basis. Since 2006 as the air force acquired more, and larger, transports so that more troops, as well as vehicles (some armored) could quickly be delivered by air.

Since 2009 the 15th Airborne Corps has been receiving more helicopters and practicing tactical movements via helicopter for units as large as brigades. These exercises are becoming more frequent, as more of the 15th Airborne Corps nine paratroops brigades are trained to undertake these helicopter movements and assaults. These operations would be a major feature of an attempt to take Taiwan by force or quickly reinforcing remote Tibet in case there were a local rebellion. Another threat is the newly created Indian Mountain Corps that is based on the border and could cross the border unexpectedly in the 2020s, when this new Indian units reaches full strength of 80,000 troops.

The 15th Airborne Corps also trains a growing percentage of its paratroopers to carry out one or more specialized jumps (like the ones in the thin air of Tibet). Currently about 40 percent of the 30,000 Chinese paratroopers have acquired specialized skills.


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