How Indian Army finetuned its war-fighting capabilities on the Ladakh plateau
Prasun K. Sengupta
There are two distinct and opposing re-balancing exercises currently underway within the armies of India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). While the former is focussing on the raising theatre-specific Integrated Battle Groups for HQ Northern Command, the latter is introducing a hierarchical ‘Synthetic Division-Synthetic Regiment-Synthetic Battalion’ for Peoples’ Liberation Army Ground Forces’ (PLAGF) South Xinjiang Military District (SXMD). Both processes aim at acquiring the required capacities and capabilities for waging limited high-altitude mountain warfare and high-altitude plateau warfare. Since realistic competitive benchmarking of these two processes will be premature at this stage, an examination of their evolutionary processes over the past 34 years can serve as a useful indicator of the two respective desired end-states.
India’s armed forces, that have since October 1947 frequently been tasked to achieve the impossible, have never failed to deliver, often going way above and beyond the call of duty by using the genius of institutional improvisation. It is due to this that the Indian Army (IA), ably supported by the Indian Air Force (IAF) enjoys the enviable and as-yet unmatched reputation of being the world’s only army to deploy and successfully employ armoured vehicles at forbidding altitudes, from 12,000 feet to 16,000 feet above sea level.
The first such chance came in late 1948, when under Operation Bison the IA used its M-5 Stuart light tanks of 7 Cavalry Regiment to dislodge Pakistani tribal invaders from Zoji La in northern Jammu & Kashmir and then head towards Dras and Kargil. Until then, nowhere in the world had tanks operated at such heights. Within a month, the IA’s Madras Sappers had built a track that the M-5 Stuarts could use to reach Zoji la from Baltal. The plan also involved the move of a Stuart squadron located at Akhnoor across the Pir Panjal Range. After negotiating the tough terrain, which was steep and slippery amid heavy snowfall, the Stuarts reached the Ghumri basin on 1 November 1948, at 1440 hours. From then on, the IA pushed further and captured Matyan, 18km ahead of Zoji La, on November 4. By November 16, Dras, the second-coldest inhabited place in the world, was captured. The brigade resumed its advance on November 17-18 with Kargil as its main objective. By November 25, all enemy positions on the way to Kargil were eliminated and the direct link from Leh to Srinagar restored.
During the India-China war in 1962, two troops of AMX-13 light tanks were air-lifted by the IAF by October 26. They played a decisive role in deterring the PLAGF from capturing Chushul after advancing through the Spanggur Gap. However, it was in mid-1986 that the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji ordered the IA to ‘go to Ladakh and make history!’ as part of the riposte in the midst of Operation Falcon that had then commenced in Arunachal Pradesh (the Wangdung incident along the Sumdorong Chu).
While the IAF had practiced carriage of main battle tanks (MBT) in the plains, landing at the Leh airport—located at 10,300 feet and surrounded by high hills—presented technical difficulties. Expectedly, the IAF rose to the occasion. In the last quarter of 1986, the IA, under Operation Kartoos, had six T-72M MBTs airlifted to Leh (by IAF’s IL-76MD transports) along with 20 BMP-1 infantry combat vehicles (ICV) for deployment in Chushul, the Fingers Area of Pangong Tso as well as the Spanggur Gap. Following them were 22 more BMP-1s, 10 15-tonne BMP-2 ICVs (with power-to-weight ratio of 21hp/tonne), three armoured recovery vehicles (ARV) and two armoured squadrons comprising 14 37-tonne T-72Ms and two ARVs.
The Regiment (less one Company) temporarily settled down at Karu, 40km from Leh. One Company was located 120km to the east at Tangtse for deployment in the Chushul sector, which was another 100km to the east. The move of this Company by road across the 17,500 feet high Chang La was a great confidence builder. The BMP-1/2 were unique ICVs that could maintain the same average speed as heavy wheeled vehicles. Within a week, the Regiment selected the new administrative base for the in-theatre mechanised forces at Stakna, close to Karu.
Within two months, the accommodation for the troops and sheds for the equipment were constructed: 50 troops barracks and 15 sheds for T-72Ms and BMP-2s, along with offices and messes were built in a record time of two months. As part of their preparatory processes, the Regiment went over all terrain and operational reports from the last 40 years since 1947, and also studied the military history of the region. Special attention was paid to the campaigns of the great Dogra Gen. Zorawar Singh Kahluria from 1834 till 1841, when he had captured a vast tract of Tibet, right up to Lake Mansarovar. In fact, he was cremated at Taklakot, near the Lake in 1841. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 was also analysed in detail, particularly the employment of the six AMX-13s that had been flown into Chushul by IAF An-12B transports.
The terrain of eastern Ladakh is unique and there is no other place like this in the world. Up to Leh and 150km beyond, the terrain is extremely rugged with narrow valleys and surrounding mountain ranges, varying from 15,000 feet to 23,000 feet. Beyond this the valleys become broader, the base height rises to 15,000 feet and the surrounding hills and ranges become more gradual and only 3,000 feet higher than the valleys. After reconnaissance, the hill features can be negotiated by wheeled vehicles and for tracked vehicles it is a cakewalk.
In fact, Major Shaitan Singh PVC, had constructed a jeep-able track from his base at Tara Post (named after his wife) at 15,000 feet to Rechin La (at 17,000 feet), which is about 1km from Rezang La. For any army, terrain is the most important factor in battle. For mechanised forces, this is even truer as they must negotiate the same with MBTs and ICVs. In Eastern Ladakh, the Regiment had to not only know the valleys, but also the surrounding mountain ranges to assist the infantry units during tactical operations. The terrain is so vast that on a full reconnaissance trip, the vehicles can easily log 800km. All surrounding hill-features were climbed on foot. The Regiment also climbed all infantry posts and visited all relevant LAC areas. Aerial reconnaissance by the IA’s SA.315B Cheetah recce/scout helicopters was also undertaken. Thus, in three months, the Regiment had mastered the terrain.
The Ladakh range is extremely rugged. In those days, there were only three roads to get across via Khardung La, Chang La and along the Indus River at Loma. The mountain ranges (including the Ladakh range) are aligned in the north-west to south-east direction and the rivers run from south-east to north-west between them. This gives a peculiar configuration to the valleys and the LAC. Thus, if the Ladakh Range is crossed from Demchok and Koyul area to enter the Hanle Valley, the entire Indus Valley east of Loma is bypassed. Consequently, a road was planned from Hanle to Koyul-Demchok via Photi La. It was very difficult to construct. Eventually, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) took 10 years to construct the Photi La road. However, cutting a road via Bozardin La took only one year.
This, of course, happened years later, but in 1988, 1 Mech Infantry was the first to take vehicles from Hanle over the Ladakh Range into the Indus Valley! The main defences were based on the Ladakh Range and its offshoots, and the Pangong Range, west of Pangong Tso. This left nearly 100km of valleys and plateaux up to the LAC unmanned. These were selectively held by the IA to delay the PLAGF. The Chushul sector was more compact and there, the main defences were between 5km to 8km from the LAC. The LAC ran along the Kailash Range, which then was not held either by the IA or the PLAGF. Both sides had plans to pre-empt the other to occupy the Kailash Range in the event of war. However, manning the entire LAC in Ladakh is impossible as the terrain configuration offers no defensible features in the valleys and it would have required the IA to deploy four additional Mountain Divisions, which is not cost-effective. In addition, if the PLAGF occupies the valleys, it would be ‘shelled out’ by field/ rocket artillery fire-assaults and the IAF. Lastly, mechanised forces with their mobility are tailor-made for the role of dominating valleys.
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