China's Type 99 (ZTZ-99) tank during an event at the 2017 Army Games in Russia

Two months ago, the Indian and Chinese militaries pulled back their forces stationed around Pangong Lake, on their disputed border in the western Himalaya mountains. The pullback, described as a “disengagement” by India’s Defence Ministry, was meant to be a first step to ease tensions on the disputed border – swaths of which have been heavily militarized since 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers died in a medieval-style brawl in the nearby Galwan River Valley almost a year ago.

The Indian Army released photos, videos, and aerial images of the pullback, showing Chinese troops dismantling bunkers, removing tents, and evacuating the area. The most interesting images, though, were the ones that showed the large number of tanks and armoured vehicles. Indian media reported that China alone withdrew 200 tanks from the area.

The sheer sizes of the armoured forces indicates that both sides were quite serious about their military build-ups, and that the next violent incident on the border could escalate into something far more deadly.

In general, large-scale armour deployments in mountainous and high-altitude regions are rare, especially in the Himalayas.

Tanks pull back from the banks of Pangong Lake region, in Ladakh along the India-China border

The low air pressure, freezing conditions, and rough terrain make operating and maintaining such vehicles difficult and often lead to losses from wear and tear or mechanical failure. Tanks and armoured vehicles have to be restarted for up to 30 minutes every two or three hours to prevent them from freezing, according to one retired Indian general. That operational challenge is believed to have been a significant factor in both countries’ decisions to pull back their armour from Pangong Tso.

“These operational issues simply cannot be ignored either by Beijing or Delhi for a variety of operational reasons that are common to both forces,” a high-ranking Indian Army officer told The Wire.

That is also the reason armour – and aircraft, for that matter – played a very limited role in the month-long war India and China fought in the region in 1962. During that war, India airlifted six AMX-13 light tanks to an area just south of Pangong Tso, but the feat was extremely difficult, and there were no large-scale tank battles. The 1962 war itself was an embarrassment for India, which had over 8,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing and lost the territory Aksai Chin to China. China lost 722 soldiers killed and 1,697 wounded.

Both India and China set about building up their militaries after the 1962 war.

Today, India’s tank force is made up primarily of three models. Two of them, the T-72 “Ajeya” and T-90 “Bhishma” main battle tanks (MBTs), are built in India using Russian designs. The third, the Arjun, is of Indian design. The Russian tanks, designed to operate in the cold, make up most of India’s fleet of about 4,000 tanks. The Arjun has had a troubled rollout, and only 124 are in service. China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, maintains a large number of legacy models from the Cold War, like the Type 59, Type 69, and Type 80/88 tanks, but China’s tank force is centred on three modern models: the Type 96 and Type 99 MBTs, and the new Type 15.

While the Type 96 and Type 99 are MBTs, the Type 15 is one of the few light tanks developed this century.

The Type 96 and Type 99 weigh about 42 tons and 54 tons, respectively, and are armed with 125 mm guns, whereas the Type 15 weighs just 35 tons and has a 105 mm gun.

By comparison, India’s T-72, T-90, and Arjun tanks weigh about 41 tons, 46 tons, and 68 tons, respectively. The T-72 and T-90 are armed with 125 mm guns and the Arjun with a 120 mm. Despite being smaller and under-gunned, the Type 15 is far more capable in the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas than its Indian counterparts. The Type 15 is just one of the PLA’s numerous new weapon systems designed with mountain operations in mind, and China has shown it off in a number of live-fire drills in Tibet.

Both the PLA’s Xinjiang and Tibet military commands have received Type 15s. They have also been deployed to the Sino-Indian border, as have India’s T-72 and T-90s.

The images and a video released by the Indian military appear to indicate that the pull out around Pangong Tso was a coordinated event in which tanks were purposely shown to withdraw one at a time.

Indian T-72 and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) can be seen on the Indian side of the border, as can a number of small fighting positions and foxholes.

The Chinese armoured force that can be seen is more diverse. A few of the tanks appear to be legacy models, likely Type 80/88s. There also appear to be several modern models, most likely Type 96s or Type 99As.

Another image shows at least 12 Chinese ZBD-04 IFVs and three other armoured vehicles, possibly tracked variants of the HQ-17 short-range surface-to-air-missile system, Type 09 self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery units, or a combination of both.

It’s unclear if the tanks and IFVs were always deployed so close to one another or if they were only brought forward for verification during the disengagement.

What is clear is that both sides are far more mechanized, capable, and lethal than they were in 1962.

The pullback from Pangong Tso has not been followed by additional pullbacks in other contested areas, as was originally hoped. Recent reporting suggests some Indian officials may regret pulling back from a strategically important area with little to show for it.

Despite the difficult conditions in a region known as the “roof of the world,” flare ups along the border are still a real possibility.

With so much heavy hardware present, future fighting in the area could be much deadlier than before.