The Chinese have a formidable number of troops in Aksai Chin with armour artillery, air defence, drones, helicopters, air support and mechanised infantry

The Chinese have been quick to reinforce their troops in Aksai Chin facing India’s XIV Corps. Some of these additional forces had come in earlier as part of the pre-planned push to secure Indian territory. Reserves have been inducted to counter Indian deployment aimed at undertaking offensive operations. What did the Chinese have in the area for border management before launching Operation Land-Grab and what have they added? According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, before the start of the confrontation, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had three border-defence companies based close to the areas in question in Aksai Chin. Two were drawn from the 362nd Border Defence Regiment one being located at the 19th century Khurnak Fort on the north bank of the Pangong Tso and the other at the Spanggur Tso to the south. The third is located at the Kongka La Pass near the Indian post at Gogra/Hot Springs, and belongs to the 363rd Border Defence Regiment. All these sub-units patrolled the LAC running into Indian patrols and were used to make the initial intrusions. Border Defence Regiments are on a par with regular troops in equipment, (except in armoured fighting vehicles) communications and leadership. Their counterpart is the Indo-Tibetan Border Police which hold posts along the LAC and are backed up by infantry battalions of the Army patrolling the boundary in rotation from nearby camps.

There is also a Chinese patrol boat squadron on Pangong Lake itself. All these sub-units taken together would amount to around 500–600 personnel. Reacting to the changed situation, it is likely that additional troops drawn from one or both of their parent Border Defence Regiments’ operational reserves have also been deployed to the area, raising the total PLA border forces in the area to 1,000–1,500 personnel.

The border troops have been reinforced by mobilising more combat forces, most likely from the 6th Mechanised Infantry Division, a northern or high-altitude manoeuvre formation. This formation is normally based at a distance from the Aksai Chin on the southern boundary of the Taklamakan Desert. It constitutes the Southern Xinjiang Military District’s primary operational reserve and is earmarked to be first responders to any operational crisis in the region. This deployment replicates that of the 2017 Doklam crisis where border management troops manned the frontline with manoeuvre regiments from regular formation held further back as a striking reserve.

By May-end, units of main battle tanks and batteries of towed artillery had been deployed at existing Chinese positions north and east of Gogra. This combination of heavy armour and towed artillery is now quite rare in the PLA following the latest military reforms. Normally armoured fighting vehicles would be supported by self-propelled artillery. What is known about the 6th Mechanised Infantry Division is that it has still to receive self-propelled artillery. This is also true of the three other mechanised divisions in the Xinjiang Military District.

In the Pangong Tso and the Fingers Area, the Chinese have now stationed themselves in a strong way in Finger 8. On May 18 and 19, the PLA had brought in around 2,500 troops to the sub-sector. These were regular rather than Border Defence Regiment personnel. This was done very visibly the obvious intention being to overawe the relatively smaller Indian contingent facing them on the lake’s bank. They have established a logistics hub along with deployment of armoured fighting vehicles. Bigger boats for dominating the water bodies and transporting assault troops across them have been brought in. The road built by the Chinese from Finger 8 to Finger 5 alongside the lake also helps them in the quick transfer of troops from there to the Finger 4 base. There is considerable Chinese build-up. This has resulted in shorter reaction time and time taken for movement of troops.

In the Galwan River valley, a Chinese infantry platoon deployed at Patrolling Point 14 (PP14) had been withdrawn by the fourth week of May. The main PLA camp was then established three kilometres further back in territory already occupied by them. We do not know at the moment whether this unit is supported by armour or artillery. Such manoeuvre or fire support seems unlikely in the absence of viable road communications. This has been planned for some time but remains unfinished. A further reinforcement of the sector seems unfeasible at the moment.

What is known is that China now has built up force levels along the LAC to include another mechanised infantry division trained and equipped for high-altitude warfare. Which one could this be? My view is that either 8th or 11th Motorised Infantry Divisions, part of the Xinjiang Military District’s three mechanised formations held in reserve some distance from the Aksai Chin have been deployed.

Indian Humint, Comint and Techint are closely watching the activities, readiness status and operational preparations of another 10,000-12,000 Chinese troops deployed in Xinjiang with high mobility vehicles (Chinese copies of Humvees) and weaponry in the rear positions with the capability to reach the LAC or depth positions ready to launch offensives or in a counter-penetration role within a period of two days. This could be 4th Motorised Infantry Division stationed at Aksu. Its induction into the theatre could tilt the scales in favour of the PLA.

The Chinese normally have two divisions trained and equipped for mountain warfare deployed in the Tibet region. Generally reliable sources claim that reacting to the current crisis and Indian build-up they have brought in close to two extra divisions from locations as far as 2,000 kilometres from mainland China as a counter-measure. This is outside the Aksai Chin region. The Chinese have a formidable number of troops in Aksai Chin with armour artillery, air defence, drones, helicopters, air support and mechanised infantry. The regional command of the Western Theatre which commands all troops posed against and oversees operations against India has a number of reserves awaiting deployment.

Deploying Air Power Against The Chinese

A number of mistakes were made in the conduct of the 1962 war. By far the biggest one was not using our medium-sized but formidable air force for offensive air operations. Our Canberras, Hunters, Mysteres, Gnats, Ouragans (Toofanis) and Vampires flown by well trained and motivated pilots would have interdicted Chinese lines of communication, strafed, bombed and rocketed their artillery batteries, troop concentrations, headquarters, supply columns and even forward elements. Though combat air patrols and reconnaissance flights were flown by the IAF they were forbidden from firing even a single round. Air Marshal MM Singh, then a Squadron Leader commanding 24 Squadron (Hawks) saw a strong enemy column moving towards one of our forward defended localities in the Walong sector while flying a recce mission in his Vampire fighter. He dived down and had the satisfaction of seeing them scatter in panic even though he wasn’t able to fire even a single shot. It was galling for a professional fighter pilot to be thus hamstrung while troops on the ground were fighting for their lives.

IAF helicopters played a major role in reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, supply of otherwise cut-off posts and communications. Squadron Leader Vinod Sehgal volunteered to fly in his Bell helicopter to the Namka Chu and find out what was the ground situation after communications with the formation under attack there were lost by the divisional headquarters on the first day of the war. Unaware that the Chinese were already targeting the helipad, he tried to land and was shot down, and killed while exiting the machine and making for cover. Here a couple of helicopters fitted with machine-guns and lobbing bombs on advancing enemy troops would’ve caused attrition and boosted the morale of the stricken Indian defenders. But the aggressive spirit so essential for such improvisations was sadly missing. The government irrationally worried over Chinese retaliation against civilian targets had curbed the fighting spirit of the IAF.

Transport aircraft played a major role in 1962. From moving troops to far-flung destinations to supplying posts dependent solely on air-drops to strategic airlift the IAF was everywhere. AN-12s operating from Chandigarh transported AMX-13 tanks to Chushul making a significant impact on the operations in and around the airbase. It was a masterly exercise in improvisation and airmanship. A salute to the transport fleet!

While no air intrusions have been reported by the PLAAF (the Chinese Air Force) the IAF is on full alert. Combat air patrols are in full swing including night sorties. Frontline air-superiority fighters like the Su-30MKIs. Mig-29s. Mirage-2000s and Jaguars have been moved to operational bases in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana. Bases at Avantipura, Pathankot, Adampur, Chandigarh, Halwara, Ambala etc are on high alert.

Apache helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles are ready to take on Chinese armour and mechanised infantry. Not for nothing is the aircraft known as a super tank-killer. Chinook heavy-lift helicopters have been deployed for tactical troop movements, casevac and supply functions. Significantly, the Chinook can carry the M-777 ultra-lightweight 155mm medium howitzer unslung. This will add greatly to the punch and mobility of strike formations.

Strategic airlift is the IAF’s forte. Using C-17 Globemasters and C-130J Super Hercules transport planes tens of thousands of battle-ready troops have been flown into Ladakh along with the weapons and equipment. Shorter flights with lesser loads have been undertaken by Illyushin IL-76s. A large share of the burden of logistically maintaining the additional troops indicted into the theatre with food, ammunition, medicines, tentage, housing and other supplies through the winter will fall on the transport squadrons.

Quick-reaction surface to air missiles (SAMs) fielded by both the IAF and the Army have been positioned at strategic spots to undertake the air defence of installations, supply and ammunition dumps, command and control centres and troop and armour concentrations. Defend Indian air space in short. Medium-range, mobile Akash missiles are included in these. These have been modified for deployment and use in high-altitudes.

Eastern Ladakh's Trip: 9th July 2020

The Prime Minister’s visit raised the morale of the armed forces and the citizens of Ladakh. The visit and the public posturing therein indicated the temporary failure of the military-level talks aimed at de-escalation and disengagement of forces. The rhetoric and the hard intentions displayed had their effect. The Special Representative-level talks seem to have resolved matters to some extent. There are reports albeit carefully worded and guarded in nature of Chinese troop withdrawals and corresponding Indian disengagements.

All for the good. Things could be improving. What do we have to look out for in the future? We could be showing undue urgency for de-escalation. The Chinese have laid claim to the entire Galwan Valley and dominating heights. Their behaviour and moves even after a rearward move would have to be very carefully watched. Very definite and accurate reconnaissance and surveillance systems have to be put into place besides the use of human resources. Eyeballs Mark I in an Indian skull alone will not suffice! Anything out of the ordinary will be suspect. In this sector the Chinese have access to only a dirt track to move troops, vehicles and supplies. Macadamising i.e. black-topping of this road will indicate without a doubt that the Chinese are repudiating any agreements made with us. This is the reality of today.

The People’s Republic of China as a matter of national policy uses force and negotiation at the same time. We must be prepared to not just play the same game with them but beat them at it. A new professionalism, a new ruthlessness must take root. Wishing to forever occupy the moral high ground is passé. We must learn the right lessons and modify our strategic imperatives. While the Chinese give preference to the big picture our thinking is the exact opposite – tactical in nature.

Lastly, the reserve formations moved to Eastern Ladakh will in the main have to be kept there in the interim at least through the winter. Such is the fickle nature of agreements with the Chinese! This will add immensely to our logistics load and administrative burden. We must be prepared for that. It has to be remembered that in foreign policy as in war there are no prizes for runners-up.