Super High Altitude Areas in Eastern Ladakh: Designing Ground Operations

The Chinese have exhibited a coercive and intimidating approach in 2020, in South and East China Seas, the Taiwan Straits, Nepal (Mt Everest), Bhutan (Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district) and Eastern Ladakh.  Without a legal basis, the Chinese actions clearly demonstrate muscle flexing and hegemonic intentions.  These are a part of China’s larger geopolitical aspirations and also reveal a greater willingness to use military force, as was apparent in the induction of 6 Mechanised and 4 Motorised Divisions across Eastern Ladakh.  The Chinese aim was to show their national will and deter India from any quid pro quo military actions. These geopolitical ambitions, and the will or intent to employ military force to achieve those ambitions, is a major futuristic challenge for India.

The Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh at multiple areas, followed by an intransigent attitude in disengaging, de-escalating and return to pre-May positions, was a first of its kind.  It has forcefully brought home the threat of a conventional war in the high altitude areas of the Northern borders and also heightened the likelihood of collusive support by Pakistan. In appreciation of the threat that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) poses, the Indian Armed Forces have undertaken robust and forceful measures in Eastern Ladakh. There has also been a positive movement in the Government for facilitating essential and emergency defence acquisitions to strengthen the armed forces, fill-in voids where they exist, and allocate additional resources for infrastructure development. However, there is a need to undertake a comprehensive assessment of our warfighting techniques in super high altitude areas.

India is a sub-continent, with a wide variety of terrain configurations and extremes of climatic conditions on the borders. The two different adversaries though could collude at the strategic level, have uneven levels of capabilities and contrasting pattern of operations. Hence, planning for conventional operations in India has to perforce follow sectoral and theatre level specificities, in equipping, training and, most importantly, in designing the methodology of conduct of wars. This peculiarity mandates on the operational commanders at Command and Corps levels to plan the design of battles, task, train and equip the forces almost independently for each theatre, particularly in areas like Eastern Ladakh that remain cut off from the rest of the country for five to six months in a year. It also envisages a heightened level of operational logistics and management to overcome the difficulties in rapidly mobilising resources into remote, high altitude areas.

A very broad mention of terrain configuration in Eastern Ladakh will be in order. The 1000km Eastern Ladakh frontage is walled by the two tiers of masssifs of Karakoram, Cheng Chenmo, Pangong, Kailash Ranges and Saser Brangza (an offshoot of Karakoram) and Ladakh Ranges. The Shyok River in the North, the Pangong Tso in the middle and Indus River in the Southern Sub-Sectors, are near-parallel to the LAC, between these two massifs.  There are limited passes, gaps, axes and laterals, and river valleys (like Chip Chap/ Galwan/Cheng Chenmo/ Indus) that could facilitate PLA movement from the Western Highway – the G219, to the Line of Actual Control. With the terrain’s distinct peculiarities, the movement for both the defender and the aggressor in the battlefield is limited to ‘Go’ areas for the tanks and mechanised vehicles that is, along these narrow valleys and gorges, defiles and passes. The exploitation of natural and man-made features, and its analysis and interpretation, predict the effect of the terrain on military operations.  In the super high altitude areas as obtaining, terrain analysis employing geospatial information, of heights and plains, passes and valleys, rivers and water sources, presents a basic visualization of operations to support decision making.

Knowing the enemy, his appreciated intent, the pattern of operations and perceived end state, forms the basis of all planning.  The Chinese have invested greatly in the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and configured critical new domains in “informationalized” 21st-century warfare – space operations, cyber, electronic warfare and signals intelligence, among others. Offensive operations across the electronic medium will employ electronic jamming, electronic deception, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic pulse radiation. The PLA also views cyber operations as an independent means to subdue the adversary by achieving information dominance. The PLA Second Artillery Forces was renamed as the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) in 2015 and made a full service like the army, navy and air force. With a vast array of short and medium-range ballistic missiles, the PLARF could conduct well-planned strikes against key Indian targets. Such a campaign can be undertaken by long-range precision attacks by rockets, missiles and air forces, to destroy important targets, paralyze operational systems, and destroy war potential, creating favourable conditions for further operations.  The vast range of options available to the Chinese includes the covert cyber targeting of civilian/ national infrastructure with plausible deniability and overt attacks on military infrastructure and defences at the border areas.

While the PLA would hope that standoff attacks cause major military damage, victory cannot come without a defeat of the Indian Army on the ground in Ladakh. With offensive operations at Kargil War 1999 as a general indication, PLA has to bring to bear a major force asymmetry to contemplate operations against the battle-hardened and experienced Indian troops, occupying well-constructed linear defences. To obviate the severe terrain restrictions, PLA may resort to using of the third dimension, but inevitably, the aggressor has to finally capture and control dominating heights.

In order to combat the PLA offensive in Eastern Ladakh, a suggested warfighting methodology could be designed around the following:

  • The operational level commanders in Northern Theatre are concerned with employing military forces to gain an advantage over the enemy and thereby attain strategic goals through the design of battle and conduct of campaigns. Gen HR McMaster had said, “There are two ways to fight … asymmetrically, or stupid.” In the conventional war that will be fought asymmetrically, the design would have to be tailored for the appreciated campaign, utilising the linear defences as pivots and employing composite Task Forces (TFs) or Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs), sized and composed exclusively for each ingress avenue. These specifically composed IBGs/ TFs, working in tandem, asymmetrically, would jockey in an advantageous manner, undertake a series of operations and accomplish the common objectives in the given time and space.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) are critical for placing the right chess pieces in place, and to execute the operational plan. In the environment as available in Xinjiang and Tibet, and in correlation to the location of the combined arms formations of PLA, there would be little difficulty in implementing an intelligence plan – based on all strategic, operational and tactical inputs. The challenge will be to overcome the battle of the turf of disparate collection and analysis agencies.  The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) under the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) should be proactive in seeking intelligence, even by prepositioning liaison staff in NTRO and R&AW, and energising the Directorate of Signals Intelligence (SI) and the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC). The requirement of ISR equipment for the field formations in Eastern Ladakh, which should include a variety of Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), requires a separate and detailed analysis, but the need to hasten acquisition of such equipment is indisputable.
  • The Indian Air Force has distinct advantages in Eastern Ladakh and will be a game-changer. With the air force’s reach, flexibility and firepower, the PLA can be strategically and operationally interdicted, greatly facilitating the defensive plan. Ground based firepower – artillery guns, rockets and missiles, can combine to a devastating effect with the Air Force.  It would be prudent to plan for additional Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) and adequacy of rockets for the artillery.
  • The Go and No-Go areas have been extensively mapped, along with terrain exploitation plan, which will impose severe restrictions. Whether it is the 36Ton Type 15 medium tank of the PLA (with a 1000HP engine) or a 47Ton Indian T90 (again with a 1000HP engine), the agility of mechanised forces can be exploited and limited to only the ‘Go’ areas. In matters of tactical mobility, the tanks have limited manoeuvre space. Therefore a much more potent T90, has an effective and definitive edge over Type 15. In operational and strategic mobility, a light tank can be advantageous, but we are not envisaging battles over hundreds of kilometres.  It is opined that T90 tank, the mainstay of Indian Army, is the optimal equipment for super high altitude areas and the requirement of a light tank is exaggerated. In any case getting one more variety of equipment will strain the operational logistics system, in a sector that remains air maintained for substantial time. There is also the all-important question of cost-benefit analysis.
  • An Infantry Combat Vehicle (BMP2) even with limited armour protection but with its firepower (anti tank guided missiles and cannons) and the infantry stick (manpower) is of immense value, in rushing and occupying key terrain features, as per operational plan. The current class of general-purpose vehicles are not suitable for super high altitude and there is a requirement of high-mobility vehicles (like Humvees) for the infantry. These could be wheeled or half-tracked. The equipment to be acquired must be based on an operational plan as envisaged by the Northern Army and 14 Corps Commanders.
  • As the sub-sectors could be isolated and forced to undertake independent battles, operational logistics will be of prime importance. Hopefully, the Upshi-Manali Axis will remain open in the oncoming winter with the opening of the Rohtang Tunnel, although this will require a massive engineering effort in snow clearance along the whole route. With the absence of trust with the Chinese and no de-escalation insight, larger force levels will have to be retained in Ladakh.

Though conventional war may not be on the horizon, the Chinese aggression prudently demands preparations for the same in right earnest. Northern Army and Western Air Command, formations/ bases and units have to jointly design, orchestrate, and coordinate ground and air operations, and plan tactical operations within the overall campaign objectives.

Decentralisation of ground, tactical operations will have to be the norm in super high altitude areas.  Most importantly to succeed in this terrain, we must train our tactical leaders to think and operate to be – innovative, bold, risk-takers, independent in thought and action.  Undertaken asymmetrically and by segregated TFs and small teams, operations in various sub-sectors would entail manoeuvres, engagements and battles that would make up the overall campaign. From this perspective, the success in tactical level operations has the potential to translate into achieving an operational and even a strategic victory. The operational planning and acquisition plans, hence, should also commence from strengthening the IBGs and TFs.