The one division plus and an armoured brigade with which India normally garrisons Eastern Ladakh has been reinforced many times over with backup formations both from Northern Command and Army HQ reserves. Opposed to them are two full-strength Chinese mobile divisions earmarked for high-altitude warfare, an airborne brigade and some odds and endsamounting to two more brigades. A deeper look at these manoeuvre formations’ composition and equipment should give us a good idea about their capabilities and the inherent threat.
6th Highland Mechanised Infantry Division now occupies jumping-off points in the Chinese half of Depsang Plains. It consists of 7 Mechanised Infantry Regiment, 18 Mechanised Infantry Regiment and an armoured regiment. Combat support consists of a field artillery regiment, an air defence regiment, a combat engineer battalion, an electronic warfare battalion and a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence battalion. The presence of the latter two units show how much of a march the Chinese have stolen over us in the implementation of hybrid warfare concepts. The divisional reconnaissance battalion is a small, lithe unit for scouting and flank protection tasks. Its mainstays are eighteen ZBD-04A infantry fighting vehicles armed with AFT-10 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). These are the divisional commander’s eyes and ears. The division HQ has an infantry company and air defence platoon for its protection.
Each mechanised infantry regiment/brigade has four mechanised battalions (up from the earlier three) and a tank battalion with 35 ZTZ-99A (Type 99) main battle tanks. There are eleven tanks in each of the three tank companies with two command tanks in the battalion headquarters. An artillery battalion with eighteen 122mm PLZ-07B self-propelled tracked howitzers is in direct fire support. Combat support is provided by an engineer battalion and a signal battalion.
The backbone of the division are its mechanised infantry battalions of which it has eight.
The skies above the division’s battlespace are sought to be secured by the air defence cover provided by the integral Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment. This consists of a battalion of 24 GZ-09 PGZ-07 twin 35mm self-propelled (tracked) anti-aircraft guns and a battalion of 18 HQ-17 short-range air defence systems (tracked), a development of the Russian SA-15 (NATO reporting name: Gauntlet). This is meant to target all kinds of aerial threats including Cruise missiles, low-flying aircraft and short-range ballistic missiles. Six FN-6 MANPADS launchers comprising an air defence platoon are also attached to the Regiment. An aviation regiment provides the division with an integral air attack, aerial reconnaissance, airborne anti-tank and heli-lift capacity. This is provided by a squadron each of Harbin Z-9G armed helicopters (NATO reporting name; Haitun), a licensed variant of the French Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin and Mi-17I transport helicopters. Both units have six machines each.
Combat support assets are available from the Group Army (equivalent to an Indian corps) to boost the division’s firepower and battle-survivability. These could include an independent artillery brigade with two battalions of PCL-181 155m/52-calibre truck-mounted howitzers (36 tubes) and another two battalions of PHL-03 300mm 12-tube long-range multi-barrel rocket launchers (36 systems). The latter is based on the BM-30 Russian Smerch system with a range of 650 kms and used to target strategic targets like command centres, major concentrations of troops, airbases, air defences, logistics hubs and engage in counter-battery fire missions. Force multipliers with this formation include weapon-tracking radars and tactical reconnaissance UAVs.
In a battlefield environment rich in enemy air assets i.e. when the adversary has a modicum of air superiority an independent air defence brigade could also come under command. This would field a battalion (24 systems) of twin-barrelled 35mm towed anti-aircraft guns for point defence of headquarters, gun positions and static installations like fuel dumps and ammunition depots. In addition, a unit of twelve FM-90 mobile short-range surface to air missiles, an unlicensed, reverse-engineered copy of the French Crotale SAM would form part of this reinforcement.
Aksu, Xinjiang-based 4th Highland Motorised Infantry Division comprises the 11 Motorised Infantry Regiment, 12 Motorised Infantry Regiment, a tank regiment, an artillery regiment, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery battalions. This is the Chinese formation troops of XIV Corps are encountering in the Galwan River Valley, Hot Springs/Gogra and the Fingers Area. The division’s motorised infantry regiments are equipped with tracked Type 86 ICVs (reverse-engineered Soviet BMP-1 replicas) and WZ-551 6 x 6 APCs. In addition, there are eight relatively more modern VN-1 8 x 8 APCs armed with indigenous Red Arrow 10 ATGMs. The motorised infantry battalions follow the standard table of organisation with three companies, each of three platoons.
As we can note from this study this is a formidable mobile formation with tremendous firepower. The terrain in Ladakh i.e. high-altitude mountain plateau is ideal for its employment. However, plain, flat valleys in the region are bounded by steep ridges. Mobile forces can easily manoeuvre through the flat valleys and penetrate the gaps. However, if the adversary’s forces hold the ridgelines in strength and dominate the passes tanks and mechanised infantry will find themselves being channelled into and decimated in armour killing areas. For any sizeable armoured force to hope to make any headway it is imperative to seize the high ground flanking the proposed routes of advance. In effect that means that up to one-third of the attacking must dismount from their APCs, climb those hills, neutralise the occupying enemy and hold out against counter-attacks and air action. Chinese infantry has been noted in recent years to have become ‘APC-ised’ i.e. too accustomed to moving and fighting in infantry combat vehicles to the detriment of traditional infantry skills. This is something that should worry their high command and political commissars.
Situation Report Eastern Ladakh: 17th July 2020
The impasse in Eastern Ladakh continues, the Army has said in a statement that ‘disengagement on the Line of Control (LOC) is an intricate process’. Four rounds of marathon meetings between the XIV Corps commander and his Chinese counterpart, the commander of the South Xinjiang Military District have not exactly resulted in a great agreement on both sides withdrawing to and occupying pre-April positions. The talks are a tedious, prolonged process. One reason for the long duration of the meetings is the need to translate everything. It seems the Chinese are playing for time. These are their typical tactics.
In the meanwhile, the issue of border tension in a strategically vital region and more importantly Chinese intrusions into Indian territory have been relegated to the inside pages of newspapers. The media seems to have lost interest in the matter. The matter is now on the backburner. The ground position is that Chinese troops are yet to return to positions occupied by them before April.
As information comes in and previously collated data is confirmed or denied identification of PLA (Chinese Army) formations can be done now. With the passage of time and increasing visibility formations and their locations can be recognized with greater fluency. 4th Highland Motorised Infantry Division is now confirmed to be deployed in the eastern part of the Depsang Plains held by the Chinese. This is a launching pad against Daulet Beg Oldie and the western part of the Plains held by Indian troops. The formation has been mobilised from Aksu lying at the northern edge of the Tarim Basin. The Kashgar-based 6th Highland Mechanised Infantry Division, now present in full strength threatens the Galwan River Valley, Hot Springs/Gogra and the Fingers Area. Not so much the occupation of territory, it is the presence of these offensive formations opposite our border that pose the real and imminent threat. In the next article the exact order of battle of these formations is discussed to give the reader an idea of their capabilities.
Elements of the 362nd and 363rd Border Defence Regiments are located in penny-packets here and there bolstering up defences and manning observation posts. I had earlier mentioned the airborne mechanised brigade moved into the theatre from Hubei province in Central China with great publicity as a psyops tactic. This is part of the PLAAF (Chinese Air Force) strategic force the Airborne Corps. This is held in reserve for vertical envelopment operations using the abundant heli-lift available. The intention is to get in the rear of Indian forces and seize key communication nodes and high-value targets. However, the well-known vulnerability of helicopters in the face of modern air defence weapons including Akash missiles might bring these plans to naught.
Surface to surface missiles held in impregnable underground shelters at two locations, one each in Aksai Chin and Xinjiang along with their transporters, erectors and launchers (TELs) pose a real danger. These can be used to hit high-value targets like the IAF’s airbases and advanced landing grounds (ALGs). A long-term threat are the two mountain mechanised divisions located in bases on the eastern periphery of Pakistani-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. The danger that these forces pose to Siachen, Kargil and the Kashmir Valley in conjunction with Pakistani troops cannot be discounted.
Conclusion of Operation Samudra Setu
During the Kargil War the Indian Navy (IN) played a significant role by adopting a forward posture in the Arabian Sea. This put pressure on the Pakistani establishment because of the economic ramifications of a naval blockade. The not so subtle threat worked. The conflict was confined to the area around Kargil and Dras. In the current stand-off with China the Navy has been silently monitoring Chinese maritime activities including the movements of their submarines in the Indian Ocean. A significant operation of the IN’s commitment to national life has just got over though.
Operation Samudra Setu launched on 5th May 2020 formally got over on 8th July. This was undertaken by the Navy as a function of the effort to evacuate Indian citizens stuck overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 3,992 of our nationals were evacuated by sea. The Landing Platform Dock (LPD) INS Jalashwa and Landing Ships, Tank (LST) INS Magar, INS Airavat and INS Shardul were tasked for this purpose. These ships traveled more than 23,000 kms during the operation. This was not the first time that the Indian Navy (IN) conducted such evacuations under humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. The previous operations were Operations Sukoon from Lebanon in 2006 and Rahat from Yemen in 2015.
Because of the peculiar conditions existing on board ships the pandemic has had a major effect on their working and on those who sail in them. This is due to the close setting and specific ventilation systems on board ships. The IN rose to the challenge posed by these complex circumstances and took up the task given to it by the government with its usual dispatch. By far the greatest test was to avoid any cases of infection onboard the ships forming the task force. Meticulous care was taken, strict measures being put into place and implemented with vigour. Medical safety was paramount. Protocols were strictly followed with military discipline being enforced.
The amphibious warfare ships used for the operations were best suited to carry out evacuations considering that they were built to carry troops with all the necessary infrastructure to sustain them including medical facilities. The larger space available meant that social distancing norms could be implemented properly. Sick bays on board the task force’s ships were specially prepared with equipment related to COVID-19 precautions and treatment. The Navy’s work was thorough to the extent that women officers and military nurses were specially boarded on the ships to take care of the susceptibilities and needs of female passengers. Everything (food, medicines etc.) was provided to the evacuees.
An interesting piece of news is that Sonia Jacob, a passenger on board INS Jalashwa gave birth to a boy within a few hours of reaching Kochi. And that too on International Mothers’ Day. These evacuees will never forget the work of the IN! Just another day’s work for our sailors.
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