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Untold beef-up on frontier

How India has been redeploying troops in Ladakh

  • Published 18.07.16

On India's frontier with China in Ladakh, July 17: Pillboxes mirrored in the turquoise waters of the Pangong Tso (lake) and the stench of kerosene that cuts through the oxygen-starved air in the Karakorams. Ugly, but they mark a quiet and powerful change in the order of battle by the Indian Army on the Aksai Chin frontier with China in eastern Ladakh.

Order of battle or Orbat is military jargon for the units, formations, equipment and supplies that are networked to wage war if called upon to do so.

India has redeployed troops in a slow but growing march that can no longer be kept quiet because of the large numbers the force accretion has involved.

A patrol of an Indian Army mountain battalion sets off early in the morning past a Lathang, a Ladakhi/Tibetan shrine adorned with yak horns, prayer flags and stones for good luck. Picture by Sujan Dutta

From being deployed thinly along the 886km disputed frontier in Ladakh, India's new Orbat on these margins has meant the induction of more battalions tasked with dedicated roles, mechanised and armoured regiments and reserves in the rear but within the command area of responsibility.

The Indian government directed a change in 2012 because of a higher threat perception of a China-Pakistan military nexus.

The command to change the Orbat has been secret so far. The force accretion continues, indicating a "bipartisan" agreement on the requirement despite the passing of the baton from Manmohan Singh's UPA II to Narendra Modi's NDA since the quiet march began.

China, too, has rejigged its military deployment on the frontier with India, creating this year a Western Theatre (or Tibetan) Military Command. This means that the top hierarchy of the Chinese forces facing India is no longer divided among two commands - the Chengdu Military Region in the east opposite Arunachal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Bengal - and the Lanzhou Military Region facing Ladakh.

"Our force levels are a thousand times better - I can't give you numbers," says the commander of the Leh-headquartered 14 Corps, Lt Gen. S.K. Patyal. "We are now well-prepared to take on any contingency from anywhere. We have war-gamed everything," he adds.

It has taken India four years since the change in Orbat was directed.

In the rarefied air of Ladakh and on the ground, that means posts that used to be manned or patrolled by platoons (around 30 troops each) now have companies (around 110 troops each) to do the job.

So there are more soldiers to patrol between posts and/or stay there. On the ground, it also means that 4 Hodson's Horse, an armoured regiment that earned laurels quelling the 1857 war against the British, has tugged its war memorabilia from the Boxer Rebellion in China (1901), swords and silver, and African drums from Congo (where it was on UN duty) to its officer's mess in a high-altitude location.

It has also meant that company headquarters have had to be turned into larger battalion headquarters. In the Indian Army, a battalion has roughly 1,000 to 1,100 soldiers in the plains.

From just about one brigade in Eastern Ladakh, at the time of the Kargil war in 1999 - 17 years ago this month - the army now has at least three reinforced (extra-strength) brigades manning the frontage from the Karakoram Pass/Daulat Beg Oldi in the north of Eastern Ladakh to Chumar in the South Eastern tip. Each brigade has three or more battalions.

The infantry units contained in the brigades have been classified as "LAC battalions" and "Loop battalions". The LAC battalions are dedicated to the frontier with troops patrolling more than 50 points marked by the government's China Study Group, a high-level committee that reports to the PMO.

"There is no adhocism any more," says Col Ritesh Singh, an alumnus of St Augustine's School, Kalimpong. His troops are mostly from the mountains. "I know I am here for two years. I have to visit every patrolling point every month, know every nook and cranny of my area of responsibility. The brief is clear-cut: visit, check, stay fighting fit, keep morale high, build defences. Eastern Ladakh is no longer a place we're just passing through. The LAC is here, we are here."

The "Loop" battalions serve in the rear, just behind the LAC battalions. They are usually troops that are preparing to go for high-altitude assignments in Siachen or the Kargil heights. They may also be battalions that are "de-inducting" after completing their high-altitude tenures. They are either acclimatising or they are fully acclimatised - meaning they are fit to move in terrain that is tough and breathe air that does not have the kind of oxygen it has below the tree-line.

Ladakh, especially Eastern Ladakh, is a high altitude desert, complete with sheer, serried walls of stone. The valleys are usually patinas of green through which the rivers - the Shyok in the Karakorams, the Indus and the Nubra - zig and zag, sometimes still, sometimes rapid, often muddy, often translucent, always mysterious, always unpredictable of the next bend.

The 14 "Fire and Fury" Corps' area of responsibility includes the Ladakh frontier with China. But it also shares responsibility for the Line of Control (LoC) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the Siachen Glacier that marks the boundary with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

A division of the corps (8 Mountain) that mostly fought the Kargil war is still tasked in the Kargil Heights - Tiger Hill, Drass, Tololing, Batalik, Turtuk. (The 14 Corps was raised after the 1999 Kargil war. Till then Ladakh had only the 3 Infantry Division).

It is the only formation of the Indian Army that faces both China and Pakistan. Indeed, troops of just a single division under it, the Karu-headquartered 3rd Infantry "Trishul" Division, patrol the Karakoram Pass with China. From heights in the Karakorams, it also looks into Pakistan-held positions to the north.

In the late 19th century, Sir Francis Younghusband had explored these mountains as a scout as part of the "Great Game". The British Empire was seeking to go up north to stop the expansion of the Russian Empire coming down south.

The Indian Army has assessed that Chinese frontier positions today are still sustained chiefly by the G219 - or the Western Highway - that connects Tibet with the province of Xinjiang in China's southwest. It was the chance discovery of this road in the 1950s that shocked the government of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Opposition in Parliament into the 1962 war.

About 280km of the road passes through Aksai Chin that India always believed was its own.

The map of Ladakh as shown in geography textbooks does not reflect the ground situation. The Chinese army advanced hundreds of kilometres into Aksai Chin, pushing Indian troops westwards to give "strategic depth" to that road (the Western Highway, G219).

At military command headquarters, the brass believe the G219 continues to be the Chinese PLA's lifeline.

It has been upgraded now to carry mechanised and motorised forces through about 13 roads that connect the 219 to the LAC.

"Their links are still tenuous though the ground is flatter on their side of the high plateau," says a general. "It won't take much to stop them."

In a "hot war" scenario, Indian forces believe that the axes from the G219 to the LAC can be blocked, probably by aerial bombing or missiles, preventing reinforcements for Chinese troops up front.

"But our mandate is to maintain peace and tranquillity without being stared down," says the general.

In a close study of Chinese PLA exercises over the past two years, there is an assessment that they were oriented towards China's eastern seaboard - the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan.

China has disputes over the waters and the islands with at least seven Asian countries. Last week, it refused to abide by a verdict of the United Nations Conference on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) in a dispute with the Philippines.

The eastward orientation of the division-level exercises, said the general, indicated a movement of troops closer to the coastline (China's).

"We are exploring the option of opening an Advanced Landing Ground (rough airstrip) in the Parma Valley," says an officer. The Parma Valley is behind the Indian lines and beyond the line-of-sight of Chinese troops.

An airstrip at Chushul, now disused, that is almost adjacent to the LAC at Spanggur Gap, was used in the 1962 war to drop US-made AMX13 light tanks. That move failed, because neither the men nor the machines were used to operating at heights above 14,000 feet.