Military Digest: The Ladakh story – Get there fastest with the mostest!

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Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa
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October 24, 2020 9:55:07 am





These positions on the southern bank of Pangong Tso allow Indians to dominate the region because they not only overlook the Spanggur Gap, but also the Chinese garrison at Moldo. (Reuters/ File)

The great Prussian warrior, King Frederick the Great, once said, ‘If you defend everything, you defend nothing’. What he meant was that if one deployed troops all along one’s front or boundary one would be defeated piecemeal with no one position being held in strength.

Obviously, the Indian military believes in this dictum. It is one of its cardinal principles of war. Troop concentrations hold tactically important positions, patrol and surveil the gaps and maintain mobile reserves to repel any intrusions. However, this must be a flexible strategy. When dealing with the current Operation Land Grab launched by the Chinese in Ladakh, the Indian Army’s response in Phase 2 has been to protect each and every inch of our territory. This is dictated by Chinese tactics of nibbling away at pieces of Indian territory, then presenting us with a fait accompli. They seem to consider themselves safe in the belief that only a deliberate attack can oust them, not a show of force or application of pressure.

For the Chinese (and earlier the Japanese in World War Two), practising the offensive spirit means finding gaps, exploiting them and occupying positions on our flanks or to our rear. However, this is a new Indian Army, which uses technology harnessed to the professionalism and hard training of its soldiers, and whose units and formations are nimble-footed, mobile and hard-hitting. This is what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) experienced on the southern bank of the Pangong Tso in Ladakh on the night of 29th/30th August and thereafter.

Extensive use is made of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) assets by the modern Indian soldier. Battlefield surveillance radars (BFSRs), hand-held thermal imagers (HHTIs), ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), air photo reconnaissance and satellite imagery were all on the alert for any Chinese moves to further encroach on our land. Eyeballs Mark Two in Indian skulls too play their part in the form of boots on the ground. Small 3-5-man teams of Jawans were deployed at forward manning observation posts by day and listening posts by night. These early warning elements detected the movement of approximately two companies of Chinese troops towards the Black Top feature on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). South of the Pangong Tso and north-east of Chushul, this complex of high mountains dominates the approaches to the Chushul valley through the Spanggur Gap.

The Army is not taking any chances with the Chinese and is taking the initiative in operational matters instead of relying upon the political establishment and diplomatic overtures. Enough is enough. There is a feeling, muted as of now that loss of territory to the Chinese as well as casualties suffered at the enemy’s hands could undermine the morale of the troops. Immediate action was called for to prevent the Chinese occupying hilltops on our side of the LAC, improving their position and infiltrating into the Chushul valley. India’s sally (within our own territory I hasten to add) was vital as much for the country’s self-esteem as for our standing abroad. XIV Corps, operating under the air umbrella of Western Air Command executed a fine, timely and well-planned tactical manoeuvre.

In a pre-emptive move a company group of the 7th Battalion, the Special Frontier Force (SFF) was moved to occupy a high position opposite where the Chinese were concentrating and block their ingress. The Chinese were effectively obstructed from further movement with the Indian force occupying a higher position and able to bring down concentrated fire upon them with artillery support assured to them. However, in the process Company Leader Nyima Tenzin became a battle casualty with possibly two other Tibetan soldiers being wounded.

Why Pangong Tso?

Why are the Chinese encroaching upon this area and what is the importance of the Pangong Tso’s southern bank? Let us first examine the topography of both northern and southern banks of the Pangong Tso. The 500-km long Karakoram Range, encompassing Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistani-occupied territory, China and India concludes on the Pangong Tso’s northern bank. The lake’s southern bank is dominated by high mountains with the Spanggur Tso in the centre. 66% of the lake (Pangong) is controlled by China with the LAC running from north to south dividing it across its western side.

The northern bank of the lake’s western portion i.e. the Indian side of the LAC is dominated by large spurs collectively termed the Fingers Area. With the Chinese insisting upon their occupation of the entire area they effectively dominate the sector precluding any Indian interference with their moves on the southern bank. Here they have lately come into confrontation with Indian troops in the area of Fingers Three and Four. Compared to the northern bank, differences in perception of the LAC on the southern bank are not very vast – at the most 100-200 meters this way or that. The chain of mountains on the southern side is broken by a 2-km gap between Chushul and the Spanggur Tsp. This is of the utmost importance since it provides access via flat land to the Chushul Valley. The access route to the valley is dominated on both sides by high mountains, Gurung Hill and Magar Hill lying on either side of the Spanggur Gap.

Any enemy wanting to enter the Chushul Valley through the Spanggur Gap must necessarily dominate or eliminate Indian presence on the ranges falling on both sides of the break. Thereafter the Chinese manoeuvre forces comprising tanks and infantry combat vehicles which are believed to be held in a concentration area on the northern bank of the Spanggur Tso would be in a position to attempt a breakthrough towards Chushul, a vital communications hub. Two roads heading north and south emanate from Chushul connecting it to Leh. The southern one also connects it to Dungti and Demchok, also under threat from Chinese encroachment. Chushul in addition has an advanced landing ground dating back to before the 1962 war. Any further advance to launch an offensive towards Leh and the rest of Ladakh must necessarily adopt the Chushul Approach.

What is the Indian strategy in this sector? Manoeuvre forces with T-90S and T-72M tanks, BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), Milan anti-tank guided missiles, 155mm Bofors medium guns and Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) are held in readiness in the Chushul Bowl to repel any offensive by Chinese armoured forces. Any Chinese attempt to push in mobile forces through the narrow Spanggur Gap will meet the full force of a corps artillery concentration (a Victor Target in Army parlance) with all its devastating consequences. Any survivors will have to brave anti-tank guided missiles, tanks, infantry anti-armour weapons, attack helicopters, ground-strike aircraft ad the stout hearts of infantry.

Holding troops of straight-leg infantry have occupied high, overshadowing ridgelines and tall mountain peaks and passes to block any Chinese advance. Strong defences backed up with overhead shelters, barbed wire, mines and fire emplacements have been constructed. Unlike 1962, these forward defended localities (FDLs) are mutually supporting and are backed up by artillery and air support. Deployment of troops in a linear fashion rather than holding tactically important heights has resulted in nipping Chinese attempts at nibbling territory in the bud. In fact, by holding the high passes and mountain tops troops of XIV Corps are looking down on the Chinese and dominating their positions through observation and fire. At any time, artillery fire can be brought down upon them by observers located with the forward troops. Drones are also in use to acquire targets and correct the fall of shot.

A positive threat is posed to Chinese troops and territory by our current positions. Our troops can roll down on the Chinese pushing them back. The topographical advantage posed by flat land features of the Chushul Bowl could see us launching an all-out offensive spearheaded by armour supported by the air force. China has been hitherto adopting an aggressive approach. Their troops creep up, occupy a height or area and present their new-found ownership as a fait accompli. The Chinese thought process evaluates that they cannot be dislodged except by a deliberate action i.e. an attack which is unlikely to happen. Therefore, they remain in occupation. To their discomfiture they’ve found all heights occupied and their route to further ‘conquests’ effectively blocked. on the contrary they’re now threatened with an Indian offensive. To add to their unease, they face the distinct disadvantage of having to fight with large water obstacles (the Pangong and Spanggur lakes) in their rear. Apart from the psychological downslide sending reinforcements and supplies will prove to be a difficult process. This reinforces what strategic thinkers have always said: that whoever controls the heights south of the Pangong Tso governs all tracks to both east and west. This compels the opposing side to occupy defences on the next ridgeline 5-8 km away. Either that or suffer having to maintain positions on ground dominated by the enemy with all the inherent disadvantages. A strategic message has in addition bent sent to the Chinese with the forward deployment of the Tibetan-manned SFF. It is as much as openly stating that we have scrapped our strategy of putting support to the Tibetan cause on the backburner. Though trained and organised as special forces, the SFF has been used in the light infantry role.

The mighty Mukhpari

Other Chinese moves towards the Mukhpari peak south of the Spanggur Gap have been stymied by Indian infantry already in position and adopting an aggressive posture. At 18,300 feet Mukhpari is the highest peak in the area and dominates the area to the south-east of Chushul. Its importance lies in the fact that from here one can roll down on the lower Magar Hill and its defences to the north. Alternatively, one can advance south, again rolling down upon the Rezang La pass and its ridgeline. Both approaches will bring an aggressor to the Chushul Valley cutting the two vital north-south road links to Leh. The vital importance of Mukhpari had made it imperative for Major Shaitan Singh and his valorous company from 13 Kumaon to fight till the last man, last round at Rezang La in November 1962. India’s strategy in the area has been reminiscent of what US Civil War general, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest said. A brilliant cavalry commander and military strategist he was once asked his philosophy of victory and replied, ‘Get there fustest with the mostes!’ Not very grammatical, true, but as an innovative, pithy condensation of the military principles of mass and manoeuvre it sums up best how the Indians showed alacrity in occupying defences on all the commanding heights with the largest possible concentration of men and material.

Looking back at 1962

In 1962, the Chinese had taken both the heights north and south of the Spanggur Gap at heavy cost (the position having become untenable we had withdrawn from Magar Hill). Perhaps the tremendous fight put up by our infantry supported by artillery and tanks prevented them from following up through the Spanggur Gap towards Chushul village. In the first phase of the operations in October the Chinese had overrun all the tiny posts established as part of the Forward Policy. Thereafter, a lull followed which was used by the Indians to reinforce the sector and establish a brigade group defended sector to protect the twin approaches to Leh. In the meanwhile, the Chinese brought up reinforcements, improved communications and built up logistics.

What has always baffled me was the passive, defensive mindset of the Indian 114 Brigade. With four infantry battalions, a battery each of 25-pounder guns and 4.2-inch mortars, half a squadron of tanks, enough ammunition and high morale it was well placed. Why then was it content to just build up its defences and display no aggression? The formation could easily have launched a spoiling attack, a reconnaissance in force or even devastating raids. In the event they did not even send out fighting patrols. Then as now, the Chinese were delicately placed with the twin lakes in their rear and logistic capabilities in the process of being developed.

At this juncture a limited objective attack would have disrupted their impending operations. The answer came from Major General Jagjit Singh, then a Major and 114 Brigade’s senior operations officer. He wrote in his book ‘The Saga of Ladakh: Heroic Battles of Rezang La & Gurung Hill, 1961-62’ that strict orders came from on high not to further provoke the Chinese. Perhaps New Delhi hoped that ignoring the Chinese in the time-honoured ostrich fashion would somehow make them go away!

As for the area occupied by the Chinese and our seeming self-effacing meekness in taking active measures to regain it one must remember what the classical Athenian tragedian Euripides said about the God of War hating those who hesitate.

Please contact the writer with your military story on msbajwa@gmail.com or 093161-35343

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