Exclusive: Chinese troops are amassed near Doklam plateau, satellite images show

First satellite images accessed by ThePrint show major PLA deployment of at least 2,000 troops within two hours striking distance of Doklam.
Satellite imagery of Chinese Army positions near the border

They are armed with camouflaged tanks and missiles, images from international satellites accessed by ThePrint reveal.

New Delhi: The bitter two-month military face-off between India and China in Doklam was resolved peacefully on 28 August, after New Delhi and Beijing announced that they had agreed to withdraw their troops from the disputed tri-junction area.

But exclusive satellite images accessed by ThePrint show that there is continued unease in the region, and the military situation has not normalised as a significant Chinese troop build-up continues close to the contested point on the Doklam plateau. These units have heavy and lethal equipment not noted in the past in this region.

Although the plateau itself is not contested as it was during the stand-off, the build-up gives the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the ability to quickly escalate matters at a time of its choosing.

Sources in the Indian government told ThePrint that New Delhi was closely monitoring the developments, but added that there is no cause for alarm.

On Friday, the Indian External Affairs Ministry, responding to ThePrint report, said that there is no reason for alarm and status quo prevails at the face-off site in Doklam.

“From what I can make out, this particular news report refers to alleged Chinese build-up well within China. I would like to reiterate that there are no new developments at the face-off site and its vicinity since the 28 August disengagement. The status quo prevails in this area,” the MEA spokesperson said.

The satellite images accessed by ThePrint show the PLA had a brigade-plus strength deployed in Yadong County, within two hours striking distance of the Doklam flashpoint by vehicles even in September, after both sides had agreed to withdraw.

Satellite imagery of 6 September shows a brigade strength of troops (approximately​ 2,000-3,000 soldiers) deployed north of Yadong town. These are not routine deployments as older satellite images of the same area do not show PLA presence here in the past.

Satellite imagery showing the deployment of troops before 2017

During the Doklam face-off, the PLA had an estimated 300 troops in the tri-junction area of India, Bhutan and China. India also had the same number of troops then.

The general area covered by the satellite images with ThePrint is 13 km west of Jomolhari mountain, considered the consort of the Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. The area is located in the Yadong County of Tibet, and borders Thimpu district of Bhutan.

Traditionally, China has used the area east of Yarla Shampo, which is approximately 300 km north-east of the Doklam area in question, for training purposes. The PLA is not known to have deployed troops in the Doklam area in the past for training or any other purpose.

Fighting equipment

Images show the menacing concentration of a large body of troops and equipment close to the contested area – all troops are under camouflage nets depending on the colour of the ground. The troops deployed along nullahs (rivulets) where the ground is green, due to the availability of water and grass, have green camouflage nets while the others have desert camouflage nets.

Specialised fighting equipment – possibly tanks and armoured fighting vehicles – are concealed under a good camouflage that almost merges with the background. What seem to be large tank transporters have also been hidden under camouflaged nets in six groups.

A satellite image showing potentially mechanised camouflaged units

Partially camouflaged ammunition carrying vehicles are parked across the road with revetments – retaining walls or barricades – around them. There seems to be an effort made to conceal the vehicles by parking them back to back, and projecting them as larger, tank-transporter vehicles. This probably is part of the deception policy of the PLA.

The deployment of troops is widespread with most units well dispersed to avoid effects of shelling or bombing. The entire brigade is covering an area of almost 27 sq km. But the dispersed deployment brings in a major disadvantage of track discipline.

Track discipline

When any disciplined force like an army is deployed in tents, it ensures minimum movement to avoid detection by eyes in the sky. The movement of troops either in vehicles or on foot creates additional tracks and exposes locations like the operations room and signal centre.

A careful commander ensures that only old tracks are used by his troops, and no new tracks are created, referred to as track discipline in military jargon.

This track discipline needs to be of the highest order to avoid detection by satellite imagery or aerial coverage by UAVs. The track discipline of the PLA in this area has been poor – one of the reasons for the detection of this well-camouflaged and well-dispersed brigade by satellites.

Satellite imagery showing track discipline in the region

The units identified seem to suggest it is a deployment of a combined arms brigade consisting of all the elements of the PLA ground force, rather than a simple brigade with three infantry units.

Roads built by China in this part of Tibet are black topped with large berms – flat strips of land – and the road coming up to the contested area of Doklam is wide enough to sustain heavy traffic including motorised/mechanised vehicles.

The importance of this deployment also increases considering the areas of North Sikkim, between Gurudongmar Lake and Mt Chomo Yummo, have been an eyesore for the Chinese for years. This area is only 50 km west of the new deployment in Doklam.

Satellite imagery showing the general area of Doklam

Comparison of this protruding thumb of North Sikkim indicated in the image below illustrates the point better. The brigade strength identified by this report is located 50 km from both the protruding thumb and the Doklam area. The brigade could be used to occupy either area in as little as two hours.

Units and headquarters

There are a large number of units possibly deployed in and around this area. The ones that could be identified are explained below:

Logistics Unit: A possible logistics unit has been identified in this area. It has 26 second line transport units used by the PLA clearly visible without any camouflage. There four possible stores under camouflage nets for clothing, rations, ammunition etc.

Satellite imagery showing potential logistics units in the region

Two of these stores are dug out and two are overground, suggesting that the two underground ones are probably ordnance stores. There are six large tents, possibly for storing winter clothing or other such stocks. There are many other tents and vehicles under camouflage nets observed as well.

Air Defence and Artillery Unit: There are two very prominent artillery deployments observed in the area – two units of six guns each.

Satellite imagery showing potential anti-aircraft units

The one on the west is probably the air defence sub-unit and the one on the east is probably artillery pieces.

Mechanised Unit: There is a unit very well camouflaged, possibly consisting of a mechanised unit with transporters in a group of six nets.

There are vehicles partially camouflaged located to the north of the road, probably carrying ammunition and/or other support equipment.

Headquarters: There are a large numbers of tents concentrated in an area observed in the satellite image. This could possibly be a formation headquarters. There is a large square of camouflaged nets with an opening and a parking space. Three vehicles are observed parked. The area around this concentration of camouflaged nets shows large numbers of vehicular tracks suggesting regular, heavy use.

Satellite imagery showing the possible headquarters in Doklam

This appears to be the operations room, partially underground and covered with camouflage nets. There are a few tents with camouflaged nets south of the operations room with more vehicular movement observed, suggesting these are probably officers’ tents-cum-offices.

Another set of tents with small vehicles is observed in the same area with cables connecting to other tents. This possibly is the signals centre for communications. There also are a large number of tents under camouflage nets and vehicles observed which are possibly support troops for the headquarters.

There are a large number of tell-tale signs left behind by the previous deployment during the Doklam stand-off. One of them clearly indicates that there was an air defence battery with eight guns.

The sudden increase in Chinese presence of 3,000 troops with assorted mechanised vehicles in the Doklam area will make it a huge challenge for the Indian Army to face.

(The report has been updated to include the comment of the Indian External Affairs Ministry)

Colonel Vinayak Bhat (retd) is a Military Intelligence veteran of the Indian Army with vast experience of satellite imagery analysis. He has worked as a Chinese interpreter and is a specialist on PLA and Pakistan’s armed forces. He tweets @rajfortyseven

26 COMMENTS

  1. I Am Sure …Under Shri Narendra Modi’s Leadership … We Can Strike And Beat China. All Sorts Of Military Arsenal Must Be Used And In All Their Directions… To Create Panick Situation In Their Army Units. Our Airforce And Missiles Must Be Used Freely. Our Defense Purchases Must Be Given Top Priority.Public Opinions At Such Times Must Be Taken Only On Positive Note. Any Negativity Must Be Ignored In National Interests.Thanks.

  2. China Has Issues With All It’s Neighbours. They Can Jump The Fence …If China Attempts Any Misadventure On Our Indian Borders. We Must Also Up The Rhetoric From Our Side Aggressively.Thanks.

  3. I think, if China starts doklam war with India, then it will be start of China’s downfall in the World.

    This time China wants to come to Doklam with mechanised force. We will once again show them the way to retreat with our mechanised force.

    • I am a veteran n have commanded a Battalion in Doka La overlooking Doklam some 30 yrs back.
      Geography of Sikkim does not permit us getting r mechanized forces there near the Tri Junction.
      We need 2 creat Doklam in some other area of r choosing.
      But remain prepared 4 any eventuality on the Water shed..n Mcmahon Line.
      We can not have Manmohan type of spineless leadership.
      We all have 2 have Na Mo ji 4 ten Terms.
      N tire Northern Border infra has bn badly neglected.
      Wake up India .. China means it.China does not like India equating with itself.
      Pentagon has 2 have a long term policy of somehow splitting China the way they did 2 USSR…thru Gorbachove.

  4. Very articulate article and contains in-depth analysis. As is well known, you cannot trust any Chinese origin people. They are inherently traitor and will remain so in future also. Their hegemonistic attitude has been tasted by large number of nations in Asia. India has to keep its army well-prepared and we’ll equipped.

  5. It’s a point of worry for India and It should also increase its military presence according to counter Chinese unforseen threat because Chinese can’t be believed.

  6. It is entering into the Chinese deception to assume that Doklam stand-off is resolved. Chinese are the master in deception since their rise as a communist power. Their reputation has been dented in the Doklam stand-off and they cannot allow it to happen as their determined goal is to transform China as the “sole and uncontested” world power. What India can do? Draw a long term strategy to “isolate Tibbet, hold it militarily and make it free”. Find out what is required to achive this: 1. Armaments 2. International sympathy 3. Tie down China in South China Sea island confrontation in joint international venture of US, Japan, Vietnam, India 4. Aim your BrahMos to pulverise suitable military target(s) which also have political importance 5. Lead the world in voicing human rights violation of Chinese people and help them in dissidence 6. Speed up Make in India in military technologies 7. Deploy all forces as if ever ready to strike the target of your choosing 8. Silence Indian internal dissidence and disruption by opportunist political forces by speeding up CBI, FIRs, arrests, court cases … no dithering. 9. Rouse national sentiments by honoring flrces.

  7. Very good analysis. We need to be extra vigilant. I am fully confident that our present government and defense forces are fully aware of the situation and are taking all remadial measures. Jai Hind Jai Bharat

  8. Very good exposition of Chinese undercover troop build up. Hope Indian side has done the necessary analysis to avoid any surprises from PLA.

  9. China will backstab when you least expect it . Always beware of the wily dragon. China will make you believe hindi Chini bhai bhai and then stab you in the back.

  10. First let India not panic.

    Eventhough Chinese of 2017 are technically and economically far better than India , they cannot afford a war or Skirmishes on Indian borders as Indians have ability to hold and even push Chinese back. This is due to Geographical advantage India is having.

    Inspite of less infrastructure then in 1987 Indians had held ground at the “Sumdorong Chu Valley” against Chinese for a very long period.

    Chinese cannot afford to.loose their markets particularly in Western world by creating an image of an aggressor. Also Chinese will not be able to achieve much in territorial gains and this itself will be a blow to their efforts to build China ‘s image as physical power which is at par with US.

  11. Is the Indian government too complacent?? Should not take the Chinkies by their face value..We are aware as to what happened in 1962 as they back stabbed us at the behest of the womaniser Nehru.
    Keep our soldiers on a strong vigil and build up the troops immediately.

  12. China can not develop until it will realise that Indian progress is necessity with its own.
    It can not dictate terms to india.

  13. An xcellant analysis of Chinese deployment…based on an xcellant analysis of satelite imagery.
    And the Chinese General of this region has been promoted 2 the CCP at its highest planning body.
    We hopefully r getting ready 4 this design.
    Future with China getting clearly aggressive
    is not peaceful.
    Forget Nehru’s Panchsheel.

  14. Make the Indian Army fit and capable to give bloody nose to Chinese and Pakistanis.

    Three actions are required by our Govt ruled by worthy netas-

    1. Give the desired weaponry to Armed Forces. Keep your force multipliers ready and serviceable.

    2. TO KEEP “MEN BEHIND MACHINE” motivated (??) …..Give them “OBOR” as desired by Armed Forces and not by BABOOOOS and Worthy (?)Netas.

    3. Also TO KEEP “MEN BEHIND MACHINE” motivated…… keep their status and benefits higher and better than BABOOOOS and Central Armed Police Forces.

    Rest as you(Modi Ji, Jetly Ji, RM and MANIPULATORS) wish!?!?!?

    God bless the nation with such an able Army but with depleted/LOWERED Status.

    Jai Hind, Jai Hind ki Sena .

  15. If PRINT can access this information, our Def Forces would have this already. There is limitation to movement of large body troops from their side to target area where as there is no such problem from our side. Let NO one under estimate our response.

  16. I endorse comments by Col. BGV Kumar. There is nothing surprising in the Chinese deployment. Having learnt a lesson from their past confrontations with India, including the recent one at Doklam plateau, necessary corrective measures were inevitable. I am absolutely certain that they will not risk taking any chances that might affect their international standing, and certainly when it comes to their much touted relative military strength against their main potential competitor in Asia. Stationed two hours away from the possible battle scene is not imminent danger, but certainly a factor that would have been considered by the Commanders in their ‘appreciations’ of that sector. Necessary action would surely have been taken. These are professional soldiers with ground experience and know their jobs well. No need to panic, but we must nevertheless remain vigilant and be prepared. Thankfully 2017 is not like the times of 1960s or even under the venerable AK Antony who was the most ineffective, non-performing Defence Minister that this country had to suffer for ten long years. A lot of water has since flowed in the Brahmaputra and Ganges, and today there is more confidence and capability enhancing steps that the government is taking. If two of the three chiefs say publicly that we should be prepared for a two and a half fronts, it shows that they are on a serious job.

    • I am a veteran n have commanded a Battalion in Doka La overlooking Doklam some 30 yrs back.
      Geography of Sikkim does not permit us getting r mechanized forces there near the Tri Junction.
      We need 2 creat Doklam in some other area of r choosing.
      But remain prepared 4 any eventuality on the Water shed..n Mcmahon Line.
      We can not have Manmohan type of spineless leadership.
      We all have 2 have Na Mo ji 4 ten Terms.
      N tire Northern Border infra has bn badly neglected.
      Wake up India .. China means it.China does not like India equating with itself.
      Pentagon has 2 have a long term policy of somehow splitting China the way they did 2 USSR…thru Gorbachove.
      Of course r Commanders n Govt r fully in the know of the situation.
      US Admn …Trump..Rex..Matty
      Pentagon ….Abe. .all r Strategically creating the BLOCK …in right direction.
      Indian Services Bosses r fully aware of this n so also the EAM.

  17. A section of Indian news media has said that some 1600 to 1800 Chinese troops are still camping at Doklam as in December 2017 and there appears to be some storage of construction material. This news has signaled fears of revival of Doklam issue. While brave Indian forces are ever vigilant to meet challenge , if any , readers may like to know this Vedic astrology writer’s alert for more care and appropriate strategy in hitherto well known article – “ Astrologically speaking , some highlights for India in coming year 2017” – published in theindiapost.com on 19 October , 2017. The related text of the article reads like this :- “ Borders may not be silent. China could deliver a surprise at some strategic location or locations. Continue watch at Doklam”.

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