It was the summer of 1986 and Major General J.M. ‘Jimmy’ Singh, the divisional commander of the Indian Army’s 5th Mountain Division, was alerted to the setting-up of a Chinese camp in the Sumdorong Chu Valley in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
Located in an area that was north of the ‘Limits of Patrolling’ — LOP — as laid down for Indian troops, but was considered ‘disputed’ by the Chinese, the Wangdung grazing ground emerged as a bone of contention between India and China over the next ten months. Interestingly, it was also close to the Namka Chu Valley where the Indian troops had been overwhelmed by the People’s Liberation Army — PLA — in 1962.
This is the story of Indian armed forces’ Operation Falcon.
The trio’s strategy
Jimmy moved swiftly, dispatching a protective patrol to Lungro La, a pass overlooking the Sumdorong Chu Valley, which if occupied, would offer easy access to the Tawang defences. He simultaneously deployed 81mm infantry mortars to support Lungro La and gave the patrol commander discretion to open fire with small arms if the Chinese approached the pass. Even as Jimmy readied an infantry battalion to move to Lungro La, he realised that it was 15 kilometres from the nearest road-head, much like in 1962. There was much to be done in terms of laying a 13-kilometre track to facilitate the deployment of field artillery, an essential task if the battalion was to beat off a likely assault.
Jimmy was fortunate to have a supportive corps commander in Lieutenant General N.S. Narahari, who was commanding the Tezpur-based 4 Corps. Despite the cautious advice from Eastern Army Command and New Delhi not to provoke the Chinese, the duo went about their immediate task of deterring the Chinese with speedy outflanking deployments. This was when General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, the Chief of Army Staff, responded to a personal outreach from Narahari, where the latter urged him to visit the area and gauge the gravity of the situation.
Sundarji’s visit to Tawang laid the foundation for what has since emerged as among the best-executed deployments in the mountains that combined both defensive and offensive posturing. Recollecting vignettes from that briefing, Jimmy recalls telling Sundarji bluntly that he could not defend Tawang with his existing posture. Sundarji responded by saying, ‘Then I will sack you.’ Narahari then jumped in and requested Sundarji to hear Jimmy out. When Jimmy suggested a forward posture in the Zimithang sector, Sundarji responded, ‘Who is stopping you? Why don’t you go forward’? When Jimmy suggested that he needed 1,200 mules to maintain his troops and that it would take several months to build-up positions, Sundarji interjected, ‘Why are we talking mules in this era? Let’s talk about helicopters.’
Support for Operation Falcon
Soon, Air Chief Marshal Denis La Fontaine arrived on the scene and promised to send in the newly inducted Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters to supplement the older Mi-8s, which were already in action. Swiftly moving a brigade to the Zimithang sector and speedily constructing helipads and dropping zones to sustain the troops and fly-in field artillery guns, mortars and ammunition stocks, Jimmy soon had the first Bofors regiment to support him. While the Mi-8s operated from Guwahati and Tezpur, Mi-17s operated a detachment from Tawang.
Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, the only helicopter pilot to become Chief of Air Staff, had just raised 127 Helicopter Unit with Mi-17s. He recollects that he maintained two detachments, one at Thoise to support operations in Siachen, and the second at Tawang to support Operation Falcon. “Each pilot in the unit used to average 100 hours a month during the initial months. The good part was that my pilots were battle inoculated in almost war-like operations on a new type immediately after induction,” he added. Flying from dawn to dusk, the helicopters from five units crisscrossed across the sector with one aim – Loads must Go (LMG).
From a woefully defensive posture in the summer of 1986, by Spring 1987, Jimmy had the contours of a neo-forward posture that was assisted by tracks and had engineer-support, adequate logistics stocking and a well-oiled air maintenance network.
Building on the success of the proactive defensive posture, Narahari and Jimmy also thought about the unthinkable as the winter crept along — a limited offensive to evict the Chinese from Wangdung and secure the Thagla ridge and the PLA base across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Le. In sync with this idea, Sundarji moved one brigade from Shillong and placed it under Jimmy’s command for counter-attack and counter-offensive tasks, and practiced it in this role in tough winter conditions. Jimmy recollects that he “had 100 guns ready to boom in support of his initial offensive with a total of 37 fire units (222 guns) and 1,200 tons of gun ammunition available to him for a sustained operation.”
While the operation was shelved as the Chinese did not continue with any provocative moves, Sundarji firmly stood by Narhari and Jimmy as he injected the idea of sustained helicopter-based maintenance in the mountains and provided resources to test this concept successfully.
Operation Falcon was followed up with Exercise Chequer Board, a table-top exercise that introduced the concept of a Reorganised Army Mountain Division (RAMID) and laid the foundations for offensive joint operations in mountainous terrain. Operation Falcon was undoubtedly one of Sundarji’s successes as Army chief. Jimmy is certain that had it flared-up into a localised conflict, the PLA would have got a bloody nose, if not across the LAC, but certainly in the Tawang sector.
The author is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the IAF and a military historian. These are vignettes from a forthcoming book soon to be published by Harper Collins India. Views are personal.
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