Major General J.M. 'Jimmy' Singh (left) with Lieutenant General N.S. Narahari | Photo: Special arrangement/Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)
Major General J.M. 'Jimmy' Singh (left) with Lieutenant General N.S. Narahari | Photo: Special arrangement/Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)
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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.


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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.

Maj. Gen. J.M. Singh with his corps commander, Lt Gen. Narahari and other officers surveying the area | Photo: Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)
Maj. Gen. J.M. Singh with his corps commander, Lt Gen. Narahari and other officers, surveying the area | Photo: Special arrangement/Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)

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.’


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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).

Major General J.M. Singh enjoying a hot cuppa with troops from 5 Mountain Division | Photo: Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)
Major General J.M. Singh enjoying a hot cuppa with troops from 5 Mountain Division | Photo: Special arrangement/Lt Gen J.M. Singh (Retd)

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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18 Comments Share Your Views

18 COMMENTS

  1. 1862 lt regt was the first artillery regiment to be deployed in the operation, after gen sunderji visited Twang along with Gen jm singh.

  2. Only a Kargil like war or a full-scale war with Chinese would prove our mettle. There is little doubt that v were weak in 1962. But Chinese have also moved far ahead in 58 years and they r further close to Pakistan and even Burma. S, the ignominy of 1962 will not b repeated. There will b great loss on both sides. Ultimately it would b lose-lose with both sides claiming victory. In the present scenario President Trump may support us but Russians would keep mum. Pakistan would render all support at least indirectly. Pak may even allow Chinese to use POK. So, v need to do a lot more. Now that v have Chief of Def Staff things r different. Both sides r nuclear. Both have a large military though Chinese have an edge in many respects. But Chinese can ill-afford to ignore the economic consequences. Pak has also lost East Pakistan. But Tibet is under the full control of Chinese. Chinese r also close to our neighbours, incl Nepal. Bhutan keeps a studied silence. Thus, a gamut of things need to b consciously considered.

  3. The comment of @G B Reddy is not correct. It happened in Jun 1986. As I have mentioned in my previous comment that I was in the Brigade HQs of the Brigade which was first to reach the area of conflict. Own 5 Div Bdes were moved later and the other Div came almost a year later for ex Chequrenoard.

  4. I was posted as Staff Officer in the Brigade that was first launched in to the action, the Battalion of which occupied the ridge overlooking the Chinese post which had been disputed between the two armies/nations.
    Being a part of the Forward Brigate, I was totally involved in making Helipads/ DZ ( The DZ which had been used during 1962. Our Brigade HQs was located west of Zimithang in area of village Lumpo. Incidently the same area was also the HQs of 7 Brigade of Brig Dalvi in 1962.
    The Chinese were shit scared with oir offensive move. And we had complete battle zone dominance. Our heli-bridge was very effective. And we (the brigade was fully prepared for attack in many a nights.) which never materialized.

  5. The skirmish incident date is wrongly quoted. It was in 1987. As a reserve brigade commander, I had the opportunity to plan for a number of
    roles including establishing a road block opposite Bumla. Accuracy of reporting is critical please.

  6. Yes
    Was in that area myself. Haven’t seen that type of sustained training for offensive operations in mountains again ever.
    Was part of mule maintained bde for outflanking manoeuvres.
    Remember walking 7 days self contained over huge distances. Truly remarkable time.

    • can’t understand why we meed to be provoked to build offensive or defensive positions.
      I think as army generals they should be thinking how a Chinese / pakistani general would think and be ready with such positions.
      the least the should do is have roads ready .
      Sad that we are always reactive rather than be preemptive.

  7. I was a Major and part of the Infantry battalion which formed part of the Brigade tasked to evict the Chinese from Sumdro Rong Valley. The Operation , ultimately, was not launched for reasons best known to the Higher HQs and Central Govt. Let me state the following:-
    1. Lt Gen N S I Narahari and Maj Gen J M Singh were the best possible Corps Cdr and Div Cdr for that operation. Truly GREAT combination.
    2. Chinese Army, those days, was definitely neither well trained nor physically fit enough or motivated to withstand an Indian Offensive in that limited area.
    3. I commanded an Infantry Battalion in the same area 4 years later. Standard of Chinese Army had not improved. It was in just a satisfactory state of preparedness.
    4. We should not be unnecessarily awed of Chinese Military . We are equally good, even better, I assure you that.

  8. Why is it whenever we hear of Indian Army acting decisively. Only two names crop FM Sam Bahadur and Gen. Sundarji.

  9. Lost general JM Singh, for wrong reasons!? How, where and why?! Can some honourable military officer, detail please.

  10. Compare and contrast military leadership then with what it is now, Instead of all this false 56-inch rhetoric ask why current military leadership has lost its warrior ethos and become bootlickers of politicians.

  11. Makes good reading. Gives insight into military operations. Regrettably, in India military matters cannot be studied as a part of academic curriculum. All this knowledge is confined to uniforms. This writer’s book “India’s Wars” is a very good military history of independent India upto 1971.

    • A step moved back to do what , if Wangdung grazing ground had been evicted by the Battalion sent up immediately from Chuke GG on the detection of the intrusion , maybe the results would have been totally different from what later happened.

    • A lesson learnt late. Wangdung grazing ground’s eviction by the unit inducted in on foot overnight from Chuje GG would have changed the course of the Operation Falcon something different altogether. All that happened later was a counting of Mule Trains, Chopper Landings and an odd skirmish here and there. With nothing worthwhile to show. Maybe the Dragon of Two score years ago stilll sent chills

  12. It was very well conducted operation. Such bold actions only general JM Singh could have taken. Unfortunately we lost such dynamic general for wrong reasons. From major general v s Karnik(retd)

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