First time since 1962 that tanks and mechanised elements urgently airlifted to Ladakh” reads a headline in The Tribune of 22 June 2020. “India’s (sic) shopping for lightweight mountain-friendly tanks post China tussles”, proclaims another eye-catching header in The Economic Times of 15 July 2020. Evidently, there’s nothing like a crisis on our borders to bring into sharp focus the gaze of Indian defence planners on essentials such as armour, along with other criticalities in war waging hardware. Especially when it happens to be precipitated by a rising and aggressive neighbour that we’ve been wary of, yet have continued to engage with. In response to our timorousness, in April-May this year, through a well orchestrated strategy of preemption, it has deployed its own tanks and associated elements of combat power in significant numbers at 4-5 crucial places on the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, showing no signs of restoring status quo ante. We are in for the long haul here is the collective wisdom of strategic affairs analysts.
Armour in Ladakh
It’s not as if the Indian Army is discovering the potential of mechanised forces in Ladakh anew. Use of armour at critical points in battle, together with its offensive and deterrence quotient, can be traced back to Zoji La (48), Chushul (62), Western Ladakh (early ‘80s) and the airlift of a mechanised infantry heavy combat group to Leh for deployment in Eastern Ladakh in mid 88. Since then, especially in the last decade, the numbers have only increased. However this deployment of regiments and battalions, initially equipped with T-72s and BMP II Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs) and now the T-90s as well, hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Institutional memory remains patchy, even as attempts to systematically record and share experiences of operating in high altitude terrain within the mechanised forces have gathered pace.
Units deploying in increasing numbers since 2012, have done so with a constant re-inventing of the wheel, as it were, by seeking standardisation of specialist equipment and war like stores (personal as well as collective) that need to be carried; in schedules related to pre deployment training, as also the exact scales of additional equipment spares and accessories, along with a host of critical, unit level, HR issues. Irrespective of such teething challenges, India’s mechanised forces remain highly motivated and well geared to deploy and fight in high altitude terrain. However, to increase their efficacy in war, certain systemic changes must be brought in on priority, even if it has taken a live threat on the LAC for us to home in on these.
Future combat environment
Armour and infantry do not fight alone; they never have since the Great War. The existing and future combat environment, especially in the mountainous desert like terrain of Ladakh, demands a joint and combined arms approach more than ever. The unified future combat envelope (if it can be so described) should stretch ever upward and outward, encompassing within it a plethora of networked airborne and ground based surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, and specialist troops, for early warning. Unfortunately, the current reconnaissance troops with armour units in theatre are woefully equipped for their tasks. They need a better protected platform and tactical drones for over the hill viewing. There has to be assurance of air operations by fixed wing and attack helicopters, as also fire support of missiles and long-range artillery, with robust air defence. Augmenting it would be a resilient electronic warfare and communications grid with inbuilt redundancies and a logistics network that delivers right up to the fighting echelons. All this sounds pretty simple and doable till you factor in the high altitude peculiarities and limited infrastructure. Finally Clausewitz’ dictum—“every thing in war is simple but the simplest thing is difficult”—comes into play with double the impact in the terrain and altitude that obtains in Eastern Ladakh. So it is not just tanks that you need to induct: the necessity is to have them integrate and fight together with the other elements of combat power, creating the necessary level of deterrence to protect our sovereignty at 16,000 ft and above.
Infrastructure for sustenance at 12,000 ft (and above)
Requirements of where to deploy and use armour in the Ladakh Sector are not the essence of this piece. These are well known to the leaders and planners at appropriate levels in the military hierarchy. Yet, to be able to do so with relative ease (or least discomfort) needs careful thought and planning from the ground up. An immediate challenge is the sheer distances that have to be covered (by air or road) from permanent stations of armour units in the plains, to induct these 40 tonnes plus behemoths into the Ladakh sector. Despite creditable upgrades to infrastructure over decades, this remains a singular challenge each time additional heavy forces have to be deployed or rotated into this sector. Even with the construction of tunnels and alternate roads, year around ability to induct heavy equipment by road will remain marginal. The squadron worth of C-17 Globemaster IIIs with the IAF, along with the older IL-76s have proved their weight in gold in the induction of mechanised forces into the Leh-Ladakh region. An alternate to Leh Airfield capable of being used by fully loaded transport aircraft would increase flexibility of induction to a degree.
Equipment fitness and maintenance
Modern AFVs are notoriously finicky to maintain and keep functional as integrated platforms even at low altitude in covered garages. The difficulty factor increases exponentially when the high altitude rarefied atmosphere of Ladakh, with limited deployment space and plummeting minimum temperatures in winter, are taken into account. Adverse effects show in almost all critical sub systems of a tank, from fire control, sighting, fuel and hydraulics, derating of engines, as well as cracking and brittleness of a multitude of seals/rubber components. Communication and navigation gear gets affected too. Despite such adversity, by now our mechanised crews operating in the Ladakh Sector have mastered the art of keeping their tank and ICV fleets running all year round. More can be done to help maintain this diverse equipment mix by improving the conditions of the garages in which these are housed, stricter QC for spares and components intended for high altitude use in AFVs and ensuring the best available fuel with winter additives, as also for the improved grades of lubricants and greases needed for such locations. Batteries, which are a lifeline for militaries, of different grades and types are critical to keep systems functioning in tanks and ICVs. They discharge faster and need frequent replacement or recharge to be useful. This is an aspect that the Make in India effort could easily address on a war footing. All these are being looked into, but if the forces are to keep their tanks and ICVs functional for short notice deployment, then the cliché of “pulling out all stops” at this juncture needs to be ensured.
Training and integration
This is a crucial aspect that often gets overlooked when meeting demanding deployment and sustainment efforts by those intimately involved in fielding such forces. No denying that commanders in the field do their utmost to have a high state of readiness, however creating a more training friendly environment calls for a push from the very top in Delhi. The need is critical for a suitable high altitude field firing range for direct firing tracked platforms in the Indus R Valley of Ladakh. Locations have been reconnoitered and recommended for notification and hopefully with the issue in the limelight, priority for this range would be accorded. Additional crew and tactical training simulators must be purchased through the capital expenditure emergency powers given to the Vice Chief of the Army for honing gunnery and tactical skills of all crews. Integration with different elements of the battle group and Special Forces operating ahead is already being fine-tuned and must remain a high priority. Finally, an aspect that is key to future accurate delivery of ordnance on select targets is the training and integration of artillery and tactical air controllers with the command and control elements of combat groups operating in key areas. The recent clash in Galwan brought forth the grouping of artillery observers with infantry and same is the case with armour. These artillery fire controllers ought to be capable of identifying and relaying coordinates of fixed and fleeting targets of opportunity to all in range (tube or missile artillery, attack helicopters and even fighter aircraft). This is a capability that we sorely lack (in terms of robust SOPs, equipment and training) which must get jointly addressed on priority by the land and air force components.
This article commenced with the premise that it is the adversity of the prevailing situation in Ladakh, which foretells the rejuvenation of the mechanised forces, in the overall schema of military might of the Indian land forces. Before the force planners in South Block even start to discuss the requirements of a light tank, intended to make the tasks of induction and movement by AFVs in Eastern Ladakh faster and easier, they must identify and execute such issues and actions that make the existing forces there more robust and lethal. It is some of these very issues that have been covered here. The prevalent mood within the mechanised forces ought to be “Carpe Diem” for better operational capability of their potent arm. It will always have a key role through combined arms teaming to protect our territory from the PLA, or anyone else who threatens India’s interests along the borders.
The author is a retired Major General and was commissioned into the Armoured Corps in Dec 1983. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.