Terrain of Eastern Ladakh and Tibet
Armed Forces are a hierarchical and pyramidical organisation. A commander’s influence and freedom of action are restricted to his command. Yet opportunities do come by when one can do things less ordinary and leave behind a legacy. ‘Seize fleeting opportunities’ is a popular dictum in battle. I believe that not only should one seize fleeting opportunities, one must also endeavour to create them, not only in battle but also in life. Carpe diem – seize the day – was my antidote to inaction.
In 1988, I seized an opportunity to pioneer the induction and employment of a Combat Group (an all arms grouping based on a mechanised infantry battalion or an armoured regiment with varying number of mechanised companies and armoured squadrons) in Ladakh.
Two years before this, on promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, I’d been posted as a General Staff Officer Grade 1 (GSO 1) in Directorate General of Mechanised Forces, Army Headquarters (AHQ). Those were heady days of transformation of the Indian Army under the then-Chief Of the Army Staff General Sundarji’s Perspective Plan 2000. As part of the plan and also due to the Sumdorong Chu standoff in 1986, the Indian Army had adopted a ‘forward posture’ against China, and a Combat Group of one armoured regiment and one mechanised battalion was proposed to be deployed in Ladakh. It was a pathbreaking decision as a mechanised force of this size had never operated in High Altitude Area (HAA). This posed both a tactical and a technical challenge as apart from evolving new tactical concepts the tanks and BMPs had to move by air in the newly-acquired IL 76 aircraft, and had to be maintained at minus 20 to 30 degrees Celsius temperatures in winters.
Due to shortage of equipment, in March 1988, it was decided to induct a Combat Group of one mechanised infantry battalion and two independent armoured squadrons. The search began to identify a mechanised battalion that had finished its peace tenure. The first unit selected was in a hard peace station where limited family accommodation was available. The Commanding Officer protested that his troops had been away from their families and it was unfair to move them to field again. The protest was upheld. I was due to take over the command of 1 Mech Inf (1 Madras) in June 1988. I sensed a fleeting opportunity for my unit and myself to pioneer the employment of Mechanised Forces in HAA. The unit had already done six months in Hisar, which was a modified field station as limited family accommodation was available. I went on a day’s leave to Hisar and requested the Commanding Officer to ascertain the views of the troops for a possible move to Ladakh for two years. The proposal found ready acceptance from the troops as all sensed that history was in the making.
I rushed back to AHQ and began ‘backdoor’ lobbying for my unit to be inducted into Ladakh. By nature, like all human beings, commanders and units prefer to operate in a familiar environment. Not that there is a choice, but informally it was obvious that there were no takers among the mechanised infantry battalions for the ‘unknown’ environment of Ladakh. Hence by default my unit was shortlisted for induction into Ladakh. Simultaneously I studied all about the terrain of the cold desert of Ladakh. Luckily, I had visited Ladakh the year before and thanks to the General Officer Commanding, 3 Infantry Division, had a chance to fly over most of the area in a helicopter. I also looked at the technical challenge of maintaining the tanks and BMPs in extreme cold conditions. My experience of having done the Reconnaissance Course in the USSR was a big help. My study convinced me that a mechanised force in Ladakh would be a force multiplier in both defensive and offensive operations, and for the first time give us an offensive capability.
At that time the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) did not have any mechanised forces in the vicinity of the LAC and also did not have the roads that could transport a mechanised force. The PLA also did not have the airfields or the heavy lift aircraft to land a mechanised force in the within striking distance of the LAC.
As part of my study, I also revisited and studied in detail the historical background of military operations in Ladakh from the heroic exploits of the legendary General Zorawar Singh to present times. The wide – five to eight kilometers – valleys of Eastern Ladakh where the valley height rises to 14,000 feet and the surrounding hill features become gradual with height differential of 2,000-3,000 feet, were tailormade for exploitation by the mechanised forces.
The problem always was how to take the tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV) – known as BMP – there. The distance from the plains is nearly 800 km. Roads and bridges are not suitable for movement of tanks and BMPs on tank transporters. Heavy lift aircraft were not available. Stuart tanks of 7 CAV were moved by road and used in the Battle of Zozila in December 1948. In 1962, the IAF created aviation history by landing 6 AMX 13 Tanks, dismantled in two parts, at Chushul (14000 feet) using AN 12 aircraft. These were reassembled and successfully exploited in the defence of Chushul. A troop of four Armoured Cars had also been used in the Indus Valley at Dungti. In 1986-87, the heavy lift IL 76 aircraft was inducted into the IAF. IL 76 could carry one tank or two BMPs at a time. Upto 1986, our defences were based in an area where the valleys were narrow and not suitable for mechanised forces. But as we went into the forward posture in 1986-87, with wider valleys in the vicinity of the LAC, the stage was set for induction of the mechanised forces using the IL 76 aircraft. The only problem was the shortage of tanks and BMPs vis the requirement in plains.
An experimental force 20 BMPs and 8 BRDMs (a light-wheeled reconnaissance armoured vehicle) were inducted in end-1986 during Operation Trident when war was imminent with Pakistan due to its response to Exercise Brasstacks. The equipment was milked from the 10 mechanised infantry battalions equipped with BMPs. The aim was to use them in the Shyok River Valley against Pakistan and also experiment with the employment in Eastern Ladakh. The BRDMs were withdrawn after Operation Trident, but BMPs as an ad hoc force remained there. General Sundarjee was due to retire in June 1988 and he was determined to see through the induction of a Combat Group each into Ladakh and Sikkim where a small plateau merges into the Tibet plateau. Voids were to be left in field formations in the plains to be made up with units being raised.
In the AHQ there were misgivings about the efficacy of the employment of a mechanised force of this size in Ladakh. A conference, chaired by the COAS and attended by concerned Director Generals and representatives of the IAF, was held in South Block. As GSO 1(Equipment) Mechanised Infantry, I was in attendance as a backbencher. There was an animated, no-holds-barred discussion. Suddenly, General Sundarji spotted me on the back bench and growled, “Yes, Colonel, what says you, can this be done? Come up front and give your views.” With the background study that I had done, I seized the moment to methodically cover all issues from induction by air, technical problems, tactical concepts and above all, gave the likely offensive employment. I took 10 minutes as opposed to the minute or two a speaker gets in such conferences. This was much to the chagrin of the top brass present.
I concluded by saying, “Not only it can be done, but it must be done.” The Chief, who was also the Colonel of the Mechanised Regiment, with a glint in his eyes said, “Aren’t you due to take over a unit?” Without waiting for my reply, he added, “Go to Ladakh and make history!”
The concluding part of this story, covering the induction and employment of the Combat Group in Ladakh, will be in next week’s column.