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Assured destruction

Deploying tanks in the mountainous region

With the arrival of the first of ten C-17 Globemaster heavy lift aircraft from the US the possibility of India being able to deploy tanks in support of ground operations against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army north of the Himalayas has improved exponentially.

India’s ability to deploy its armored corps, mechanized infantry and artillery regiments along the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas was severely constrained by the absence of proper road and bridge infrastructure caused by a deliberate national policy of “benign neglect” of the region to make it difficult for the Chinese to re-enact the invasion of 1962. However, a reversal of policy has seen clearance of many infrastructure projects intended to improve the deployability of Indian troops at short notice.

Nonetheless, delays in the completion of these works have left large gaps in road communications. This has been caused mainly by difficulties in rock-cutting and bridge laying in extremely difficult terrain.

New capability

The Indian defence establishment has shown some foresight in seeking a heavy lift aircraft that will obviate the need for such infrastructure in difficult terrain. The acquisition of the C-130J for commando insertion and now the arrival of the C-17 Globemaster IIIs have closed a gap that was very glaring.

Both aircrafts are capable of operating from unprepared strips and both have no difficulty in traversing the Himalayan massif at any point at the choosing of the tactical commander which makes for many options along a 3400-km frontier, that has currently acquired a great deal of flux given the bellicosity shown by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in recent times, the most recent of more than 300 incursions being the one in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector on the western end of the Line of Control in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir.

The deployment and employment of light tanks was felt as long ago as 1962 when the Chinese made a breakthrough all along the Sino Indian border from west (where it had secretly constructed the Aksai Chin road) right up to North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh).

French-made dismantled AMX tanks were airlifted on Fairchild Packet aircraft fitted with an additional engine on the top of its fuselage to provide greater thrust in the rarified atmosphere. Since then aircraft have been the mainstay of the air bridges that maintained logistical contact between supply bases and forward posts through a series of dropping zones (DZ) from where porters and mules would take the supplies onwards. That arrangement will remain in situ for all time to come because even when they do come, forward air bases are vulnerable to long-range artillery.

Given that India will receive four of the ten Globemasters by the end of the year and the rest by the end of 2014 with the possibility that the option for six more will be exercised, it will now be able to carry at least one Arjun tank-the heaviest in its armored corps-or three infantry combat vehicles across the Himalayas. This new capability requires a study of where such equipment would be most effective in defence to stop a Chinese mechanized infantry onslaught or in offense to disrupt enemy concentration and infrastructure.

It is in the west in the Aksai Chin salient that Indian armor will need to play a disruptive role in the communications network that China has laid out to allow it to create a line of supply from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to its province of Xianjiang over the Karakoram Highway that runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

A disruption of this road will have a long-term effect on the Sino-Pak conspiracy to encircle India by both land and sea. The landscape here is very difficult strewn as it is with large boulders that will require to be pushed aside for clear a passageway and hence each tank will have to be fitted with a dozer to open up a path ahead of it even as its main gun will engage the enemy. Also, in dug-in positions the tanks would be able to destroy concentrations of Chinese forces across a wide arc.

Tactical deployment

However, it is in the ability of the Globemasters that India will have to draw up the tactics and methods of deployment.

The ability to drop a tank from a few feet off the ground even while in flight by using an extractor parachute is an ability that will have to be utilized to the full. By this method the aircraft need not land at all and thus avoid the possibility of becoming bogged down in the permafrost that is intermingled in the geology of large portions of the Tibetan plateau.

Nonetheless India is aware that the Chinese have managed to lay the Qunghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) across long stretches of the permafrost and it will be the main objective to disrupt the railway to prevent the Chinese from using it to bring in reinforcements.

It is in the Gegong-Gaygong gap in north-west Sikkim that Indian tanks and mechanized columns can gain direct access to the undulating plains on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control and break out north, west and east as the situation demands.

Tactically, the most important direction for such a breakthrough must be eastwards towards Arunachal Pradesh so that Indian troops can cut off the dagger-like geological formation known as the Chumbi Valley that lies between Sikkim and Bhutan.

If India can cut off the base, all Chinese troops posted within the salient to threaten both Sikkim as well as Bhutan can be isolated and chopped up either by air operations or turning into the valley to mop up the Chinese troops within the approximately 75x75 km salient that gives the Chinese a closer axis to Gangtok on the one side and Kalimpong and Darjeeling in West Bengal and the Brahmaputra valley.

India has long wanted to close this vital gap through peaceful negotiation but has been stymied by China every time. If there are hostilities India would have an opportunity to do what strategists have long wanted.

A glance at a map shows that the space between the Line of Actual Control and the Brahmaputra is a huge flatland, boulder strewn in the west but largely covered with yellow/brown soil that can support tank and mechanized infantry operations- both air-delivered and terrestrially executed.

For many years India has been constrained by the lack of adequate airlift capability to carry tanks and accompanying mechanized infantry support elements over the Himalayan hump. That constraint will disappear when half the ordered Globemasters are delivered by the end of 2013.

Just below the Gegong-Gaygong gap the wide basin is divided by a shallow lake and
large tract of undulating land that can be prepared to accept the Globemasters and use the space as a forming up place for its tank thrust into the Chumbi Valley. Things are becoming more possible by the month.