The deployment of at least 50,000 Chinese (PLA) troops along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in eastern Ladakh and in occupied Aksai Chin — other than heavy weaponry and missiles — indicates the Russian influence on both the Chinese choice of military tools and war planning and execution, according to a top Indian Air Force (IAF) officer.
Dissecting the Chinese positioning and war plan in a worst-case scenario, the officer said, with the request not to be named, any Chinese offensive is likely to involve troops moving forward under a barrage of artillery and rocket fire, with surface-to-air missile batteries providing cover for their weapon systems from IAF attacks. “This is the old Soviet way of fighting a war, with troops based in deep areas (in this case, Hotan airbase 320 km from the LoAC) providing the air-defence cover,” the officer told Hindustan Times.
On the one hand, strategic experts are of the view that all future wars will see stand-off weapons used to force Indian fighters to remain on the ground, the “disperse, absorb, recoup and retaliate” strategy of the IAF has been war-gamed enough times (including in the Gagan Shakti 2018 exercise) to repel China’s plans, the officer said. He explained that the reaction of the IAF to any offensive is faster than that of the PLA Air Force due to the distance of the LoAC from airbases such as Hotan, Lhasa or Kashgar. He said and that PLA’s surface-to-air missile sites become vulnerable to the stand-off air-to-ground missiles of Indian fighters.
“Once air-defence missile systems are knocked out, the amassed artillery, rockets and troop concentrations become exposed on the Tibetan desert, where there is no natural camouflage cover for these systems,” the officer said in the interview. He added that the PLA has packed depth areas with troops, but any aggression on mountainous terrain will not be easy against a dug-in adversary like the Indian Army in Ladakh.
The 1999 Kargil war taught the Indian Army that the enemy becomes vulnerable to air interdiction when it is concentrated and exposed. This makes the effort to hit Indian troops, who are dominating strategic heights both in the north and south of Pangong Tso, harder in the winter months. Even a Chinese stand-off weapon, due to its circular error of probability (a measure of precision), may find it hard to target dug-in troops sitting on mountaintops in sub-polar temperatures, and in the absence of cover from attacking forces in the cold Ladakh desert and the Soda Plains, he said in the interview.
The officer is sure Indian forces can sustain a Chinese strike in a worst-case scenario. The military is prepared for a 10-day intensive war, as the Narendra Modi government has allowed emergency purchases of critical ammunition and missiles after the 2016 Uri surgical strikes and 2019 Balakot strikes against Pakistan. “Any India-China hostility is unlikely to continue intensely without global intervention beyond 10 days,” the officer explained, adding that the indigenous ammunition is available for 40 days and conventional bombs for 60 days.
With four or five additional Rafale fighters, on which IAF pilots are training in France, ready to join the Ambala squadron next month, and a new Ladakh Corps Commander, Lt Gen PGK Menon, taking over, both the armies appear quite evenly matched, the IAF officer said.
In the standoff that began in May, Indian and Chinese troops have come face-to-face at multiple points along the LoAC. In some areas, particularly the Finger Area and Depsang, Indian forces are cut off from points they could previously patrol. But the Indian Army now controls ridgeline positions on the lake’s southern bank that allows it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, with the positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights.
The Indian Army has taken control also of key heights overlooking the Chinese army’s deployments on the Finger 4 ridgeline on the northern bank of Pangong Tso where rival soldiers are deployed barely a few hundred metres from each other.
Last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the parliament that no force in the world could stop the Indian Army from patrolling the country’s borders in the Ladakh sector, signalling a strong resolve to regain access to several areas that are now difficult to reach due to actions by the Chinese army along the LoAC. The statement stands notwithstanding the focus of multiple diplomatic and military talks between the two sides has been to “disengage and de-escalate”.
Lt Gen AS Lamba (retd), former Vice Chief of Army Staff, said in the HT report: “The situation on the LoAC is escalating despite intense diplomatic efforts by India and talks between military commanders (of both the nations). It requires full operational readiness all along the LoAC to pre-empt any reckless action by China.”