By Prateek Joshi —
Eastern Ladakh is in the news again with Indian armed forces increasing their presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which runs from Karakoram Pass in the north to Demchok in southeastern Ladakh in this region. After a humiliating defeat in the 1962 war, when India lost 14,380 square miles of Aksai Chin’s territory to China, Ladakh remained a quiet frontier for four decades with rare instances of any major military activity. Following this lull, China is flexing its muscles in the 21st century along its disputed borders, with the Ladakh region at the center of this Sino-Indian flashpoint.
Heavy militarization on the Chinese side has prompted India to shore up its defenses along the LAC and the growing bonhomie between the Pakistani Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) force along the Xinjiang-Gilgit-Baltistan axis has made the defense of Ladakh a top priority.
At present, China’s border presence consists of a strong PLA force along with a string of air bases and, most alarmingly, the DF-31 and DG-31A Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in northern Tibet. The PLA’s recent organizational reforms have placed Tibet and Xinjiang under a single western theater command, aimed at better coordination and integrated decision making. In response, India is strengthening its forces and infrastructure in Ladakh at a fast pace.
Approximately 50 percent India’s troop strength in Eastern Ladakh has come up only in last four to five years. From one brigade in Eastern Ladakh at the time of the Kargil war in1999, the army now has at least three reinforced (extra-strength) brigades in the region along with longer tenures for troops stationed there. In addition, reserve forces, known as the ‘loop battalions’ consisting of acclimatized soldiers have been created, located just behind the LAC battalions, which can be deployed if the need arises.
A newly deployed tank brigade is a part of an ongoing massive military upgrade along the LAC, which gained momentum from 2013 onwards when the PLA’s incursions near Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) caught the unprepared Indian side in shock. Strategically, DBO is extremely important for Ladakh’s defense from the north as it is located just 10 miles south of the Karakoram Pass, the northernmost point of India-China border.
As a response to this incident, the Indian Army deployed the first regiment of tanks in early 2014, followed by a second regiment last year. The ongoing deployment of the third regiment will establish a brigade in Ladakh, taking the number of tanks to 100. Noteworthy is the ongoing acclimatization of tanks due to the operational challenges posed by high altitude and freezing temperature, which plummets below -40 degrees celsius in winter. The commanding officer of a tank regiment stationed there stated that special additives and lubricants, including winter grade diesel were procured to prevent the fuel from freezing during winters.
While the Indian Army has deployed a number of fighting forces, India is also improving roadways and aviation infrastructure to prepare for a contingency. Work has been progressing on upgrading the road infrastructure on the 158 mile long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road by India’s Border Roads Organization. Earlier, this road had been built on the Shyok riverbed, rendering it useless for vehicles during the summers as melting snow flooded the riverbed. The road, which connects Leh to DBO passes close to the areas where PLA incursions took place in 2013 (when the PLA intruded 11 miles into the DBO sector), and again in 2014. The China Study Group, a powerful body comprising of India’s cabinet secretary, senior bureaucrats, army and intelligence officials reporting to the prime minister’s office proposed realignment of this road, after an official inquiry found it inadequate.
Progress has been made in the aviation infrastructure with the completion of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) at DBO, Fukche, and Nyoma a few years ago. The Indian Air Force plans to upgrade the Nyoma ALG into a full-fledged airfield capable of operating cargo as well as fighter jets, in addition to the existing airbases at Leh and Thoise. Another ALG has been proposed in the Parma valley, which is located near the strategic G219 Highway linking Xinjiang to Tibet (the highway’s 170 mile length passes through Aksai Chin) and can be used to block military supply lines if a conflict arises. Besides transporting troops and supporting air operations in case of a war, aviation infrastructure has become crucial for transportation of tanks, which can only be moved through large transport aircraft like the C-130J Super Hercules.
These steps have also been undertaken to counter a possible Sino-Pak encirclement of the region. China’s growing influence in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015, and reported growing concentration of PLA troops in Gilgit-Baltistan, has threatened India’s strategic position in Ladakh. After connecting Tibet with Xinjiang, the G219 highway forks off near Quilanaldi, leading to the Karakoram Highway. This chain of infrastructure sits as a fence completely surrounding Ladakh’s northern borders and can serve as joint Sino-Pak launch pad in case of a military confrontation. India has never ruled out a possibility of such a joint attack on Ladakh.
Estimates suggest that approximately 60,000 to 80,000 PLA soldiers can be mobilized immediately on the Ladakh border in case hostilities arise. Though India has maintained that the militarization of Ladakh is only aimed at attaining parity with the PLA’s infrastructure, the move has definitely not been welcomed. China’s state-run Global Times declared that Indian tank deployments might hurt Chinese investments in India. With India beginning to flex its military muscles now, it is yet to be seen how the next border conflict may play out.
Mr. Prateek Joshi is a post graduate candidate in International Relations from South Asian University (a SAARC Nations project) in New Delhi, India. He has previously interned with Wikistrat and Observer Research Foundation.