Mechanised Forces: A Force Multiplier in High Altitude Areas

"Mechanised forces should be suitably integrated with planned Mountain strike corps. Time has come to smell the coffee and Mechanised Forces should not be lagging in this aspect and should carry out due diligence of its fighting capabilities."

Mechanised Forces: A Force Multiplier in High Altitude Areas

7 Light Cavalry played a key role in Kashmir operations in 1947-48 surmounting the heights of Zozila pass at 11,500 feet. Major General K S Thimmaya, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Srinagar Division conceived the idea of employing tanks (Stuart tanks) to clear the pass and road axis to Zozila. The tanks were dismantled and transported up to Baltal (base of Zozila pass) as bridges could not take the weight. The assault was led by tanks to capture Zozila pass and Gyumri basin along with 77 Para Bde. Strategic, operational, and tactical surprise was achieved.

However, with this historical wisdom, we did nothing to improve on our infrastructure and add on to our experience of employing  Mechanized forces in High Altitude Areas (HAA) as a force multiplier until General Sunderji inducted Mechanised Battalion in Ladakh and North  Sikkim as part of ‘Operation Falcon’. The heavy lift capability of IL-76 and AN-26 was utilized to place T-72 and ICVs at Demchock area of Ladakh and ICVs of 16 Mechanised Infantry were inducted by road to North Sikkim at Kerang Plateau at a height of above 16,000 feet.

My Odyssey to North Sikkim

ICV BMP1 on tracks from Zima to Thangu

My battalion (16 Mech Inf) had just returned after ‘Exercise Brass Tacks’ to our peace-time location after exploiting the ICVs in the dessert in early 1987 and the focus  was on maintenance and upkeep of our equipment, just then we received orders to move to our next location and be placed under 33 Corps near Bagdogra with one Mechanised company to move as advance party immediately.

On reaching our new location we received orders from the higher authorities to induct one mechanised company with ICV BMP-1 to Thangu at a height of 15,000 feet in North Sikkim and be placed under orbat of 17 Mtn Div. On carrying out initial reconnaissance of the route along with Major KA Singh, the company commander, we realised the enormity of the task at hand.

The main route to Gangtok via Rangpo was out of question as some of the bridges were class 9 classification and movement of ICVs and tank transporters was not possible or feasible. An innovative route and out of the box plan was needed to carry out the task at hand. The team along with engineering task force came up with the idea of modifying the HIPPO (Ashok Leyland) vehicles used for transportation of dozers for construction of roads in HAA.

The issue of increasing the HIPPO platform and securing/lashing of ICV on the Hippo was resolved through a hit and trial method and finally the carrier vehicle was put through trials successfully. To maintain secrecy, a façade of movement of Border Road equipment was given to the entire exercise. Finally, the most important part of the operation was the route to Thangu which was chosen after due deliberations.

The Route and the Odyssey

HIPPO carrier negotiating Tung Br

The route  of more than 250 km was chosen from Bagdogra to Thangu criss crossing the Himalayas  and negotiating the Teesta  river over the course of six days. As most of the bridges were class 18, the ICV had  to be dismounted  from the Hippo (as the combined weight was more than 25 Tonnes) and mounted  again after crossing the bridge on the Hippo along the narrow winding roads which was a herculean task in itself.

  • Bagdogra- Sevoke road-Damdim–Aligara– Pedong
  • Pedong–Rani pool
  • Ranippol–Gangtok- Rang Rang br
  • Rang Rang br –Mangan-Tung br-Chungthang
  • Chungthang–Lanchen–Lachen-Zima
  • Zima–Thangu

The entire induction of Mech coy from Bagdogra to Thangu took almost two months along with up gradation of certain vital bridges. This also assisted in the induction of the first  troop of armour to Thangu from 71 AR and subsequently the squadron of armor which could operate in Kerang plateau.

Chinese Incursion in Ladakh

China over the past two decades has made phenomenal advances in their capabilities to operate along our Northern borders. They first enhanced their development of  infrastructure and have now provided all-weather metal roads leading to the Tibetan plateau right up to their border posts.

Apart from this their railway lines connecting their hinterland to the plateau have greatly enhanced their mobilization capability. Under the garb of carrying out exercises in Tibet and taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic world over, the Chinese mobilized two Mechanised Divisions closer to our border at eastern Ladakh. 4th Highland Motorized Infantry Division opposite Galwan, hot spring and  finger area. The Division is made up of two Motorized Infantry  brigades (bde), one tank bde, one Arty bde, one Atk bn and one AA arty bn.

The Chinese Infantry has recently been converted into APC mode which gives them the option of holding the ground and also carry out maneuvers. The second Division that is the 6th Highland Mech Inf Div has been mobilized and located in depth towards Galwan valley. This Div consists of two Mech Inf Bde (with  T-15/ZTQ Light tanks) and one armd bde. Each Mech Inf bde consists of 4 Mech Inf bn and one tank bn equipped with T-99A.

This Div, in addition, has one fd arty bde, one AD bde, one comb engr bn, one EW bn and one CBRN bn. This Div also has on its orbat Div Recce Bn equipped with ZBD-04A and AFT-10 ATK Msl. From the above it is quite clear that troops assembled opposite the Galwan sector has the capability to carry out initial breakthroughs and break out with Mech forces towards depth-strategic locations. It has also dedicated combat support including EWand CBRN Bn and required air cover.

Currently, the Indian army primarily operates Russian T-72 and ICV BMP-2  in Ladakh and North Sikkim, bordering China. T-72s are less effective in Ladakh, because they are heavy weight and create logistical nightmares in bringing them up to high altitude areas by air.

We need to create suitable infrastructure for their induction and have the ability to move them from one sector to another based on progress of operations. We need to develop light weight tanks with 30/35 Tonnes and find suitable replacements for aging BMP-2. They should be road, air transportable or even air dropped. For quick mobilization we need to have suitable R&D in place for small, compact road and rail tank/ICV transporters.

We need to shed our defensive operational strategy and with integration of other force multipliers and be capable of carrying out limited offensives in Tibet plateau. We have successfully integrated Recce and support bn in the desert and plains effectively in fighting the battle of Forward Zone. The time is ripe to induct suitably structured and organized Reconnaissance and Support bn in HAA, one per Div to be eyes and ears of the Div Cdr.

The Bn to be equipped with light ICVs, MR BFSR, Nag Msl weapon platform and state of art communication system with suitable Command and Control Centre from Bn to corps HQ. We should avoid panic buying of new technology and instead integrate new weapon platforms in a planned manner to boost the present asset of Infantry and Mechanised forces. Some of the New Technologies available which can be considered and integrated are:

  • Drones and satellite  warning system
  • Nag Msl system/platform  for Mech Inf
  • Man Pack Msl system for Infantry
  • Induction of new Spike ATK Msl system (Israel). New msl system to be 4th generation with fire, observe and engage and lock on after launch.
  • New loitering munitions.
  • Hptr msl launched system.

The Way Forward

The Indian Armed Forces must be prepared to deter, prevent and if necessary take retaliatory action. As all future wars will be joint operations, the synergy and capabilities of the Tri-services need to be enhanced. The Army would need to upgrade its fire power and maneuver capabilities to operate in High Altitude Areas (HAA).

Nag missile being fired from a BMP platform (Representational Image)

Mechanised forces should be suitably integrated with planned Mountain strike corps. Time has come to smell the coffee and Mechanised Forces should not be lagging in this aspect and should carry out due diligence, analysis of its equipment profile, defensive and offensive capabilities based on past experience. As they say, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Colonel Pradeep Dalvi (Retd), was commissioned into the Mechanised Infantry and has served in the Army for 29 years. During his vast military career, he has held several prestigious appointments. He is an alumnus of Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington and has served with the United Nations. He has been an instructor at Army War College (AWC) and in faculty of the Senior Command Wing. Post retirement, he went on to start his second inning with the prestigious Tata Group. He is presently a consultant with a corporate firm and a core member of the 'Victory India' campaign.

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