The issue of inducting adequate tanks in certain sectors in high altitude areas to counter the Chinese threat has been debated for long. A few such areas already have tanks available to meet a critical eventuality with the enemy inducting armour that might come up. The issue was centre stage when we were coping with the Chinese at Doklam. The General, in his article debates the pros and cons of using armour in high altitude areas, in our context. He also evaluates Chinese tanks likely to be used in mountains, including the latest variants that they have produced.
COUNTERING CHINESE TANK THREAT
The recent standoff at Doklam had an interesting side show with considerable media hype on scary scenarios of Chinese war games in Tibet accompanied by reports of fielding of Chinese light tank optimised for high altitude and touted as a silver bullet for Himalayas. This naturally lead to considerable panic in ill informed media conjuring images of hordes of Chinese armour rolling down Chumbi Valley over Jompheri Ridge, all the way into Siliguri corridor. The narrative fitted in with lingering images of ruthless employment of tanks against helpless protestors in Tiananmein square. Earlier, Chinese had experimented with heavy drop and contingency of capture of mountain passes with tanks and have leveraged even such manoeuvres as part of psychological warfare to amplify the threat of tanks.
Issues and Challenges
While India reacted with maturity yet reactive deployment of armour had to be resorted to in critical areas thereby drawing on resources committed to other sectors, on the lines of pooling in of Bofors guns for Kargil operations, albeit at a much reduced scale. This has obviously thrown up a number of issues and dilemmas and it will be in order if instead of panic reaction, well considered response strategy is drafted in a time bound manner. Some of the important issues meriting examination are as follows:-
– What is the actual efficacy of tanks in high altitude areas?
– Which is the best tank for Himalayas – medium or light or a combination of these?
– Is the new Chinese light tank, Xinquingtan also referred to as ZTQ, indeed the
silver bullet for Himalayas?
– What is the recommended deployment and force level?
Efficacy of Tanks in High Altitude
Despite historical instances of tanks making their mark in mountains, Zozila and Chushul in our context, it will be pragmatic to surmise that unlike plains, where tanks are the ultimate arbiters, their effectiveness in mountains is limited to few gaps, narrow valleys and corridors. Relating it to Doklam crisis, it will be prudent to conclude that while tanks can be inducted into Chumbi valley and there have even been reports of Chinese tank trials in area of Yatung and Phari Dzong, yet considering the terrain, they just can’t traverse their way to Siliguri Corridor. The only possible way tanks can be inducted into corridor is by air, which in itself is a herculean task with no commensurate gains. Physical, electronic and thermal signatures of these mighty beasts are difficult to conceal and can be picked up by well coordinated surveillance devices including satellite imagery specially if there are used in large numbers.
Terrain in these areas dictates use of small combined arms integrated teams with a mix of tanks, infantry combat vehicles, missile launchers and combat support elements backed up by tailored logistics. It is also relevant to factor degradation in performance of various systems due to de-rating of engines, negative effect of external ballistics on armaments and weather on optronics.
Constraints of terrain and limited efficacy of tracked systems give rise to the dilemma of deciding between investing in enhancing tank fleet or relying on anti tank grid. The recommended way to counter mechanised threat in these areas is by laying out potent and effective anti-tank grid to block limited avenues backed up by optimum number of tanks.
A typical anti-tank grid includes layers of early warning and surveillance; mines and ditches; artillery fire both indirect as well as direct; accurate anti-tank missiles anchored by vectored tank manoeuvres and fire assaults.
In our context, there are very few such places and most of these so called gaps or funnels in Northern Sikkim and Ladakh can be converted into traps and killing grounds. Chinese forays may get bogged into Khemkaran type of reverses teaching them a bitter lesson like ‘Asaal Uttar’. While we have some concerns and challenges in Ladakh yet these are manageable. Our domination over Kerang plateau in Sikkim is real and effective, in fact the plateau combined with terrain across provides an opportunity for execution of effective quid-pro-quo option leading to possibility of blocking Chumbi valley at its head.
Recommended Tank for High Altitude
China has tried to build a hype around its latest offering from North Industries Group corporation (NORINCO) in the form of light tank ZTQ yet elite units deployed in high altitude areas continue to be equipped with front line medium tanks,Type 96 or ZTZ-96. This tank, in keeping with Chinese philosophy of over designating their tanks is an attempt to match up to T-90 though some experts rate earlier versions of this tank equivalent to T-72, especially improved version. Our existing fleet of T-72 tanks needs to be further optimised with a 1000 HP engine as the current 780 HP power pack suffers upto 25% de-rating due to rarified ambient conditions.
An objective analysis reveals that Type 96 is a 45 tonne Main Battle Tank (MBT) equipped with 125 mm gun supplemented by missile and depleted Uranium round and is powered by 780 HP Diesel power pack, Most importantly, Chinese have not disclosed any plan for replacement of medium tanks of units in high altitude with new light tanks. In fact a large number of Chinese tank battalions are holding Type 80/85/88 tanks and will continue to be equipped with improved and retrofitted versions of these tanks. These tanks have 105 mm guns and lack missile firing capability.
Chinese are also engaged in development of an improved Type 99 or ZTZ-99 tank, which is an evolutionary design with major improvements likely to manifest in a 1000 HP power pack, improved optronics, better ammunition and enhanced protection; but in incremental proportions rather than a revolutionary quantum jump. Our improved T-90 is likely to match up to even Type 99 tank. Chinese opacity in weapon development, organisation and employment is well known and but it will be logical to presume that in near and midterm, Chinese are going to rely on medium tanks and only some specialised Rapid Reaction Forces or specialised elite units may be equipped with the latest light tanks.
In our context, while we may be tempted to opt for a simplistic solution of pure light tank regiment but it may be better to think out of box and attempt a mini RMA. The ideal mix should be a composite unit with two medium tank squadrons combined with a light tank squadron as they can complement each other. Light tanks can reach areas otherwise inaccessible and medium tanks can deliver the requisite punch. This model should be adopted for regiments in high altitude and also reconnaissance regiments. Thus a Regiment can have 28 medium tanks in two squadrons augmented by 23 light tanks-14 in third squadron, six in reconnaissance troop and three in regimental HQ.
Appraisal of Chinese Light Tank
Chinese light tank, ZTQ or w Xinquingtan weighs 33 to 36 tonnes, which is just two tonnes less than medium tank, T-54/55 and Chinese T-59. While characteristics and features of tank continue to be shrouded in mystery, yet most informed analysts estimate this tank to have 105 mm (probably rifled) gun and 1000 HP engine. It is certainly a non-amphibian tracked vehicle but probably with extra wide tracks to reduce nominal ground pressure to improve traffic-ability and wading capability through wet obstacles.
There is a question mark on missile firing capability but it is likely to be included as an upgrade. Though air transportable yet very limited numbers can be lifted even from air fields in hinter land and almost none from Tibet due to payload restrictions in rarefied atmosphere. It violates governing criteria for light tanks of weight ceiling of 28 tonnes and amphibian capability. Chinese seem to be laying down the new norm of 36 tonnes for light tanks, which militates against the well established norm of 24-28 tonnes.
The new Chinese tank is yet to be validated and essentially is still a work in progress. We need not re-define our criteria for light tank to ape Chinese parameters but on the contrary should opt for a real light tank with 800-1000 HP power pack, 125 mm low pressure gun, anti tank missile backed up by first rate optronics and protection system. EXtra wide tracks is a feature worth replicating to improve cross country capability. We have a ‘Jugaad’ type of prototype developed by TATA and DRDO on a wheeled configuration. It also opens up a concurrent dilemma of tracked versus wheeled as most advanced light tanks like Russian Sprut are tracked. Ideally, we should opt for for tracked variant and develop rubberised track shoes to enhance their mobility and limit damage to roads.
Recommended Force Level
A comparative evaluation reveals that there are glaring chinks in Chinese organisation with 35 tanks in a battalion and 10 tanks in a company against 45 tanks in our units and 14 in squadrons. Their mechanised infantry units are largely equipped with battle taxis unlike our BMPs, which are classified as genuine fighting vehicles. While they have 40 odd regiments arrayed against us yet large proportion of mechanised fleet is equipped with antique T-59/ Type 80/85/88 tanks, their application at chosen point of application is restricted by terrain and is likely to be sequential. While detailed force levels and deployments can be worked out, it is recommended that as a concept both in Ladakh and Sikkim, holding or pivot divisions should have an integral tank and mechanised battalion backed up by an Independent Brigade with three tank regiments and mechanised unit.
In Sikkim, an additional independent squadron would be required for East Sikkim for deterrence against Doklam type of situation and likely threat of Chinese tanks to capture passes like Nathu La and Cho La. Students of military history would recall about deployment of light tank troop in this area in 70s. Independent brigade for Sikkim could be located in plateau and position a mechanised battalion in Siliguri Corridor with another independent squadron. Both holding Divisions should be provided with additional staff to handle mechanised operations.
Considering that we may have five to six regiments in high altitude, three recce regiments in Strike Corps in plains and five recce/independent squadrons, we need about 15 squadrons or five regiment worth of light tanks. This recommendation is premised on a composite grouping of one light tank squadron for regiments in high altitude as also in recce regiments backed up by two medium tank squadrons.
It is also felt that independent squadrons should not be amalgamated but retained in their current configuration as they give flexibility, rapid reaction and augmentation capability in areas like Rann, Siliguri corridor, Mago-Chuna valley, East Sikkim and Ladakh. Considering terrain, these squadrons should be equipped with light tanks and get deployed for rapid reaction and as reserves. The profile suggested may result in marginal enhancement of over all armour profile but that may become inescapable if we are to build credible deterrent against Chinese and punitive deterrent to tackle Pakistanis.
In the end it is the man behind the machine who makes the difference as was proved by well-trained Centurion tank crews in the 1965 war, who put the message across technologically superior Pakistani Patton tanks; many of which are displayed as war trophies in our military stations. It will only be right if we develop a self-contained eco system of simulators, ranges, repairs and training facilities in these areas to hone our crews to exploit the capabilities of our equipment.
Lt Gen KJ Singh (Retired)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)