On 3 July, the Prime Minister of India arrived at Leh on a surprise visit. Flanked by his Army Chief and the Chief of Defence Staff, he was received by the Army Commander of Northern Command, Lt Gen Y.K. Joshi and the GOC 14 Corps, Lt Gen Harinder Singh. Both of them are responsible for the defence of Ladakh at strategic and operational levels, respectively.
This visit came in the backdrop of the unfortunate incident at Galwan on the night of 14-15 June. The nation was outraged. The death of 20 soldiers sent shockwaves through the country. The situation was really grim. The world was eager to hear Narendra Modi. The nightmarish thought of a repeat of 1962 was on everyone’s mind.
The Dragon appeared to be too aggressive and dangerous. He had moved up and closed with 20,000 troops of the 4th Motorized Division and 6th Mechanized Division, equipped with light tanks, rockets and heavy artillery, ready to strike deep. India was caught off guard.
Soon after he arrived at Nimu, Prime Minister Modi was briefed by the Generals on the ground. Lt Gen Harinder Singh briefed him about what action the Chinese army had taken and what they were likely to do next. The Prime Minister listened to his General and somewhere during the course of the briefing he said, “I am not interested in what the Chinese have done and what they will do, I am interested in what you have done and what you will do.” The interjection was set to alter the future course.
He, after being updated, addressed the freshly inducted troops of 17 Corps acclimatizing at Nimu. These were the troops of India’s only mountain strike corps. They were inducted recently to deal with the dual-threat from China and Pakistan. The PM’s message was for the world, India’s belligerent neighbour and his mighty military machine.
He quoted a shloka to convey that message. It was heard all across the globe. He said, “A brave-heart protects the motherland with the power of his weapons. This land is for the brave. Our support, strength and resolve for its defence and security are as high as the Himalayas. I can see this ability and resolve in your eyes right now. It is clearly visible on your faces. You are the heroes of the same land that has repulsed the attacks and atrocities of many invaders for thousands of years. This is our identity. We are the people who worship Lord Krishna who plays the flute. We are also the same people who follow Sudarshan Chakradhari Krishna as an ideal. With this inspiration, India has emerged stronger after every attack.”
TIME TO REWRITE HISTORY
This morale-boosting massage was signalling India’s strategic intent that ran too deep. More than anyone else, they were the Indian Army Generals who were listening very carefully.
It was time to rewrite history. The unthinkable so far was to be done. It was to be an offensive action of quid pro quo into Chinese-seized territory. The Prime Minister in his address had also said that “the weak cannot initiate peace. Bravery is a precondition to peace.” The Generals were quick to understand the shifting paradigm.
From the initial stages of these border tensions, the Chinese had successfully drawn the Indian troops into various face-offs, spreading in penny packets and minor tactical manoeuvres. Indians were caught in a reactive mode. Indian troops were tied down at many places over wide frontages. Stretching from Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the north to Pangong Lake in the south, this was roughly 300 kilometres in extent. The initiative was complete with the Dragon.
By early July, India had also deployed its troops from the Northern Command reserve. Soon after the Galwan clashes, this Division was moved up from Himachal Pradesh, directly into the frontlines in Ladakh, thus beefing up the defences. The holding 14 Corps, however, demanded more and more troops that were ever insufficient—a typical defender’s syndrome where the troops are never enough and there is always a piece of ground left to be occupied.
But this was exactly the way the Indian Army was made to behave while dealing with the Chinese, right from the 1950s onward. The debacle of 1962 had forced upon us a strong defensive mindset. India stood psychologically paralysed in the aftermath. The Chinese exploited this state and made transgressions and intrusions with impunity: an annual feature of sorts.
The differing perceptions of the LAC worked to China’s advantage. They would come forward by two steps and retreat by one; thus in five decades, we lost hundreds of square kilometres to their salami-slicing tactics.
STATIC DEFENCE IS A THING OF THE PAST
However, the Doklam crisis of June 2017 changed all that. The handling of this crisis with alacrity instilled the much-needed confidence into our establishment. The Chinese were dealt with firmly from a position of strength. Indians had pre-empted the PLA’s move by occupying the dominating ridge line and stalling their planned ingress. General Bipin Rawat was the Army Chief at the helm of affairs and is now India’s first CDS.
Presently, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Chief of Army Staff, is handling the current crisis. His vast hands-on experience in dealing with the Chinese is a blessing. Offensive plans were drawn under his watch and vetted at the highest levels. The strategy of static defence was an antiquated idea by now.
Concurrently to this planning, defences were bolstered all across the LAC. Additional divisions were mobilised, building upon the existing force levels already deployed right across to the last bend of Arunachal Pradesh.
To deny the Chinese any surprises from air, Indian Air Force was conducting round the clock airspace domination. Indian Army had also carried operational deployment of various strategic assets like the land version of Brahmos cruise missiles by the end of June. All avenues of Chinese ingress, if any, were plugged by now.
The LAC held firmly in strength, the defensive plans over land were all in place, complemented by those at sea and in the air. This seriousness and resolve beckoned India’s intention to defend every inch of her territory.
Indian Navy had also set sail into the deep blue waters of Indian Ocean. Our warships were well poised, threatening the Chinese supply lines passing through the Malaca Strait, just in case the balloon went up. In the Far East, Indian naval warships were also carrying sea manoeuvres alongside the ships of friendly world powers in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Global support had been mobilised in India’s favour.
Earlier in Ladakh, a brigade had been pulled out of the Army Headquarters’ reserve Mountain Division and brought into 14 Corps zone. The great strategic airlift by C-17 Globe Masters of Indian Air Force was executed. These gigantic machines ferried tons weapons, ammunition and logistics alongside the troop build-up throughout May and June.
On 21 May, the first brigade of this reserve arrived in Leh. Initially, they were tasked to augment the existing resources of 14 Corps in holding role. However, the Galwan incident of mid-June changed the dynamics. Since an offensive action was on the table, it was decided to bring in the rest of this Mountain Division. The airlift began soon thereafter and this Division closed in by 20 June, now armed with a fresh operational mandate.
The 17 Corps, India’s sole strike corps, was fully acclimatized and prepared for any eventuality, though not to be committed at this early stage. However, the GOC 17 Corps, Lt General Sawneet Singh was given an additional task: to exercise operational control of this newly inducted crack Mountain Division. Trained to infiltrate and strike deep behind enemy lines. They were capable of turning the enemy’s defences.
By now, the reserve Division of Northern Command was also deployed, beefing up the entire defences along the LAC in Ladakh. Deployments were from the Depsang plains to the occupying heights around Galwan, providing depth to the Shyok-Dubruk-DBO road and strengthening the Dungti-Demchok corridor.
The military to military negotiations continued. Many rounds were conducted, with each talk lasting for hours. The efforts were to amicably resolve the dispute through talks. Unfortunately, all these talks failed to make any substantial headway. In the meanwhile, our plans for a quid pro quo were in place with multiple options.
OVER OPTIMISTIC CHINA
The haplessness of the Indian establishment was also clearly manifesting with each failed talk. This, in turn, made the Chinese over-optimistic of their strategy. Their grand plan appeared to be to hold fast and not relent to the Indian demand of pre-April positions. The idea seemed to be to exhaust the Indian Army through the winter deployments. The huge economic cost of prolonged military mobilization was likely to prove unsustainable for a de-growing economy in these COVID times. Thus China would win this war without firing a single shot.
On our side, amongst other challenges, there was strong unhappiness in the rank and file of the Indian Army. They were unhappy in the manner they were used at Pangong and Galwan, fighting the PLA with sticks and stones.
This failed strategy had led to the death of 20 soldiers, with an equal or a greater number of casualties on the other side. The scenes of soldiers throwing stones and using clubs to defend themselves had brought a lot of embarrassment to the professional Army. It was now the time to test our tactical acumen and flex our muscles.
In early August, this newly inducted Mountain Division was fully acclimatized. They had started to carry out reconnaissance and validate their offensive plans. These plans were so secret that even the holding formation troops were unaware of what was going on. Options were carefully drawn and diligently vetted.
By 24 August, one plan was finally given the go-ahead. Simultaneously, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat also cautioned the nation to stay prepared for any eventuality, even if that meant war.
At ground zero, the company commanders and platoon commanders of this elite mountain division had by now selected their routes of infiltration, identified tactical heights to be occupied and timed their paces for speedy retaking.
From the word go, the final phase of the retaking was planned to be completed in 120 minutes flat. Artillery was put in place, ready to support the infiltrating troops should the need arose. Armoured elements were well poised, ready to outmanoeuvre and destroy any PLA attempt if they thrust into the Chushul valley. Air defence troops were also deployed with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft Igla missiles, networked and coordinated to shoot down any Chinese aircraft interfering with our advancing troops.
The Chinese on their side had their mechanized Combat Team located in Spangur near Moldo. They had 33-ton T15 light tanks designed to fight a battle in this high-altitude region.
GEARED FOR ACTION
The Indian troops were fully geared for action, all ends tied, contingencies catered for and rehearsed. We were ready to strike. The objective was Spangur Bowl, an area south of Pangong and east of Chushul.
The features dominating the Spangur gap provided great tactical dominance and huge strategic advantages. Black Top, Helmet, Magar and Gurung Hills stretching right up to Rezang La were these features. Under the cover of darkness, Indian infiltrating troops moved up to the LAC, established their release points and waited for the green signal. Some troops mounted on high mobility vehicles and drove straight up to the objective—the 3 km ridgeline on the hill alongside Requin.
At the word go, these troops crossed over into the enemy claimed territory with lightning speed. The mountain division of Tibetan troops of the Special Frontier Force occupied the hill features, beating their own planned timings well under 120 minutes.
Before the break of dawn, one complete infantry brigade with over 2,000 troops was holding the heights overlooking the Spangur Bowl. Armed with French Milan anti-tank missiles and Carl Gustav rocket launchers, the Indians had literally rendered the Chinese armoured tanks at Moldo redundant and outmanoeuvred. On 31 August, the garrison at Moldo was virtually under siege.
Surprised and shocked, the Chinese mustered their club-wielding troops and advanced towards the positions now held by the Indians. More shock was in wait. The Indians troops warned the advancing troops, but the PLA men continued with their advance. The Indians had to fire a few warning shots in the air, and this brought in new realities to the fore. The Chinese, on seeing the aggressive posture, fled, only to return a little later.
This time they came with their armoured personnel carriers, driving on their cemented road from Moldo to Rezang La. But this advance also came to a halt and was followed by a hasty retreat. The Indian troops were at a stone’s throw from the Moldo garrison, dominating each and every move of the PLA. The sight of anti-tank missiles and rocket launchers had deterred the move of the Chinese armoured personnel carrier and halted them in their tracks.
The Chinese had realised by now that they were not only outnumbered but totally out-flanked, making their position untenable. Any armed clash hereafter would prove suicidal. The annihilation of Moldo garrison was assured for the Chinese had clashes erupted. The Indians by now were firmly dug in.
The way of doing business on the borders with China has undergone a paradigm shift. In the past five decades, this was the first-ever offensive operation carried out against the Chinese. The initiative is now with India; the shoe is on the other foot. Having enhanced India’s negotiating power manifold, the unthinkable so far is now a new reality.