The Red March: PLA builds capabilities in Tibet
‘The PLA has a capability to bring thirty divisions (about 3,50,000 troops), in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in one season,’ says the Indian Brigadier General Staff, 33 corps headquarters, Brig. S.S. Kumar. What he does not add is that the PLA has a capability to launch a wide frontal theatre campaign with deep battle considerations — simultaneous engagement of a given attack front in its entire depth, lateral spread and encirclement from all directions. This requires a capability to move fast, obtain reliable intelligence information, operate long-distance telecommunication networks, coordinate artillery and ballistic missile support, and conduct airlift and assault. According to sources, PLA’s four to five improved Group Armies (rough equivalent of India’s corps formation) of suitable composition attacking simultaneously would be very difficult to stop by India’s nine mountain divisions and one infantry division (three Infantry division in Ladakh) unless the latter are fully prepared, and freed from debilitating internal stability operations, and dualtasking roles in Jammu and Kashmir well in time for acclimatization above the 10,000ft contour line. Furthermore, independent brigade sized ‘sectors’ — one in Himachal Pradesh in the Shipki La area and the other in Uttaranchal — plus one independent mountain brigade would require an immediate beefing up of assets.
At the strategic and operational level, the PLA has five advantages over India. One, PLA’s doctrine of ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ has changed to ‘limited nuclear deterrence’ suggesting a nuclear warfighting capability. The limited deterrence would involve capabilities to deter conventional, theatre and strategic conflicts as well as conflict control. China has also amended its no-first-use of nuclear weapons pledge to make it applicable only to member states who have signed the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and nuclear-weapon-free zones. According to PLA campaign guidelines, the function of tactical nuclear missiles parallels that of the air force and the navy, although the use of missiles should be under tighter central control. Of the Chinese nuclear arsenal of about 500 warheads, it has been estimated that nearly 200 numbers are strategic while the rest are tactical. Tactical nuclear weapons are deployed at about twenty places in China including Tibet (Xizang) and have been integrated in support of operations to be conducted by their Group Armies (GA). The types of tactical nuclear warheads include low yield medium artillery fission rounds, enhanced radiation weapons of low yield, and low-yield fission tactical warheads.
After the 1998 nuclear tests, India’s dilemma has been to resolve the dichotomy between a declared nuclear policy of a ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ and a need for tactical nuclear weapons. While the stated policy implies a no-first-use of nuclear weapons and a need to only have an assured retaliatory capability, a holding of tactical nuclear weapons is associated with nuclear warfighting. A non-possession of tactical nuclear weapons has deprived India of an appropriate level of deterrence against China, especially military. This remains a serious operational shortcoming. The then Indian army chief, Gen. S. Padmanabhan had during the course of an interview in November 2000 hinted on the need for tactical nuclear weapons.
Two, the PLA believes that the value of Conventional Missile Force (CMF) has increased because they are more usable than nuclear ones. Besides, the CMF is in tune with high-tech warfare where an important requirement is massive firepower. Such thinking has obliged the PLA to seek greater terminal accuracy for missiles, and to integrate them into theatre united campaign programmes. Traditionally, the SMF (Strategic Missile Force, under the PLA’s Second Artillery formation) in line with the nature and needs of a nuclear warfare had confined its training to itself. United campaigns — which involves joint training of the army, air force and the navy — with the SMF had never figured high on PLA war preparation programmes. This is no longer the case.
The CMF are being integrated with the Military Area Commands (MAC), a rough equivalent of a command in the case of the Indian Army. Presently, officers of the CMF participate in joint exercises and like the other specialized services join the headquarters of the united campaign in each MAC. It is natural that in due course dedicated units of the CMF as distinct from the SMF would be under the command and control of the united commander in war zones. The CMF would be employed in conjunction with the air force to allow the latter to retain sorties for achieving air superiority. The CMF would also be used against targets which are heavily-protected like communication centres and weapons delivery sites. According to sources, the CMF would be employed in the initial stages of a conflict from widely dispersed sites. It is axiomatic that alongside greater terminal accuracy, the CMF would be seeking medium to short range ‘smart’ missiles. The CMF would eventually have distinct new missile units separate from the SMF.
Presently, the SMF has a number of medium and short range missiles in its inventory which are dual-capable, meaning that they could be used with both nuclear and conventional warheads. These include the M-9 and M-11 missiles, known by the Chinese name of Dongfeng-15 and Dongfeng- 11, which are mobile, use solid propellant with ranges of 600km and 300km respectively. Reports suggest that the guidance systems of these missiles have been improved by using radar-based terminal guidance system similar to the US Pershing II missile called the Radar Assisted Digital Area Guidance.
In a significant development to improve the CMF, the PLA has converted intermediate range ballistic missiles like the DF-21 and DF-25 initially intended for nuclear use into conventional ones. The DF-25 can throw a 2,000kg warhead up to 1,700km. With the command and control of CMF resting with the unified war zone commander instead of the distant CMC leadership which controls the SMF, large numbers of conventional missiles would be needed to make a credible conventional fire-plan. Such numbers could run into hundreds of missiles.
In comparison, India’s conventional missile programme against China has yet not commenced. It has not been appreciated that the indigenous conventionally armed Prithvi ballistic missile with ranges of 150km and 250km could be used effectively on counter air and battlefield interdiction roles against China. As a thumb rule, a Prithvi sub-group (four launchers and support vehicles) can be deployed in mountains where a Bofors gun battery (six guns and support systems) can be brought into action. Tawang can deploy and hide up to a Prithvi sub-group, and a whole missile group (eight launchers and support vehicles) could be deployed in Sikkim and Ladakh each. Fired from Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, the Prithvi 250km version could bring Lhasa, where major air bases exist, under effective fire. Similarly, Shigatse and Gyantse could be covered from Sikkim and the Rudok-Demchok area from the Indus valley.
A myth created by Pakistan and accepted by Indians has been that India’s Prithvi missile is meant for Pakistan. No weapon system is country-specific; its effective utilization depends on its employment. After the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, the little chances that existed of using conventionally-armed Prithvi against Pakistan have further diminished. Given the short travel time to politically sensitive targets in both countries and the high probability of misreading the warhead in the stress and din of battle, India and Pakistan are not expected to even use conventionally armed ballistic missiles in war. Prithvi with conventional warheads in sufficiently large numbers would best be employed against China to match the growing CMF of the PLA. ‘The problem is that the government would never agree to bring Prithvi missiles in Sikkim or elsewhere against China for fear of incurring Beijing’s displeasure,’ says a senior officer.
Three, ‘The PLA has a capability to air transport a division (12,000) worth of troops, to air drop a brigade (3,500) at a time, and to move a battalion (1,200) by helicopters,’ says Brig. Kumar. Based in Henan province in central China, the 15th airborne corps is under the operational control of the PLA Air Force and would be used for independent strategic missions. Being a strategic force, it will be employed for limited power projection and deep strike manoeuvrability. 15th corps missions would include occupying strategic points in the enemy’s rear, destroying enemy’s key communication hubs, and prevent his supporting forces from reaching the front. Presently with a capability to reach a division worth of troops anywhere on China’s peripheries within ten hours of mobilization, the airborne corps aims at dropping up to 50,000 personnel at any given time, a minimum number needed to achieve strategic missions. Moreover, 15th corps troops would be supplemented by Special Operations battalions established in 1994. These units are under the control of MAC and are trained to fight behind enemy lines, engaging in sabotage, reconnaissance and other unconventional operations. They receive extensive parachute training.
Four, the PLA land forces are divided into seven Military Area Command (MAC, a rough equivalent of India’s command formation) and three active garrison commands. Each MAC is sub-divided into a number of military districts whose strategic direction is clearly given out, except in the case of Xizang (Tibet) military district which directly concerns the Indian forces. It appears that Xizang military district is the responsibility of both the Chengdu and Lanzhou MACs. This could mean one of the two things. Because two MACs are involved, the overall co-ordination for this region which faces India, a medium level military power, could be the responsibility of Beijing. Or, the Xizang military district could have a commander-in-chief headquarters at Lhasa, who would have under his command troops and aircraft from both MACs and the authority to draw operational level logistics sustenance from both. The second option is more probable. Therefore, what India faces are two MAC along with the prospect of the 15th airborne corps being made available for the offensive campaign. The MAC’s have about three GAs each — the minimum level where joint services operations are undertaken — capable of independent frontal strike, deep penetration and fast encirclement from all directions. In the improved GAs which operate in Tibet, all combat, combat support and combat service support or organic logistics are under a single commander. Moreover, all air regiments of PLAAF located in a given MAC are undercommand of the overall commander of the military region. The concept of having an improved GA implies that air elements which are operationally tasked will be under the command of the GA commanding general. The advantages which accrue from joint command hardly require an explanation. Command of Air and Land forces in India have different operational boundaries. Furthermore, at least, one GA in each MAC has an aviation regiment. India does not have anything remotely resembling this.
According to Maj. Gen. Avadhesh Prakash, General Officer Commanding, 17 Mountain Division in Gangtok, ‘India has an air force advantage as, unlike in the case of China, our airfields are in plains,’‘Three airfields in Tibet at Hoping, Pangta and Kong Ka DZ have been commissioned, two at Lhasa and Nage Huka can be activated with little effort, and four more at Ali, Naqu, Lokha and Shigatse upgraded soon,’ says Brig. Kumar. All these airfields would enable China to speedily induct its Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) into Tibet. However, presently the PLA Air Force may be unable to sustain more than one-and-half air division (four regiments) in Xizang military division. The inclement take-off conditions would restrict weapon loads. The PLAAF will also have to cater for an offensive counter air capability of the Indian Air Force considering the latter has acquired appropriate weapons. From the Indian viewpoint, the air force planners would have two worries. The PLAAF’s medium range aviation operating out of Yunnan province and interdicting the Brahmaputra valley, or an interdiction of the Indus valley by aviation based in Xinjiang; and long range raid Special Forces dropped directly in the Brahmaputra valley.To pre-empt such situations, the Indian Army and the Air Force would need to allot a high priority for an integrated air defence as has been done in the west against Pakistan.
And lastly, regarding infrastructure, there are three highways that link with Lhasa: the 1,154km central highway connects Gormo with Lhasa by a Class 50 road which has a capacity to transport 3,320ton load each day. This highway remains closed for an average 40 days a year on account of bad weather. A railway line between Gormo and Lhasa is expected to be completed by 2007; it has 34 planned stations and will transport 600 ton load each day. A 1,080km oil pipeline between Gormo and Lhasa has a designed capacity to deliver 5,00,000ton oil annually. The eastern highway from the Chengdu Military Region to Lhasa is a 3,105km long Class 18 road, which remains closed for an average ninety days each year, and has a capacity to transport 800ton-load each day. The 3,105km western highway is a Class 18 to Class 50 road and runs northwards along the Indian border about 150km in depth towards Leh. This highway is closed for about 60 days annually, has many well-built feeder roads towards India’s side, and can transport up to 800 ton load daily. Moreover, the Chumbi Valley has an intensive network of roads and tracks which terminate in passes.
Considering that local resources for food, petroleum, oils and lubricants are sparse in the TAR, and the main logistics feeder centres are far away in Chengdu or Lanzhou military regions, the PLA has found an interesting solution. They have emplaced five to six logistics brigades in Xyang (Tibet) military district. These formations will hold fast expending commodities including fuel and ammunition stocked and dumped over time. Each logistics brigade is expected to support an infantry-heavy improved GA such that the tempo, defined as military activity relative to the enemy, is maintained. This brilliant logistics plan will also help in overcoming the organizational weakness of PLA’s infantry divisions whose manpower is combat heavy with a little logistics component. PLA’s infantry divisions in TAR differ from the Indian mountain divisions as the latter’s divisional and brigade maintenance areas are organized to hold an impressive amount of stocks.
Considering the twin benefit of having improved GAs and logistics brigades, the PLA enjoys operational advantage over the Indian mountain divisions in TAR. The advantage stands enhanced for two reasons. Nature favours PLA troops in TAR. Unlike Indian troops which need to gradually acclimatize above the height of 10,000ft to fight the PLA in the mountains, the Chinese already on the Tibetan plateau do not face such a problem. Importantly, the PLA has developed extensive infrastructure to support large number of troops in Tibet. Meanwhile, the PLA is concentrating on acquiring force multipliers: electronic support measures, defensive and offensive electronic warfare equipment, battlefield command and control systems, increased surveillance capability on the battlefield, and precision-guided munitions. Next on its priority are innovative fire application means with electronic control and observation systems. India lags behind in all these aspects because mountain formations have a second priority to equipment for the western sector against Pakistan.
However, the biggest strength of the Chinese defence forces vis-à-vis India is that the PLA is an important element in China’s power structure. Security policies in China are framed by the PLA in close coordination with the Central Military Commission and not necessarily by the political leadership. ‘If the PLA decides to build new roads in TAR, they can do so in a record time unlike India where things get stuck in bureaucracy,’ says a brigadier. In a limited way, more by default, the weather and terrain at the LAC works as an equalizer to India’s advantage. The extreme cold, broken terrain and fast changing weather on the LAC plays havoc with electronic equipment. Tactical net radio in the HF/VHF/SHF ranges work erratically, seizure of equipment and weapons due to cold arrest is common, siting of equipment is a problem in terrain where visibility is poor and unpredictable.
It is thus evident that the PLA recognizes the importance of limited wars in time and space. Under the doctrine of ‘Forward Defence,’ the PLA, therefore, has been modernising to fight a series of high tempo, intense engagements on disputed territory away from own borders. The offensive tactical concepts would seek to engage a determined enemy like India who has deployed defences in depth on several ‘fronts’ or ‘points’ using the principle of simultaneity. The PLA is expected to employ the following methods:
- The long range raid: This is somewhat similar to the Indian Army’s concept of reconnaissance in strength up to enemy’s operational depth. It is a punitive theatre level action using Special Forces and heliborne troops designed to mess up an enemy’s rear rather than capture and hold ground.
- Advance on several fronts: This form is an old favourite and is more deliberate in nature. The concept seeks to ensure that the enemy is unable to concentrate, and that own commander would have a wider choice in exploiting success on any chosen thrust line(s).
- Breakthrough by means of missiles and airstrikes: This means that conventionally armed ballistic missiles and air power applied in a concentrated manner would reduce the crust of enemy’s forward defences to shambles before the main effort is applied on the ground.
Even as the PLA prepares itself for an all-out offensive campaign, it has paid adequate attention to its Border Management posture which is the immediate concern of the Indian Army facing TAR. ‘Opposite Sikkim, China has three companies (350 troops) of its Border Defence Regiment about 12 to 15km away from the border. However, it has housing facilities for seven battalions of BDR troops in the same area. In addition, there are scattered six divisions of regular PLA troops in depth in TAR, out of which a RRF of two divisions troops can be mustered in little time,’ says a brigadier. Out of six divisions of BDR in Tibet, six brigades and eight independent BDR battalions are deployed along the Sino-India border. Unlike Indian paramilitary forces, the BDR have better equipment and training and are under the operational command of the PLA. The PLA also has a total of seven to eight infantry divisions behind the BDR troops which are dual-tasked. These can quickly come up as RRF on the first line of defence and also deal with internal stability (splittists) operations in Tibet. In addition, after the Tiananmen Square incidence in 1989, China has also created Rapid Reaction Forces (RRFs) of the Peoples Armed Police (PAP) to deal effectively with ‘splitting’ activities. These are lightly armed para-military forces with limited border guarding roles and also function under the operational command of the PLA. A few of PAP troops are deployed with the BDR opposite Sikkim.
Considering that TAR is open, flat and barren, and favours mechanized operations, the PLA has an independent light mechanized division with a high mobility on the eastern half of the Tibetan plateau. This division is supported by integrated communications, electronic warfare and technical reconnaissance elements and is structured for offensive operations. In addition, at least one airborne division on a light scale manned by the PLA Air Force to act either as the first reinforcements or for internal stability can be brought into Tibet in thirty-six hours.
Moreover, TAR gets the benefit of resources from two MACs, Chengdu and Lanzhou. Each of these maintains one lightly armed, division size Rapid-Reaction-Unit for local deployment. For example, the 149th Division of the 13th Army Group, belonging to Chengdu MAC specializes in mountain warfare and one of its important missions is to safeguard the Sino-Indian border. The 62nd Division of the 21st Army Group assigned to Lanzhou MAC trains regularly for high-altitude warfare. These Rapid-Reaction-Units have been used to provide muscle to the ‘border guards’ which undertake aggressive patrolling on the LAC. These also hold positions until reinforcements arrive.
Probably, the Indian artillery has an edge over the PLA, as the latter suffers from across-the-board restricted high angle capability considering that up to 90 per cent of artillery targeting is with high angle fire. The infantry firepower with direct fire application compares favourably with both sides. The rough mountainous terrain will force both sides to use old anti-tank recoilless guns, rocket propelled grenades and automatic grenade launchers in direct fire application during advance as the artillery mass would lag behind or get diluted because of inadequate deployment space. Indian commanders would be forced to either allot troops to guard rear logistics maintenance area or emplace corps reserves nearby. Indian para-commando reserves along with Special Frontier Force are ideal to counter the PLA’s ‘long range raids’ provided they get released on time. However, considering the awesome PLA military muscle in TAR, Indian planners need to pay more attention to its disputed border with China. About three months ago, Lt Gen. Arvind Sharma, General Officer Commanding, 14 corps in Ladakh which is responsible for the western sector against China had told FORCE that, ‘While relations with China are improving, in the long term, we cannot be complacent. Unless the border issue (with China) is resolved, we have to be prepared. Currently, the priority is Pakistan, but the focus will have to be balanced between Pakistan and China.’
This article originally appeared in Force magazine