Shorn of deception, disinformation and rhetoric, on the intervening night of 29 and 30 August, our armed forces launched a tactical operation with strategic import: to secure the Kailash Range opposite the Chushul Bowl. This was the long-awaited riposte to the People’s Liberation Army’s preemptive operations violating the Line of Actual Control in Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang and north bank of Pangong Tso in May 2020.
Officially, the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Defence, released a signed statement by the Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand at 10:35 am on 31 August: “On the Night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo. Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.”
Be that as it may, with this operation, for the first time in the past four months, the armed forces seized the initiative and put the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the defensive, partially neutralising the strategic advantage secured by it through its preemptive operations. I analyse the strategic and tactical importance of the operation and the likely military reaction of the PLA.
Our armed forces have secured all tactical heights on the Kailash Range from the south bank of Pangong Tso to Tsaka La that include Helmet, Black Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La. All these areas are on the Indian side of the LAC and were sites of intense battles in China-India War of October-November 1962. China also recognises the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in these areas, except in the area of Black Top, which it claims is east of its claim line.
Since China harks back to its 1959 claim line and, at will, moves into un-held areas, the 1993 agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility and the subsequent agreements, have lost their sanctity. Now, the principle of ‘finders are keepers’ currently prevails, though the facade of LAC is still being maintained for keeping diplomatic lines open (see Map 1).
We had not held these areas since 1962 because the LAC passes over the crest and we did not want to create a situation for a confrontation like it happens on the Line of Actual Control. As the crow flies, this frontage is approximately 30 km.
I assess and presume that south east of Rechin La and north of Indus River, we have selectively secured tactical features on the Kailash Range along the LAC/International Border (IB) up to north of Dumchele, a frontage of 45 km. This is a very difficult terrain, but given our mountaineering experience, it is doable. The Kailash Range from Chang La to Jara La, a frontage of 40 km, was captured by the Chinese in 1962 (see Map 2).
In a nutshell, it was a surgical tactical operation and the surprise was total. We have used approximately one brigade — 3,500 troops — with an equal number as immediate reserve for a likely PLA reaction. None of these positions was physically held by the PLA, however, all preparations would have been made for capturing them assuming that they were held by the PLA. Our deception — both at the strategic and tactical level — was perfect to a fault as was the tactical movement of our troops. Once again, it proves the point that electronic surveillance by aerial and ground systems still has its limitations.
The importance of Kailash Range
Kailash Range is named as such because it extends 360 km to the south-east, all the way to Mount Kailash. In the Chushul Sector, it dominates the Chushul Bowl to the west and Spanggur Tso to the east. The road from Rudok, 90 km to the east on the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway (G 219), runs from south of Spanggur Tso to Spanggur Gap. The international border between India and Tibet runs through the middle of Spanggur Tso (see Map 1).
Whosoever controls the heights on the Kailash Range — from Pangong Tso to Rechin La — dominates all routes to the east and west, and forces the other side to hold defences on the next ridgeline 6-8 km away, or occupy positions of disadvantage on lower heights.
Kailash Range in this Sector was held by us in 1962 and was vacated once Rezang La and Gurung Hill were lost, cutting off the road communications to Chushul as existing in 1962. The Chushul airfield was also rendered inoperable. Post-1962, our defences were well to the rear. It was only in 1986 that India went forward and made defences on the Pangong and Ladakh Ranges. Kailash Range was not occupied to avoid a confrontation. However, contingency plans were made to preemptively secure the same when hostilities were imminent.
North of Spanggur Gap, Black Top is the most dominant feature. This feature was not secured by India in 1962 due to an error of judgement and facilitated the PLA to attack the lower heights of Gurung Hill to the south. The Chinese road to the south bank of Pangong Tso that passes 1.5 km to the east of Black Top and 1.5 km to the North of Helmet, will now be rendered inoperable in hostilities. Now that we hold Black Top and Helmet, it willy-nilly implies that the south bank of Pangong Tso cannot be reached by the PLA using this route. The Chinese would have to develop a new route over a difficult terrain, which, too, can be cut off from our defences. We now effectively control 3 km of the south bank hitherto-fore under PLA control.
Black Top, Gurung Hill and Magar Hill effectively dominate the 4 km wide and 6 km long Spanggur Gap. Our deployment on Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La also dominates 10 km of the southern bank of Spanggur Tso.
Kailash Range also provides us with a launchpad for an offensive towards the north and south bank of Spanggur Tso, and further towards Rudok. And if we have selectively secured the Kailash Range south east of Rechin La, over a frontage of 45 km, we can further induct Special Forces into the area between Spanggur Tso and Rudok.
Use of Special Frontier Force
As per media reports, the troops of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) or the Vikas regiment, comprising Tibetans living in exile, have been used for the operation. Much has already been written about the SFF. It should suffice to say that it is a highly-motivated Special Force with a stellar track record for both covert and overt operations. Their performance in the current operation has been outstanding. However, one would like them to be used in a tactical/strategic role, behind the enemy lines and not for conventional operations.
More than their tactical performance, it is a strategic message to China that the Tibetan cause is alive and India supports it. This also indicates a major shift with respect to India’s Tibet policy. The Narendra Modi government has made amends for jettisoning the Tibetan cause during the honeymoon phase of its relations with China.
The likely Chinese reaction
As the stronger power, it would be difficult for China to swallow the bitter pill and opt for a diplomatic solution to agree to status quo ante April 2020. Our gains in the Chushul Sector are tactical in nature. The Chinese preemptive gains in Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang and north of Pangong Tso place it in a position of advantage to make strategic gains in a limited war in terms of territory in Daulat Beg Oldi, Hot Springs- Gogra – Kugrang and north of Pangong Tso. The tenor of Chinese statements is belligerent. We should be prepared for a violent reaction.
In my assessment, to begin with, it would be localised action in the Chushul Sector. However, such an action is likely to spiral into a limited war. Tactically, the PLA cannot afford the loss of Black Top or give us a launchpad for an offensive via Rezang La/Rechin La to reach the IB and out flank the defences of Spanggur Gap.
I foresee a repeat of 1962, with a counter-attack to regain Black Top and then evict us from Helmet and Gurung Hill. Simultaneously, the PLA would attack and capture Rezang La and Rechin La, and then proceed to clear Mukhpari and Magar Hill. Up to end August the PLA had only limited troops in Spanggur Tso area. I assess that the PLA’s reaction will come as soon as its reserves are moved forward because it does not want our defences to become stronger. With 11 days gone, I expect the reaction any time hereafter.
There has been an error of judgement on our part. We should have disregarded the LAC and secured the plateau-like areas to the east of some of the features secured by us to prevent the PLA from coming on to the equivalent or lower heights on the Kailash range east of the LAC to establish a firm base for counter-attacks. The PLA has taken advantage of this error of judgement to secure the equal or lower heights on the Kailash Range facilitating establishment of firm bases for launching counter-attacks. A case in point is what happened at Mukhpari on the intervening night of 7 and 8 September.
Also, our troops must not get involved in a non-military confrontation with the PLA, as it happened on 15 June in Galwan and was attempted at Mukhpari. What happened at Mukhpari and is likely to happen at other features too, is part of PLA’s deception plan to trigger Galwan-type incidents to bring about disengagement and trap us into vacating Kailash Range while hiding its intent to secure the Kailash with or without counter-attacks.
By securing the Kailash Range, we have caught the PLA by the jugular and we must not let go of it. Lay mines and booby traps to keep PLA “street warriors” away. And if need be, use proper military force for effect. Recall 1962 on the Thagla Ridge and in 1967 at Nathu La when the PLA had opened fire for effect in similar situations.
India’s riposte was necessary for national morale and our international prestige. It was a tactical operation that was well executed. However, it would be naive to celebrate a small operation because China will not respond in the manner we did for the past four months. The PLA is likely to react violently and we must gird up for an escalation — it will happen sooner than later.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.