Gyamsto Topden , Leh/ Rupa Debroy, Delhi
Indian satellite images , Humint reports and Sigint intercepts all point to large-scale Chinese preparations for an assault on Ladakh , senior military and intelligence officials say.
They told Easternlink that the PLA high command has earmarked three full divisions , all Rapid Reaction Units (RRU) equipped with substantial strategic airlift capacity and armoured elements , for the assault on Ladakh and put these units under wargaming and intensive assault training in Helan Shan mountains in Inner Mongolia.
“The plan is to train them far away from the LAC so that Indian intelligence misses out on these preparations and are are then caught by strategic surprise like they have been when the Chinese made large scale intrusions into Ladakh since April, ” said a senior official of the Indian National Security establishment.
Not willing to be named, this official said the current intrusions are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and unless there is a major rapphroachment drive by both Beijing and Delhi at the highest level, ” we can expect big-time fireworks.”
The US is perhaps aware of all this with its high-quality look-in/hear-in capabilities on China and Trump’s offer to mediate is as much election-time gimmick to “appear globally important’ to the American electorate as a natural panic reaction to avert a war between two (three if one counts Pakistan) nuclear-armed neighbours, said American diplomats in South Asia, but unwilling to be identified.
The terrain at the Helan Shan Mountains (also called Alashan Mountains in older sources), are an isolated desert mountain range forming the border of Inner Mongolia‘s Alxa League and Ningxia. “The terrain in these mountains interspersed by rivers , lakes and glaciers resembles Ladakh and the Chinese wargame there is aimed at testing their offensive concept of multiple intrusion and joining up of the attack formations at key lpocations to form a steady defendable line against likely Indian counter-attacks,” the official said.
The Helan Shan mountains run north-south parallel to the north-flowing Yellow River in the Ordos Loop section. The river is mostly east of the mountains, but in the north it crosses without making a significant gorge and flows on the west side.
To the west lies the extremely arid Tengger Desert, while to the east is an irrigated area beside the Yellow River, in which lie the cities of Yinchuan and Shizuishan – a little further east of which lies the Mu Us portion of the Ordos Desert. To the north lies the Inner Mongolian city of Wuhai.
They are about 200 km from north to south, from 15 to 50 km wide and average about 2000 meters in altitude (the Yellow River here is about 1,100 meters above sea level). Their highest peak is 3,556 metres (11,667 ft).
The Chinese military exercises are so detailed that attacking soldiers are taught and asked to repeat some Hindi to defending teams (posing as Indian soldiers) to surrender without fighting because “hum aapko charo taraf se gher chuke hain”( we have encircled you on all sides).
The terrain is now dotted with army units, helipads, power generation units , PLA camps and heavy trucks.
The Indian army’s capacity to fight and defend against insurmountable odds in the best Kshatriya traditions — like Major Shaitan Singh’s men in the 1962 Rezang La battle — worries the Chinese and hence rehearsal of Psyops to overwhelm them by propaganda and fear-peddling .
But little did the Chinese PLA realise that this sporadic bursts of ‘Chingdi”( Chinese Hindi) during the exercises that started mid-April in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in China , has been picked up by a ‘listening post’ in Mongolia , alerting Delhi about the possibility of an Indian specific offensive operation by the PLA.
The Mongolia ‘listening post’ , which has the latest ELINT, SIGINT and CYBERINT capabalities, is jointly run by India’s National Tech Research Organisation (NTRO) and Mongolian Tech Security Organisation.
” That alerted us to an Indian-specific military exercises and led us to marshal all out peep-in and look-in assets inside China . Allies (US !) have also helped,” said the top official in the National Security establishment.
The NTRO-operated ‘listening post’ in Mongolia have a penetrative cybertapping infrastructure on the main internet communication cable in Mongolia which links rest of the world to China.
“That gives India unparalleled access to monitor and intercept outgoing and incoming internet traffic from China ,” the official said.
Satellite pictures now reveal that the Chinese formations which carried out the multiple intrusions are only setting up the stage for a bigger attack .
“The Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong’s statement that the “Dragon and the Elephant can dance together” is merely an effort to induce a false sense of complacency in the Indian military,” said a retired intelligence analyst specialising on China.
He was not willing to be named because he is still involving in a critical analysis job in the National Security Establishment.
He told Easternlink that deception is the key element in all Chinese assault strategy, though it backfired in Vietnam in 1979, only because the battle-hardened Vietnamese were not fooled into complacency.
Before Weidong’s statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the overall situation at the border was stable and under control.
As per unconfirmed reports, the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km.. There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh’s Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok.
Though the Indian media has reported deployment of 8000 to 10000 troops, India’s former Northern Army commander Lt Gen H S Panag says : ” My assessment is that the PLA has deployed maximum one brigade each in Galwan River valley and along the north bank of Pangong Tso. Precautionary deployment would have been done at likely launch pads for offensive and other vulnerable areas along the LAC. Reserves would be on short notice to cater for Indian reaction/escalation. The airfield at Ngari has been upgraded and fighter aircraft have been positioned there. It is likely that additional troops have been deployed at Depsang plains, Hot Springs, Spanggur Gap, and Chumar.”
Panag is right — the real big deployment has not happened but will happen if China and India don’t immediately find an ‘appropriate solution’ to the problem.
The immediate likely military aim of the Chinese ” is to stop the development of our border infrastructure in Ladakh that threatens Aksai Chin and National Highway (NH) 219, particularly in Galwan , Hot Springs and Pangong Tso sectors,” says Panag. “Depending on our reaction, (the Chinese appear) .. to be prepared for a limited border skirmish.” Panag’s analysis is perfect : ” It is pertinent to mention that the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km. Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase exponentially.”
Ladakh is the only area where Pakistani and Chinese forces can join up and make things really difficult for Indian army.
“Sub Sector North (SSN) lies just to the East of Siachen glacier and is our vulnerability due to the tenuous lines of communications, notwithstanding the recommissioned Daulat Beg Oldi airfield. It is also the only area that provides direct access to Aksai Chin from India. China does not want any threatening build-up in SSN. Fifteen years ago, a Chinese military war game was conducted that visualised a division size force along with an Indian mechanised force launching an offensive from SSN into Aksai Chin.”
Panag says India began constructing two roads to SSN in 2007. The first was from Sosoma in Nubra River valley via Saser La pass. Unfortunately, Saser La is snowbound and this will be a summer road without a tunnel. The second, 255-km-long road was built along the Shyok River valley from Darbuk via Murgo and Depsang. While this is a marvel of engineering through the gorges of Shyok River, it runs parallel to the LAC up to Murgo.
“The junction of Shyok and Galwan rivers is only 5 km from the LAC. We commenced construction of a branch road to the LAC and this resulted in the face-off in the Galwan River valley. China does not want us to create defences in the Galwan River valley to protect the road to SSN. The earlier face-off in Depsang plains in 2013 was also linked to this road,” says the former Northern Army commander.
“The other approach to Aksai Chin is from the south via the Chang Chenmo River valley, at the end of which is located our post of Hot Springs, 3 km short of Kongka La. We have developed a road to this area from Lukung via Phobrang – Marsimik La and along the Chang Chenmo River. This is possibly the area of a minor face-off,” he says.
“From this road, another road branches off at Phobrang to the southeast to Ane La pass. This pass is open throughout the year. This area allows us to get behind the Chinese defences on the north bank of Pangong Tso at Sirijap and Khurnak. The north bank of Pangong Tso has a number of spurs, known as fingers, coming down from the north. We physically control the area up to Finger 4 but patrol up to Finger 8 on the LAC near Sirijap. The Chinese have their post at Finger 8 but claim up to Finger 2 from where both these roads can be threatened. During Kargil 1999, the Chinese had built a road up to Finger 5 where the third face-off is taking place.”
“Ngari in the Indus Valley is an important Chinese base with an airfield. NH 219 passes through Ngari. It is only 50 km from Demchok and here we have the terrain advantage. Ngari can also be threatened from Chumar. This is the reason for frequent face-offs in these areas,” says Panag, wrapping up his brilliant military analysis of the Ladakh situation.
But the real cause of the current very hostile Chinese moves in Ladakh stems from their fears that India will try to wrest back Aksai Chin, along with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Following the abrogation of Art 370 and the reorgansition of J&K, Indian foreign minister S Jaishanker assured the Chinese that this was an ‘internal exercise with no external implications.’
But Home Minister Amit Shah’s parliament speech soon after about ‘ we will not sleep soundly until POK and Aksai Chin are ours’ upset the Chinese. Panag has written detailed analysis in The Print ( as the current analysis we have extensivly quoted) that India lacks the military capability to the walk the talk of Shah’s lung-flexing .
But the Chinese , unaware of usual Indian (specially Modi-Shah) election rhetoric because they dont have elections back in their own country, took Shah on his word .
“Since then , they have started preparations to not merely foil any Indian attempt to threaten or take back any part of Aksai Chin but also start a massive forward policy to physically take over a 40-60kms area into the Indian version of LAC that could be used as a staging post for a ‘take-back Aksai Chin offensive’ by Indian army.
” China is extremely suspicious of India. It believes that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas captured/secured by China. India’s alignment with the US, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India (now tabling of US Senate resolution supporting Tibetan independence), and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan through Indian weather reports — through which the prestigious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes — only strengthen China’s suspicion,” says Panag.
” Much as I would like to speculate about China’s broader political aims, the direct political aim is simple — to maintain the “status quo” along the LAC on its own terms, which is to forestall any threat, howsoever remote, to Aksai Chin and NH 219.”