Bunkers drilled into barren hills, battle tanks at over 14,000 feet, and additional troops on newly built roads. India’s quiet efforts at beefing up military capabilities to match China’s wide-ranging transformation across the border are finally becoming a reality.
This reporter was part of a small group of journalists given exclusive access to the eastern Ladakh bordering China.
A much-criticised policy after the humiliation of 1962 war had resulted in India deliberately neglecting infrastructure even as the Communist neighbour transformed the mountainous and disputed border into a showcase of its economic might with all weather roads running up to frontline military posts.
“We have to defend our borders. So whatever it takes us in terms of infrastructure development, in terms of force accretion, we have to do in the best manner,” Lt. Gen. S.K. Patyal, General Officer Commanding the Leh-based 14 Corps, which is responsible for the entire western sector with China and some parts of the Line of Control with Pakistan, said at Tangtse.
He also expressed complete satisfaction at the focus on development of border roads by the Army, the Ministry of Defence and the Indian government.
Longer stints for troops The process of force enhancement was put in place over the last five years.
In a major operational change, since 2012, the Army began deploying units on longer tenures along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.
The Army has also moved in tanks and mechanised units, as well as artillery to some areas of Ladakh. Several fortified bunkers on mountains are visible along the way in key areas. In fact the increased patrols both on land and in water on the Pangong Tso lake have resulted in increased stand offs with the Chinese army, which are resolved through banner drills and the agreed mechanisms, officials said.
India and China have historically differed on the boundary between the two countries, and in 1962 fought a short and brutal war. However both sides agreed to resolve the border dispute through talks and in 2005 signed an Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Boundary Question and have had several rounds Special Representative level talks.
Road, air links upgraded
Augmenting rapid airlift capabilities, India operationalised the Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) located at over 16,000 feet. Work is now on to improve road connectivity to this critical area. Work on the 255 km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road is progressing at a quick pace. The alignment of the DSDBO road was decided by the China Study Group (CSG) with the cabinet secretary and other senior bureaucrats and representatives from the army and intelligence as members. DBO is about 16 km south of the Karakoram Pass.
A critical bridge on the road, 150 kilometers from Darbuk, was completed last month and black topping of the road is in progress. While about 90 kms has been black topped, work up to 120km is expected to be completed by year end.
“In the past few years we have made rapid progress and by 2022 I am confident the road would be completed in all respects,” said Col B.S. Uppal, commanding officer of 16 Garhwal Rifles. He added that even now DBO can be reached with the newly constructed bridge. However, as of now, the road is closed for three to four months of the year.
Heavy vehicle ready
In addition several other roads along the route are being upgraded and strengthened which will facilitate the movement of heavy vehicles. China has already built massive infrastructure along the border and has repeatedly conducted exercises to rapidly transport troops to the border in case of a crisis. In Eastern Ladakh, China has three air fields at Kashgar, Shiquan and Hotan and several mechanised and armoured columns deployed along the frontier.
Officials said with increased numbers, India is only correcting the balance. “There is not much accretion by China, but their logistical capability has gone up,” one officer observed. To counter Chinese air power, India has been activating a series of advanced landing grounds along the frontier and fighter aircraft have been practising maneuvers in Leh.
Corrections & Clarifications:
In a previous version of this report, there was a reference to a group journalists getting exclusive access to the eastern frontier with China. It should have been eastern Ladakh bordering China . Elsewhere in the same report, there was a reference to the Leh-based 14 Corps - responsible for the entire eastern sector with China and some parts of the Line of Control with Pakistan. It should have been the western sector.