As the winter night wraps itself around the remote mountains along the disputed border with China, personnel of the Indian Army start their T-72 tanks. The winter drill is not an inimical action against China, but a necessity to keep the Russian tanks running at those heights.
As India catches up with China’s aggressive military and infrastructure build-up across the border, among the most unusual steps initiated by New Delhi is to deploy the T-72 tanks on the barren heights of Ladakh.
After the Army’s desperate and futile bid to use tanks at those heights during the 1962 war with China, this is the first time that they are being deployed again at these freezing altitudes. Then six AMX-13 tanks were airlifted to Ladakh in AN-12 transport aircraft. But they failed to make any significant impact as the crew were not acclimatised to the environment and the tanks were not equipped to operate in the rarefied atmosphere.
Though tanks are primarily meant for operations in the plains, the Indian military has adopted several unusual tactics to beef up its presence. This has resulted in non-standard procedures to keep the tanks operational, among them the repeated switching on during the nights in winter to prevent freezing.
Specific fuel “What we have done is that we have procured special additives and lubricants for high altitude terrain such as winter grade diesel and additives for the lubrication system, which prevents it from freezing in the tank,” says Colonel Vijay Dalal, Commanding Officer of a tank regiment.
As part of recent force accretion measures, two regiments of T-72 tanks have been deployed — the first in 2014 and another late last year. A third regiment will be moved in soon, forming a full brigade.
The Ladakh region is lined with plains in between the mountain ranges and the mechanised units add a major punch to the increased boots on the ground. India has already deployed tanks in Sikkim.
China too has major mechanised units on its side of the frontier and the brigade is expected to ensure offensive parity.
Operating and maintaining tanks at such low oxygen conditions has significant challenges. There is severe degradation in the performance of these tanks as the cold temperatures and high altitude affect several parts and sub-components of the tanks.
While the tanks and crew have acclimatised, they have not been able to test their fire power here due to lack of firing ranges.
“Some training is done here but we cannot do the entire range of exercises due to limitations in ranges,” said an officer.
One of the key obstacles is the denotification of the Mahe field firing range near Nyoma in December 2013 due to its proximity to the Changthang wildlife sanctuary.
The Army now sends its crew to the training centre at Ahmednagar, which is in the plains and has much different conditions.
Sources in the Army said they were now in the process of setting up a simulator for use by both the armoured regiments. As part of efforts to deepen military-to-military cooperation, India has proposed to host the second round of tactical level Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercises along the India-China border.