Indian and Chinese forces in Eastern Ladakh

Face Off !

According to various sources, both open and assessed from analyses done by international military observers, the Indian and Chinese Armies facing each other in Eastern Ladakh have been identified:

People Liberation Army (PLA’s) Western Theatre Command (WTC)


This largest of China’s Theatre Commands,the WTC is responsible for the entire Tibet and Xinjiang regions which have varied and challenging geographical terrain including vast deserts and high mountains. The WTC’s responsibility includes internal security in the restive regions of western China and the southern borders with India. In 2017, the WTC was commanded by General Zhao Zongqi a veteran of the war against Vietnam, commander of the 14th Group Army, having earlier commanded the 52nd Mountain Brigade in Tibet.

Headquartered at Chengdu, the WTC also includes a Joint Operational Command with headquarters at Lanzhou, with the Strategic Logistics Support Force having subordinate centres in each theatre including one at Xining. The WTC can deploy subordinate PLA and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units, and request additional forces from the CMC if required. Each theatre will require time to fully transition from the Army dominated MR headquarters to establish joint commands, gain familiarity between the services, as well as train personnel in their new joint positions.

Units identified in the WTC include

1st Technical Reconnaissance Bureau at Chengdu, Sichuan

15th Engineer Brigade at Dazi, Lhasa.

52nd Mountain Infantry Brigade at Nyingchi, Tibet

53rd Mountain Infantry Brigade at Nyingchi, Tibet

54th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, at Lhasa, Tibet

308th Independent Artillery Brigade at Linzhi

6th Mechanised Infantry Division, at Hotan, Xinjiang

8th Motorised Infantry Division, at Wusu, Xinjiang

11th Motorised Infantry Division at Urumqi, Xinjiang

‘Red Army’ Division, Kuqa County at Xinjiang

An Artillery Brigade at Urumqi, Xinjiang

An Army Aviation Brigade at Korla, Xinjiang

651st Independent AAA Brigade at Bayi Nyingchi

Supplementing these formations are Border Defence Regiments including the 1st and 2nd at Shannan City on the India-China LAC and China-Bhutan Border, 3rd at Shigatse, 4th at Chayu, Linzhi, 5th on the China-Nepal border, 6th at Shigatse (and Nathu La), 1st and 2nd Independent Battalions at Shigatse, 3rd at Beibeng, 4th at Nanyi, 5th at Shannan and the 6th along the China-India LAC.

Indian Army’s Northern Command

The Northern Command, raised in June 1972 with its headquarters at Udhampur, is arguably the most operationally active of all the Indian Army’s operational commands, with three Corps, the XIV, XV and XVI.

The Srinagar-headquartered XV Corps is the oldest and has been involved in continuous action since 1948 both on the line of actual control (LOC) along Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) from the foothills of Jammu to the north western periphery and has three Infantry Divisions plus Independent Brigades in its order of battle.

XVI Corps, with headquarters at Nagrota, is perhaps the largest Army Corps in the world, with five Infantry Divisions, guarding the LoC in Kashmir as also the sensitive borders on the south west Jammuborder with north western Punjab.

XIV Corps ‘Fire & Fury’ was raised after the 1999 war in Kargil and is headquartered at Leh with responsibility for the frontiers not only with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir but the Ladakh sector where borders with China are live. XIV Corps has 3rd Infantry Division for the defence of north east Ladakh, 8th Mountain Division for guarding the Kargil sector while the independent 102nd Mountain Brigade is responsible for the ultra -high altitude Siachen glacier area.

Uniquely XIV Corps has an Independent Armoured Brigade (254) headquartered at Leh as also an Independent Infantry Brigade as reserve. During May-June 2020, in a massive reinforcement move, two Mountain Divisions, one from Northern Command reserve and the other as Army Headquarters reserve, were steadfastly moved to Eastern Ladakh, reinforcing XIV Corps with major accrement of artillery, air defence and armoured assets. Amongst these are advanced surface-to-airmissiles and T-90 main battle tanks.

“Potential PLA Operations in the Indian Strategic Direction”

The primary border areas under dispute are the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin in the west and Arunachal Pradesh in the east which is a state of India. Even through China and India have conducted combined “Hand-in-Hand” (携手) counter-terrorism exercises on a small scale and have established high-level dialogue on border issues to alleviate tensions, there remains tension between the two countries over Chinese activity in the border regions as well as the Indian Ocean. The WTC would have to coordinate operations with the responsible command for naval operations against India. The WTC focuses on relevant campaign scenarios to train troops for potential combat operations. PLA publications detail several campaigns that the WTC could conduct including Antiterrorism Stability Maintenance

operations to combat internal unrest; Joint Border Counter-attack Campaigns to defend against an attack and regain lost territory; Mountain Offensive Campaigns and Joint Fire Strike Campaigns usually supporting another campaign, but also an independent campaign.

China is rapidly improving infrastructure in the Sino-Indian border region as part of development plans for Tibet as well as to prepare for possible defensive or offensive operations. China has constructed roads to and along disputed areas, along with additional airbases, landing strips and logistics sites to support military deployments and operations.

India has continuously improved transportation infrastructure in its controlled areas, and plans additional infrastructure construction to support its military and paramilitary forces along the border. India has also deployed additional forces to the border regions since 2012.

The Sino-Indian disputed borders are actually isolated high-altitude regions with difficult terrain and weather conditions presenting problems for troops, weapons and equipment. Ground combat could occur mainly along roads which normally follow valleys or ridges, limiting support and cooperation between forces operating on different axes. The lack of crossterrain mobility limits the ability of ground forces to conduct penetrating or outflanking operations against enemy forces. PLA publications stress airmobile landings in the enemy rear area to overcome the restricted terrain and enemy defensive positions. Special operations forces available to the WTC would represent highly qualified units to operate in the enemy rear area to disrupt operations and attack vulnerable lines of communications. The high-altitude reduces aircraft performance and lift capabilities, and increases maintenance requirements on equipment in general, although the thin air increases the range of projectiles and shrapnel. Weather conditions would mostly limit air operations to June through September. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought in October and November without air support. Cold high-plateau regions place increased requirements on engineering and support operations, and the thin air is difficult for the troops even after acclimation. This situation reduces unit combat capabilities and increases noncombat losses. 

Training new recruits could affect an operation depending on the timing. New recruits would likely achieve a minimal operational capability to conduct small unit combat by late spring, which should be adequate for the restricted terrain which will limit maneuver and dictate primarily small unit operations. Depending on the timing of the crisis, the PLA could decide to delay mobilisation of soldiers in the WTC to retain full combat capability of units. Interestingly, the Aksai Chin border terrain mock-up at the Qingtongxia CATTB depicts mostly Chinese occupied territory with only a small portion of Indian controlled terrain. This appears to indicate a focus on a Joint Border Counterattack Campaign in response to an Indian military incursion. However, the exact purpose of the large terrain model is unclear. The border counterattack campaign was originally considered an Army offensive campaign, although some PLA books now refer to it as a joint campaign. This campaign includes initial border defense actions with a transition to the offense to regain lost territory and restore the situation.

The two mountain brigades and independent mechanised brigade are the closest ground forces to Arunachal Pradesh, although the 13th Group Army trains in mountain warfare and could deploy as needed. While no PLA forces are permanently garrisoned in the Aksai Chin area, it is likely that the mechanized infantry division in Hotan would deploy to this area. Air and missile strikes would support the ground operations to annihilate and expel invading enemy forces depending on the weather, or as in the Sino-Indian Border War operations could consist of mostly ground operations.

The PLA would conduct a Mountain Offensive Campaign or possibly a Joint Fire Strike Campaign if Beijing issued orders for offensive operations. A Joint Fire Strike campaign would support the border counterattack or mountain offensive, but could also represent an independent campaign. The terrain, weather, and difficult engineering and comprehensive support conditions restraining the deployment and sustainment of forces could make a joint fire strike appear more advantageous to a mountain offensive, which would require a substantial advantage in the correlation of forces for the attacker operating under terrain and weather restrictions. As an independent campaign, a joint fire strike could represent punitive strikes against key Indian targets. A joint fire strike campaign is a long-range precision strike by long-range rocket, missile and air forces with the objective to destroy important enemy targets, paralyse the enemy’s operational system of systems (integrated force grouping), weaken the will to resist and destroy war potential, or create conditions for other operations. The Chinese leadership could well conclude that conducting precision strikes against key Indian targets was preferable to conducting difficult offensive ground operations where the defender has an advantage.

(From ‘China Brief Volume 17 Issue:1 Courtesy: Kevin McCauley)

Tag:- Eastern Ladakh, Indian Army, PLA, People's Liberation Army,