ROAD TO LADAKH

Seize fleeting opportunities’ is a popular dictum in battle. I believe that not only should one seize fleeting opportunities, one must also endeavour to create them, not only in battle but also in life. Carpe diem – seize the day – was my antidote to inaction.

In 1988, I seized an opportunity to pioneer the induction and employment of a Combat Group inLadakh.In March 1988, it was decided to induct a Combat Group of one mechanised infantry battalion and two independent armoured squadrons. The search began to identify a mechanised battalion that had finished its peace tenure. The first unit selected was in a hard peace station where limited family accommodation was available. The Commanding Officer protested that his troops had been away from their families and it was unfair to move them to field again. The protest was upheld. I was due to take over the command of 1 Mech Inf (1 Madras) in June 1988. I sensed a fleeting opportunity for my unit and myself to pioneer the employment of Mechanised Forces in HAA. The unit had already done six months in Hisar, which was a modified field station as limited family accommodation was available. I went on a day’s leave to Hisar and requested the Commanding Officer to ascertain the views of the troops for a possible move to Ladakh for two years. The proposal found ready acceptance from the troops as all sensed that history was in the making.

In the Army Headquarters there were misgivings about the efficacy of the employment of a mechanised force of this size in Ladakh. A conference, chaired by the COAS and attended by concerned Director Generals and representatives of the IAF, was held in South Block. As GSO 1(Equipment) Mechanised Infantry, I was in attendance as a backbencher. There was an animated, no-holds-barred discussion. Suddenly, General Sundarji spotted me on the back bench and growled, “Yes, Colonel, what says you, can this be done? Come up front and give your views.” With the background study that I had done, I seized the moment to methodically cover all issues from induction by air, technical problems, tactical concepts and above all, gave the likely offensive employment. I took 10 minutes as opposed to the minute or two a speaker gets in such conferences. This was much to the chagrin of the top brass present.

I concluded by saying, “Not only it can be done, but it must be done.” The Chief, who was also the Colonel of the Mechanised Regiment, with a glint in his eyes said, “Aren’t you due to take over a unit?” Without waiting for my reply, he added, “Go to Ladakh and make history!” 1 MECH INF was to take over the 20 BMPs (Infantry Combat Vehicle) of the ad hoc mechanised force already in Ladakh. We had to induct 32 BMP and three Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARV). The two armoured squadrons had to induct 14 tanks and one ARV each. We required 49 sorties of IL 76 transport aircraft (one sortie could carry two BMPs or one tank/ARV). While the IAF had practiced carriage of tanks in plains, but landing at Leh Airfield – located at 10,300 feet and surrounded by high hills – presents technical difficulties. The IAF rose to the occasion and the entire equipment was safely landed at Leh by the end of Jun 1988. I went to Ambala to oversee the airlift and also flew to Leh a number of times.

I took over the unit in the first week of July and we were to induct by road from Jammu, in end July 1988. This was a formidable challenge as our drivers had never driven in the mountains. We had a 120-vehicle convoy and on the first day, our inexperienced drivers created chaos on the highway. The problem was solved by slowing down the speed to 30 kilometre and I myself drove at the head of the convoy. The 800 km journey to Ladakh is notorious for accidents. All units inducting into Ladakh generally meet with one or two unfortunate mishaps. Our precautions ensured that we arrived in Leh, after five days’ journey, without any mishap.

The unit less one company temporarily settled down at Karu, 40 kilometres from Leh. One company was to be located 120 kilometres to the East at Tangtse for deployment in Chushul Sector, which was another 100 kilometre to the East. The move of this company by road over the 17,500 feet Chang La Pass was a great confidence builder. The BMP is a unique combat vehicle and could maintain the same average speed as heavy wheeled vehicles. Within a week, we selected the new administrative base for mechanised forces at Stakna, close to Karu. Within two months, the accommodation for the troops and sheds for the equipment were constructed: 50 troops barracks and 15 sheds for tanks and BMPs, along with offices and messes were built in record time (two months). Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was on a visit to Ladakh at the time and on my request, he inaugurated our Officers Mess and had lunch with us.

WHILE THE IAF HAD PRACTICED CARRIAGE OF TANKS IN PLAINS, BUT LANDING AT LEH AIRFIELD – LOCATED AT 10,300 FEET AND SURROUNDED BY HIGH HILLS – PRESENTS TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES. THE IAF ROSE TO THE OCCASION AND THE ENTIRE EQUIPMENT WAS SAFELY LANDED AT LEH BY THE END OF JUN 1988. I WENT TO AMBALA TO OVERSEE THE AIRLIFT AND ALSO FLEW TO LEH A NUMBER OF TIMES.

As preparation, we went over all terrain and operational reports from the last 40 years, since 1947 and also studied the history of the region. I paid special attention to the campaigns of the great General Zorawar Singh, from 1834-41, when he had captured a vast tract of Tibet, right up to Mansarovar Lake. In fact, he was cremated at Taklakot, near the lake in 1941. The War of 1962 was also analysed in detail, particularly the employment of the six tanks that had been flown into Chushul in November 1962. We also had the benefit of the experience of the ad hoc mechanised force, which was in Ladakh since the end of 1986. The challenges were multifarious by way of evolution of the offensive and defensive operational role, technical maintenance of the equipment, validating operational role and performance of tanks and BMPs.

Generally practice which was followed in HAA was of starting the engines every night for 1.5 to 2 hours, to prevent the oil and lubes and the coolant from congealing/freezing and keeping the batteries charged. I refused to accept the logic advanced and did a detailed study. I found that pre-heaters were not being used. In fact, drivers were not aware that they existed. Thus, the oil pressure never reached the requisite levels and was not adequately thinned to pass through narrow tubes leading to various components. Also, the basic starting method in tanks and BMPs is the ‘air start’ or ‘air cum battery start’ – the air stored in a cylinder fires the engine and in the latter case, there’s also an electric spark. In emergencies, when the air cylinder is empty, a battery start with fully charged batteries is undertaken. We found that the air bottles were leaking due to worn-out stoppers. The batteries at minus 20 degrees Celsius are reduced to 10-20 per cent capability. Air bottles are filled by the compressors when the tanks/BMPs engines are running. Hence, with empty air bottles and weak batteries, the tanks and BMPs would not start. Thus the night static running was being undertaken to charge the batteries and fill up the air bottles! In a nutshell, for the want of air cylinder stoppers and charged batteries, the engines and other parts costing lakhs of rupees were being run down. We resolved the issued by simply repairing/replacing the air cylinder stoppers to keep the air bottle full and removing the batteries which were kept in heated rooms on trickle charge, using generators. Also, the use of pre-heaters for 1.5 to 2 hours before a attempting a start was enforced. We faced no problem thereafter. All our equipment remained battle-worthy. So strict I was on this issue that in winters, before a start was attempted, the driver had to personally confirm to me that the SOP had been followed!

BMP with crew in High Altitude Area

The offensive and defensive roles were validated in a series of war games. Tanks and BMPs were moved to the various areas to validate their performance. We also took part in the exercises of the infantry formations.

In end-1988, we conducted our field firing and the performance of the tanks and BMPs was validated with live fire and manoeuvre exercises on the ranges. All guns and machine guns were re-calibrated / zeroed for HAA area as they tend to fire higher.First generation Malutka ATGM posed a peculiar problem due to the altitude. Since it is manually guided, it tended to take off high into the sky. A drill was evolved to take a ‘down’ correction with the joy stick to correct the same.

The crowning achievement was the test exercise attended by the GOC in C Northern Command, who was testing us for employment in High Altitude Areas. We came out of the test exercise with flying colours. GOC in C Northern Command said, “The Combat Group has made history. The foundation for the employment of larger mechanised formations, which will give us the desired offensive capability, has been laid!”

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