“It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves” : Sir Edmund Hillary
The annual Platinum Cavalry Reunion Lunch, which the Cavalry Officers Association arranges jointly with the Directorate General Mechanised Forces is an ideal occasion for the old veterans and families to meet the senior serving officers and families of the Armoured Corps. Mountains always feature in the conversations. And it was no different, this time.
Apart from the quintessential cavalry officer style of being dapperly dressed from hats to shoes, swagger in the walk, one knee bent while standing etc, this get-together has a lot of value for exchange of feedback, both professional and social and most important, an assurance to the old guard that they are remembered and that they still matter a lot. Brig BS Oberoi of The Scinde Horse was the oldest veteran present among one former Army Chief, General VN Sharma and a fair number of former Army and lower formation Commanders as well as almost all serving Generals of the Corps.
Indian Army had created military history and redefined mountain warfare.
Gen VN Sharma, younger brother of India’s first PVC, Maj Somnath Sharma, recalled how the corps has grown from just twelve odd regiments in 1947, after shedding some to newly born Pakistan, to now 63 regiments and also, importantly, expected to grow some more with already an unprecedented deployment in the world’s highest mountain range — the Himalayas. This is a process worth reflecting on.
“Have you gone mad or suffering from battle fatigue?” Or words to that effect were blurted out by the then newly born Pakistan army’s Zoji La Brigade Commander at his Brigade Major, who had just informed him of the presence of Indian Army’s tanks in that area. It was a classic combo of surprise followed by shock action at 14,000 feet above sea level. This was during the first India-Pakistan war in 1947 when the Indian Army transported 7th Cavalry’s Stuart tanks by road after their turrets were removed from their hulls and reassembled at their destination.
No mountain, high enough
Indian Army had created military history and redefined mountain warfare. Because the Western definition of mountains meant those over 8,000 feet — the Alps and hence the western term Alpine warfare — till then the highest altitude that wars were fought by modern mechanised armies in the 20th century, e.g. World Wars I and II.
In 1962 when China attacked India, 20th Lancers’ French AMX Tanks were sent up to dizzying heights, but to no avail not for any fault of the Army. India’s political leadership had miserably mismanaged national security vis a vis understanding, accepting and reacting in time to the Chinese threat, despite being appraised by Indian Army’s senior field commanders in the preceding years.
Thereafter came the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars in which Indian Army’s armoured regiments with tanks as old as World War II vintage destroyed disproportionately large numbers of Pakistan army’s Patton tanks doled out to it by the US. For the next over a decade and a half, there was no move to deploy any tanks in the mountains. During the run-up period prior to Exercise Brass Tacks in 1987, Pakistan army became so jittery and reacted in the western sector, leading to Indian Army mobilising for Operation Trident. However, Pak army remained deployed in forward posture but did not start a war as it had done in 1947, 1965 and 1971 and the mobilisation ended after five months of stalemate.
Mountains and memories
It was after this that a decision was taken to deploy a full squadron of tanks (14) in the Ladakh sector, for which 91 Independent Reconnaissance Squadron of The Scinde Horse was detailed. Lt Col Rajinder Singh of that regiment recounted some bits of that move to this writer, “91 Independent Reconnaissance Squadron was the first tanks squadron to be inducted into high altitude area ( Leh ) from January 21 to February 8, 1988.
After Brass Tacks ‘IV’ as part of 1 Armoured Division, we heard rumours that our squadron was earmarked to be inducted into high altitude area. We all took it as yet another langar gup (soldiers’ mess-hall rumour) as we could not imagine an armoured squadron equipped with medium tanks (new T72 M1’s) on the roof of the world. When the truth dawned on us in the form of executive orders from Army Headquarters — we started giving topmost priority to this move. The effects of high altitude on personnel and equipment were explained to all ranks.
We found out what exactly extreme cold climate clothing comprised of. The effect of extreme cold climate (up to -400 degree celcius) on tanks and ‘B’ vehicles and relevant chapters from the tank manual and EMERs (Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Regulations) were studied in detail. One thing was foremost in our minds — ie, we shouldn’t goof up anything as being part of the mighty ‘Scinde Horse’ we had to live up to our name.”
The effects of high altitude mountains on personnel and equipment were explained to all ranks.
At Agra, the EME team from the Armoured Division was waiting to break up each new tank in two parts ie; the hull and the turret. After witnessing what had happened to the trial tank earlier I did not want to go up with crippled tanks. I spoke to an experienced Warrant Officer (AF) who told me that the all-up weight of a IL-76 is 190 tons, to increase the payload, we can reduce the fuel and refuel at Leh. I spoke with Wing Co Bewoor (Gen Bewoor’s son) who was commanding this AF Squadron.
He was very positive as he would have saved 15 sorties and I could take my new tanks up in one piece. He told me to reduce my tank weight to 40 tonnes. Since the combat weight of a T-72 M1 is 43.300 tonnes so I removed the outer fitments like wooden poles, tarpaulins, camouflage net, outer fuel barrels, deep fording equipment etc. I also reduced the fuel and kept only 400 litres to ensure we do not have an airlock. Our proposal was accepted by AHQ, S and this is how my squadron was the first to take up a full medium tank in one sortie.”
In view of the requirement of light tanks at some locations along the Line of Actual Control with China, plans to procure about 300 of them were projected in 2009. Of these ideally, 200 should be wheeled light tanks and 100 tracked. These will not only be useful in the mountains but also in the desert and riverine terrain. A light tank weighs about 14 tonnes, whereas the T-72/T-90 weighs about 45 tonnes and the Arjun a whopping 58 tonnes.
So light tanks can operate in the terrains mentioned and can also be air transported relatively easier than the heavy ones. As of now, there is a regiment (45 tanks) and a half worth of tanks-all medium weight T series deployed along the Line of Actual Control and may be increased in the future. The government must expedite the Indian Army’s current enhanced requirement of armour.