Part 1 : Preamble
When I attended the Staff College at Wellington, our Chief Instructor taught us that 60% of any military plan is dependent on the ‘Ground’ factor and 30% on the ‘Enemy’ – capabilities, organisation and characteristics. The balance 10% is our ‘Own’ capabilities. Hence a discussion of firepower in the Himalayas – our karma-bhoomi is important. Any Sino-Indian or Indo Pak military conflict (even if it is collusive) will most probably take place in the Himalayas. The Himalayas as we are aware, offer the highest terrain friction for Armed Forces in the world. They place important demands and impose peculiar restrictions on firepower during operations. Understanding the effect of Himalayas will therefore be critical to develop and employ firepower successfully.
The Himalayas consist of a series of mountain ranges from North to South. The Western Himalayas are broad with a depth between 400 -500 km. They compose of The Karakorum, Kailash, Ladakh, Zanskar, Great Himalayan, Pirpanjal and Shivalik ranges. These ranges are relatively stable. The central Himalayas have a depth of about 250 Km. They compose of the Shivalik, Dhaula Dhar, Great Himalayan and Kailash Ranges. The Eastern Himalayas are largely composed of the great Himalayan Range with local sub Himalayan ranges. The depth reduces to 150-20 0 km in the East. The Eastern Himalayas are relatively less stable with limited trafficability due to soft subsoil. The cross sectional views the Eastern and Western Himalayas gives an idea of the relative heights, steepness and density of rugged features on the Indian Side vis a vis the Chinese side. The Chinese are based almost entirely on the relatively flat Tibetan plateau which is stable and has better trafficability. The Himalayas are two toned in nature. There is a sharp difference between their North-South configuration and their East-West characteristics. Hence there is no one stop fix to the problems it poses to military planners.
Everyone talks of campaign seasons. The best campaign season in the West (Eastern Ladakh) is in summers (May-Sep). At that time monsoons are most active in the East and extended/large scale operations are almost impossible. The best campaign time in the East is Sep to Dec. By then passes in Eastern Ladakh start closing. Hence the concept of a great offensive by the Chinese across the entire LAC is imaginary and non-existent. In any case operations in Eastern Ladakh have proven that the Chinese will struggle in high altitudes and will hereafter be shy to attempt anything grandiose.
Analysts glibly comment on the Chinese comprehensive national power, capabilities, infrastructure upgrade in Tibet, their induction and the horizontal move capabilities. Excellent in theory. Walk around for about 24 hours at 12000-14000 feet above MSL after full acclimatization. Reality will dawn. It took me four tenures and endless visits to high altitude to get over the mental and physical disorientation that Himalayas cause. The High Altitude effect on commanders, troops, animals, weapons, ammunition, fuel, IC engines, generators, communications and other war resources is debilitating due to cold and lack of oxygen. People glibly talk of Rapid Reaction Forces swooping in and capturing territory like Montgomery did in El Alamein. That is plain dreaming. Let us now focus on the core issue of effect on firepower.
Firepower behaves most abnormally in the steep, rugged and craggy terrain on the Indian side and is relatively better behaved on the flat Tibetan side. The resultant is that , contrary to many fancy ideas, prosecuting deep operations from North to South with whimsical firepower is not a great prospect. The opposite flow has better prospects. Give it a thought, when you traverse the Himalayas from North to South you start operations in a concentrated manner in Tibet and end up dissipated. If PLA plans any major offensive, they will have to contend with lesser firepower as they progress southwards. When you start from the south, you start dissipated and end up concentrated.
The Himalayas are full of treacherous winding roads with poor soil stability. Move, deployment and redeployment of firepower is difficult. Firepower assets have to be light, high angle capable, with tight turning radii. Some degree of self-propulsion, APU assisted or otherwise, will be invaluable. Ability to deploy and fire, off the available roads and tracks, will be required due to paucity of deployment spaces. Heavy and volumetric guns like the Mounted Gun Systems can be deployed on the Tibetan Plateau. Their move will be difficult south of the Himalayan crestline. The ideal equipment for the Himalayas are light assets , which can be towed by light vehicles and/ or airlifted. At times there will be a necessity to manhandle guns into their firing positions. The pace and tempo of operations will be dictated by the pace at which Artillery can be concentrated or dispersed through marginal roads and tracks. The crunch in any operation will be ammunition management. The ability to sustain operations by preplacing ammunition through stocking or by having a smooth logistics chain will be mandatory.
Artillery gains ranges of up to 25-30% in the Himalayas due to rarefied atmospheres . The range increment depends upon the height of the firing platform. Whilst the longer reach is a boon it is also a bane. Increased range also means increased dispersion. Increased dispersion implies more rounds to be effective on the target. Hence ammunition expenditure increases. Further if fire is to be accurate , one needs accurate meteorological data over the extended ranges. In the fickle weather conditions of High Altitudes, accurate meteorology is a requirement which one must cater for. The alternate is observed fire. Hence planning has to be done accordingly.
Observation, correction and control of fire is a major but key issue in the Himalayas. Observation is hampered by intermediate features / poor weather /rain / clouds / mist / rounds falling in valleys / dead ground / being buried in snow. When firing in depth, the target might not be visible at all. Hence adequate thought must be given to accurate target acquisition. Artillery OPs are inconvenient appendages in peace time but will be the most valuable assets in operations. They will be at a premium when the balloon goes up. They need to be empowered/reinforced further by MFCs, SF teams, transborder patrols, resistance forces, aviation and UAVs. Commando OPs will pay handsome dividends when inducted and kept at vantage points in the depth. Anchor OPs with good knowledge of ground will be invaluable. A detailed and meticulous 24×7 observation plan which is fully gridded is vital to force multiply firepower in the Himalayas. If this is not done , firepower will be ineffective. Plain and simple.
Mountains are great for direct firing. It is effective and potent- physically and psychologically. Modern gun systems with sophisticated sights can acquire and engage targets at long ranges by direct fire. Kargil war proved the utility of direct firing. There must be a direct firing plan. That plan will involve – where the guns are to be deployed , arrangements for their deployment, security and surprise. Light weight guns will be invaluable for direct firing. In the same breath, it must be stated that calibres in excess of 120 mm only will be effective against hardened defences which we will encounter.
If communication is the lifeblood of operations, Artillery communications are its red corpuscles in the Himalayas. Communications have to be engineered for effectiveness and survival. Survival will be from enemy action as well as weather/terrain conditions. Relays will be invaluable. Duplication of communications is a pre-requisite. Getting everyone on one fire control communication grid will be challenged by the terrain . The point to remember is that the grid is common not the mode of communication. The seeker/sensor to shooter links are invariably the most tenuous and tend to fail when required most. Their dedication, configuration, integration and practice/rehearsals during peace time is important in the Himalayas. The base line is that if you do not get communications right you will not have firepower.
The Tibetan plateau is flat and open. There is no place to hide firepower assets. Heavy firepower assets and ammunition will stand out like sore thumbs. Track/road based firepower can be appreciated in time and space. Redeployments are also trackable. Enemy build up and intent can be discerned easily in the Himalayas, if our antenna are alert. The Himalayas demand development of Artillery Intelligence. However this is again an old phrase which stands forgotten. In the old days, one spoke of Counter Bombardment and Artillery Intelligence. These days one talks of Surveillance and Target Acquisition. The Himalayas are old fashioned to a large extent and will force such old thoughts on us repetitively. On our side, the terrain is rugged with numerous folds and vegetation. We must use this to camouflage our firepower and enhance its survivability.
There is also a sore need to extend our map grid across the Himalayas three dimensionally. This grid must be seamless between the Air Force and Artillery. One can not have the same target having different coordinates simply because they are being engaged by different systems or different forces. This is an important aspect of jointness which needs focus. In fact an Australian researcher went on to suggest that our targeting is hampered by our lack of accurate map grids.
Employment of rockets and missiles needs careful consideration. One needs to be innovative when employing them in mountains. Rockets firing is a dead give-away from 30-40 km away. A systematic appreciation of hides, routes and firing positions will enable their accurate location and decimation. It needs joint planning between Artillery and IAF. Further, Long range missiles and rockets are likely to be inconsistent and inaccurate since their control systems might be erratic or inadequate under Himalayan conditions. If targets are located on steep gradients, hill tops, and narrow valleys; guided missiles could miss their targets altogether. This has to be factored in. It is one thing to have a long range vector in the Himalayas and another thing to employ it effectively.
We need to understand the air situation in greater detail since air delivered firepower is important in all phases of operations. All PLAAF airfields in Tibet are in rarefied high altitudes which reduce lift capability. Their aircraft can take-off with either lesser fuel or lesser ammunition or both. On the other hand most of our air bases are in plains. Also, we have more bases in number to cater for redundancy. This gives us tremendous advantage. However there is more to it. The campaign season in Himalayas is normally in summer when clear air turbulence occurs on runways. At high altitudes, the sun warms the runway and the air immediately above it. Expanding hot air rises to cause an updraft turbulence and very low air density. This is known as clear-air turbulence and it’s tricky. Aircraft finds it difficult to land or take-off once this sets in. Density is fundamental to generate ‘lift’ which is mandatory for flight and most important during take-off and landing. This phenomenon happens beyond 9-10 am in summers and lasts till surface temperatures dip. Even modern aircraft struggle to take off even with zero loads and minimum fuel once the runway heats up. Operating fighter aircraft in such conditions is highly restrictive by time and capability. Overall PLAAF operations will be more severely hampered than imagined.
There is another unique phenomenon In the Himalayas. A winter subtropical jet stream blows from West to East as shown in the illustrations above. It overlaps the campaign area and season. Jet streams are cold tubes of air blowing at speeds varying from 30m/s to over 100m/s, with strong vertical wind shears, strong horizontal temperature gradients and areas of clear air turbulence. They are at heights of 9-10 km and the tube diameter could be up to 50km. These dimensions and exact locations are highly variable and unpredictable. Local turbulences add to this phenomenon. Jet streams are used by long haul jets to aid flight. However short haul, high manoeuvre operational flying is another kettle of fish in a jet stream. Light weight UAVS will be extremely difficult to handle. They could be blown away. Missile control systems might not respond in such conditions. Missiles will become inconsistent and inaccurate. This unpredictable phenomenon has to be contended with during fire planning.
The Himalayas are unique and pose significant challenges to any military operation. It is very doubtful that technology can overcome the Himalayan terrain in our context. Take the well-known cases of Napoleon and Hitler. They put together the greatest militaries of their time technologically and organizationally. They appointed outstanding military men as their generals. They inflicted embarrassing losses on the Russians. Yet they were unable to overcome the Russian winter and were defeated by it, more than anything else. The Chinese face the same predicament in Tibet. Irrespective of technological advances, wars must be fought on ground. The fundamentality of mother earth cannot be wished away. We can ignore history and conventional wisdom only at our peril.
All in all, it is one thing to have a vast array of firepower assets at our disposal. It is another matter to make it effective in the Himalayas. In this Part, I have highlighted some aspects. I am sure there will be more facets which I have missed out or glossed over. A feedback is welcome to effect corrections in forthcoming parts.
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