Is A War Brewing On The Roof Of The World?

Historically, the weather has had a surprising influence on the actions of armies, and the victor of battles. Harsh winters can decimate unprepared armies, and storms can start or end wars
01 Aug 2020 09:49
Is A War Brewing On The Roof Of The World?

Though India and China remain engaged in talks over the border standoff, there is speculation in Ladakh that Pakistan and China are preparing for a two-front war against India during the coming winter.

Can ‘General Frost’ play a role?

The first time the name ‘General Frost’ appeared was in 1812 in a British satirical cartoon dedicated to Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. The cheering British wrote: ‘General Frost shaving little Boney.’ The severe frost took a dreadful toll on the ill-prepared Grande Armée on its way out of Russia. Only a few tens of thousands of soldiers out of 600,000 returned home, and winter played a not inconsiderable role in this.

‘General Frost” played a crucial role again during World War-II. Adolf Hitler launched ‘Operation Barbarossa’ and attacked Soviet Russia with three and a half million German troops, 3400 tanks and 2700 aircraft. It was the largest invasion force to date. Adolf Hitler was confident of swift victory, asserting to his generals, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten thing will come down.” At first it seemed that, yet again, Hitler’s prediction would come true. As such, the Nazi soldiers went into battle wearing only summer-weight uniforms. As winter approached, conditions for the lightly clad German troops at the front became appalling. Weapons malfunctioned. Vehicles wouldn’t start. Frostbite cases soared. Troops froze to death. Despite reaching close to Moscow, Germans had to retreat with heavy losses.

An Indian fighter jet soaring high above Ladakh.

An Indian fighter jet soaring high above Ladakh.

Is China waiting for ‘General Frost’ in Ladakh?

Like Russia, the Ladakh region in India has similar weather conditions where the temperature plunges to (minus) -50 degrees; oxygen is rare and mighty rivers freeze during winters.

Men breathe air so spare of oxygen that it sends their hearts into a mad gallop. Fainting spells and pounding headaches are frequent. Frostbite chews its way through digits and limbs. Rifles must be thawed repeatedly over kerosene stoves, and machine guns need to be primed with boiling water. At altitudes of 16,000 feet, mortar shells fly unpredictable and extraordinary distances and swerve erratically.

As per a section of defence experts, PLA is waiting for the onset of winters which they can use to their advantage and can pose challenges before the Indian army can secure advantageous positions on the ridges. China can plan an offensive through the comparatively less challenging Tibet plateau by using its arguably superior technology, light tanks, vehicle-mounted PCL-181 howitzer and mechanised infantry.

PLAAF operates twice the number of aircraft compared to the Indian Air Force (IAF) and can launch major offensives from its air bases in Ngari, Hotan, and Kashgar in Xinxiang and Tibet. Su-30MKK, Su-35 and J-20 are the aircraft which can play a major role in conventional warfare.

PLA is well aware of the fact that, their supply line will remain unentrapped over the rolling plateau region of Tibet, whereas Indians have to depend on stocks of supplies stored during summers. Road links to the war zone with mainland India will remain cut off during the winter because of heavy snowfall over high passes in the Himalayas.

Indian army troops stationed at Ladakh.

Indian army troops stationed at Ladakh.

Challenges for China

PLAAF suffers from a ‘terrain disadvantage’ of high-altitude and rarefied air at its airbases facing India, which severely limits the weapon and fuel carrying capacity of its fighters.

Recent global developments are also posing strategic challenges to China. Russia announced a delay in the supply of missiles for China’s S400 air defence system while the U.S. Japan and Australia are engaging the best of China’s resources in the South China Sea.

The rough terrain of Ladakh where troops are gathering.

The rough terrain of Ladakh where troops are gathering.

Indian army gearing up for long haul

The Indian side has reportedly doubled its call for rations, which include winter clothing, shelter, tents, fuel and other tools required to face the harsh temperatures in the Himalayan region.

With the PLA deploying close to 50,000 troops in Aksai Chin, the Indian Army deployed the same number of troops and inducted T-90 and T-72 tanks. The armoured personnel carriers, M-777 155mm howitzers and 130 mm guns had already been deployed to the faceoff areas.

Western defence analysts feel that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has an advantage in Ladakh because most of the air fields are located in low altitude areas which allow their fighters to take off loaded with optimum fuel and weapons.

The IAF is operating large numbers of fourth generation fighters including Su-30MKi and MiG-29 which has the capability to fly at night in the high-altitude area. Recently inducted Apache attack helicopters are carrying out round-the-clock flying over Eastern Ladakh. The IAF has also pressed into service a fleet of heavy-lift Chinook helicopters, C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft as well as C-130J Super Hercules to transporting heavy military equipment and weaponry to several forward bases in the region.

With the induction of Rafale fighter jets on July 29th with Su-30 MKi, “IAF has both the capacity and capability to bring the fight to Han China, way beyond Tibet and Xinjiang” said a senior IAF officer.

Caution India

The PLA has the option to use its silent cyber capabilities to target India. Its space capabilities too are impressive. While it is unlikely to use its Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (DS-ASAT) kinetic capability involving the use of ballistic rockets, nothing prevents it from using its co-orbital ASAT weapons to target India’s GSAT series satellites. The PLA has specialised units training on DS-ASAT and co-orbital ASAT weapons. The PLA has powerful electronic warfare (EW) jammers capable of blinding satellites.

China does not want war with India in the near future for two strategic reasons. One, its principal adversary — the United States — needs to be tamed first in the western Pacific theatre through ASEAN as the pivot.

The other reason is that it would demolish China’s peaceful rise format through the BRI. This would have an adverse effect on its Asia-Pacific strategy, its ‘Two Centennial Goals’ (2021 and 2049) and the Chinese Dream. China and India will eventually find a face-saving mutual compromise to end the Ladakh standoff, as neither wants a war. However, the unsettled border will continue to destabilise, fester, and brew more clashes down the road into the future.

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