Debunking the hype on Chinese tanks
Tanks are powerful instrument for power projection with defining images of blazing armoured formations in vanguard of major conquests. Chinese use them ruthlessly, who can forget Tiananmein square massacre lead by tanks. In the last six weeks of Dolam stand-offs, Chinese, past masters in psychological warfare, have tried to scare Indian public. There has been extensive coverage of routine mechanized manoeuvres in Tibet to give it a slant as if they are being prepared to roll down Chumbi valley into our Achilles heel, Siliguri corridor. Added to this is fielding of a new light tank, ZTQ, touted as a customized silver bullet for Tibet. While tanks remain a potent threat, it will be in order to examine this hype in an objective manner and draw appropriate lessons.
Tanks indeed are the prima-donna in plains but their effectiveness in mountains is limited to few narrow valleys and corridors. These areas and avenues leading to them can be kept under surveillance as build up of mechanised formations with large signature is difficult to conceal. In fact, the best way to counter tanks in these areas is by establishing an effective anti-tank grid to deny them limited avenues. It is based on layers of early warning and surveillance; mines and ditches; artillery fire both indirect as well as direct; accurate anti-tank missiles anchored by vectored tank manoeuvres and fire assaults. In our context, there are only very few such places and each of these so called gaps or funnels in Northern Sikkim and Ladakh can be converted into traps and killing grounds like Khemkaran thereby providing ‘Asal Uttar’ or real answer to Chinese forays as and when they are attempted. While we have some challenges in Ladakh but our domination over Kerang plateau in Sikkim is real and effective.
Chinese opacity in manoeuvres including exaggerated figures of participation was best experienced by an Indian Army delegation taken to China to see a mechanised exercise, where they were confined to a building, shown excerpts of exercise on projection system, which most certainly were edited. Chinese play mind games with designation of their tanks, so a copy of Russian T-54 is called T-59 and T-90 equivalents are referred to as Type 96 and Type 99. The latest, so called light tank, ZTQ or Xinquistan weighs 33 to 36 tonnes, which is just two tonnes less than medium tank, T-55. Details and features of tank are still shrouded in mystery, yet most informed analysts estimate this tank to have 105mm (probably rifled) gun and 1000 HP engine. It is certainly a non-amphibian with question marks on missile firing capability. Though air transportable yet very limited numbers can be lifted even from air fields in hinter land and none from Tibet due to payload restrictions in rarefied atmosphere. It defies governing criteria for light tanks of weight ceiling of 28 tonnes and amphibian capability. Are Chinese laying down the new norm of 36 tonnes for light tanks?
Organisationally, there are chinks in Chinese armour like 35 tank battalions against 45 tanks in our units and mechanised infantry based on battle taxis unlike our BMPs. While they have 40 odd regiments arrayed yet large proportion is equipped with antique T-59 tanks, their application at chosen point of application is restricted by terrain and is likely to be sequential.
More importantly, we need to learn lessons for ourselves, the most critical is requirement to customize our mechanized fleet for high altitude, where biggest problem is de-rating of engine power. Our formidable T-72s with 780 HP lose as much as 25% power due to rarified atmosphere. There is an inescapable requirement to upgrade power packs to 1000 HP and acquire rubberized pads for tracks to enable them to move on roads. We need to take an urgent call on light tanks and add two regiments each in Ladakh and Sikkim for recce and quick reaction roles. With four additional regiments, we will be able to address force asymmetry and create some quid-pro-quo options. It is believed that Tatas and DRDO have a workable option, which can be examined. It may be prudent to create two separate mechanized HQs for Northern plateau and Siliguri corridor to control mechanized battles. Chinese have practiced heavy dropping of armoured vehicles and combat scenarios like capture of passes, which makes it incumbent on us to beef up defences of our passes and have basic air defence and surveillance in place.