- India and China have both invested in their armored forces since the 1962 war on their disputed border in the Himalayas.
- The armor that both sides fielded during another recent period of heightened tension on that border show that a future war could be more destructive.
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Two months ago, the Indian and Chinese militaries pulled back their forces stationed around Pangong Lake, on their disputed border in the western Himalaya mountains.
The pullback, described as a “disengagement” by India’s Defense Ministry, was meant to be a first step to ease tensions on the disputed border — swaths of which have been heavily militarized since 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers died in a medieval-style brawl in the nearby Galwan River Valley almost a year ago.
The most interesting images, though, were the ones that showed the large number of tanks and armored vehicles. Indian media reported that China alone withdrew 200 tanks from the area.
The sheer sizes of the armored forces indicates that both sides were quite serious about their military buildups, and that the next violent incident on the border could escalate into something far more deadly.
Armor in the Himalayas
In general, large-scale armor deployments in mountainous and high-altitude regions are rare, especially in the Himalayas.
The low air pressure, freezing conditions, and rough terrain make operating and maintaining such vehicles difficult and often lead to losses from wear and tear or mechanical failure.
Tanks and armored vehicles have to be restarted for up to 30 minutes every two or three hours to prevent them from freezing, according to one retired Indian general.
That operational challenge is believed to have been a significant factor in both countries’ decisions to pull back their armor from Pangong Tso.
“These operational issues simply cannot be ignored either by Beijing or Delhi for a variety of operational reasons that are common to both forces,” a high-ranking Indian Army officer told The Wire.
That is also the reason armor — and aircraft, for that matter — played a very limited role in the month-long war India and China fought in the region in 1962. During that war, India airlifted six AMX-13 light tanks to an area just south of Pangong Tso, but the feat was extremely difficult, and there were no large-scale tank battles.
The 1962 war itself was an embarrassment for India, which had over 8,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing and lost the territory Aksai Chin to China. China lost 722 soldiers killed and 1,697 wounded.
Modern tank forces
Both India and China set about building up their militaries after the 1962 war.
Today, India’s tank force is made up primarily of three models. Two of them, the T-72 “Ajeya” and T-90 “Bhishma” main battle tanks (MBTs), are built in India using Russian designs. The third, the Arjun, is of Indian design.
The Russian tanks, designed to operate in the cold, make up most of India’s fleet of about 4,000 tanks. The Arjun has had a troubled rollout, and only 124 are in service.
China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, maintains a large number of legacy models from the Cold War, like the Type 59, Type 69, and Type 80/88 tanks, but China’s tank force is centered on three modern models: the Type 96 and Type 99 MBTs, and the new Type 15.
While the Type 96 and Type 99 are MBTs, the Type 15 is one of the few light tanks developed this century.
The Type 96 and Type 99 weigh about 42 tons and 54 tons, respectively, and are armed with 125 mm guns, whereas the Type 15 weighs just 35 tons and has a 105 mm gun.
By comparison, India’s T-72, T-90, and Arjun tanks weigh about 41 tons, 46 tons, and 68 tons, respectively. The T-72 and T-90 are armed with 125 mm guns and the Arjun with a 120 mm.
Despite being smaller and under-gunned, the Type 15 is far more capable in the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas than its Indian counterparts.
At the ‘roof of the world’
Indian T-72 and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) can be seen on the Indian side of the border, as can a number of small fighting positions and foxholes.
The Chinese armored force that can be seen is more diverse. A few of the tanks appear to be legacy models, likely Type 80/88s. There also appear to be several modern models, most likely Type 96s or Type 99As.
Another image shows at least 12 Chinese ZBD-04 IFVs and three other armored vehicles, possibly tracked variants of the HQ-17 short-range surface-to-air-missile system, Type 09 self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery units, or a combination of both.
—Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) February 16, 2021
It’s unclear if the tanks and IFVs were always deployed so close to one another or if they were only brought forward for verification during the disengagement.
What is clear is that both sides are far more mechanized, capable, and lethal than they were in 1962.
The pullback from Pangong Tso has not been followed by additional pullbacks in other contested areas, as was originally hoped. Recent reporting suggests some Indian officials may regret pulling back from a strategically important area with little to show for it.
Despite the difficult conditions in a region known as the “roof of the world,” flare ups along the border are still a real possibility.
With so much heavy hardware present, future fighting in the area could be much deadlier than before.
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