(This was originally posted in The Print by Snehesh Alex Philip)
It is not just in eastern Ladakh (LAC) that China has become aggressive since May last year, but also the Eastern Sector where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to test India’s ability to defend the Line of Actual Control (LAC) “almost every fortnight”, ThePrint has learnt. However, due to India’s increased focus on technology-backed surveillance techniques, the Army has been able to pre-empt the Chinese patrolling into Indian territories by countering them earlier than before, sources in the defence and security establishment said.
Sources also said India is keeping track of Chinese build-up in depth areas, away from the LAC, and fine-tuning its operational plans accordingly. But the Indian defence establishment is concerned over China speeding up its infrastructure development activities close to the LAC across the Eastern Sector besides beefing up its positions with more soldiers and equipment. This has meant that there is a greater concentration of troops not just in depth areas but at the LAC itself, an issue that was flagged by the Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen. Manoj Pande too.
Eastern Sector heavily defended
Sources say that unlike eastern Ladakh, which is often referred to as the “Wild West” in the military circles because of its vast empty swathes of land and the near impossibility to deploy soldiers on every piece of land, the Eastern Sector is more heavily defended since the troops are sitting right at the LAC at many locations. The nearly 1,500-km-long LAC in the northern sector is looked after by one division of the Leh-based 14 Corps which takes care of border areas with both Pakistan and Tibet. The 1,346-km LAC in Eastern Sector, meanwhile, is looked after by 3 Corps of the Army. Besides the 3 Corps, the Eastern Command now has the 17 Mountain Strike Corps also exclusively looking after the eastern Sector for offensive operations.
In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, there are two Corps which are looking after the LAC — the Tezpur-based 4 Corps and the Dimapur-based 3 Corps. Sources said that while 4 Corps, which looks after the western part of Arunachal Pradesh, is at an advantageous position since they are already sitting right at the LAC in most locations, the situation is different when it comes to the 3 Corps, which looks after the eastern Arunachal Pradesh.
“If we take Arunachal Pradesh, the state is defended by two Corps of the Army. The western Arunachal Pradesh is looked after by the 4 Corps and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh by the 3 Corps. The area of the 3 Corps is wider and many of their locations are several kilometres away from the LAC since infrastructure is still being made,” a source said. It is not as if the areas under the 4 Corps is calm. Sources said there are about 15-16 places under the 4 Corps, also known as the Gajraj Corps, where the Chinese attempt to transgress. The 4 Corps is in charge of the areas between Bumla to Yangste and some of these points see transgression attempts by the Chinese every fortnight, one of the sources cited above said.
Sharp rise in Chinese activity after Galwan clash
Sources also said there was a rise in patrolling activities by the PLA after the Galwan Valley clash last year. “There was a sharp increase in Chinese patrolling activities in the Eastern Sector in 2020 after the Galwan clash. The patrolling had become more frequent and the patrolling team was larger. There was also visits by senior People’s Liberation Army officers to Eastern Sector including by the Western Theatre Commander,” a second source said.
A third source, meanwhile, said the increase in patrolling activities by the PLA has more or less stabilised and is “almost back to pre-Galwan” days. The increase in frequency pertains to both normal patrols and those done for area domination. The normal patrols are carried out by the PLA within their claim lines to ensure that Indian troops have not build any infrastructure or occupied any positions. Similarly, the Indians too undertake such patrols. Area domination patrols entail larger number of PLA troops backed by armoured personnel carriers. Such an increase in PLA activities was observed across sectors, sources said.
Tech helps to counter Chinese transgression attempts
As reported by ThePrint, the Eastern Command is focusing on technology for surveillance rather than more boots on the ground at not just the LAC but also in depth areas. The immediate advantage that India has got because of the greater deployment of technology and their integration with the chain of command is that Indian soldiers are now aware of the movement of the PLA troops.
“The technology has enabled us to get a full holistic picture and now our troops on the ground is aware of the movement of the PLA the moment they start climbing. This gives our soldiers the time to quickly carry out a deployment and give a face-off to the PLA at positions much ahead of what used to happen earlier,” a fourth source said. Another source said that a few times in the past the Chinese have been surprised by the speed at which the Indian soldiers were able to give them a face off. “They even asked a few times how we were able to spot them so soon. They asked where the cameras were,” the source said.
Rather than calling it face-off points, the Army prefers to call it the “meeting point” where both sides carry out banner drills once they come face to face. While the usual strength of the Chinese patrol units is about 12-20, the number has, at times, gone up to over 60. There have also been occasions where there has been some “pushing and shoving” but “nothing dramatic has happened”, the fifth source said.
India has beefed up surveillance
India too has beefed up its presence at the LAC with some formations being deployed ahead of where they were traditionally based. The Eastern Command has also upgraded its firepower with the induction of the Bofors guns last year and the M777 light weight howitzers this year. Along with this, the Eastern Command has also deployed the upgraded L-70 air defence systems this year besides others already in use in the region.
Specialised missiles have also been deployed besides Smerch and Pinaka rocket systems besides setting up of forward helicopter bases. The Eastern Command has also set up integrated surveillance facilities which rely on almost 24×7 drone and satellite feeds to keep track of the Chinese build up.