(This was originally posted in India Today by Saikiran Kannan)
The latest satellite imagery has revealed that following the disengagement of the People’s Liberation Army from the Pangong Tso region, some of the troops have been relocated to a military garrison in Rutog County on the eastern end of the lake.
This garrison was being developed since 2019 when the first set of skirmishes started between Indian and Chinese troops. This base is expected to act as a feeder station for future PLA activity in Pangong Tso area.
Rutog County is only around 100 km from Pangong Tso and 110 km from Moldo, an important PLA outpost along the Line of Actual Control where commanders of both sides held disengagement negotiations. This base has seen growing military activities since 2019, via construction of new garrison facilities, radar stations, surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, heliports and tank drills.
The PLA has installed prefabricated huts for troops stationed here and the base is often used for troop rotation. In future, it can support both infantry as well as mechanised units to rush to Pangong Tso area. This base was already well connected to Ngari Prefecture by road, and now, also has air connectivity to Ngari and North Aksai region.
What satellite images show
Popular OSINT analyst @detresfa_ has shared exclusive inputs with India Today apart from a tweet he shared earlier today. His images clearly show the critical sites in Rutog County, namely the military garrison, the containerized storage area, new upcoming tents, the prefabricated cabins, and other developments coming up in the area. The site has seen several developments since 2019 and the below video shows the same via multiple satellite images. The Rutog County also has radar stations and SAM sites close to its location. The below image shows the proximity of this site to Moldo as well as Finger 4 in the Pangong Tso region. The Rutog County has a well-maintained setup of prefabricated huts that have off-grid heated cabins to keep soldiers warm during harsh winters.
What experts say
OSINT expert and military analyst at Force Analysis Sim Tack (@SimTack) has opined that the Rutog facility-related activity demonstrates the limited tactical nature of the withdrawal around Pangong Lake.
He says, “Initially, since May 2020, we saw China build up a significant military presence throughout Aksai Chin and even though over the course of the crisis it has agreed to tactical disengagements along some of the most contested locations, these have only been limited withdrawals where Chinese forces relocate to the next line of military positions.”
He further adds, “At a strategic level, we are still in a very different phase than we were a year ago as China maintains a large forward military presence in the disputed territory and immediate areas around it.”
Retired Major General of the Indian Army Harsha Kakar (@kakar_harsha) said, “The Chinese are seeking to deploy some forces close to LAC to cut down reaction time. These, like in our case, are likely to be employed for first reaction and to counter our movements rather than for offensive ops for which you need larger force levels. It appears that they expect us to act against them sometime soon, which is good.”
On the strategic nature of these developments, Major Manik M Jolly, Sena Medal Veteran Infantry and Military Intelligence, feels that the Rutog garrison’s developments post 2019 indicates that China aims at building solid, defendable and massive forward garrisons.
“This not only gives PLA ability to deploy troops in a very short time, but such garrisons will also serve as base for non-infantry formations, which otherwise had to be pulled from rear bases in times of need,” Major Jolly said.
“In July last year, we had seen the development of Gar base and Ngari airfield (with Xi’an Y20 Chubby Girl heavy lifters deployed) and garrison. These were the forward-most locations in the region, especially in the context of the Ladakh standoff then, where Chinese armoured elements were positioned. The sprawling Rutog base, with accommodations, storage and practice ranges (it seems from satellite imagery) pose a totally new perspective,” he added.
Talking about the offensive and defensive capabilities this base provides, he says, “They can react faster to threats, so we cannot deploy or move with complacency and limited resources. In attack, they can plan a comprehensive fighting team on ground in a very short time.”
On being asked as to what India can do to thwart this development, Major Jolly says, “Without going into the Indian orbit, I’d only say that the best reaction to this would be advanced and capable infrastructure to ensure speed and mobility on our end, plus a plan to overwhelm them with adequate and appropriate forces. To trump their plan and advance, we don’t need to deploy an equal number of rifles against theirs and tanks against tanks. If we know what they have, we counter the rifle with a rocket and tank with drones. The Ladakh region has changed conclusively and we need to play the game as pioneers and not reactionaries.”