New Delhi: In ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’, Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about the theft of the eponymous race horse, everyone assumed a stranger stole the horse. But Sherlock Holmes pinned its disappearance on the horse’s late trainer because a dog at the stable did not bark on the night of the crime. The dog’s silence was an important clue which solved the mystery of who took the horse.
It was in a similar vein that defence minister Rajnath Singh’s speech in parliament on the situation on the border with China in Ladakh was silent about the strategically vital area of the Depsang plains in Sub-Sector North (SSN). The omission of this place name from Singh’s speech provides an important clue as to what the most vital area for India is on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Of the more than 1,000 square kilometres in Ladakh along the LAC now under Chinese control after tensions erupted in May, the scale of Chinese control in Depsang alone is about 900 square kilometres. That would make it the largest chunk of Indian territory denied to Indian soldiers in a single swoop after the 1962 Sino-India war, a fact which surely warranted inclusion in an official speech to parliament by the raksha mantri.
Depsang is the area for which specific major general-level talks were held between the two sides on August 8. It can thus be no one’s case that there is no problem at Depsang – the Chinese have stopped Indian patrols from accessing five patrolling points in the area since May. As the map above indicates, Indian soldiers have effectively been blocked from going up to the traditional ‘limit of patrol’ line near the Line of Actual Control because of the presence of Chinese troops at a key point in Depsang 18 kilometres inside the LAC known as Bottleneck/Y-Junction.
Like the northern bank of Pangong Tso, this area was a point of contention between the two sides where local arrangements allowed both sides to patrol the area but those mechanisms have broken down since May.
While Indian military patrols being denied access to such territory is significant, more worrisome is the fact that the army has always identified this area – including Trig Heights and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) – where it finds itself most vulnerable in Ladakh. For decades, the army’s annual war-games in Udhampur have flagged it as the most important area of concern, devising plans to tackle the major Chinese challenge that would put India at a huge strategic disadvantage.
It is the geography of the area which makes it so vital strategically. Broadly called the Sub-Sector North (SSN), this is an enclave of flat terrain that provides land access to Central Asia through the Karakoram Pass. The Line of Control (LoC) that was marked and signed on maps between India and Pakistan in 1972 ended at a point called NJ9842.
India contends that the line runs further northwards, placing the Siachen glacier firmly in Indian territory. That line beyond NJ9842 is called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). But the Pakistani side claims that the line runs towards north east, connecting NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass. That would place the Siachen glacier inside Pakistani control, and physically link Pakistan and China.
The strategically important area of SSN lies to the east of Siachen, located between the Saltoro ridge on the Pakistani border and the Saser ridge close to the Chinese border. It is the only place where a physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China – and the challenge of a two-front war can become real in the worst-case scenario. In such a scenario, it will be nearly impossible for India to launch a military operation to wrest back Gilgit-Baltistan from Pakistan.
The flat terrain of Depsang, Trig Heights and DBO, which provides direct access to Aksai Chin, is suited for mechanised warfare but is located at the end of a very long and tenuous communication axis for India. China, in turn, has multiple roads that provide easy access to the area. This leaves SSN highly vulnerable to an ingress by the PLA. It is also seen as a viable launchpad for a mechanised force-based military offensive launched by India inside Aksai Chin, if the army has to fulfil Union home minister Amit Shah’s desire of getting back Aksai Chin from China.
In 2007, India decided to construct two roads to access SSN. The first was on the alignment of the old track from Darbuk to Shyok and then onwards to DBO. There were problems with the initial alignment, which led to a delay in its completion. The 255-km long all-weather road was formally inaugurated by the defence minister last October. Military planners say that the 430-meter long bridge across the Shyok River, which the minister opened, is also the weakest link on the strategic road.
The second road constructed by BRO is from Sasoma in Nubra River valley via the Saser La. This is a jeepable track which has been improved this summer but it provides limited connectivity, that too only during the summer months.
The only other access to SSN is an aerial one via the DBO airstrip, located eight kilometres south of the Karakoram Pass. The old Advanced Landing Ground lying in disuse was made operational in 2008. In peacetime, it can be used to sustain the troops deployed in the area but the army remains doubtful about the Indian Air Force risking its top-end strategic lift aircraft to Chinese action in the event of any conflict.
Indian military planners do not foresee a scenario in which PLA can physically link up with the Pakistan army, as that would mean capturing a formidable obstacle – the Siachen glacier. But the PLA could try and cut off the Indian road to Siachen, providing Pakistan’s army with an opportunity to launch an offensive to capture positions on the Saltoro ridge and the Siachen glacier. Towards this aim, after succeeding in an initial mechanised battle, the PLA could seize Saser La, and then reach Sasoma which lies short of the Siachen base camp. This would deny India the road that feeds its deployment of the central and northern glacier, even though the southern glacier would still be maintained through existing routes.
Aware of the larger strategic challenge, there are three concerns for the army. One, the limited connectivity to the area which can be cut off by targeting the bridge on the DSDBO road which makes sending of reinforcements and provisioning of logistics difficult. It is not confident that the DBO airstrip can be kept operational by the IAF once war breaks out. Two, the lack of good defensive features in SSN, where Indian troops can deploy and force the PLA into a prolonged battle by imposing delay and heavy losses. And finally, the wear and tear imposed on the mechanised military platforms while operating at a high altitude of 17,000 feet in an environment with low oxygen content.
Over the years, the army has taken steps to overcome some of the drawbacks. It had made heavy deployment of mechanised forces, along with the infantry troops, ab initio in the area. A number of shelters and maintenance yards were constructed to protect the mechanised military platforms in the area, to prolong their service life.
Three former Northern Army Commanders that The Wire spoke to said that the battle plans have been refined in the wargames and the army is better prepared for a PLA ingress in the area than it had been earlier. But all of them flagged it as an area of strategic vulnerability and biggest worry for India in the region, far more than Pangong Tso or the Galwan Valley. That is why it is all the more surprising that the defence minister chose to omit Depsang from his statement to parliament on Tuesday.
Sushant Singh is an award-winning journalist who has served in the Indian Army. He has taught political science at Yale University.