Thursday, May 23, 2013
Air mobility options for the defence of the LAC in Ladakh
I am of the opinion that air mobility is critical to securing DBO.
DBO like Fukche or Nyoma is an advance landing ground. The runway is a dirt track, you can't land anything there besides a propeller plane or helicopter. Even the fixed wing plane needs good ground clearance to avoid FOD issues. So far only the An32 has made a landing there. I don't know if the C-130s that India bought can actually land there. There is no capacity for storing or servicing the craft. There is very little local weather prediction. If an aircraft sets down and something happens, the pilots simply have to wait for help to arrive from THOISE or Leh.
The time to fly from Chandigarh to DBO is about 50 minutes by An-32 - weather permitting. The average An-32 can carry up to 13 tonnes of cargo. Per ACM P. C. Lal's account, at the height of the hostilities in the area, An-32s and Fairchild Packet a/c were extensively used to move supplies to the area. There were as many as 15 flights would land in the area per day. It is unlikely that the IAF will achieve this in the present day unless there is some very serious SEAD activity to secure access. In 1962, the Chinese were able to infiltrate into the Chip-Chap valley and Indian forces had to retreat to DBO. The IAF had airlifted five AMX-13 tanks to the area and these tanks played a crucial role in stemming the tide of Chinese attacks.
A major complication with air-mobility in the region is that there is a weight penalty when taking off at high altitude or when flying over a mountainous feature. This issue somewhat more critical for rotary wing aircraft than it is for fixed wing a/c but it is problem that can't be ignored.
For helicopters going to DBO, the safest route (in terms of likelihood of interdiction by the enemy radar/manpads) is to go up to Sasoma from THOISE/Leh and then go up to Saser La and come back down to Saser Brangsa, cross the Shyok and then go along the Chip-Chap. This is not a safe route from a weather perspective. There is a weather risk and there is a weight penalty (as Rohit pointed out earlier) when crossing the Saser La. Given what the Siachen Tigers have done before this is not very difficult but it is not easy.As Col. Ajai Shukla has described elsewhere an Mi-17 sortie over the Saser La is pretty painful.
For fixed wind a/c, there is no safe route as interdiction by enemy goes, regardless of how one gets to DBO- the a/c has to fly in view of Chinese formations in the Depsang plain and/or any Chinese radar (ex. Su-27k) that may be on at the time when it lands. That flight will be seen and it will be exposed to the risk of an enemy attack. There are some countermeasures one can think of but I suspect the concentration required to land safely at DBO is quite high and the distraction dodging a missile at the same time will so high that the a/c will surely crash. I would hate to be the CO that has to ask his men to fly such a mission.
If one thinks of a "big push", I see an air train comprised of Mi-17s and An32s going to DBO in one or two major flights. I envision a flight of 4 Su-30MKI's flying top cover and AEW/C Embrarer keeping an eye out for trouble - but that is a very costly and serious amount of effort. I don't know if New Delhi is of the mindset to approve such an expense. Plus whatever goes there by way of equipment is not coming back - so like the Bofors that were moved to Dzingrulma or Teram Shehr base - it is a one way trip for the equipment.
Absent the "big push" outlined above I feel the best options for "little push" actions is to use helicopters only. Travelling over the Saser La and down the Upper-Shyok-Chip-Chap alignment they can position supplies at reserve positions in the Chip Chap valley in relative safety as weather permits. May be one can get a few of those new lightweight American howitzers up there without the Chinese getting wind of it.
India's knowledge of helicopter operations in the Siachen uniquely positions India to action on such a strategy. Some way will have to be found to make sure that this new effort does not reduce the effectiveness of resupply operations on the glacier itself.
This should allow India to stage a sizable response force in the Chip Chap valley itself. A small contingent of troops could be positioned astride DBO and the ITBP could occupy defensive positions to the south of the base. These forces would essentially at as tripwire forces and intimate the main response force of Chinese intentions. The response force will have many options in terms of potential actions.
In this fashion a conventional deterrent can be created against push-and-shove tactics or just plain old infiltration by the PLA in the DBO area.
I welcome your thoughts.