Role of Infantry - Chinese Aggression in Ladakh

Not many would be aware of the risks and tribulations, the soldiers face in difficult areas of Ladakh including in the Siachen Glacier area and the Saltoro range aside from the biting cold and inhospitable terrain. Still, Indian Infantry men gave a lesson to PLA soldiers they had not bargained for in a bloody hand-to-hand combat and again by occupying the ridgeline south of Pangong Lake beating the PLA patrols in reaching these heights.

Issue 5 - 2020 By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By ADGPI, SpokespersonMoD / Twitter
Infantry operates in a wide range of inaccessible terrain which includes mountainous terrain and snow-clad high altitude areas

History is proof that the evolution of military forces began with the infantry. There being no firearms in ancient times, infantry was armed with weapons like what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers recently used to attack Indian troops on the night of June 15-16 in Galwan area and later attempted intrusions south of Pangong Tso and Chushul heights – clubs, iron rods, swords, machetes, spears and the like. The English began using the term ‘Infantry’ around 1570s describing soldiers who marched and fought on foot. The term was derived from the French infanterie and Italian infanteria. But the individual-soldier term ‘infantryman’ was not coined until 1837.

With the advent of gunpowder on the scene, the infantry began converting to firearms. It was Chinese alchemists experimenting with life-lengthening medicines around 850 AD that led to the discovery of gunpowder when playing with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) someone mixed it with sulfur and charcoal. This resulted in the gunpowder emitting smoke and flames that burned hands and faces of those conducting the experiment. Gunpowder fixed on arrow with a tube of gunpowder that ignited and would propel itself across enemy lines (called ‘flying fire’) was used by China’s Sung dynasty against the Mongols. The psychological effect of this new technology on opponents was immense. Readers may, however, note that ‘Agni Baan’ (fire arrow) finds mention in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana scripted in 3067 BCE and 5th Century respectively, which proves that such technologies existed in India in ancient times and did not come from China.

More gunpowder-based weapons were invented by the Chinese but interestingly gunpowder technology remained within China till the 13th century, when it was passed to foreign lands through the ancient silk trade route to Europe and Islamic counties. By 1350, rudimentary gunpowder cannons were commonplace in the English and French militaries, which used the technology against each other during the Hundred Years’ War. The Ottoman Turks also employed gunpowder cannons with abandon during their successful siege of Constantinople in 1453. Cannons shattered the myth of invincibility of fortress walls. But it was only in the middle of the 15th century that gunpowder started getting used in handguns that created a new class of infantry soldier of modern armies.

Primacy of Infantry

The Chola Dynasty of South India was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in the world’s history; 843 CE to 1279 CE. Cholas had a robust military with four elements, comprising the cavalry, the elephant corps, several divisions of infantry and a navy. There were regiments of bowmen and swordsmen where the swordsmen were the most permanent and dependable troops. Its empire at its greatest extent in 1030 CE included Ceylon, the Andaman and Nicobar islands and briefly parts of southeast Asian islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, and the southern part of the Malay peninsula. But these overseas conquests were only possible because of Naval Infantry that the Cholas raised and established. The Chola Navy was the zenith of ancient India sea power that played a vital role in the expansion of the empire including for conquest of the Ceylon islands and naval raids on Srivijaya – courtesy the Naval Infantry.

Infantry operates in a wide range of inaccessible terrain which includes mountainous terrain and snow-clad high altitude areas

The Napoleonic era wars like the War of the Third Coalition (1805), War of the Fourth Coalition (1806–1807), Gunboat War (1807–1814) and Peninsular War (1808–1814) witnessed infantry, cavalry and artillery forming the basic triad but infantry remained largest in numbers. The emergence of tanks on the battlefield during the World Wars saw cavalry being replaced by armoured units but infantry continued to remain the predominant force. Look around any army of any country in the world and you would find that Infantry remains the largest component of every army. This is because Infantry is the primary tool of warfare. They hold ground, close with the enemy and destroy them. They operate in all terrain, they’re flexible, stealthy, are hard to beat and they are the only weapon in the toolbox that can shift and completely dislocate enemy infantry in a defensive position. No matter how hi-tech the modern battlefield gets, no matter how powerful the aircrafts, drones and the robots become, mission of the Infantry will continue to close-in and destroy the enemy, by close quarter’s violent combat in any war and then physically hold the ground.

Therefore, the primacy of Infantry will remain forever because nations will continue to need ‘Boots on Ground’. Due to the intrinsic nature of their work, infantry soldiers will continue to be sought. For mountains and high altitude, the infantry is simply indispensable.

The Infantryman

What armies mean to a nation and what their contribution is in defending the nation, and under what conditions is understood little in a nation like India whether in peace, no war no peace, or war. One example of this peculiarity can be gauged from the example of Delhi High Court ordering Delhi Government to cover the insurance of over 29,000 lawyers earning lakhs and crores of rupees and the Centre granting free insurance to doctors combating Covid-19 including doctors earning 5-6 lakhs every month in private hospitals while the army soldier guarding the nation pays for his own insurance.

The biggest folly when discussing specialisation is to miss out the infantryman – perhaps legacy of the yore in describing him as simply ‘Bhoop Singh’. But more than that is the reason that despite his multiple skills and specialisation, the infantry soldier does not indulge in self-aggrandisement, which is a rare virtue. That is why the immortal saying that says, “When it was victory, the Cavalier claimed it outright, the Gunner boasted of his calibre, but the Infantryman stood silent with victory at his feet.”

The infantry has become a far more sophisticated outfit in recent years since military technology, techniques and tactics have advanced. The infantryman of today must be able to handle different weapons (using, cleaning and maintenance), radio and communications equipment, surveillance and monitoring equipment, navigating and handling navigation equipment; administering medical aid to himself and his colleagues during battle (battlefield nursing assistant – BFNA ), and even modes of transport amongst other things, that he must learn to use so that it becomes second-nature to utilise them in a dangerous situation.

The infantryman must have good fitness levels; excellent communication skill; ability to think on his feet and stay cool under pressure; capacity of taking and following orders from superiors; ability for teamwork; self-discipline; confidence; initiative, and knowledge of local language and customs where warranted. Communication skills are even more important in insurgency areas and interacting with civilians for winning the hearts and minds of the population, as also humanitarian relief during disasters.

There are times, especially in combat zones, where the work can be dangerous and indeed life-threatening, and an infantry soldier must be prepared to work under these conditions in order to carry out his role. The work of an infantry soldier is predominantly conducted outdoors, such as patrols and training. As front line troops, there is a great importance on maintaining an extremely high level of physical fitness, as he is expected to carry out demanding work under high stress levels and so he must have the endurance to still do the job. This requires extreme dedication and self-discipline.

Risks and Tribulations

Statistics show that the infantry typically bore brunt of the military in warfare as measured in terms casualties, deprivation or physical and psychological stress, be it in the two world wars collectively or individually in the 10 deadliest battles of the 20th Century: Battle of Stalingrad; Battle of Moscow; Battle of the Somme; Operation Bagration (Belorussian offensive to clear German forces from Belorussian SSR and eastern Poland during World War II); Battle of Gallipoli; Battle of France; Battle of Kolubara; Tet Offensive; Operation Market Garden, and; Six-Day War - Third Arab-Israeli War. Same goes for the US and Chinese offensives in Vietnam as also India’s wars with Pakistan and China, Kargil Conflict and the never ending counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations.

Not many would be aware of the risks and tribulations the soldiers face in difficult areas of Ladakh including in the Siachen Glacier area and the Saltoro range aside from the biting cold and inhospitable terrain, like: soldiers sharing same habitat with dead colleague for 3-4 days because weather and visibility conditions does not permit air evacuation; individuals and even snowmobiles swallowed up by crevasses that suddenly open along a beaten route – some bodies recovered next summer with skin peeling off; soldiers buried in avalanches; patrols caught in sudden snowstorms-blizzards causing chilblains even in eyes; limbs lost due to frost bite and the like. The brunt of these casualties and injuries are borne by the infantry.

What Infantry Does

Infantry traditionally relies on moving on foot during combat but may also use mounts, military vehicles or other vehicles. Infantry is the most easily delivered forces to ground combat areas on foot, by vehicles, sea or air transport. Infantry can also be inserted directly into combat through amphibious craft, by air for air assault using parachutes (airborne infantry) or through helicopters in airmobile role. They can operate in a wide range of terrain inaccessible to military vehicles and can operate with lower logistical burden as compared to other forces, which is vital in mountainous terrain and high altitude areas.

By virtue of being in contact with the enemy, infantry has greater local awareness at ground level inherent to their presence in the battlefield since they can more easily recognise, adapt and respond to local conditions, weather, and changing enemy weapons or tactics. This is vital for engaging enemy positions, infiltration and counter infiltration operations, maintaining area control, defending ground and holding it after capture, taking enemy prisoners and war material.

Infantry undertakes a number of tasks which may be summarised as under:

  • Patrolling. This is the most common infantry mission, which are a constant feature. Patrols cover areas of possible enemy activity to locate the enemy and destroy them when found. Patrols are used not only on the front-lines, but in rear areas where enemy infiltration and/or insurgents are active.
  • Reconnaissance and Intelligence Gathering. Surveillance operations are often carried out with the employment of small reconnaissance sub-units or sniper teams which gather information about the enemy, reporting on characteristics such as size, activity, location, unit and equipment. These sub-units are adept in stealth and ability to operate for periods of time within close proximity of the enemy without being detected.
  • Pursuit Operations. The aim of such operations is the destruction of withdrawing enemy forces which are not capable of building their strength to the point where they are effective. Infantry traditionally have been the main force to overrun these units in the past, and in modern combat are used to pursue enemy forces in constricted terrain like urban areas where they can be ambushed.
  • Defence. Holding defences offers advantages to the infantry as they can use the terrain and constructed fortifications to advantage, reducing exposure to enemy fire compared to troops in the open. Effective defence repels enemy attacks and prevents enemy penetration of own defensive positions.
  • Raids. Infantry sub-units can be tasked to quickly mobilise, infiltrate, enter and neutralise enemy forces when appropriate combat intelligence indicates to secure a location, rescue or capture high-profile targets. This could be done by a ‘Ghatak Platoon’, group of Ghatak Platoons or in conjunction with Special Forces.
  • Ambush. Infantry can lie in ambush for enemy forces before attacking at a vulnerable moment. This gives the ambushing infantrymen the combat advantage of surprise, concealment and superior firing positions, and causes confusion. The enemy does not know what it is up against, or where they are being attacked from.
  • Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorism. This is a task being performed in our country over past decades, of which readers are well aware.
  • Behind Enemy Lines. Operations behind enemy lines can be undertaken by infiltrating infantry units, paratroopers (airborne infantry), helicopter insertion and Special Forces inducted though multiple means for multiple tasks like sabotage, capture of an air head or objective in depth like an important height or pass, disrupting enemy logistics and the like.
  • Attack. Attack is a basic role of the infantry, which along with defence, forms the main stance of the infantry on the battlefield. Advancing to close in with and destroy the enemy while under enemy fire is naturally hazardous with high number of casualties. But this must be done with all means employed to suppress enemy fire. Successful attacks rely on sufficient force, preparative reconnaissance, battlefield preparation and cohesion throughout the attack is paramount to success. Attack by infiltration too pays handsome dividends if surprise during infiltration is maintained.
  • Miscellaneous. Miscellaneous tasks include winning the hearts and minds of local population to denude public support base of terrorist and insurgents, as also disaster relief operations. But here a mention must be made about operations in urban areas. Urban combat poses unique challenges to the combat forces. It is one of the most complicated of operations an infantry unit undertakes; the infantry that can enter a city, and systematically clear the buildings, which may be booby trapped. In such an environment, infantry and civilian casualties are usually quite high.

China’s 2020 Aggression in India

The Chinese aggression in May-June 2020 in Eastern Ladakh took India by surprise. There is no denying that it was a national level intelligence failure despite all the national level resources available with the NSA, including R&AW and NTRO. The Joint Intelligence Committee was required to brief the Cabinet Committee for Security (CCS) of enemy build up, forward move and even the new road PLA built four kilometers short of Galwan, but it failed as had happened during the Kargil intrusions in 1999.

Questions were raised in some quarters why the PLA intrusions were permitted in the first place by a formation that was predominantly infantry. But many would not know that the Division responsible for Eastern Ladakh is responsible for a frontage of 800 kilometres while China had set its eyes on Ladakh since the times of Mao Zhedong. To top this, ITBP is deployed in the show window to patrol the Line of Actual Control (LAC ) and it is not under command of the Army. They send their reports through their own channels all the way up without sharing it with the Army. Ironically, this operational anomaly has still not been righted because of politics and bureaucratic advice. India is without a National Security Strategy (NS) and has not undertaken a strategic defence review (SDR). Had an SDR been conducted, the reason why Army had been asking for an additional Division in Eastern Ladakh, would have been understood.

Indian Army led by the Infantry will give the PLA a bloody nose but Xi may still wage a limited war on India – perhaps on a wide front, including in Ladakh

While skirmishes between the ITBP and PLA had begun in May 2017, it was on June 15-16 that the PLA attacked the patrol of Colonel Suresh Babu, Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar without warning in Galwan area with spiked clubs, iron rods and swords using specially trained troops inducted for the brutal attack. The premeditated assault was an attempt to intimidate the Indian troops and build some confidence of PLA troops who were without any battle experience. But that night PLA learnt a lesson that they had not bargained for. PLA had assembled large number of troops but were attacked by troops of 16 Bihar in retaliation, joined by other Army patrol in the area. No shots were fired but the close quarter battle continued through the night. Our troops suffered 20 killed but the enemy suffered some 111 casualties of which foreign media confirmed at least 44. China never confirmed how many PLA were killed that night but there has been plenty of discontent within China on this count.

The surprise aggression by China did give the PLA sizeable intrusions in areas of Pangong Lake, Gogra-Hot Springs and a major one in the area of Depsang. Had the Army been allowed, it would have been possible to dislodge the enemy from the intrusion areas in mid-June itself. But government chose to deny any intrusions had taken place. This gave China the opportunity to brand India aggressor and put the onus of disengagement on India, implying our troops should retreat in own area.

Once again the infantry scored on August 29-30 by occupying the ridgeline south of Pangong Lake, heights around Chusul and the Kailash Range dominating all areas up to the Spanggur Gap. PLA patrols were beaten in the race in reaching some of these heights. This action had made the PLA nervous since these heights dominate PLA locations including their camp at Moldo. Multiple talks at the ministerial, diplomatic and military level talks have seen no breakthrough. The PLA has consolidated and is not likely to withdraw. The Depsang intrusion apparently has not even been discussed yet.

China has been practicing war on multiple fronts and despite the somewhat mellow stance of Beijing after the Galwan clash and Indian occupation of heights south of Pangong Lake, what Xi Jinping has in mind remains ambiguous as his ambition of world domination has surpassed that of Mao Zhedong. The current PLA intrusion in Depsang is in the same area where PLA had made a 19-km deep intrusion in 2013 (after Xi came to power) and stayed put for three weeks before withdrawing. Since 2014, Xi rehearsed the PLA on a lifesized land model of Ladakh inside China. No doubt the Indian Army spearheaded by the infantry will give the PLA a bloody nose but Xi may still wage a limited war on India – perhaps on a wide front, including in Ladakh, conflict may even happen during winters.

Mountains, especially high altitude, favour the defender. Pakistan has made scores of attempts since 1984 to capture our posts on the Saltoro Range in the Siachen Glacier area but has failed miserably in each of these attempts. The advantages of operations in winters are: poor visibility; reduced flying days-hours for surveillance sorties on account of weather; lowered guard of defender in times of snow storms; terrain permitting, use of skis or snowmobiles for faster induction and taking detours to avoid detection, and; higher helicopter carriage capacity because of low temperatures.

Initiative pays handsome dividends in difficult terrain and difficult weather, as can be seen from the initiative taken by our troops in capture of Bana Post on Saltoro Range in Siachen glacier area in 1984 and recent occupation of heights south of Pangong Lake, Chushul and Kailash Range. Infantry units, their Ghatak Platoons, cluster of Ghatak Platoons and Special Forces can pay handsome dividends. If Xi Jinping goes for a limited war, he would most likely test all his latest weaponry; hypersonic platforms, swarm drones, precision guided munitions (PGMs), E-bombs and the like. Tanks in the open may be the first ones to be targeted. China will suffer enormous casualties but Xi is a cold-blooded monster devoid of human feelings. Ultimately, it is the infantry that can be counted upon to finally deliver the objectives.

Let us pay homage to the brave Infantrymen who laid down their lives in service of the nation and celebrate Infantry Day on October 27 as the Infantry is ready to teach the PLA another lesson a thousand times more severe than the clash at Galwan on June 15-16.