The following is a semi-official assessment of the military balance-of-power along the LAC in eastern Ladakh by an unknown China-based entity, which was drafted sometime last last year, and has subsequently appeared here:
This week, the western theatre of action continued. First, the combined regiment of a rapid reaction force of the Xinjiang Military Region (MR) changed from the ‘round head’ to the ‘square head’ Type-15 MBT, and then the ‘Dawn Xiongguan’ ZTZ-99A MBT was rushed to the Reqin Pass again after travelling thousands of miles on both railroads and tank transporter trucks. With the completion of a new round of organisational reform in the Xinjiang MR, the mechanised troops on the LAC are at last welcoming large-scale mechanised equipment replacements. Towards the end last year, the new equipment of the various units of the Xinjiang MR appeared: two fire regiments were replaced with PCL-181 vehicle-mounted 155mm/52-cal howitzers (mounted gun system, or MGS), some composite regiments were replaced with Type-15 MBTs, and some light and highly mobile infantry regiments were replaced with third-generation ICVs, and now with the ZTZ-99A MBTs also appearing at Reqin Pass, everyone has a bright future. After completing the reforms of the Tables of equipment (ToE), the equipment of the Xinjiang MR is thus ushering in a wave of long-overdue equipment upgrades. Affected by a series of conditions such as preparation for war, scattered troops, and a special establishment system, the Xinjiang MR is a military district that carried out the systemic reforms relatively late.
According to the PLAGF’s normal military re-organisation into a Brigade, generally the highly mechanised mobile/armoured Divisions will be directly dismantled into two Combined-Arms Brigades, one of which is based on the Division and the other is based on the Regiment. The two new Combined-Arms Brigades then determine whether the Brigade is a heavy Brigade, a light Brigade or a medium Brigade based on the deployment area requirements and the weapons equipped by the previous troops. For example, the old 6th Tank Division became a heavy Brigade and a medium Brigade after the reform. However, the four infantry Divisions in the Xinjiang MR are still deployed in a relatively scattered area, with many response directions and varying degrees of mechanisation. Coupled with the need for combat readiness after 2017, it is difficult to carry out ‘outright dismantling’ as easily as the PLAGF infantry Divisions located elsewhere in the hinterland.
Before the Xinjiang MR’s reform process began, the quality of mechanisation was roughly the same as that of the Indian Army, and the quantity was roughly the same when deployed on the front line. The Xinjiang MR has four Divisions. Among them, there are two infantry Divisions and several Frontier Defence Regiments on the front line. Before this round of systemic reforms, the total mechanised force of the Xinjiang MR against the Indian Army was about 4 armoured regiments and 2 light infantry regiments (equipped with Type 92 infantry combat vehicles). The first-line force was about 372 MBTs and 248 ICVs. The strength of the PLAGF does not seem to be much, but India is limited by natural conditions, and there are not many mechanised troops deployed in the western section of the Sino-Indian border. India's mechanised forces in the western section of the Sino-Indian border are mainly the XIC Corps and its 3rd ‘Trishul’ Division with its own integral MBT Regiments (85 Armoured regiment and 4 Horse), and the 254 Independent Armoured Brigade. The 254 Brigade has two tank regiments and one mechanised infantry regiment. The mechanised infantry regiment is equipped with 60 BMP-2 ICVs, and the MBT regiment is equipped with 59 T-90S MBTs. Therefore, the mechanised equipment deployed by the Indian Army in Ladakh all year round is about 180 T-72CIA tanks and 60 BMP-2s. The PLAGF thus has a quantitative advantage over the Indian Army.
Facing the actual military needs of the western section of the LAC and the overall situation of China’s force modernisation priorities from the east to the west, in recent years the Xinjiang MR has formed a hierarchical ‘Synthetic Division-Synthetic Regiment-Synthetic Battalion’ reforms process. Under the new ToE, the Xinjiang MR still maintains the overall strength of four Divisions, but the various infantry Divisions under its jurisdiction have been transformed into Synthetic Divisions, and the regiment-level units under its jurisdiction have also been reformed into synthetic regiments. The quantum of MBT units in the Xinjiang MR has been greatly reduced, from 4 armoured regiments to 3 heavy synthetic regiments, but the mechanised forces have increased significantly from the original two light regiments to 3 medium synthetic regiments. In addition, two new light and high-mobility infantry regiments were added. The new heavy synthetic regiment has three synthetic Battalions, and each synthetic Battalion has one armoured Company and two mechanised Companies. The armoured Company has 14 MBTs and the mechanised Company has 13 ICVs. However, compared with the past three MBT Battalions and an armoured regiment with one motorised infantry Battalion, the number of MBTs under the new combined regiment has dropped from 93 to 42, but the number of ICVs has increased to 31. At the same time, the number of self-propelled artillery in the firepower Battalion, the quantum of reconnaissance troops, and the establishment of air-defence Battalions have been greatly improved, the number of overall mechanisation has been increased, and the effectiveness of the troops has also been improved. The ToE of the medium regiment is the same as that of the heavy regiment, but the 14 MBTs per Battalion will be replaced by 14 wheeled assault vehicles.
In terms of the specific composition of troops, the Xinjiang MR has changed from its original warfighting concept of ‘more MBTs, more motorised forces, fewer artillery firepower and fewer battles” to the new ‘few MBTs, more troops, more field/air-defence artillery and more battles’. Under the new ToE, the number of MBTs in the PLAGF has dropped sharply to one-third (the original 4 regiments, 12 Battalions, 36 Companies and 372 vehicles are now to 3 regiments, 9 Battalions, 9 Companies and 126 vehicles). The overall number of assault weapons has dropped by about one-third, from 372 to 252. However, although the number of MBTs has dropped significantly, under the new organisation, the number of ICVs has increased significantly, from about 248 to 468. At the same time, the PLAGF is being equipped with a large number of wheeled armoured vehicles. In actual contact, India tends to rely on the advantages of certain geographical conditions over China, concentrate its forces, engage in large and small frictions with the BDR regiments in a non-hot war environment, engage in cold-weapons combat, and establishes ‘illegal’ strongholds. In this situation, the PLAGF is countering the small-scale offensive of the Indian Army by relying more on the manoeuvrability of mechanised vehicles for battlefield projection, and at the same time using vehicle-based firepower to deter the Indian Army's motorised infantry forces.
The firepower of the Xinjiang MR has also been greatly improved. In terms of overall deployment, the Indian Army is relying on solid strongholds for defence in both the east and the west. The two sides often have to fight on a preset battlefield. The typical preset battle area, such as the Rechin Pass south of Panggong Tso Lake, is not suitable for the armoured regiment to launch a Brigade-level offensive. In this situation, the PLAGF should give full play to its mobile and firepower advantages to attack the Indian Army's aggressive forces in a preset area. Therefore, in this round of reforms, the PLAGF has increased the proportion of firepower. Under the new ToE of the Xinjiang MR, four firepower regiments have been formed. Each firepower regiment will have two vehicle-mounted howitzer/self-propelled howitzer Battalions and one rocket artillery Battalion. The Xinjiang MR also has an army aviation Brigade equipped with armed helicopters and transport aircraft, and an artillery Brigade equipped with 300mm PHL-03 MBRLs and PCL-181 mounted gun systems. The overall artillery establishment of the Xinjiang MR has now reached 216 firing units, which far exceeds the quality and quantity of the firepower possessed by the Indian Army. The Xinjiang MR attaches great importance to artillery, which can also be seen from the re-balancing situation this year: since this year, the MR has two fire regiments and two battalions re-armed with the PCL-181 MGS and a regiment of AR-3 370mm MBRLs is now being raised.
Let us now talk about Xinjiang MR’s ToE upgradation efforts. The situation on the LAC has always been the catalyst for every change of troops/weapons compositions in the Xinjiang MR, and every major reform of the ToE of the Xinjiang MR is related to the Indian Army. The ups and downs of the LAC over the past few decades have turned the Xinjiang MR into the ‘Modern Chinese Tank Museum’. Most of the ‘round head’ MBTs waiting to be replaced by the PLAGF are mainly concentrated in the Xinjiang MR. In the 1980s, the Xinjiang MR successively formed a large number of Type A motorised infantry Divisions, under the jurisdiction of MBT regiments. The last batch of Type-59 MBTs of the entire PLAGF that are currently stationed in Urumqi is the result of the formation of this period.
By the late 1980s, the Indian Army, which had significantly mechanised itself, increased its provocations against the border areas. In order to cope with the large quantities of T-72M1 MBTs procured by the Indian Army, the two fast-reacting Divisions of the PLAGF in Tianshan on a fast-track basis replaced their MBTs with the most advanced MBT that China could provide at that time--the Type-88A MBT with 105mm rifled-bore cannon. About 200 of them were built, equipping two armoured regiments. With the completion of development of the Type 96 MBT (armed with 125mm smoothbore cannon) by 1998, the mechanised infantry regiments stationed in Hotan finally began service-inducting them. The Xinjiang MR now has one regiment of Type-59 MBTs, two regiments of Type-88As, and one regiment of Type-96 MBTs.
By including one Type-96A Brigade, one ZTZ-99 MBT Brigade and one ZTZ-99A MBT Brigade of the 76 Group Army, the Western Theatre Command can be seen as an illustration of 70 years of MBT development in China. A series of second-generation motorised and second-generation semi-mechanised equipment of the Xinjiang MR procured 20 years ago also appeared in the current LAC standoff. In particular, an armoured regiment went to the front line of the Rechin La Mountain Pass to confront the T-72CIA MBTs of the 85 Armoured Regiment.
However, in the face of the Indian Army's deployment of T-90S MBTs of the 254 Independent Armoured Brigade to Ladakh since late 2019, the crew of the older Type-88As will naturally suffer from ‘loss of face’ and demoralisation. The location of the Type-88As was at a certain post on the front line of Lake Spanggur Tso, at an altitude of 5,000 metres. The post is close to the relatively flat Rechin La Pass and closer to the actual LAC. The faceoff point at Rechin la Pass is rare in the western section of the LAC and is suitable for the deployment of mechanised troops. Such a battleground for military strategists is of course, vital for anyone who is not willing to lose face. Since last summer, infantrymen of both armies have engaged in multiple rounds of ‘cold weapons combat’ (i.e. mirror deployment) at the Rechin La Pass. After the failure of this tactic to capture the Pass, the Indian Army mobilised the XIV Corps’ T-90S MBTs and BMP-2K ICVs.
The mechanised units of both armies faced each other there, and the situation was tense. If the broadcasted CCTV news reports are turned to 90-degree viewing angles, then we can see the T-72CIAs of the 85 Armoured Regiment, the BMP-2 ICVs and the Indian Army tents deployed there since last year. This direct confrontation also reflects the characteristics of armoured combat: Although the PLAGF’s MBTs are comparable in terms of night combat, manoeuvrability and fire-control, it is difficult for the Type-88As from a human resource standpoint to perform at preset battle-scenes like Rechin La. And that was why the PLAGF had urgently requested for the ‘rough-skinned Dawning Xiongguan’ ZTZ-99A MBTs to be urgently transferred to the Spanggur Gap after the June 2019 Galwan River-Valley clashes.
Although many technical parameters of the 55-tonne ZTZ-99A were finalised 10 years ago, they are still superior to the current MBTs of the Indian Army. However, the ZTZ-99A still faces many problems. Although it has undergone specialisation on the Tibetan plateau, it has encountered difficulties in logistics maintenance, manoeuvring deployment, and passage. The ZTZ-99A faces difficulties in reaching the designated positions when the troops need it the most. This is also why the ZTZ-99, ZTZ-99A and their successors are still generally installed in the 76 Group Army’s rear areas instead of the frontline. Presently, the Type-15 MBTs equipped with the rapid reaction forces of the Xinjiang MR can hardly take advantage of such a face-to-face confrontation. This puts forward the demand for a new type of 40-tonne MBT that is more balanced in protection and mobility and can replace the existing Type-88A and Type-96 MBTs.
After the Type-96B MBT performed well in the Russia-hosting Tank Biathlons over the past few years, it has basically met the needs of the PLAGF. Consequently, in future, the main MBT of the Xinjiang MR will be the Type-96B. Of course, the future of the Type-96B goes far beyond the Xinjiang MR. The various Synthetic Brigades that are Taiwan-centric have an obvious demand for 40-tonne MBTs. Therefore, the quantity of Type-96Bs procured in future will be much higher than expected. In the future, the Xinjiang MR will establish a three-tier MBT system: a certain Aksu-based Regiment will be equipped with Type-15s as a fast reaction force, the ‘Kunlun Cavalry’ of a certain formation in Hotan will be equipped with Type-96Bs, and the 76 Group Army at the rear will be equipped with ZTZ-99As.
As mentioned earlier, India’s aggressive advances will often speed up the replacement of the PLAGF’s mechanised equipment. Except for MBTs, this generation of mechanised equipment of the PLAGF was technically finalised 10 years ago, or even earlier. After nearly 10 years of development, the various sub-systems of mechanised equipment have continuously unveilled upgraded models with various improvements. As the Indian side continues to maintain a high-pressure situation along the LAC, these new mechanised equipment, after being replaced with ones featuring enhanced firepower and network-connectivity, will also sequentially join the various combined forces of the Xinjiang MR in future, and will follow the Indian Army’s force modernisation processes.
The reforms of the ToE of the Xinjiang MR is generally in line with the overall strategy of both China and its PLAGF, which is: “defend the west and attack in the east” and emphasize “controllable border situation”. In the final analysis, although the western section of the China-India LAC is vast, the geographical environment is harsh and the altitude is high, and it is impossible for the PLAGF to organise even a brigade-level mechanised offensive. The western section of the LAC is mainly based on offensive and defensive warfare on preset battlefields, while the eastern section is based on three-dimensional offensive control-points. Therefore, the proportion of PLAGF armoured might in the western section is relatively small, while in the eastern section it can form a “dimensional reduction strike”. As for the situation all along the LAC, the Indian Army knows all this very well, but in terms of geopolitical practice, India has always played imperialism by mass, and now it has provoked a country much larger than it, and has fallen into it. A kind of complete blindness.
Nowadays, despite constant domestic polarisation and a GDP growth rate of approximately -8.9%, India still has to increase her weapons procurements from abroad and invest heavily in the development of her own military industry to fill the gap between China and India in arenas like airpower, mechanised tube/rocket artillery, and air-defence. This is a kind of “against the trend” behaviour, which is not conducive to long-term competition practices. It is better to leave it to experts in country-studies to explain the reasons for India’s blind moves against the trend. After all, India’s apex-level civil decision-makers thought for 10 days and 10 nights and didn’t know what the Indian Army wanted to do. However, this kind of military adventure will prompt China to continue completing the upgradation of warfighting equipment in the next few years. After all, the national strength of China and India will grow stronger in the known future. As a country that has been able to dominate alone for 70 years and has a complete and advanced military-industrial infrastructure, the initiative of China’s and India’s military situation is in the former’s hands.