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Millennium Post

At the summit of cavalry wars

The Platinum Cavalry Veterans’ Reunion Lunch, instituted by the Cavalry Officers Association and arranged jointly with the Directorate General Mechanised Forces, is an ideal occasion for the oldest veterans and their families to meet the senior serving officers of the Armoured Corps. Apart from the quintessential cavalry officer style of being dapperly dressed and from hats to shoes, swagger in the walk, one knee bent while standing, etcetera, such a get-together has a lot of value for exchange of feedback, both professional and social. Most importantly, these meetings form an assurance to the old guard that they are still remembered and treasured by the current lot. Brig BS Oberoi of ‘The Scinde Horse’ was the oldest veteran present, amongst a host of others such as the former Army Chief, General V. N. Sharma and a fair number of previous army and lower field formation commanders, as well as almost all serving Generals of the Corps. Here again, was a convergence of veterans and serving officers, who participated in major wars and military operations since independence, including a few who saw the action during World War II!

Gen VN Sharma, younger brother of India’s first PVC, Maj Som Nath Sharma, recalled how the corps have grown from just twelve odd regiments since Independence (after shedding some to newly-born Pakistan), to now 63 regiments. Importantly further, it is expected to grow some more, with already an unprecedented deployment in the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, where it made its historic debut in 1947. This is a process worth taking a look back on.

‘Have you gone mad or suffering from battle fatigue?’, or words to that effect were blurted out by the then newly-born Pakistan army’s Zoji La brigade commander at his Brigade Major, who had just informed him of the presence of Indian Army’s tanks in that area during the first India-Pakistan war in 1947. It was a classic combination of surprise followed by shock action at 14,000 feet above sea level. Indian Army had dismantled 7th Cavalry’s Stuart tanks by removing their turrets from their hulls, so that they could be transported by road in wheeled vehicles and reassembled at their destination. By succeeding to do this, Indian Army had not only shocked its recently partitioned element, and ironically its first enemy, but also made military history and redefined mountain warfare. Because the Western definition of mountains meant those over 8,000 feet, such as the Alps, and hence the Western term Alpine warfare, till then the highest altitude at which wars had been fought on by modern mechanised armies in the 20th century, that is the World Wars I and II.

In 1962, when China attacked India, 20th Lancers’ French AMX-13 tanks were sent up to dizzying heights by the same process of dismantling and reassembling, but to no avail and not for any fault of the Army. India’s political leadership had miserably mismanaged national security vis-a-vis understanding, accepting and reacting in time to the Chinese threat, despite being appraised by Indian Army’s senior field commanders in the preceding years.

Thereafter came the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, in which Indian Army’s armoured regiments, with tanks as old as World War II vintage, destroyed disproportionately large numbers of Pakistan army’s Patton tanks doled out to it by the US. For the next over a decade and a half, there was no move to deploy any tanks in the mountains. During the run-up period prior to Exercise Brass Tacks in 1987, Pakistan army became so jittery apprehending that Indian Army in the guise of an exercise had set out to target its nukes, that it reacted in the Western sector, leading to Indian Army mobilising for war under an operation codenamed Trident. However, Pakistan army remained deployed in forward posture, though it did not start a war, as it had done in 1947, 1965 and 1971 and the mobilisation ended after five months of stalemate.

It was after Operation Trident that a considered decision was taken to deploy a full squadron of 14 tanks in the Ladakh sector, for which 91 Independent Reconnaissance Squadron of ‘The Scinde Horse’, one of the few regiments with such an entailment, was detailed. This procedure stood the army in good stead for further deployments of tanks in high altitude areas because with the Chinese military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the army finally got the Defence Ministry’s nod to raise a mountain strike corps, which should include two armoured brigades, with about six tank regiments and mechnised infantry equipped with BMPs (tracked lightly armoured infantry combat vehicles). Raising of a mountain strike corps will also mean increase of manpower by about 1,00,000 personnel. The Army is also planning to deploy two independent armoured brigades in Uttarakhand and Ladakh. As part of the plans to upgrade military strength, an additional 10,000 troops might be deployed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the Army currently has an amphibious brigade. The modernisation and expansion plan also includes setting up of new airstrips and helipads in remote locations around the Chinese boundary. After a major military infrastructure buildup by China in its territory, India, better late than never, has taken some steps to develop its own capabilities. Building strategic roads along the border with China, deployment of its supersonic BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles in Arunachal Pradesh and the Su-30MKIs at bases in Assam are some such measures.

As of now, there is a regiment (45 tanks) and a half worth of tanks-all medium weight Russian T series deployed along the Line of Actual Control, which are expected to be increased in the future as mentioned. Having sanctioned the raising of the mountain strike corps, government must expedite Indian Army’s enhanced requirement of armour.

Anil Bhat is a defence and strategic analyst
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