In September 2014, when one of the longest military standoffs between Indian and Chinese forces was building up at a height of 16,700 feet in the eastern Ladakh sector of Chumar, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used its high-powered vehicles and air drops to reinforce troops for 16 days.
The Indian personnel, on the other hand, waited for a daily caravan of mules and ponies for food and basic supplies. With no road connectivity and high-utility multipurpose vehicles to operate in high-altitude terrains with sub-zero temperatures, the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) had to rely on animals and the physical prowess of its men.
All this is set to change this week. For the first time, the ITBP is deploying sport utility vehicles (SUVs) for transporting troops, food supplies and weaponry to its 33 high-altitude border outposts. The SUVs will also enable Indian forces to counter any rapid build-up by the PLA, which makes occasional transgressions, usually by using high-powered Humvees, zipping right through the perceived Line of Actual Control (LAC) and into the Indian territory.
To match the PLA, the ITBP, after much deliberations last year, framed specifications for indigenous Humvees or High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, to be deployed on the border outposts for operating in temperatures ranging from -20 degrees to 45 degrees at an altitude above 15,000 feet. The Indo-China border is 3,400-kilometre-long.
“The main demand was for vehicles that can be driven in all-weather conditions, including sub-zero temperatures, at heights above 15,000 feet where oxygen levels dip considerably,’’ said an officer. But not a single firm in India was able to match the ITBP’s 42 parameters of operating capabilities.
The PLA uses specially made indigenous Humvees that can seat around 12-15 personnel with weapons and can be driven in extreme weather conditions, including snow. China’s wide network of roads, right up to the LAC in some sectors, facilitate the use of such high-end vehicles.
Every time a PLA vehicle comes closer to the LAC or transgresses into Indian territory, the ITBP personnel would take photographs. Based on these photographs, a proposal was sent to the ministry of home affairs for similar vehicles. Under the 2012-2017 force modernisation plan, the ministry approved the proposal for 59 high-powered lightweight vehicles.
“We had originally demanded Humvees similar to what the Chinese have, but since there is no availability, we decided to take the SUVs for now,’’ a senior ITBP official told dna.
The ITBP has now bought 29 Mahindra Scorpios, in addition to two Ford Endeavours and two Toyota Fortuners for Rs 4 crore. Equipped with heaters, radio communication equipments and a seating capacity of six to eight, the SUVs will have to undergo harsh winter and all-season trials to be used in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
These SUVs, officials said, are still a step forward. The Gypsies, Boleros and theTata 407 trucks with the ITBP right now can be used only in friendly climatic conditions. During winter, these vehicles had to be pulled down to the bases to prevent erosion.
The ITBP mans around 180 border outposts along the Chinese frontier. In the disputed pockets of Aksai Chin, the outposts are located around a 25-kilometre stretch of the perceived LAC. Hilly terrains, razor-sharp cliffs, dense forests and gushing river streams are typical features of the high Himalayas. It means only 97 outposts have road connectivity. These outposts are the last base points for the ITBP and the Army to carry out short- to long-range patrolling, that lasts for three-30 days, along the LAC.
The patrolling parties check incursions by the Chinese and engage them until they retreat. Sometimes, PLA troops set up camps too close to the LAC or even inside India’s area of control, resulting in stand-offs, like when a PLA platoon camped in Daulat Beg Oldie near the Aksai Chin-Ladakh LAC in 2013.
At least on the front lines in the south Ladakh region, which sees high Chinese transgressions, the ITBP hopes the SUVs will stand them in good stead.