From Ladakh to Eastern Sector, Latest Satellite Images Show Additional Chinese Pressure on India
J&K delimitation proposal sparks row, Nagaland Assembly moves against AFSPA, 101 Omicron cases reported, Himalayan glaciers receding, and why Mukesh Ambani spent $100,000 on a couple of olive trees
A daily newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
December 21, 2021
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From Ladakh to Eastern Sector, Latest Satellite Imagery Shows Additional Chinese Pressure on India
The asymmetry is plainly visible and is the result of advanced planning for winter, says top gesospatial intelligence expert
Imagery also suggests China broke ground on military-related infrastructure near border in August 2019, lending weight to speculation that India’s Article 370 decision may have sparked standoff
Chris Biggers (@CSBiggers) is director of mission applications at the RF geospatial intelligence firm HawkEye 360. He writes for Janes and was previously Defence & Intelligence Applications Lead for Planet Labs and an Intelligence Officer with the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Sushant Singh spoke to him about the situation on the Sino-India border, as seen from commercial satellite imagery. His comments are made in a personal capacity and do not reflect the views or opinions of his employer.
You have closely followed and studied the Sino-Indian border crisis since it began last year. What are your major observations about the situation in Ladakh as it has evolved over the past 18 months ― infrastructure, deployment, weaponry, logistics, doctrine? Has your visibility into the Chinese side told you something about the PLA which we don't know yet?
At the outset, the visible asymmetry between the respective sides’ forces and the relative speeds in which they appeared on the border was instructive. Our review of available commercial collection suggests that some of these differences, particularly with regard to China, may be attributed to advanced planning. For example, we saw the PLA Ground Force stage 143 pieces of armour under tarps at Shahidula (Xaidulla in Xinjiang, north of the Karakoram Pass) in late 2019, with most departing by late May 2020. That said, we also saw equipment pulled directly from equipment garages and loaded on heavy equipment transporters in May to likely deploy with forces on the border.
In further support of the advanced planning thesis, medium resolution imagery has also suggested that China broke ground on much of the military-related infrastructure near the border in August 2019 (or shortly thereafter). This lends weight to speculation that India’s Article 370 decision may have sparked the standoff, which would subsequently require a different defensive posture against India. This is difficult to assess, however, as China seems to be constantly making improvements to infrastructure in support of its military modernisation efforts. However, statements made by Chinese officials throughout the standoff continued to emphasise the protection of China’s territorial sovereignty, which it claimed was violated by the Article 370 revocation.
Planet imagery acquired 10NOV021 showed bermed parking positions for the PLAGF armour deployed south of Shiquanhe.
Secondly, the amount of equipment deployed and kept in reserve would seem to reaffirm what we know about the evolution of ‘Active Defense’, which focuses on rapid mobility and concentrating offensive capability to destroy an adversary’s retaliatory capacity. With the current infrastructure and ongoing improvements in the region, China has ensured that it can move forces quickly to respond to any perceived threat posed by India. For example, when India took to the ridges at Rezang La, which in some respects helped shift the centre of gravity to Chushul, we saw self-propelled howitzers and other elements redeploy from the Galwan Valley and Kongka La areas. We think some of those elements, possibly part of a mobile defense group, likely appeared near Spanggur Tso (in Tibet) in response.
Planet imagery acquired 13APR2021 showed 147 pieces of armour parked near Kangxiwa.
To date, a significant PLA Ground Force presence still remains in border and reserve areas, putting additional pressure on India. For example, we continue to see equipment transiting what we identify as ‘staging and reception areas’ near Kangxiwa (or Kangxiwar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) in the north, and a significant armour presence still resides near Shiquanhe and Rutog (both in Tibet). In some respects, it benefits China to keep the crisis brewing as long-term occupation of the border areas helps it operationalise its new Theatre Commands and Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), providing a real-world scenario in an expeditionary setting. Since it was established in 2016, the JLSF has held only one significant exercise of its own, the Joint Logistics 2018-B, focusing on long-distance manoeuvres.
What is the current situation in Depsang plains in sub-sector north in Ladakh?
Planet imagery acquired 1NOV2021 continued to show a PLAGF presence blocking IA patrols near the Raki Nala Y-junction.
In the south [of this region], we’ve seen small Chinese deployments at the Y-Nalla junction, inhibiting Indian movement throughout the area. Planet imagery from November 1, 2021, still shows two PLA Ground Force camps with 6 x IFV/APCs split between two positions. A small Indian Army forward camp remained 1.2 km west of the junction. The riverbed running north of the eastern PLA Ground Force camp toward Tienwendian is the primary line of communication, which was snow-covered at the time of capture.
Considering the larger Indian presence at the two posts near Burtse – of which China is likely aware – the obstructing Chinese presence may act as a type of tripwire. In other words, the Indian Army could quickly overrun the PLAGF positions and re-establish patrols, but to do so would likely provoke a military response from elements deployed near Tienwendian – an unwelcome escalation after Galwan and Rezang La. While the Indian Army has reinforced the sub-sector north in several locations around Qizil Langer and Daulat Beg Oldi (and has continued to do so in 2021), it would likely be unable to repel a Chinese offensive, if an escalation were to become uncontrollable.
Planet imagery acquired 05OCT2021 continued to show covered parking positions where a possible combined arms battalion was previously identified.
Meanwhile, with winter conditions setting in for the region, our imagery observations of deployments are obscured as equipment is covered or relocated. For example, China’s most forward towed artillery battalion northwest of Tienwendian is no longer in firing position and equipment shelters have been erected nearby and throughout the area. However, the self-propelled howitzer (SPH) battery that was set up adjacent to Tienwendian’s anti-aircraft artillery was still in residence in November and an SPH battalion deployed near Tianwendian East remains active with equipment being repositioned in October and November. Further to the east, the possible combined arms battalion previously identified south of the highway may still be deployed as of October, as shelters remain over the area’s parking positions. Bottom line: China has made preparations to keep forces near Depsang during the winter.
How successful has been the disengagement in Ladakh (at Kailash Range, Pangong Tso and Gogra)? How far are the troops in these areas now?
Planet imagery acquired 21OCT2021 showed new shelters being erected at Rutog to house equipment through the winter.
To date, the disengagement has had mixed results, particularly when looking at Pangong Tso and the surrounding areas. In February, commercial imagery confirmed PLA Ground Force and Indian Army forces relocating to the Rutog and Loma areas, respectively, without event. There’s now approximately 100 km between the bulk of the forces for the time being, which is a positive development. But that doesn’t discount the PLA Ground Force elements that remain forward on the Sirjap, Khurnak Fort and Nyagzu areas, among others, that India must now consider. The regional infrastructure in place also means the PLA Ground Force could quickly return to areas that it previously occupied.
Moreover, while the Quad met in March we also saw additional Chinese ground elements arrive at Rutog with over a division’s worth of equipment visible in imagery. Video and handhelds showed elements conducting exercises to the east of the area, et al. In September 2021, we watched workers erect and reconfigure shelters to cover equipment deployed near Rutog’s two new garrisons and prefab housing area, further suggesting elements will remain in the region throughout the winter. There is also new activity to the northeast near the G219-S520 junction we’ve been closely monitoring in addition to regional road improvements and new heliport construction at Duoma (northeast of Rutog).
The standoff at Gogra is a similar story, but perhaps even more limited in terms of success. While PLAGF forces deployed near Patrol Point 17 had relocated by July 2020, an Indian and Chinese forward camp remained as per agreements. Those elements finally disengaged in August 2021, but Chinese forces have remained near the border at their previous turnaround and throughout the Galwan valley and east of Kongka La. As observed in other areas, the PLAGF have brought in prefabricated shelters and solar arrays, and continue to improve lines of communication to the region to maintain their presence indefinitely, should they so choose. All of which likely has the intended effect of providing the PLAGF experience that training alone cannot offer, while also making India expend more resources to monitor and potentially defend the border. This could have the effect of ensuring that India remains a land-focused force, particularly as China grows its sea legs and operates more frequently throughout the Indian Ocean region.
Most recently, you’ve looked at the Chinese military buildup in the eastern sector of the LAC. What are the significant findings? Which are the specific areas Indians should be concerned about?
China continues to improve infrastructure in the region by expanding lines of communication, adding new depots and air defense sites, constructing heliports and upgrading airbases. Such improvements enable greater mobility and force sustainment in the border areas while also helping China become a more potent force. China has also added three additional hardened artillery positions (making a total of four) near the Chumbi valley and Doklam plateau to cover the Indian border area and nearby major mountain passes, should India choose to repeat the 2017 intervention. Additionally, a possible multiple launch rocket system battery has been identified and remains deployed east of Sikkim. Given the proximity of these developments to the Siliguri corridor, all of the above are likely being weighed by New Delhi.
We also see Chinese forces remaining in areas that India likely considers to be at operational depths. We know the Indian Army is concerned by this, as indicated by public statements made by Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Manoj Pande in October 2021. Our monitoring shows a PLAGF armour presence at Gyantse and armour elements remaining deployed near Gamba. HawkEye 360 began detecting radio frequency activity at Gamba in August 2020 when we first discovered a new deployment east of the area’s field garrison. This shift in the disposition of forces is likely one of many reasons why the Indian Army has been rethinking a possible light tank acquisition and raising an additional armour brigade for the sector.
Capella synthetic aperture radar acquired 19NOV2021 showed new structures being built in disputed parts of western Bhutan.
We have also been monitoring Chinese activities in disputed Bhutan. While China laid claim to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Bhutan, it executed plans to move further into disputed Bhutanese territories in the west. For example, Planet imagery of Dramana (Zhuomoma) and Shakhatoe (Xiabu) on August 18, 2020, showed a new track extending southwest off the area’s existing road since June 2, 2020. The track extended to one of four new areas cleared for construction activity. These areas are identified in Mapbox data and translated as Sairubu, Caitangsha, Jiwujiadeng and Qule (though there is some question as to the accuracy of the place names). Similar activity was also identified to the south near the Langmarpo valley. Ongoing monitoring of all sites with Capella’s synthetic aperture radar shows more than 200 structures visible with work still ongoing.
Snapshot of the day
The rupee is set to end a tumultuous year as Asia’s worst-performing currency, with foreign funds fleeing the nation’s shores.
Disturbingly, CMIE data shows a rise in the proportion of households in which no one is employed. Before the pandemic, it was around 6% of households ― obviously, the most vulnerable. The proportion rose to 11.5% in 2020. During the severe countrywide lockdown in April 2020, 33% of households did not have any member employed. This proportion remained high at 25% in May 2020 and 12% in June 2020. The ratio never fell back to pre-pandemic levels. After the second Covid wave, from July through November 2021, on an average, 7.8% of households did not report any member as employed, notes Mahesh Vyas.
Himalayan glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace, a new study concludes, from fresh evidence on the loss of ice mass in the Third Pole. The study, led by scientists at the University of Leeds, reports that the Himalayan glaciers have lost ice 10 times more quickly over the last few decades, than they had since the last major glacier expansion 400-700 years ago, during the Little Ice Age.
A massive row has erupted in Jammu and Kashmir over a draft proposal suggesting six new legislative seats for Jammu and only one for Kashmir, in a move that local parties have described as gerrymandering and an attempt to shift power to Jammu. Both the National Conference and the PDP, which had last allied with BJP when the Union Territory was still a state, have rejected the draft proposal. Under it, seats in Kashmir will have a population ratio of 1.46 lakh against 1.25 lakh in Jammu province. Around the world, delimitation exercises are normally undertaken to equalise the number of people represented by elected representatives.
The Nagaland Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the repeal of AFSPA, at a special session yesterday. Tempers have been running high after 14 civilians were killed by the Army in an ambush where survivors said they had been shot at directly, no questions asked.
Controversial former BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar and five others have been discharged by a Delhi court in connection with the 2019 Unnao rape survivor car accident case, as the prosecution failed to provide evidence. Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Ravindra Kumar Pandey said that prima facie, there was no evidence against Sengar or his five associates.
A hundred and one cases of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, have been reported in India, according to the Health Ministry. The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) said in its latest bulletin that there is no clear evidence yet on the transmissibility, immune evasion or severity of Omicron in India.
Police in Tamil Nadu have released dozens of women detained for blocking a key highway in a protest against food poisoning at a Foxconn unit, the country’s second instance of unrest at an Apple Inc supplier factory in a year. The highway was blocked for hours in Chennai, where the Taiwan contract manufacturer, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd, began assembling the iPhone 12 this year.
Yesterday, Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan lost her cool in the Rajya Sabha after a personal remark by a member during a discussion on the bill on narcotic drugs. She lashed out at the treasury benches. Bachhan said their ‘burey din’ or bad times, were around the corner. She also accused the chair of not listening to the opposition.
Shruti Rajagopalan of NYU takes a long look at India’s post-reform economy and finds that after 2004, “India’s liberalization and reform process has slowed down considerably in the last decade.” She finds that this slowdown coupled with “ad hoc regulation, as well as disastrous policies like demonetization, have become the new trend in Indian economic policy” and that this mirrors the slowing down of India’s high rates of growth post-liberalization.
Over and Out
Although it is often said that India is the most photographed country in the world, the history of its representation is more complicated, and more political, than is immediately apparent. Visions of India: From the Colonial to the Contemporary is the first major survey of Indian photography in Australia, on display at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne until March 20, 2022
Mukesh Ambani has spent $100,000 to import two Spanish olive trees for his estate in Jamnagar. Between 170 and 200 years old, they are believed to be lucky.
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