PLA’s Mechanised Profile in Tibet
6 Highland Mechanised Infantry Division and 4 Highland Motorised Infantry Divisions are orbatted with two Mechanised Infantry Regiments (Brigades) supported by an armoured regiment. Each Mechanised Infantry Regiment has four mechanised battalions. It has combat support elements – artillery, air defence regiments supported by engineers, EW and CBRN Defence battalions.
A Division has reconnaissance battalion equipped with eighteen ZBD-04A infantry fighting vehicles armed with ATGMs. Artillery and Air Defence and most other combat support equipment are tracked. Other associated equipment like helicopters, drones and rocket artillery are grouped as per envisaged tasking.
Comparative Evaluation of Medium Tanks
PLA medium tank battalions are equipped with thirty-five ZTZ-99A (Type 99) tanks or earlier versions like Type 96. Chinese tanks follow an evolutionary approach and are reverse engineered from original Russian models and cloned by China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO). Their numbering has typical psychological hype attached. T-54 clone is referred to as Type-59 and T-90 equivalent as Type-99. Current lot of PLA medium tanks weigh around 55 tonnes, 125 mm smooth bore guns and 1000 to 1200 HP engines.
Our medium tanks, T-90s and T-72, in right combination are more than a match for these tanks. It is pertinent to highlight that numerically four of our regiments can match five Chinese regiments as our regiments have nearly 50 A vehicles. However, our main stay- T-72 needs to be equipped with upgraded engine.
Additional power is required to compensate for de-rating of engines by approximately 25% in high altitude areas. Russian tanks are customised to operate in extreme cold climate but customised value additions like Auxiliary Power Unit (APUs) have been identified, as part of ongoing modernisation including creating an eco-system of heated garages and repair bays, which needs to be fast tracked.
Comparison of Mechanised Infantry
PLA’s mechanised infantry ismix of old tracked Type 86 ICVs, wheeled WZ-551 APCs (6×6) and limited number of more contemporary VN-1 (8×8) ATGM carriers with Red Arrow missiles. Our BMP-2s are more than a match to PLA ICVs. It is seen that PLA infantry has got used to being transported and operates largely in motorised mode.
Although we enjoy marginal edge in our ICVs, yet modernisation in terms of up-gradation of power pack is a critical requirement for operation in high altitude terrain to offset losses in engine power. While India follows traditional philosophy of employment of infantry, largely without vehicles, yet the need is to give them some protection and mobility in form of mechanised/motorised infantry. It is indeed commendable that much needed though belated correctives are underway with induction of Kalyani M4, Mahindra ALSV and TATA LAMV variants.
Appraisal-PLA Light Tank
China added considerable versatility to its mechanised fleet by fielding a light tank, ZTQ-15 also referred to as Type 15 or Xinquingtan. It is essentially lighter medium tank with weight of around 34 tonnes, amounting to sort of hybrid between medium and light tanks. Classically, light tanks are generally in sub 30 tonne class, ideally 25 tonnes, with Power to weight ratio (PWR) between 30 to 35. Type-15 has been fitted with extra wide tracks to offset additional weight and reduce Nominal Ground Pressure (NGP). PWR and NGP are key enablers for agility and trafficability in marginal terrain. To that extent, it is compromise of sorts specially in terms of protection, fire power and mobility.
Type 15 has been utilised in heavy droppings, giving it as an edge for utilisation in quick reaction forces. This tank was introduced in 2017 and 40 tanks have been supplied to Bangladesh, with 140 more in pipe line. The main features of this tank are 105 mm rifled guns and 1000 HP engine. Type 15 though hyped as game changer is neither really light nor replacement for medium tanks, certainly not panacea. In keeping with Chinese reliance on incremental or evolutionary designs, this tank is follow-up and replacement for antiquated Type-62 tanks.
India has projected requirement for 350 light tanks on fast track basis. This would translate to six to seven regiments depending on equipping norms. Desired profile would be tank of around 25 tonnes with power to PWR of 30-35 and gun calibre of 105-120 mm with missile firing and modern optronics.
Reference: Lt. Gen. KJ Singh, PVSM, AVSM & Bar (Retd.), former Western Army Commander article titled as “PLA Armour Offensive in Himalayas” published by the Chanakya Forum.