Diverse indian terrain: look Beyond one size fits all approach

Sub Title : Indian frontiers mandate that we look at terrain specific system

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2022

Author : Maj Gen Harvijay Singh, SM (Retd)

Page No. : 54

Category : Military Affairs

: March 31, 2022

Varied terrain across Indian frontiers mandates the need for India to look at terrain specific systems. Our Atmanirbharta drive must take due cognizance of this facet so that the improvisations that we have been resorting to transcend to innovation, driven by our actual needs

Arms Exporters have never been able to meet the exacting challenges of the diverse Indian terrain and climatic conditions. They simply have been offering one type of standard equipment and we have been improvising to make the same work in different types of terrain. Improvisation must now transcend to innovation, thus giving the correct direction to our Atmanirbharta drive.

Military ‘System of Systems’ cannot work at the same efficiency, economy of effort and  with the  same logistic support from plus 50 to minus 50 degrees centigrade and from sea level to 20,000 feet; any such claims are drivel. System of Systems is a collection of interconnected complex dynamic systems independent in structure and governance but collaborating to achieve objectives not otherwise achievable. The guiding force is coordination and interoperability. Towards this, the focus is on performance optimization, robustness and reliability.

The evolving landscape of India’s self-reliance demands that Indian Battles are fought the Indian way and for this Indian Geography and Climate need to be judiciously incorporated into the ‘Atmanirbhar’ push; this will result in appreciable economy of effort and tactical advantage.

Our planners have already felt the need, now they simply must formulate  a policy.


The geography of India is militarily the most complex and challenging in the world. India has 15107 Km of land border, and a coastline of 7517 Km with 197 islands accounting for 2094 Km of additional coastline. These borders comprise a vast variety of terrain encompassing deserts, plains, riverine deltas, hills, mountains, high altitude, and glaciated regions. These complexities lead to all round challenges and threats.

The oft discussed ‘two and a half front’ threat; covers the complete ‘unique’ geographic template of India. A serious and scientific SWOT Analysis of India’s Geography and its impact on the equipment profile of the Indian Armed Forces is vital to achieve effective ‘Atmanirbharta’.

India shares a long and porous border with hostile neighbours:

♦ Pakistan – 3323 Kms.

♦ China – 3488 Kms.

These hostile borders extend from the Mean Sea Level to Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world (at an average altitude of 20,000 Feet). Consequently, Indian Military operates in all types of terrain from the seas to the blue skies and all that lies in between.

Notably each region requires specialist training, clothing and equipment. It is easy to understand that Desert clothing cannot be worn in the High Altitude Area (HAA) and vice versa. A sound knowledge of Physics similarly makes it abundantly clear that this also applies to complex equipment integrated to work as a System of Systems. Interested parties create many smoke screens to cloud opinions and manipulate procedures and processes; time has come for freedom from these ‘wheeler dealers’ too.

Battlefield Peculiarities of the Indian Terrain

♦   India’s vast shoreline makes it easy for the enemy to wage low-cost proxy war and asymmetric strikes e.g the 26/11 Terror Attack on Mumbai. Quick response against such belligerence will come from the Coast Guard and Police with small boats and hover crafts for agility and deep strikes into the sea by the Indian Navy with huge battleships. Agile light weight boats cannot venture out in the oceans and battleships cannot meander around coastlines and backwaters. Both systems are dictated by the terrain, and quite obviously ‘one size does not fit all’.

♦  The border with Pakistan in the Deserts and Plains of Punjab extends from Gujrat to Jammu. The vast open terrain here spreads right into Pakistan till the Indus River and is a manoeuvrist’s playfield. Pakistan feels extremely threatened because of the lack of depth for defence. Heavy self-contained Main Battle Tanks integrated with High Mobility support elements spread over the vast expanse (hundreds of kms) with an ability to group and regroup immediately dominating the ‘Time’ and ‘Space’ factors, are  therefore required.

♦  Region northwards of Jammu till Siachen consists of the Line of Control (LOC) with Pakistan where troops are deployed in eyeball-to-eyeball contact in a constant state of conflict. It consists of numerous mountain ranges, passes and deep valleys. The battles here will be of attrition and very few notable gains will be made. Small Team operations like those seen in Hajipir and Kargil will be the norm; troops in this region will have to be fleet footed and light.

♦ Beyond Siachen, East Ladakh consists of a HAA plateau mostly over 15,000 Feet. This is proven tankable territory, the highest in the world (deployment is however limited in space and scope compared to deserts). Low barometric pressure and extreme cold affects man and weapons here alike. Thin air alters trajectory of missiles and projectiles as well as performance of engines. Transportation is also a challenge. A similar battlefield exists in North Sikkim where too tanks are deployed on a HAA plateau and are a force multiplier; Light Tanks specially designed for high altitude will be more effective than the large MBT of the deserts and plains.

♦   Further east is the mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh where the battlefield will mostly demand infantry and small team actions due to high mountain ranges and deep valleys.

Conclusively, manoeuvre will play a vital and decisive role in all conflicts that the Indian Army engages in. Specialised equipment is an absolute necessity, our armed forces cannot always be called to match asymmetry in technology with better training and leadership.

Analysis of the Terrain

Deserts and HAA are considered. Both are vast, open and environmentally fragile zones extremely difficult to conduct military operations in. Successful operations here will require adaptation to the environment and exploitation of terrain and weather.

The Thar Desert covers an area of 200,000 Sq Km and forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. It is a hot subtropical desert. About 85% of it is located within India, and the remaining 15% is in Pakistan. It will be very difficult for Pakistani Army to cross its vastness across the IB and threaten value targets in India.

However, it will be considerably easier for the Indian Army to assemble close to the IB and break out into Pakistan threatening its hinterland East of the Indus River, and its shallow geographic depth. Pakistan’s major core areas, industries and main arteries of communication lie perilously close to the border. The strategic advantage therefore lies with India.

The Thar desert is bounded on the South by a salt marsh known as the Rann of Kutch and on the North by the Plains of Punjab; both also equally good tank terrains. Thar has an undulating surface, with sand dunes separated by sandy plains and low barren hills rising abruptly from the surrounding plains. The dunes are in continual motion and take on varying shapes and sizes. Older dunes, are more stabilized, and many rise to a height of almost 500 feet above surrounding areas. Several saline lakebeds are scattered throughout the region. The soil is sandy and blown easily by wind. Dust storms with velocities of 140 to 150 km per hour, are common in May and June.  Annual rainfall is very low. The temperature remains high during the day reaching an extreme high of 50 to 55 Degree Centigrade in the summers. Vegetation is very sparse and water scarce.

The key climatic factors are extreme heat, extremely dusty environment, lack of vegetation and cover, and scarcity of water, resources, and population. In our context, its spread is vast, and operations will occur over large distances, with limited infrastructure to support troop and logistical movements.

These features can also be templated onto the semidesert and plains region of Punjab and the Rann of Kutch which is similar except for the built-up areas and thick vegetation of Punjab. This is to state that a similar equipment profile can be maintained in the deserts and plains.

HAA (East Ladakh and Sikkim): Ladakh is a High-Altitude plateau of over 10,000 Feet and East Ladakh over 14,000 Feet (Vey High-Altitude). High-Altitude is generally 8,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level where there is a reduction in human and equipment performance, above 14000 Feet the reduction in performance is severe.

Mountain ranges divide Ladakh and dominate its landscape. The Great Himalayan Range separates Ladakh from the Kashmir Valley. Three other major ranges, the Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram, also pass through the region. There is a complete absence of vegetation, and the treeless ridgelines are barren and made up of loose rocks. The enormous mass of the Himalayas dividing Ladakh from rest of India creates a rain shadow making Ladakh a High-Altitude desert. The main source of water is the winter snowfall on the mountains. The proportion of oxygen is less than in many other places at a comparable altitude because of the lack of vegetation.

The unique combination of thin air, freezing temperatures, and mountainous terrain effect man and equipment adversely. Reduced oxygen leads to a variety of physiological changes and illnesses, some of which can prove fatal. Cold weather incapacitates soldiers and causes serious injuries like frostbite. Steep gradients and ridge lines make movement slow and hazardous. While the process of acclimatization allows men to adapt to the environment and retain the capacity to perform, they have to be frequently turned over to remain healthy.

The barometric pressure at 16,000 feet is half its value at sea level. Low barometric pressure affects the tools of war with a severity that equals the impact on man.

In the Trajectory of Projectiles:

♦  Internal Ballistics are affected by the low air density, low atmospheric pressure and extreme cold which reduce the rate of burning and the All Burnt Point is later; accordingly the maximum pressure is later and reduced – leading to reduced Muzzle velocity.

♦  External Ballistics are affected by cross winds and rarefied atmosphere which alter the trajectory of all projectiles. The Projectiles are more efficient due to reduction in drag. The increase in efficiency causes them to strike higher on the target at high altitude than at sea level. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, a round fired at a target at a distance of 1,000 meters will impact almost 180 cm higher than at sea level. The range of artillery shells increases as well, yet accuracy and predictability suffer. High angle munitions, such as mortar rounds, are more erratic.

♦   In Terminal Ballistics there is hardening of projectiles leading to deformation and shattering. Due to lesser charge temperature, there is lesser fragmentation, slower detonation and lesser penetration of the HEAT round. As far as the impact on the Projectile is concerned, External factors will outweigh Internal Factors.

Amongst all other equipment, the need for a light tank is the most crucial since it is an evident Force Multiplier in the Plateaus. This need evolves from the lessons learnt in the 1948 Indo Pak War where Stuart light tanks were deployed to capture the Zojila Pass (11,000 feet) and beyond. Pakistani raiders suffered shock and awe as these agile and ferocious weapons of war manoeuvred the slopes and streams at these heights for the first time ever. Once again in the 1962 Sino-Indian AMX light tanks were employed with great effectiveness against the Chinese. Light tanks and other specially made equipment serve a tactical and logistic purpose well in the HAA; this is neither an expensive investment nor a dispensable requirement.

China deploys a modern Type -15 Light Tank on the LAC especially made for the purpose. In addition to the ballistic and mobility constraints, the Indian (one size fits all) tanks have to use special lubricants and fuel to keep them operating and twice every night (twice every night!) the engines are turned on to prevent the tanks’ subsystems from freezing; innovation over improvisation is the Clarion’s call.

While electronic devices can operate across wide temperatures, humans, mechanical devices and projectiles CANNOT. Equipment design should therefore be based on its tactical purpose matched with the terrain. A ‘one size fits all’ approach in neither scientific nor economically sound.