4 November 2012
Forward Army HQ
Turtok, 101 KM North East of Leh
Advancing Indian forces in Pak occupied Kashmir were facing logistical nightmares of highest magnitude possible. Except for occasional pot shots few left-over jihadis and defiant Paki army personnel, resistance they were facing was almost non-existent. But most of their problems were related to terrain and shortage of transports. Nobody had really planned for such operations and as such decisions that would require months if not weeks of careful planning and setting up of logistics chains were being made on the spot based upon vague assurances of speedy resupplies from distant HQs. There were very few operational roads connecting the two parts of divided state and those were swamped with panicked refugees trying to stream in to India. Relief camps had to be setup to help the civilians and in India which other organisations except army is expected to deal with the mess !
Civilian administration of J&K;, inspite of all it’s lofty talks of love between the divided people and porous border whines had simply washed it’s hands off the whole mess expecting army to do the dirty work. Thankfully for army commanders, DM had personally intervened and sent some stern messages to state’s CM to share the workload, thus freeing up resources desperately needed by army elsewhere. Even then, rush of refugees was hindering work as their miles long caravans clogged up few motorable roads, leaving army with little choice except helicopters to transport men and supplies. The fact that the bulk of fleet was busy strengthening defences against China was just another inconvenience.
The hectic work detail was taking it’s toll on helicopter crews. Ferrying men and precious cargo always has been their job and most claimed to enjoy it. But doing the same round the clock without rest in war like conditions in unfamiliar territory is enough to cause fatigue even in best of the lot. And fatigue causes mistakes which could prove disastrous. CO of Turtok base, Colonel Mudabar Chidambaram base was more than aware of the fact and was trying his level best to ease the workload. But his efforts were not proving enough. His small base was inundated with frantic requests of supplies from various quarters and he couldn’t do anything except send the pilots on one more sortie, one after another.
He knew for a fact that his luck wouldn’t hold out for long and the feeling was making him queasy. Although all the pilots under his command were highly trained professionals, there was a limit to which they could be pushed.
The base was first started as part of Operation Sadbhavna by Indian Army in it’s mission to help the locals by setting up much needed medical camps, schools and vocational training centers. The rugged area had little contact with rest of the world and the for ethnic Balti tribals of the area, work done by the army was the only thing that they could identify as governance. The base had first started off as a small helipad where helicopters from Leh landed carrying supplies to be distributed in surrounding areas. It was still exactly like that when hostilities broke out and as such, it’s meager resources and infrastructure were overwhelmed in a matter of hours.
Although it was only three days since the nature of work at base had changed, for Col Mudabar it seemed like another lifetime. A large portion of the local population had been evacuated except a few who stubbornly stayed back to for various reasons, mostly related to their livelihood. Right now, instead of friendly locals, base was swarming with tense armed forces personnel.
The first signal that some of his worst fears were coming true when the communications officer reported loss of contact with one of Mi 17 helicopters approximately 10 Km south of Shaksgam Valley, in control of China.
The area had always been one of the most difficult to operate in. It was covered with some of the highest and least accessible mountain peaks with little human habitation and sustaining infrastructure. Even Pakistan didn’t place any significant military resources there considering the high cost and the fact that they had gifted away surrounding areas to China. They lacked will and resources to control the area anyway.
In a war to capture the territory, this would most probably an advantage for the attackers, but not in this case. After near complete surrender and abandonment of posts by Pakistani Rangers and army, Indian army was obliged to fill up the gap. But lack of any dependable infrastructure, roads etc. was a major impediment to their efforts to establish control over the region. But the most worrying aspect of the situation was nearly certain war with China. The area needed massive influx of Indian forces in shortest time possible and the many choppers like the old workhorse Mi 17 were flying back to back missions, dropping men and supplies.
Loss of radio contact was not an uncommon phenomena in such areas. Not all of the machines had modern communication systems on board and thus were prone to communication blackouts under certain conditions. Although, most of the time it was some non-critical problem related to comms gear, it always increased the heartbeats of people involved. It didn’t happen very often, but whenever it happened, it sure subtracted a few minutes of life from everyone connected to the mission.
Currently the base was experiencing one similar situation. A Mi-17 transport helicopter with call sign Mike11 was on a sortie to drop some much needed supplies and ammunition for advancing Indian troops on an mission to consolidate their newly won positions in PoK, some 4 Km south of Chinese controlled Shaksgam Valley. Due to bad weather in area, pilot had lost his way and there had been no communication since last 15 minutes. As usual, Col Mudabar was personally coordinating the flights and the creases on his forehead were getting deeper with every passing second. Each passing moment brought the night closer and there were less than a hour before it became impossible for pilots to navigate without night vision devices.
Communication people on ground were frantically calling the lost helicopter without pause as other helicopters landed or took off with their crew and cargo. But there had been no response till now.
“Any luck contacting Major Kale yet ?” he asked one of the comms engineers. Missing chopper was on it’s way to drop the supplies for Major Kale’s team and there had been no contact with him either. The answer was negative and Col. Mudabar grimaced on hearing it. “What the hell is going on down there ?” he asked loudly to nobody in particular.
“Shall we send another chopper to search for them ?” the question was asked by a burly Jaat subedar, most of whose whose duties till date had been loading and unloading of helicopters.
“Do you have one lying spare for the job ?” Col snapped back annoyed. Subedar was slightly confused by the reply and was about to answer something when the voice of Major Kale came alive on radio. There was lots of static and the comms engineer had to fiddle quite a bit with the radio knobs to make the transmission audible. Col snatched the mouthpiece at once and asked Major Kale, “What’s going on out there Major ? Where are you guys and where is our Mi17 ?”
Major Kale had to shout to get himself heard, “We were attacked. lost the chopper and ….” rest of the transmission was lost as his voice was overcome by the static.
But it was enough to give a pause to everybody within earshot. Only Col Mudabar seemed unaffected and he took control of the radio himself, shouting in to the mouthpiece , trying to contact Major again. He seemed slightly relieved when Kale came back on air again. His story was just as bad as his first line. Major Kale’s team was at an unnamed location, simply known as Point 4677, nearly 3 KM south of Shaksgam Valley awaiting the chopper to drop supplies. The Mi17 had come in almost right at time and was hovering and dropping supply crates when a MANPAD was launched from a hill in north taking down the copper like a brick. Only the co-pilot had survived, that too with broken legs and crushed ribs. The army team rushed to the stricken helicopter to rescue any survivors when they came under heavy machine gun and grenade fire. Two soldiers were immediately killed and 3 more injured before they were able to take cover and fire back. But the attackers had advantage of surprise and better positions. Indians had lost 5 more soldiers before they could disengage and find better positions.
Survivors had to fall back and had nothing to help them with reinforcements or extraction for quite some time to come in a unfamiliar and hostile territory. Col Mudabar slammed the mouthpiece down on the table in frustration and looked around to worried faces around him. Gesturing with his eyes and hands he ordered everybody else to get on with their work while he took up the radio again to contact his seniors.
Help for ambushed Indian team came in an unexpected way. It just happened that three prototypes of indigenous Light Combat Helicopter were finishing their high altitude weapon trials in Leh when hostilities broke out. LCH was supposed to provide heavy mobile firepower in scenarios just like this one. All the trials had went on well to match or even exceed the expectations. So, the proposal of the senior test pilot to perform the ultimate trial by fire in combat received a guarded go ahead. Within minutes of receiving the distress call two of the LCHs, armed to the teeth with 20mm canon and 35mm rockets were rushing to aid the ambushed Indian infantry team.
Even while carrying near full loads, they could fly at altitudes nearing 6500m which provided them considerable protection from most of portable MANPADS and small arms fire. Thermal sights cued to the weapon controls allowed the pilots to locate and destroy man sized targets from any height. Rushing at speeds in excess of 300 kmph, the two choppers were in the area within minutes and started scouring the area for hostiles. Although the area in which people could disperse was large, the actual area navigable by foot was quite small owing to high mountains, glaciers and mountainous ravines. Therefore the Indian chopper team had little difficulty in locating the hostiles, who were marching towards northern border along the borders of one such mountain river.
Lead chopper, piloted by Squadron Leader Mayur located the 15 men hostile team first at a really vulnerable moment when they were trying to cross a small glacial river a few Km from the ambush site. Even flying at extreme altitudes, Indian helicopters had no difficulty in following the suspects owing to superb avionics on board. They kept watch waiting to provide Chinese a taste of their own medicine. They didn’t have to wait too long as the Chinese men reached an icy ledge on banks of the river. The point was one of very few in region that could be used to cross the river by infantry. Even then, they needed ropes to pass over.
Unfortunately for Chinese, they had chosen wrong time to do so. Their orders had been to make life difficult for Indians in any way possible. Young PLA Captain leading the platoon had followed the orders enthusiastically that had resulted in deaths of 7 Indian soldiers and destruction of an Mi17, spreading panic within Indian camp. Unfortunately neither him nor his superiors had foreseen the consequences.
Currently the Chinese soldiers marched back to their base inside Shaksgam valley on a route that passed through hostile territory interspersed by mountains, glaciers, ice and rivers. The group was standing on a ledge on the bank of one such river, trying to cross it using a temporary rope bridge, when first of the LCH located them. Chinese were blissfully unaware of their impending doom as it hovered thousands of feet above, hidden by clouds and it’s rotor noise masked by winds.
First of the Chinese soldiers to die didn’t even knew what killed them as a salvo of 3 rockets fired from first chopper landed smack in between them as they stood on ledge trying to keep the rope-way stable.
The explosions blew them away to pieces and broke the ropes on which 2 other soldiers were trying to cross over. Both fell in to the icy glacial river and drowned within a minute. Rest of their companions fared only marginally better. A couple of them managed to pull up their guns to eyes but that was the maximum that they could do. Another salvo of rockets, this time fired from 2nd chopper obliterated the confused group they could gather any idea of what was going on . Only two Chinese soldiers survived the carnage, who were cut down by canon fire immediately after.
By picking a place and time favouring them, Indian chopper pilots had executed the ambush flawlessly. Chinese MANPADS crew had no chance of acquiring the helicopters and firing off any missile before being annihilated.
The incident didn’t go unnoticed on either side which were already rushing reinforcements in to the battle. But the two LCH didn’t stay to check as they turned back to their base at maximum speed.