Infantry: Specialization

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June 18, 2020: Since 2008, China has increased the variety and frequency of troops being quickly moved to Tibet for training. The most recent, highly publicized, exercise involved the 134th Combined-Arms Mechanized Airborne Brigade. The troops, with their personal weapons and other gear, boarded regular passenger train cars for the 40-hour long trip to a training area on the Tibet Plateau. This 2,000-kilometer-long single-track Tibet line has one station at 5,000 meters (16,000 feet.) Most of the stations are about 4,000 meters. Traveling the entire length of the Tibet railway, from Xing in the lowlands (2,000 meters high) at the base of the Tibet Plateau to the Tibet capital Lhasa (4.200 meters high), takes about 43 hours. Lhasa is close to the Indian border, where China is trying to maintain a large enough force to threaten Indian troops confronting them in border areas that China claims. Most of the defending Indian troops are based at lower altitudes. That’s because China controls the high ground. This is usually a military advantage, but not when the Indian troops have much lower altitude territory right behind the front line. China does not have that advantage and is trying to train as many units as possible for potential use as a threat to India, if not an outright battle to seize the claimed lowland areas. Since both nations have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aimed at each other, outright war is a dubious proposition. Anything short of that is apparently not.

Interestingly enough the troops on the train to Tibet were wearing green-pattern camouflage uniforms while their armored vehicles had been recently repainted tan, for desert warfare. No explanation for this was given. The light armored vehicles of the brigade were moved on flat-cars, which are heavily used on the Tibet railway because this line is mainly for moving goods. Nevertheless, in normal (pre covid19) times some 2,000 tourists a day took the train to Lhasa. The city is a major tourist attraction because of its many religious structures as well as other ancient and interesting sites for lowland Chinese and foreigners.

Every year since 2010 China has been sending one or more battalions of paratroopers to Tibet so they can conduct one or more combat parachute drops. The first of these occurred in 2010 with a battalion landing in an open area of the Tibet plateau. This was significant because the average altitude on this vast plateau is 4000 meters (14,000 feet). This means parachutists have to jump from a higher altitude on account of the thinner air and the longer time it takes for the parachute to open. The reduced air pressure also causes altitude sickness for many troops, especially after something as strenuous as a parachute jump, and the frantic activity following the landing. The Chinese Army wanted to find out how well prepared it is to deal with these problems. Since that first drop, the Chinese Army has adapted.

For the 2010 exercise, parachute troops went through altitude acclimatization training beforehand, as the Chinese already know what happens when you send military units straight to the high plateau. This became painfully obvious in 2008 when there was an uprising in Tibet. Many of the troops sent in soon fell ill from altitude sickness. The acclimatization training detects those troops who would get ill quickly, and the worst of these are kept closer to sea level.

The Chinese airborne units were not given all this special training just to reinforce Tibet. The Chinese point out that most of their southern border area is covered with mountains and hills, averaging 3,000 meters (9,300 feet) in height. Training in Tibet gets the paratroopers ready to operate in all these areas.

The 15th Airborne Corps, which now has 35,000 troops, also trains a growing percentage of its paratroopers to carry out one or more specialized tasks, like the jumps in the thin air of Tibet. Currently, about half the Chinese airborne troops have acquired specialized skills.

There is a small, by Chinese standards, military forces stationed in Tibet consisting of three combat brigades and about four brigades of support troops. In addition, there is even a small naval force operating on Pangong Lake. This is the longest lake in Asia and part of the 134-kilometer long lake extends 45 kilometers into the Indian Ladakh region. Give this foreign threat China has, since 2019, sent new Type 928D Patrol Boats to guard the lake. This fast (70 kilometers an hour) boat is armed with an RWS (Remote Weapons System) using a 12.7mm machine-gun plus two or more smaller (7.62mm) machine-guns that can be outed elsewhere on the boat and operated by one of the ten sailors on board. There is also seating below deck for up to twenty troops. India has smaller boats patrolling its portion of the 4,200-meter high lake, except for the few months when the lake is frozen over.

 


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