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PLA's rapid reaction capability in Tibet

June 29, 2008

By Andrei Chang
UPI Asia
Column: Military Might
June 27, 2008

Hong Kong, China -- The eruption of riots in Tibet in March reflected
an increasingly complicated political situation there, involving both
internal and external factors.

Internally, the peaceful and nonviolent approach of the Dalai Lama
toward China has encountered greater resistance from the young
generation of Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama's political relevance has
been gradually marginalized as a result.

Externally, India's China policy is now at a critical point, and
India-China relations are likely to slip backward if they fail to
quickly progress. India is adjusting the deployment of its armed
forces along its border with China to guard against a Chinese intrusion.

Meanwhile, as the Beijing Olympic Games approach, the faction in
Tibet that favors a showdown with the Chinese leadership views the
present time as the best opportunity to put greater pressure on Beijing.

Under these circumstances, the Tibet issue is likely to remain the
focus of attention by various parties before the Olympic Games, and
constant protests by the Tibetans can be expected.

China's handling of the Tibet riots was very similar to the way it
dealt with the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In the early
phase, a large number of regular troops from the People's Liberation
Army were sent to the scene to deter the protesters.

Within 48 hours of the start of the riots in Lhasa, T-90/89 armored
personnel carriers and T-92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles
appeared on the streets as the 149th Division of the No. 13 Group
Army under the Chengdu Military Region was dispatched to Lhasa.

This rapid troop deployment indicates that with the completion of the
Qinghai-Tibet railroad in 2006, the rapid reaction capability of the
Chinese armed forces in the Tibet region, particularly the ability to
quickly maneuver heavy equipment, has been greatly enhanced.

This is indicated by the fact that the PLA soldiers on the T-90/89
vehicles on the streets of Lhasa were all wearing the "leopard"
camouflage uniforms specifically designed for mountain warfare
operations. These uniforms have appeared in video footage of the
149th Division during exercises.

When unrest occurred in Tibet in 1989 and a curfew was imposed in
Lhasa, the 149th Division was also the first PLA combat unit to
arrive on the scene. At that time, the army troops entered Tibet via
the Sichuan-Tibet highway.

The 149th Division is based at Leshan in Sichuan province. As for the
T-92 armored vehicles that appeared in Lhasa, the No. 52 Mountain
Brigade of the Tibet Military Region received the vehicles around 2000.

The military value of the Qinghai-Tibet railway has thus been
demonstrated in the rapid reaction of the PLA armed forces to the Lhasa riots.

Should China-India relations deteriorate to the verge of military
confrontation and the riots in Tibet spread extensively, the first
combat units of the PLA to be called to action would be the No. 52
and No. 53 Mountain Brigades under the Tibet Military Region.

The No. 52 Brigade, stationed at Linzhi, is highly mechanized and
armed with T-92 wheeled armored vehicles and HJ-8/9 anti-tank
missiles. National highway 318 directly connects Linzhi and Lhasa;
thus it is logical to conclude that the T-92 wheeled armored vehicles
on the streets of Lhasa were from this brigade. The No. 52 Mountain
Brigade is stationed at Milin and is also the PLA combat unit
stationed closest to the city of Lhasa.

National highway 318 is in fact the southern route of the
Sichuan-Tibet highway. In the event of war or future large-scale
riots in Tibet, the highway will be the key passageway for combat
troops from the Chengdu Military Region to enter Tibet.

However, this key highway runs across the Minjiang River and the
Daduhe River in a region with an average altitude of 4,250 meters
(around 14,000 feet) above sea level, and thus is very susceptible to
attack by the Indian Air Force or assault by organized rioters. Most
of the highways within the Tibet region will be within striking range
of the Su-30MKI fighters soon to be deployed in the No. 30 Squadron
of the Indian Air Force at Tezpur.

If the T-90/89 armored personnel carriers used in Lhasa were indeed
from the 149th Mechanized Rapid Reaction Division of the Chengdu
Military Region, they were most likely transported first from
Chongqing to Xining, then to Golmud to connect to the Qinghai-Tibet
railway and continue on to Lhasa. The whole journey would take about 48 hours.

Such troop movements would be much faster and cheaper than before.
Calculated on the basis of being able to transport most of the heavy
equipment of a whole mechanized division within 48 hours – it is
unlikely that all the division's equipment would be moved – the PLA
would be able to transport approximately 10 light mechanized
divisions and some heavy mechanized divisions through the railroad to
Tibet from the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions within 30 days.

Of course, should there be a military conflict between China and
India, the Qinghai-Tibet railway would be a prime target for air
strikes by the Su-30MKI fighters of the Indian Air Force's No. 30
Fighter Squadron, the MiG-27 fighters of the No. 22 Squadron at
Hashimara and the "Jaguar" attackers of the No. 5 Squadron at Ambala.

The only obstacle to this mass movement of regular armed troops and
equipment would be the capacity of Qinghai-Tibet railway and the
number of available trains. China once claimed that the annual
transport capacity of the railway was 5 million tons, an average of
13,888 tons per day.

The average load capacity of one Chinese train car is normally 60
tons, with about 20 cars in each cargo train. This would mean that
each train could transport 1,200 tons, and thus 11 trains traveling
both ways would be enough for each day. In time of war, the actual
number of trains running on the railroad could double to roughly 20
trains both ways each day.

Suppose the total weight of the equipment and combat material needed
for one rapid reaction division of the Chinese army was around 15,000
tons, the Qinghai-Tibet railway could transport a whole rapid
reaction division on one average day. In other words, within every
one-and-a-half to two days, China could move one rapid reaction
division from the Chengdu Military Region or one rapid reaction
division from the Lanzhou Military Region to Tibet.

China's air transport capability also needs to be taken into
consideration. Additional airborne troops, rapid reaction troops and
armed police could be directly delivered to Lhasa from the air. Since
airdrop operations would take place in the Tibet region, there would
be no need for ground-based air defense firepower. Thus, the No. 15
Airborne Division could be airdropped to Tibet, and equipment such as
airborne fighting vehicles could be put to use.

In recent years, China has made great effort to revamp the
Qinghai-Tibet highway and the Sichuan-Tibet highway. National
highways 214, 317 and 109 -- the shortest routes into Tibet by land –
are now all asphalted. If China were to have a military confrontation
with India, highway transport could be more reliable should the
Qinghai-Tibet railway be damaged.

The railway would allow the 61st Plateau Rapid Reaction Motorized
Division of No. 21 Group Army under the Lanzhou Military Region and
the 149th Rapid Reaction Motorized Division of the Chengdu Military
Region to quickly enter Tibet.

Because of the presence of U.S. military troops in Afghanistan and
the escalating independence activities in the southern part of
Xinjiang -- northwest China's primarily Muslim Uyghur ethnic region –
the Xinjiang Military Region and the Lanzhou Military Region are now
the key forces to guard against internal riots in that part of the
country. This is why the forces of the Chengdu Military Region were
the first to be deployed in Tibet.

In addition, the riots in Tibet quickly spread to Gansu province,
which borders Xinjiang; therefore the Xinjiang and Lanzhou Military
Regions may face the new mission of cracking down on Tibetan
independence movements as well as Muslim riots and the traditional
Uyghur independence activities.

Once the Uyghur separatist movement in Xinjiang and the independence
activities in Gansu and Tibet intensify, the 61st Rapid Reaction
Division stationed at Tianshui in Gansu province will be the first
one to be called upon in the crackdown. In addition, the No. 12
Armored Division stationed at Zhangye in Gansu province may also be mobilized.

The 4th Motorized Infantry Division of Xinjiang Military Region was
the first local combat unit to receive new equipment in the region,
including the T-92 100-mm wheeled assault cannons. Obviously, this
division is now transforming into a rapid reaction unit and will
probably be used to deal with any riots in southern Xinjiang.
Besides, this division is also quite close to the Afghanistan border.

The 6th Motorized Infantry Division stationed at Kashi is the only
mechanized combat unit in the Xinjiang Military Region. It is also
close to Afghanistan and is located right in the heart of southern
Xinjiang. Should Uyghur independence activities break out of control,
the above two divisions would be the first to be dispatched.

As for the Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, it is covered by the 11th
Brigade. As is widely known, the 63rd Division of the original No. 21
Group Army and the 7th Division of the Xinjiang Military Region have
been restructured into the Armed Police No. 63 and No. 7 Divisions,
and are stationed at the cities of Pingliang and Ili, respectively.

(Andrei Chang is editor-in-chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly,
registered in Toronto Canada.)
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