Himalayan Impasse: How China Would Fight an Indian Border Conflict

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 12

At the end of August, Chinese and Indian troops both pulled back from the Doklam region  in Bhutan after weeks of tense posturing. The face off began in June when Chinese construction crews accompanied by soldiers began building a road. The area is sensitive to Indian national interests not only because of its ally Bhutan, but also due to area’s proximity to a narrow corridor connecting eastern India with the rest of the country. Beijing repeatedly ratcheted up the messaging to India, including the release of a Ministry of Foreign Affairs legal justification of China’s territorial claims against India (China Daily, August 3, 2017). If the two sides decide to face off again,  forces on both sides will need to contend with the difficult mountain terrain and complex weather conditions. To prepare for such a contingency, both India and China have invested significantly in units capable of mountain and high-altitude warfare. An examination of the Chinese Military’s doctrine and training of such units provides important insights into how such a conflict would be conducted.

Mountain and High Altitude Campaigns

Mountain and high altitude operations would be conducted in the complex terrain found in many regions of China, in particular border regions, as well as Taiwan where mountain and urban on island operations could occur. Special terrain and their meteorological conditions have significant impact on informationized military operations. PLA border defense and counterattack campaigns would include mountain and high altitude mountain specialized warfare.

Environmental Characteristics

Mountains account for approximately 33 percent of China’s total area, and a high percentage of the border regions. Mountainous regions normally contain few roads and other infrastructure, little population, and limited resources. Mountain ranges twist and turn making line of sight complex. Erosion, steep slopes, lush vegetation in some areas, floods during rainy seasons, and rivers restrict mobility. Limited roads and paths generally follow valleys and ridgelines, or through passes and other choke points. [1]

Impact on Military Operations

Mountainous terrain creates difficulties for command and coordination, as well as mobility and maneuver. These regions are advantageous for defensive actions where relatively small forces can hold key passes and valleys against superior forces, using natural obstacles to support an in-depth defensive system. The terrain often provides the defense with shelter and concealment. The restrictive terrain limits offensive force deployments along restricted mobility corridors, splitting offensive formations along independent directions. The terrain generally favors employment of light and airmobile forces, although small heavy groups can operate along roads, in flat terrain in some valleys or plateaus, or provide support to lighter forces. The narrow mobility corridors make envelopments and flank attacks difficult, as well as reducing operational tempo in general. The mountainous terrain can conceal force concentration and movements. Mountain combat rely on non-linear (非线性) operations with a focus on rapid penetration, flank attacks, envelopments, ambushes, air assault and special operations insertions. Non-contact (非接触) operations with joint fire strikes and information attacks are critical to a successful campaign. [2]

Mountainous areas often have low population densities featuring high socio-cultural complexities, limiting the ability to rely on local supplies and support. [3] The difficult terrain and weather conditions increases the requirements for logistics, equipment and operational support. Consumption rates for materiel, oil, and medical support are higher than in general terrain. Lack of local maintenance support combined with severe mountain terrain and weather conditions increase maintenance and repair requirements. Ethnic and religious factors increase the importance of political and psychological operations to ensure the support of the local population. Forces also require high levels of communications to support dispersed units, engineering for mobility and protection, reconnaissance and meteorological support for situational awareness and targeting. [4]

The annual recruitment, demobilization and training cycle could influence the timing of operations. The impact would be greatest on the ground forces relying on higher percentages of two-year recruits than the other services. This problem could be circumvented by retaining troops in anticipation of combat, although this could provide indication and warning of possible operations.

The 2006 Science of Campaigns (SoC) places great emphasis on conducting a penetration and breakthrough of the enemy’s first line defense. This PLA study does emphasize employing pincer attacks, envelopments, and insertion of airborne and special operations forces (SOF) into the enemy rear area when possible to support frontal attacks. The 2013 Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns provides updated PLA thinking on campaigns. An informationized military would experience greater offensive advantages than in the past in conducting sudden, concealed indirect attacks with dispersed forces to disrupt the cohesion of the enemy’s defensive system. Informationized reconnaissance, communications, navigation and positioning systems can support concealed assembly, deployment, maneuver and attack. The modernized force could better conduct three-dimensional maneuver and multi-directional feints to confuse and stress the defender, seize key terrain, and achieve a deep attack against the enemy. The PLA also believes that informationized logistics and equipment support can overcome many of the difficulties posed by the complex environment. [5]

Mountain and High Altitude Training

Ground Force

PLA campaign publications on mountain and high altitude warfare define the significant impact on offensive and defensive operations, supporting operational planning, training and equipment requirements for combat in this complex terrain. PLA units in the Western Theater Command (WTC) train at mountain and high-altitude combat, particularly the 52nd and 53rd Mountain Infantry Brigades, and the 54th Mechanized Infantry Brigade located in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, as well as a Mechanized Infantry Division garrisoned in Hotan. This training acclimates troops to the high-altitude mountain and meteorological conditions (Xinhua, July 3; China Brief, January 13). The 76th and 77th Group Armies train in high altitude mountain terrain over 4000 meters, as do motor transport units in the region providing heavy equipment transport and logistics support. Army training includes joint operations with Air Force and Rocket Force units (PLA Daily, February 19, 2017; MOD, May 17, 2017; PLA Daily, September 19, 2016; People’s Daily, August 19, 2015; PLA Daily, August 24, 2017).

Air Force

The WTC Air Force is undergoing restructuring to adapt to the new joint command structure and operational requirements. The Air Force command is concentrating on forming an Air Force operational system of systems (作战体系 – an integrated force grouping), as well as improving combat readiness. Air Force elements including aircraft, surface-to-air missile, radar units, and communications train in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Training includes joint operations with Army units, long-range mobility, ground attack and air defense, emergency operations, and operating under complex meteorological conditions (PLA Daily, October 31, 2017; MOD, September 9, 2016). Imagery analysis has shown increased Air Force aircraft deployments and facility improvements over the past few years, as well as recent increases in aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), at regional air bases which could better support operations against India. UAVs include the CH-4 recon/strike UAV deployed at Xigaze. (Offiziere.ch, December 30, 2015; Offiziere.ch, January 11, 2016; Offiziere.ch, August 4).

Rocket Force

While the Rocket Force command likely resides with the Central Military Commission, Rocket Force personnel are deployed to theater commands to support operational planning and coordination. The Rocket Force conducts training at night and dispatches foreign reconnaissance satellite warnings supporting concealed deployment of missile brigades to launch sites. The Rocket Force also trains in various climatic conditions as well as mountain terrain. Rocket Force brigades designated to support a WTC operational plan against India would have pre-surveyed launch positions prepared to support the joint fire plan (Global Times, April 12, 2016; PLA Daily, August 12, 2017; PLA Daily, August 23, 2015). [6]

Specialized Light Equipment

The editor of the journal Ordnance Knowledge (兵器知识) has stated that the PLA is developing lightweight equipment to better conduct mountain operations (China Daily, July 17). Army units in the Tibet region are equipped with some specialized light mobile equipment, including armed 8X8 all-terrain armed vehicles and the PCL-09 122mm truck-mounted howitzer (MOD, January 4, 2017; MOD, May 23, 2017). China has also developed a new light tank to replace old Type 62 light tanks that had been deployed to many units in the southern mountain regions. The new 35-ton tank is equipped with a 105mm main gun and has been tested on the Tibet Plateau (MOD, June 30, 2017). The Z-20 medium lift helicopter reportedly has similar capabilities to the U.S. Black Hawk and is capable of operating at high altitudes (China Daily, January 3, 2014).

Command and Forces

The theater Army would form a command post within the theater command for the operation with ground force units forming the primary component supported by the other services (PLA Daily, May 19, 2016; Global Times, February 3, 2016; Global Times, May 13, 2016). Campaign forces will likely employ a combination of centralized command (集中指挥) on the main attack axis and decentralized command (分散指挥) on secondary axes. Command staffs conduct detailed terrain, climatic and mobility analysis that can impact operations to develop the operational plan. [7] The figure below shows the theater joint command relationships. [8]

A mountain campaign typically is conducted by an Army commanded campaign formation (战役军团) either consisting of or supported by Air Force, Rocket Force, and other services. The figure below shows a notional border campaign operational system of systems composed of the theater command and joint campaign formations. The theater receives support from the Strategic Support Force for strategic intelligence and information warfare support, and Joint Logistics Support Force, as well as the theater Joint Logistics Support Center. Subordinate joint or combined arms tactical formations could be formed to conduct independent actions along separate attack axes. These larger task forces in turn would form various specialized tactical groups. [9]


Recent PLA publications emphasize paralysis of the enemy defensive system over destruction. Enhanced capabilities to conduct deep attack via firepower and vertical envelopments improve offensive capabilities and decrease the reliance on costly frontal attacks. Precision strikes are emphasized to support ground operations and increase operational tempo by destroying enemy fortified positions. Ground-based precision artillery and missiles can overcome the loss of aviation fire support caused by weather conditions. The fire plan will include a layered assault and interdiction throughout the enemy’s depth. Artillery and Army Aviation strike forward and shallow depth positions, while longer range rocket, Air Force aviation, and Rocket Force missiles strike in-depth targets. [10] SOF also play a key role providing intelligence, strike guidance and damage assessments, as well as attacking key targets other forces cannot easily strike. Recent PLA publications also stress that restricted terrain can isolate defenders and degrade reconnaissance, allowing the offensive force to employ navigation and positioning systems and terrain masking to surprise, penetrate and encircle enemy positions. [11]

Defensive operations establish multi-zone, in-depth defensive positions with interlocking fire that control lines of communications and key terrain. Ambushes are set, and an active defensive posture maintained. A strong tactical and campaign reserve is formed to implement counterattacks and transition to offensive operations. Materiel is prepositioned to overcome enemy interdiction and resupply problems caused by weather and terrain. [12]

High Altitude Plateau Campaigns

High altitude plateau is a very special geographical and climatic environment characterized by average elevations above 4000 meters and reaching over 7000 meters. This battlefield environment is found in the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and would affect operations during a Sino-Indian conflict. [13]

Environmental Characteristics

The high altitude environment is characterized by bad weather and snow, thin air, severe cold, oxygen deficiency, high-intensity ultraviolet radiation, and generally poor living conditions. The terrain is complex with steep mountains, and weak infrastructure including few and poor quality roads and airports leading to significant mobility and resupply problems. Most areas have little vegetation limiting camouflage capabilities. The region contains mostly minority populations creating sensitive ethnic and religious issues. [14]

Impact on Military Operations

The impact of mountain terrain on combat is similar, but much more severe in high-altitude cold mountain terrain. There is a significantly adverse effect on personnel with increased non-combat attrition, as well as reduction in the performance of weapons and equipment. These factors greatly reduce combat effectiveness of the force, which will continue to decline over the course of the operation due to environmental factors in addition to combat. Personnel acclimatized to the high-altitude will still experience a physical and mental decline, with susceptibility to various medical conditions. Vehicles experience reduced power, increased fuel consumption, and high maintenance and repair requirements. Weapons exhibit greater failure rates, ammunition experiences higher numbers of dud rounds, and long-range missiles experience problems with course deviation. [15]

The climate limits the time frame to conduct combat actions, as well as being unpredictable. The snow season lasts for six months; and the rainy season experiences flash floods, deep water levels in rivers, and muddy roads inhibiting mobility. The climate and terrain limit force size and campaign scale. Armored vehicles, large-caliber artillery and other heavy equipment will experience limited mobility. Weather conditions would limit air operations to June through September. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought in October and November without air support. The high-altitude reduces aviation performance and lift capabilities, although the thin air increases the range of projectiles and shrapnel. [16]


Operations in high altitude terrain will be similar to those in mountain terrain, although forces will be smaller, and logistics, equipment and operational support requirements greater. Firepower requirements will increase greatly, with additional fire support included within the campaign formation and joint forces in support. Greater reliance on ground-based precision fire support is emphasized to overcome terrain and the decline in combat capabilities of other forces, as well as the potential loss of aviation fire support. Psychological operations are important to bolster the morale of troops, weaken the enemy’s will to resist, and retain support of the ethnic population. [17]

The terrain and climatic conditions greatly favor the defense, as in mountain warfare. The defense will initially remain relatively passive in in-depth fortified positions protected by obstacles. The defense will concentrate on tenaciously holding their positions, and concentrate on large-scale attrition of enemy forces. Small scale spoiling attacks and ambushes can be conducted to thwart enemy operations and maintain a more active defense. Stockpiles and reserves of supplies should be strategically positioned to meet combat requirements. The Air Force and Rocket Force will strike key enemy objectives in-depth and conduct battlefield interdiction to disrupt offensive operations, and support the transition to offensive operations. [18]


Mountain and high altitude warfare present specialized problems for military operations. The complex terrain will restrict force employment and deployment, creating difficulties for mobility and maneuver. The conditions generally favor the defense, although recent PLA doctrinal writings express a belief that high tech weapons and equipment can mitigate some of the specialized problems and enhance offensive capabilities. These newer publications emphasize greater use of precision strikes to overcome terrain and enemy defenses to support ground operations and increase operational tempo. The PLA considers air and information superiority to be critical factors for successful operations. However, aviation support is significantly restricted by altitude and weather conditions. High altitude terrain will stress personnel and equipment, increasing non-combat losses, as well as maintenance and repair requirements. Psychological operations are important targeting friendly and enemy troops, as well as civilians.

Despite the difficulty of operations in mountainous or high altitude conditions, the PLA has specialized forces and equipment for such combat. PLA units train in terrain and weather conditions similar to potential conflict areas in preparation for operational missions. Campaign and tactical doctrine provide guidance for specialized training and operational planning for contingencies is these terrain conditions.

PLA mountain and high altitude combat doctrine provides insight into operations during a potential Sino-Indian border conflict. Forces would be relatively small because of the restricted terrain, and would be limited to troops that routinely train and are acclimated to the special conditions. Joint precision strikes would constitute an important component of the operation to overcome the complex terrain, destroy the cohesion of the enemy’s in-depth defensive system, and support and increase the operational tempo of ground force combat. Insertions of airmobile and special operations forces into the enemy rear area would support frontal ground force combat, seize or destroy key targets, support the joint fire strike, and interdict enemy forces. Ground-based precision strikes could compensate for reduced aviation support. Information attacks, electronic and psychological warfare would be important components in achieving information superiority critical for a successful operation.

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Taiwan during 31 years in the U.S. government. His publications include Russian Influence Campaigns against the West: From the Cold War to Putin,” and PLA System of Systems Operations: Enabling Joint Operations.” Mr. McCauley writes primarily on PLA and Taiwan military affairs, and is an Adjunct, RAND Corporation.


  1. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 218-219
  2. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 219-220; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 31
  3. In Tibet population centers are primarily in the Lhasa, Xigaze and Nyingchi area. The PLA has likely prepositioned materiel in areas of operations.
  4. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 220; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 406
  5. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 220; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), pp. 416-421
  6. Theater Joint Operations Command (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2016), p. 340
  7. Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 409; Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 221; Military Terms (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011), pp. 176-177
  8. Theater Joint Operations Command (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2016), p. 340
  9. Science of Joint Tactics (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2014), p. 119; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 404
  10. Rocket Force participation would include but not necessarily be limited to the 56th Base headquartered in Xining. Operational requirements and targets would determine the types of missiles required to support the operations. Missiles that could carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead present a warning problem to the two nuclear states, risking escalation.
  11. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 221-222; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), pp. 413 and 423-424
  12. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 222-224
  13. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 224
  14. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 224
  15. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 224
  16. Science of Army Campaigns Under High-Tech Conditions, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2003), pp. 303-323; Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 224-225
  17. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 226
  18. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 227-229