Satellite Image Analysis: Where Indian Army, PLA Allegedly Fought

The satellite imagery and its analysis also give detailed information on the three disputed areas.

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Satellite Image Analysis: Where Indian Army, PLA  Allegedly Fought

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Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in action while dismantling illegal Chinese camps at Galwan Valley on 15 June. While the country is mourning their loss, the exact details of what happened on the night in this disputed region and what is the current situation remain vague.

The analysis of satellite imagery from late May and early June by Nathan Ruser of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute gives a glimpse into the force buildup at the border, and the location, where the violent attacks took place. However, this report has been disputed by several Indian defence analysts.

The satellite imagery and its analysis also give detailed information on the three disputed areas  – the Galwan River Valley, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso.
Ladakh sector, showing Line of Actual Control and key areas
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

Galwan Valley

The report focuses first on the Galwan Valley, which is centre of the standoff, where the 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the action. Satellite images shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed up to 1,000 soldiers and has established significant positions in the valley.

“Until May, the PLA didn’t have positions within the valley, despite several kilometres being on the China-controlled side of the LAC. However, recently established Indian positions closer to the LAC, and the construction of a road to supply these positions, appears to have prompted the PLA to establish a number of significant positions and move up to 1,000 soldiers into the valley.”

Galwan River Valley, showing approximate location of clash
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

The analysis of imagery near Patrol Point 14, which is a sandbank along the LAC, shows “a small number of tents and likely fewer than 50 Chinese soldiers”. The reason for the PLA to occupy ridgeline position is to observe the traffic on the recently completed Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldie road and Indian military bases.

Clearly, this explains why Indian troops were sent in to remove this position, which was agreed upon during the commander level meetings, especially the one on 6 June. Indian troops dismantling this position led to the violent attack from PLA that resulted in 20 Indian causalities.

Galwan River Valley, oblique view of approximate location of clash relative to road to Indian military base
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

According to the report, satellite imagery on 16 June, the morning after the deadly attack along the LAC, shows both the Indian and Chinese forward most positions that had been dismantled over the past week.

It also shows that India had set up a temporary position within 50 metres of the LAC, which the analyst believes could be a casualty collection point. On the Chinese side, a group of around 100 trucks can be seen. “It’s not clear if these trucks are reinforcing the area with troops or dismantling positions in accordance with the disengagement agreement between India and China,” read the report.

Galwan River Valley, showing partially dismantled Chinese position and trucks, 16 June 2020
(Photo: Planet Labs/Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

Hot Springs Area

South of the Galwan River Valley lies the Hot Springs area. Here, satellite imagery from late May shows dirt track up to 1 kilometre into Indian-controlled territory. It also shows a looped dirt track that crosses nearly 500 metres into Indian-controlled territory.

Hot Springs area, showing position of developments between Gogra and Wenquan, May 2020
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

“The fact that it’s a circular track suggests that it may be a regular patrol route. There are no PLA positions on the Indian side of the LAC; however, these tracks suggest that PLA forces are regularly making incursions into Indian territory, at a remote part of the LAC that is 10 kilometres from the nearest Indian positions,” read the report.

India, on the other hand, is constructing a permanent position along the river valley in a position that overlooks the LAC.

In response to these likely incursions, it appears that Indian forces have begun construction of a major permanent position overlooking that section of the LAC. This imagery from 21 May shows it under construction with significant activity from diggers.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Nrg8000)

Pangong Tso

In Pangong Tso, as per the Indian perception of the LAC, the border is at Finger 8 (marked in the map). However, satellite images show that the PLA has come in way inside the LAC up to finger 4, where PLA structures could be found.

Pangong Tso, showing Indian and Chinese positions and claims relative to Actual Line of Control.
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

The report says that the PLA constructed between 500 structures, fortified trenches and a new boat-shed between fingers 4 and 5, which is way ahead of their original position. There seems to be more structures under construction.

Pangong Tso, showing new Chinese positions
(Photo: Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
The beach on which there were clashes in 2017 is now an extremely build up Chinese position, with around 10 structures that are dug in with trenches, and boats anchored at the peninsula.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter//Nrg8000)

“The scale and provocative nature of these new Chinese outposts is hard to overstate: 53 different forward positions have been built, including 19 that sit exactly on the ridge-line separating Indian and Chinese patrols,” read the report.


Analyst’s Take on the Report

Defence Analyst Brahma Chellaney played down the analysis by the think tanks. “This analysis, while claiming to be of satellite imagery, is largely based on deceptively created maps, other than at Lake Pangong. It depicts a fictional Line of Actual Control, thus hiding China's encroachments in Galwan Valley and Hot Springs,” he tweeted.

In an argument that ensued on Twitter, the author of the report countered Brahma. “This Line of Actual Control actually comes from Indian sources (namely detailed geographic data from India's Department of Environment),” he tweeted.

In response, defence analyst Brahma, tweeted: “No combination of pretty colours or flags on contrived maps can change basic facts. These maps reflect China's freshly minted claims to Galwan Valley and Hot Springs/Gogra. India has no "Department of Environment." Environment folks don't keep data on LAC.”

Despite the criticism, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute stands by its report.

(The details and maps from the report have been republished with permission.)

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