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Lure your enemy onto the roof, then take away the ladder

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile.
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  • May 13, 2013

    Among the 36 stratagems attributed to Sun Tzu, there are some that have never lost relevance even with the changing times, weaponry or tactics of modern warfare. One such stratagem is called “Lure Your Enemy onto the Roof, Then Take Away the Ladder”. This has been explained by way of an interesting story of the Han period.

    “After defeating the rebel kingdom of Wei, the famous Han general Han Xin was sent to quell the other two kingdoms that had revolted, Qi and Chu. General Han set out towards Qi but Chu sent its general Long Chu with a force of two hundred thousand men to intercept Han's invasion of Qi. The two armies met on opposite sides of the Wei River. General Han ordered his men to fill over ten thousand sandbags and carry them up-river to dam the flow of water. The next morning General Han led his army across the lowered river and attacked Chu, but after a short engagement pretended defeat and fled back across the river. General Long announced, “See I always knew Han Xin was a coward!" and he led his army across the river in pursuit. Through a prearranged signal, General Han had his men break the dam and free the pent up waters. Only half of the Chu army was across the river when the flood cut the army in half drowning those caught midstream. General Han then wheeled around his retreating forces and attacked the advance guard of Chu killing its general Long Chu. The remaining troops panicked and fled in all directions but were captured by the pursuing Han soldiers.”1

    Segarra, from the Warrior Scholar, martial arts academy explains this stratagem in very plain speak, relating it to application in combat. He says “Like Bruce Lee's character in the movie Enter the Dragon when he asked his challenger to take the small rowboat to the small island to fight. When the challenger got on the boat he set it adrift. A modern application would be to let them through the door first and then lock it behind them.2

    In many ways this stratagem can be an interesting lesson for those planners seeking military solutions to transgressions or intrusions which manifest into a prolonged standoff or a face-to-face situation akin to the one that occurred in the Ladakh sector recently. Analysing the terrain one can study the possibility of using such a stratagem in the future. Take for example the Depsang bulge. The Depsang plains are the only relatively flat, open and rich grazing grounds in the entire sector. Surrounded by the Chip Chap river to the North, the Karakoram Range to its East and the South, it rests on the Shyok to its West. For hundreds of kilometres to the East the area is desolate and barren ‘cold desert’. It has no habitation and very little water. Inserting a body of troops deep into hostile territory cannot be successful unless the force has ‘staying power’. Such a body of troops planning to ‘dig in’ or camp permanently would require assured logistics support. This would entail an all weather road for vehicle based supplies or secure helipad or dropping zone for air supplies. In the Somdurong Chu incident, one of the first actions taken by the intruding force was to construct a helipad for resupply by air. In view of the extended lines of communications and the harsh terrain obtaining in Ladakh, these supply routes would be susceptible to vagaries and severity of weather. Moreover, once identified, such a body of troops becomes vulnerable by ‘crossing the first door’ and then getting ‘locked from behind’. A superior force can be easily placed in between and isolate the intruders. As Sun Tzu said, it would be relatively easy to ‘remove the ladder’ leaving the beleaguered force with little option but capitulate.

    It would be naïve to believe that a professional army would plan such an operation without a well thought fire support and extraction/ reinforcement plan. In the War Zone Campaign strategy, this would be the task of Elite Forces and Sharp Arms, notably the Special Operations Force (SOF) and the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF). They have a capability to be para- dropped or air transported into the tactical conflict zone by aircraft or helicopters. They are adequately supported by firepower and have tailor-made logistic support system. Like General Han who broke the dam and set the pent up waters free, the attacking force will have to deny the reinforcements the capability to link up or reinforce the besieged troops using terrain, weather and superior force to its advantage.

    It would be fitting to do a ‘Sun Tzu’ on the Chinese military which prides itself of being ardent exponent of Sun Tzu , should it plan such a venture again.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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