by Air Vice-Marshal A Sengupta
Hyderabad: The current standoff between India and China, two nuclear powers, at the LAC in eastern Ladakh, has enticed all-out global attention recently. The international community, reeling under the wrath of the Corona pandemic and the resultant economic crisis, is overly apprehensive about the armies of the two powerful Asian giants facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, in the Himalayan contours. The “DRAGON”, with its expansionist approach, has attempted strategic moves with its salami-slicing tactics to push the LAC westwards unilaterally. Xi-Jinping has maintained harsh rhetoric, while adhering to the stand for a dialogue at the political, diplomatic and military levels and the impudent PLA, under his directions, continuing to reinforce its troops. Indian Army, too, has mobilised forces and weaponry to hold ground at the LAC and to deter any further incursions by the Chinese troops. New Delhi has taken a stand that, unless the status quo ante, as it was before April 2020, is attained, the withdrawal of Indian troops is inconceivable.
China has shown scant respect to the historical agreements, pacts, protocols or confidence-building measures between the two Asian countries, thereby challenging all previous understandings of the international border between the two nations. The Indian LAC extending upto Finger 8 in Pangong-Tso area, a known and agreed boundary, has had several face-offs in the last 20 yrs, the most prolonged and most significant being that of April 2013. However, the current crisis appears to be different, involving an assault over the Indian Soldiers, amassing troops and weaponry along the LAC, failure of talks between the political, diplomatic and military heavyweights and eventually Chinese troops resorting to firing in the air to intimidate and provoke the opposition. It is obvious that, in its current scheme, Beijing has underlying belligerence, an overt and covert agenda and a calculated obfuscation of facts. In the meanwhile, on the night of August 29-30, the Indian troops, with a swift surgical move, gained a strategic advantage by occupying the heights on the southern bank of Pangong-Tso lake and also repositioning the forces on the ridgeline in the spurs on the north bank. This gives them a clear line of sight of the crucial PLA Moldo garrison and helps them dominate all ingress routes through the Spangar Gap. Beijing retorted to this humiliation and the Chinese Foreign Office condemned the offensive campaign by conveying to New Delhi the immediate need to discipline the Indian Forces at the LAC. The ground realities today point towards a prolonged deployment of forces on either side with very little hope of an early de-escalation.
Under the existing stalemate, it is customary to evaluate our preparedness to face the expected long haul against a formidable adversary. Post 1990/Gulf War, China reviewed its doctrine about national power and defence preparedness. It realised that a strong economy and powerful military should rule the country. Under this perception, the Dragon shifted focus towards technological advancement, indigenization, capacity building, cultivating expeditionary capabilities and improving aerospace power to pursue the philosophy of no contact warfare. Beijing works on the principle of “Strategic Coercion” with a purpose to further its goal of expansionism. It liberally uses the techniques of “Posturing” & “Muscle Flexing” to intimidate its adversary. There are several excursions/skirmishes attempted by the Chinese Forces which stand testament to their scheme. China has issues with all possible neighbours namely Japan, Honk Kong, Taiwan, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, Vietnam & Australia and has attempted similar techniques with all of them without engaging in an all-out military war. Staking claim to the contested Spratly Islands, the weaponisation of man-made islands in the South China Sea, firing of DF-26 aircraft-carrier killer missiles and other medium-range missiles in the South China Sea, conducting military drills near the contested Paracel islands, blocking international aid for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in East Bhutan claiming it to be part of China and occupation of territory on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh region are few such recent coercive actions executed by the Republic of China. Hence, against all expectations, the current large scale deployment by the Indian Troops and their unfettered resolve to hold grounds at the LAC has been a major face-off for the Dragon. Regretfully, the ghost of 1962 is still riding the Indian mindset, which is nothing but a myth that ‘China is superior as a military power’. All objective assessments indicate that the Indian Forces are more than a match. The firm standoff at Nathu La and Cho La in 1967, though needlessly underplayed, is a testament to Indian Army holding its position with heroic demeanour against Chinese aggression.
There are few strategic concerns which deserve deliberation. Firstly, Under the mandate issued by Xi-Jinping, the PLA has gone for an all-out modernisation and mechanisation, in a great hurry, emulating the Russian Concept. However, the terrain in the Ladakh valley, with high altitudes and steep gorges, poses a challenge to the mechanised forces. The terrain on the Chinese side of the LAC is open, flat and tankable whereas the Indian side is just the opposite. As per the experts in Indian Army, after breaching the watershed on the Chinese side, the major natural obstacle is the narrow Shyok river-Indus river alignment which exposes any deployment of mechanized forces making them extremely vulnerable to ground fire from the tactical heights as well as attack helicopters. This is followed by the river valleys challenging to negotiate with tanks and ICVs. Hence, mechanised operations are not suitable on the Chinese side of LAC in Ladakh and are marred with the possibility of heavy attrition. Secondly, as per PLA perception of war-fighting, there is overwhelming reliance on the firepower of the newly created PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force to shape the battlefield before the launch of attacking forces. In a “Blitzkrieg” type of offensive manoeuver, the aim is to close in as far as possible and then dismount under cover of fire and simply mop up the objectives. The efficacy of firepower in the mountains, especially against well-coordinated defences, is suspect. Besides, The PLA is alien to the tactics of physical, face to face, infantry led warfare in which the Indian Army has proficiency. Hence, in the mountainous terrains of Ladakh and Arunachal, Indian Army has the upper hand over Logistics heavy mechanized forces of PLA. Thirdly, the PLA soldiers are conscripts with poor disparaging standards of living. They generally belong to socially backward and disadvantaged sections with nil risk-taking abilities because of the earlier single child policy, rendering them totally averse to ‘Body Bags’. There is also very high discrimination between officers and conscripts, the later drawing 13 times less pay and nil welfare measures. Hence, when it comes to ‘motivation’, ‘pride for uniform’, ‘will to fight and win’ and ‘will to die for own country’, Indian Army, indisputably, has an edge over PLA. Fourthly, inexperience remains China’s biggest military weakness. PLA fought the last major conflict in 1979 wherein Vietnamese military demolished a failed Chinese invasion. 41 years later, PLA does not have war-experienced soldiers still serving. Hence, China’s military has an impressive arsenal but nil combat experience. Fifthly, in case of a military conflict, Pakistan colluding with China is a close possibility. That India would have to fight a two and a half front war is almost certain. China has its presence in Pakistan in a big way and has recently piled up PLAAF assets at many PAF airbases. PLAAF and PLA Navy getting logistical support from Pakistan is not distant but the immediate threat to India. It is also expected that Pakistan will also play its “Proxy” role with vengeance. The current controversy, created by unveiling a fake political map during SCO meet showing J&K as part of Pakistan, is an indication towards this prediction. Lastly, the hype about technological supremacy, gained by China in general and the Chinese Forces in particular, is only on paper and needs validation in the face of an arduous adversary.
After analysing the outcome of the Gulf War in 1990, China recognised the significance of the aerospace power and took up modernization of its Air Force and Navy. PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is the second-largest Air force in the world with larger fleet size and strategic assets. IAF on the contrary, has a smaller but more reliable inventory and strategic airbases with experienced troops. IAF pilots have hands-on experience in high altitude combat missions and they are far more accomplished in their training standards. The strategic location of many of the IAF bases in the North and NE provides for uninterrupted aerial support to the LAC. Although US satellite pictures endorse that China has developed military positions near the LAC including airbases, air defence positions and helipads in the last three years, it is envisaged that PLAAF has limited airbases in Xinxiang and Tibet regions and may have to fly combat missions with limited weapons and fuel to negotiate high altitudes and rough weather. Notwithstanding, in India, extensive infrastructure development up to the Myanmar border, largely to facilitate military aviation, has further strengthened the resolve of IAF. With the induction of 4.5 generation Rafale swing-role fighters and the existing fleet of air superiority fighters SU-30 MKI, Mirage-2000 and Tejas (LCA), IAF is better placed for high altitude operations in all weather conditions. Rafale is cut above the rest in terms of weapon suite, accuracy and stand-off capabilities, multi and swing-role capabilities, avionics, self-protection suite as well as sortie generation rate. The PLAAF J-20, claimed to be a fifth-generation fighter, is still under development and is yet to be combat tested. IAF also has an upper hand in terms of strategic airlift, rotorcraft heavy and medium-lift and all-weather helicopter attack capabilities with special anti-tank weapons. Irrefutably, IAF has a comprehensive edge when it comes to quality over quantity.
With 350 warships in its arsenal, the PLA Navy is the largest Blue Water Navy in the world. It is assiduously working towards setting up logistical bases in the Indo pacific region to enhance its strategic reach. With the establishment of its first overseas base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and its access to the ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, PLA Navy is making all-out efforts to expand its footprints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Though the Indian Navy (IN) is outnumbered, it has various geographical and tactical advantages. IN is not required to deploy expeditionary vessels in the South China Sea. Any Naval conflict for India will unfold mainly in the IOR where IN is expected to leverage its dominant position to counter the threat of aggressive manoeuvres by PLA Navy. However, the PLA Navy will have to launch a sizeable contingent to operate long distances to take on IN in its own surroundings. Such expeditionary missions impose severe logistical burdens, exposure to antagonist patrols/forces en route, heavy reliance on back up and crew fatigue. IN’s strong presence in the Andaman Sea makes China vulnerable in the region since the majority of the Chinese imports pass through the Malacca Straits, a narrow passage between Malaysia and Indonesia close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The IN has significantly enhanced its deployment in the IOR with a plethora of warships and submarines. Recently, IN has participated in joint exercises with the US, Russian and Royal Australian navies in the Bay of Bengal, practising maritime manoeuvres, weapons drill and other deep-sea operations and is well prepared to take on any challenges in the IOR.
It is said that “Economic and Military Prowess are intertwined”. China is the second-largest economy in the world with a $14 Tr GDP whereas India, having leap-frogged to the fifth position, has set a target of $5 Tr for itself, to be attained by 2025. The Chinese Communist Party pursued economic growth passionately for the last four decades to become rich and powerful. It developed trade relations with most of the countries in the world. However, in terms of soft power and diplomacy, India scores way above and, as the largest democracy in the world, it has shaped a place for itself in the international community which remains unmatched.
In 2020, the world economy has been severely hit by the pandemic. The negative GDP growth of India has been addressed by the Govt and may need major reforms for its revival. There have been a decline in the manufacturing and industrial sectors and the MSMEs are distressed. The RBI is introducing well-founded initiatives to obviate an imminent situation of stagflation and the early signs of recovery can be seen. Leading economists feel that, for India, the essence lies in improving the in-house facilitation for the global players to initiate commercial ventures under the “Make in India” initiative. The repugnance against China, as the source of the pandemic, has been pervasive, thereby throwing open major economic, industrial and commercial opportunities for India. This has been further fuelled with the call for self-reliance. To gainfully exploit the current prospects, India also needs to adopt measures to encourage entrepreneurial talents among Indians, especially in fields of electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, where China has enjoyed dominance for years.
India has considerably improved its diplomatic relations with the friendly countries in the last decade. US Secy of State offering to move some troops from Europe to Asia to counter China’s threat to India and Southeast Asian countries endorses the strategic partnership that India enjoys with the US. India joining the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ with the US, Australia and Japan further strengthen its relationship with these countries. Traditionally, Russia had been the major arms supplier to India and continues to be so. Russia’s efforts in holding a tripartite dialogue with India and China, on the sidelines of SCO meet, was a sign of coalition. India also has military pacts with US, France, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Singapore to reinforce interoperability, defence co-operation and extension of logistical support. A similar agreement is also being negotiated with the UK and Russia. These enabling provisions will help in leveraging bilateral support and diplomatic advantages in times of need.
A precarious situation has emerged at the LAC between India and China wherein the talks and diplomatic initiatives have not yielded much relief and the impasse endures. This has become complex and bizarre with either side blaming the opposition as the root cause. The fifth round of Corps Commander level dialogue has only yielded a consensus over arresting further escalation but, considering the past reputation of China, there is suspicion over its implementation. Under the prevailing imbroglio, the possibility of military conflict can not be disregarded, where Pakistan, with its limited capabilities, is likely to collude. To cater for this eventuality maybe as a last resort, the Indian Nation has to be prepared for a two and a half front confrontation with full commitment. The Indian Military is fully capable to face any challenges that may crop up at the LAC or the IOR. The three arms, with the support of MoD, need full replenishment of war reserves, if not already ensured. The recent efforts to hasten up the supply of arms from Russia, including the S-400 batteries and the additional SU-30 and Mig-29 fighters, need to be pursued aggressively at the topmost level. There is a definite and time-bound necessity to restrict and reduce the existing numerical asymmetry in the military arsenal. Towards this, the requirements to fill up the deficiency of 10 combat squadrons for the IAF and a requisite number of ships and submarines for the navy, stands tall. Enhancement of the Defence budget deserves precedence over other fiscal considerations. There is a need to hasten up initiation of the defence intensive infrastructure projects planned for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as Lakshadweep. In nutshell, New Delhi can not afford to drop its guard at any cost, while leaving all channels of diplomacy open. It is also imperative that all possibilities of de-escalation by the Indian Forces need to be negotiated only when the “Dragon” settles for a status quo ante.
AVM A Sengupta is an Air Veteran. He served the IAF for 36 yrs in various capacities, including as a Fighter Controller, who is deeply involved in all combat air operations. In his second winnings, he also served as the Defence Banking Advisor with SBI. He has a keen interest in writing and golf.