Idia's Tactical Non-Solutions To China's Incursions in Ladakh
Strange, but there was no mention of the troubles the country
is facing on the disputed border with China by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in
his latest monthly edition of radio talk "mann ki baat" on May 30.
It is as if all is normal on the national security front and Beijing, emulating
the Modi regime, has fully imbibed the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirits and is
committed to resolving all issues peacefully. Except, a month plus into the
confrontation with China, Beijing's territorial grab at various points on the
3,800 km disputed border, especially in the western sector, is reality.
The Narendra Modi government and the Indian army's response to this aggression
has been along predictable lines. It is being officially stated that (1) there
has been no territorial loss, (2) India has adequate forces to deal with any
China front-related contingency, and (3) existing negotiation mechanisms at
various levels ranging from field commanders at one end, MEA, to the hotline
connecting the Prime Minister and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the other
end, are working to defuse the situation.
The third factor - diplomacy and negotiation - that the army and the government
are stressing and is being publicized is possibly because that's what they are
relying on to restore a modicum of peace but on Chinese terms - meaning Delhi's
acceptance of the new territorial status quo, because the Indian army, honestly
speaking, is in no position forcefully to restore the status quo ante. As
regards, the first two assertions - well, to put it bluntly, they are false.
There has been serious and extensive capture of territory over time on the
Indian side of the claim line by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), most
recently and egregiously in the eight terrain features, called "fingers" abutting the Pangong Lake (discussed in the preceding post) .
The wide-area satellite imagery that has been available to the Indian
government since well before Narendra Modi became prime minister ought to have
alerted the army and government to the larger picture of relentless expansion
of its presence on the LAC but did not. Why not, is a legitimate matter for
investigation. It proves not just the loss of valuable real state elsewhere,
but particularly here in one of the most strategically sensitive regions.
The government's military pointman on the China border issue, the
Mandarin-speaking Lt Gen SL Narasimhan, one-time commander XXXIII Corps,
Military Attache in Beijing, and presently a member of the National Security
Advisory Board, firstly voiced the unexceptionable opinion that the reason PLA
has acted up is to hinder military-use border infrastructure construction
proceeding apace on the Indian side. Like the long, high altitude, Chewang
Rinchen bridge across the Shyok River in eastern Ladakh connecting Durbuk with
Depsang via Murgo.
Secondly, he attributed the clashes on the LAC to the summer patrolling season,
and conceded that territory may have been lost owing to an undefined border. He
then adopted a variant of the MEA line that nothing's amiss to make a
perplexing statement: "I think [the Chinese] are trying to lay claim to their
perception of LAC. I don't think it should be seen as if they want to pick up
territory or otherwise. It should be seen as they are trying to lay claim to
their perception of the LAC."
Well, what is it, General Narasimhan? Has the PLA ventured onto the Indian side
and captured territory, or not? China's laying "claim to [its] perception of
LAC" surely amounts to its creating a new LAC and "picking up" Indian
territory, no? Or does he think the enemy's "perception of LAC" can be
abstracted from his activity to realize his perception on the ground? In any
case, what kind of hair splitting is this, and that too by an army general? In
the event, nothing good can be assumed about the quality of his advice to the
government. (Indian Express)
Narasimhan's confused and confusing statements notwithstanding, there's in fact
a methodical buildup by the PLA of staging areas, including a forward air field
in Ngari, shelters for infantry combat/light armoured vehicles and associated
stores, permanent shelters for troops, etc. on India's side of the claim line
that leaves little doubt as to Beijing's intent to convert this line into the
new LAC, one from which it will not withdraw.
But this is not the sensible conclusion reached by the government. Modi's
thinking, embellished by MEA and the likes of Narasimhan, is reflected, for
instance, in his recent newspaper op-ed by the ex-foreign secretary Shyam
Saran, also Mandarin conversant, who believes that despite the construction by
the PLA of military facilities on various sites on the LAC, China will withdraw
upon a negotiated settlement. It is an MEA pipe dream the Indian government has
long been lulling itself into quiescence with. On the ground though, per
Saran's own report India as of 2013 lost 640 sq kms of territory - a loss that
may have doubled by now with China's policy of creeping occupation of contested
and strategically important territory.
Recent writings by senior retired army officers attest to this territorial
loss. The outspoken Lt General HS Panag, Northern Army Commander 2006-2008, is
forthcoming on this score. Panag, it may be remembered, was transferred by the
then army chief General Deepak Kapoor to the Central Command to serve out his
career for initiating an investigation into the so-called "eggs and tents" scam
occurring during his predecessor Kapoor's tenure in Udhampur.
Panag writes that "the PLA has crossed the LAC and physically secured 3-4 km of
our territory along Galwan River and the entire area between Finger 5 and
Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km.
There also seem to be minor incursions in the area of Hot Springs, in Ladakh's
Chang Chenmo River valley and at Demchok."
More worryingly, the territory the PLA has actually secured may be many times
more because, he asserts, "the intrusion by regular troops is not linear like
normal border patrols going to respective claim lines. If a brigade size force
has secured 3-4 km in Galwan River, it implies that the heights to the north
and south have been secured, thus securing a total area of 15 to 20 square km.
Similarly, along Pangong Tso, the PLA brigade having secured 8-10 km on the
north bank would have also secured the dominating heights to the north to
physically control 35-40 square km. And if China subsequently realigns its
claim line based on the areas secured, the net area secured would increase
Labeling the slow but deliberate occupation of Ladakhi real estate as "provocations", the more cautious vice chief of the army Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi,
2000-2001, writes, that on the 489 km-long LAC in Ladakh, the "traditional
disputed points" at Trig Heights and Demchok, are "now expanded to ten" with
China raising fresh disputes on the Pangong Tso and at Chumar.
Oberoi also recalled from his time as member of the China Study Circle, the
apex China policy-making body, that MEA's accommodationist ideas invariably
prevailed over the army's views. (The-Many-Reasons-For-Chinas-Transgressions-Across-LAC).
Interestingly, while both Oberoi and Panag blame the dual-control the army
wields on the LAC, and particularly in the Ladakh sector, with the paramilitary
Indo-Tibetan Border Police for the surprise the PLA was able to spring on the
army, the latter also rounds off on the external intelligence service RAW
(Research and Analysis Wing) for the fiasco.
"At the strategic level, it was the failure of the Research and Analysis Wing
(R&AW) to detect the build-up of the PLA formations from the rear bases to
replace the border defence units", avers Panag, before admitting that the
army's "tactical surveillance with UAVs and patrols has been inadequate to
detect this large-scale movement close to the LAC."
According to Panag, brigade-sized PLA forces are deployed in the Galwan valley
and the north bank of Pangong Tso, and possibly "precautionary deployment…at
likely launch pads for offensive and other vulnerable areas along the LAC",
with adequate reserves no doubt placed to be readily at hand "to cater for
Indian reaction/escalation". In support are the upgraded Ngari base hosting
fighter aircraft, with "additional troops" posted in the Depsang plains, Hot
Springs, Spanggur Gap, and Chumar. This is a good reading of the state of
affairs in Ladakh.
[Reproduced below are the two maps, perhaps, with his own markings that General
Panag attached with his article.]
But what is transparent to Panag is not so plain to Narasimhan. According to
the latter, it isn't at all clear to the government and the army brass just how
many PLA troops there are on or proximal to the LAC, nor the specific numbers
of PLA troops that may have transgressed into Indian territory to set up camp.
"I have heard variations from 500 to 5,000 to 10,000. It will be extremely
difficult to predict," he states. But the adversary's force strength is not a
matter of "prediction" but a conclusion to be reached on the basis of multiple-sourced
information and intelligence, lot of it available in the open realm.
But this only points to the larger problem - the Indian military's inability to
estimate the kind of forces the PLA High Command can bring to bear against it,
in this case, what forces can be detached at short notice from the
200,000-strong main force based in Tibet to partake of contingent hostilities
on the LAC.
Without this predicate, plans cannot be made for resisting the operational
punch of such PLA deployment. In the circumstances, Narasimhan's comment that "It is not required to predict the numbers…. if there is a build-up from
Chinese side, there will be an equal build-up from our side" is less than
In the event, is it the army's contention that it will be able to summon a
Tibet-based PLA sized force if and when it is needed? If so, then unbeknownst
to many of us we, the armed services included, are inhabiting cloud cuckoo land
where military prowess can be conjured out of thin air, the country is 'atm
nirbhar', and there's nothing the country needs to do save await the
multi-trillion dollar economic great power status round the corner.
Alas, in the real world, the severely depleted War Stock of ammo, artillery
shells, and chemical explosives means the movement of guns and longrange
artillery to the Ladakh frontlines is of little avail. A down-to-earth
assessment would question the Indian army's ability to survive 6-7 days
hostilities against the PLA conducted at full tilt, even if restricted to the LAC.
The still grander malady lurks elsewhere. Here I can do no better than revert
to my pet theme of two-odd decades that the army, because it disproportionately
stresses the minor Pakistan threat, has lacked the resources to invest in
comprehensive capabilities to fight China defensively on the LAC and, even
less, offensively across it, leave alone take on China and Pakistan in a
two-front war - an unwarranted boast the Indian military brass routinely make.
It was a case last iterated in my India Today column of January 26 this year.
As detailed in my earlier writings and at length in a chapter in my 2015 book
Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), there is a practical solution, the only
one, staring the country in the face, short of the Modi sarkar committing 3%-4%
of GDP every year for the next 15-20 years for the purpose of achieving an
all-aspect force for the China front that is as large as it is sophisticated,
and matches up with the PLA on all counts. Such gigantic fund sequestration
being unlikely, my solution is unavoidable.
It requires the implementation of far reaching measures - the army reverting to
5-7 year colour service for jawans and in lieu of pensions a one-time grant to
demobilized jawans (to slice the pensions/payroll expenditure by half or
thereabouts), majorly derating the Pakistan threat, rationalizing the three
strike corps into a single composite corps, and diverting the freed up manpower
and relevant war materiel to raising two additional offensive mountain corps
equipped with light (30-35 ton) tanks, for a total of three such corps each
with, among other things, integral air assault/air cavalry units for taking the
fight to the PLA on the Tibetan plateau.
These and other recommendations were featured in the classified report I authored,
as adviser, defence expenditure, and which report was ceremonially submitted
along with the main documents by KC Pant, chairman, 10th Finance Commission, to
the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and hence to
the (Narasimha Rao) government, exactly 25 years ago. That report, relegated to
a back shelf in some office in the Ministry of Defence, must by now have
collected a heap of dust.
Bharat Karnad is a Research Professor in National Security Studies at the
Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a national security expert.