The PLA looks impressive in ceremonial parades, but unlike the Indian Army it has no battlefield experience
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE CLASHES IN the Galwan river valley in May-June 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops have led to a new understanding of Chinese intentions. And the myth that Beijing would be willing to settle for a peaceful solution to disputes over the boundary with endless rounds of talks—both along Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh—as virtually everyone in India’s foreign policy establishment (serving and retired) had been lulled into believing, has been shattered. In reality, since 2013, Chinese military commanders had been attempting to exploit any slackness on the boundary with incursions. Officials in South Block—who at least until April 2020 had the final say over the Army on all matters related to the Sino-Indian boundary—were hopeful that the fragile status quo would be in place at least for another few years before a largescale conflict erupted, and by then India could be fully prepared to defend its boundaries. However, the rise in Chinese incursions/transgressions—from 428 in 2015 to 663 in 2019—carried a message: China was testing India’s resolve. This the Chinese did with salami-slicing—a practice by which China steadily occupies its adversary’s territory—to change the facts on the ground, so as to alter the balance of territorial arrangements in its favour. Indian military commanders were advised to ward off the prying media, by stating that both sides make such intrusions. However, when China chose to go for a land grab on a much greater scale along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh—taking Delhi’s establishment by surprise—it led many experts to conclude that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military build-up along the LAC in April-May 2020 was “pre-planned, premeditated and pre-determined”. Hence, what can India expect hereafter from an increasingly assertive China?
Ever since its invasion of 1962, fear and mistrust of China’s intent prevails across India. One reason is that few people have studied or understood the reasons for the debacle of 1962 when the interfering politicians and the blundering generals they had put at the helm of affairs didn’t prepare, nor allowed, the Indian Army to fight like it could have. Fortunately, some of those lessons have been learnt, and if push comes to shove, India’s armed forces will stand up for the ground they are tasked to defend. No doubt, the overall military, economic, and political balance of power even now tilts in favour of China which, it increasingly appears, wants to settle its territorial disputes with India by the use of force. Ironically, most of the areas it claims today—across the LAC and the McMahon Line—were captured by the PLA in the 1962 conflict, which it vacated after Mao Zedong felt he had taught Nehru “a lesson”. Six decades later, the same claims haunt policymakers, at least in Delhi. A swap deal—suggesting both sides keep the territories that they have—was proposed by China in 1959, but neither then, nor at multiple negotiations in the decades that followed, has India agreed to it. Then it was Mao and Nehru—in the 1950s—and now it is Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, leaders with considerable political clout but still unwilling to make the ‘grand bargain’ and settle the longest running territorial dispute in modern times. Despite multiple rounds of meetings between both political leaders and officials, there are deeply embedded views both in India and China that their claims are non-negotiable. This was visible most recently following the brutal hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley in 2020—with Modi making it known from his podium in Ladakh that China’s outdated “expansionism” would be resisted. This was followed months later with Xi’s fist-shaking response that “countries will crack their heads and spill blood” if they come after China.
For one, there is little political will to compromise on their territorial claims as both countries are obsessed with a zero-sum solution, and the fact is that they cannot afford to lose face, back down or concede ground to the other, more so in the case of China which assumes it enjoys ‘legalised hegemony’ over India, which it regards as inferior, itself being a UN Security Council permanent member (a P5 power) with a much larger economy and an increasingly well-equipped military force. But India isn’t a pushover anymore, as the events in Ladakh in 2020 had shown when 20 Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat but reportedly killed 43 PLA soldiers. If anything, the experience of the face-off along the LAC has strengthened China’s resolve to seek a military solution to fulfil the Maoist dream of not only the occupation of Tibet—which China regards as the palm of its right hand, with Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh being the fingers that China’s leadership has the responsibility to ‘liberate’—but the current Xi Jinping regime is waiting for an opportunity to realise this ‘China Dream’ as it seeks a victory. Given that Arunachal, at 89,000 square kilometres, is larger than Taiwan which China also covets, Beijing could thus seek to ‘liberate’ Arunachal and not Ladakh along the LAC, where China may have initiated what the military calls a “feint”.
India isn’t a pushover anymore, as the events in Ladakh in 2020 had shown. The experience of the face-off along the LAC has strengthened China’s resolve to seek a military solution. Given that Arunachal Pradesh is larger than Taiwan, Beijing could seek to ‘liberate’ Arunachal and not Ladakh along the LAC, where China may have initiated what the military calls a ‘feint’. China’s control over Tawang, in Arunachal, would be important in managing the Dalai Lama succession
In Arunachal Pradesh—which China calls Southern Tibet—lies Tawang. Beijing desires to delegitimise India’s control over Tawang because China’s control over Tawang would be important in managing the succession of the next Dalai Lama, to control dissent among Tibetans. Tawang was brought under India’s jurisdiction by a bold initiative in February 1951 that led Major Bob Khathing to trek from Assam to “Towang” (as he called it) and plant the Indian flag and announce India’s writ would run there. It’s another story that this expedition made Jawaharlal Nehru livid, since he didn’t want to displease Mao when China was engaged in the Korean War. But in later years, China made no secret of its desire to annex Tawang, so as to ensure that the next Dalai Lama emerged from there. Control over the Dalai Lama and the historic monasteries there is essential for Chinese control over Tibet. It is primarily for this reason that India’s armed forces anticipate an attack from across the Himalayas along the McMahon Line that runs from eastern Bhutan to the tri-junction boundary point of Myanmar, India and China. But for China to achieve success, it would simultaneously need to attack the Siliguri corridor that can be accessed by the Doklam plateau, the site of the standoff with India in 2017 and where the Chinese are now feverishly building a road that could allow them to cut off rail and road access from that 22-km land link to India’s north-eastern region and block India’s military supply lines to its Northeast.
While it could be argued that Aksai Chin is of considerable strategic importance to Beijing—the sources of the waters that lead to river systems like that of the Indus, the minerals, including uranium, in Aksai Chin, and highway G-219 that connects Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet, both China’s farthest and most sensitive regions—China has most of what it needs already under its control there. Moreover, additional Indian troops (a corps of 25,000 or more troops) deployed along the LAC are a wall that China cannot breach. What the Chinese now want is to take over the areas north of the Depsang Plains, which they intruded into in 2013 and have held on to their gains there, and occupy the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) so that they can then launch a twin-pronged attack on the Siachen Glacier along with Pakistan which has tried to push the Indian Army off the daunting heights of the Saltoro Ridge. In the unlikely event of their success there, a China-Pakistan link-up will not only give a much shorter route for PLA troops to access the China-Pakistan highway via the Karakoram Pass but their combined presence will also threaten the entire valley around Leh in Ladakh. No wonder, there is talk of a “two-front war” or, in fact, “a multi-front war” in any future conflict between India and China on the high Himalayas, with Pakistan coming in as the disrupter.
What could be India’s trump card is the silent sentinel in the high seas—the Navy. Adding punch to the Indian Navy’s capabilities—the only Asian country to operate an aircraft carrier group—the government ordered US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles and MH-60 Seahawk maritime helicopters. India’s Navy does have the capability of inflicting unacceptable pain on Chinese forces in retaliation for any adventurism by blocking the Malacca Strait
As tensions and the public support in China for ‘putting India in its place’ increases, the most likely set of actions that Beijing would unleash—since China is intent on redrawing the borders with India—would be volleys of cyber attacks not only on the technology India’s armed forces use but also on India’s critical infrastructure like nuclear and power plants, as it apparently did on Mumbai in October 2020. This was a matter of serious concern even though India has built up considerable capabilities to be forewarned about cyber attacks. But even then, the attacker has all the advantages. On March 23rd, in response to a question in Lok Sabha on cyber attacks, the Modi Government replied that the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) had reported and tracked 3,94,499 and 11,58,208 cyber security incidents during 2019 and 2020, respectively. But little is known about the scale and nature of the attacks. What is clear is that cyber attacks can immobilise a large number of civilian and military systems—and create shock and panic in a society. However, a well-prepared country, and one that isn’t yet so heavily dependent on computers for all its critical functions like India, can then respond with an ‘offensive-defence’ strategy that could be a combination of counter-cyber attacks and an air-land campaign—like the Cold Start military doctrine it has against Pakistan—to stall China’s territorial designs. Thus, despite India’s defensive approach against China’s territorial challenges, an offensive approach is the defence India could adopt. It will be similar to the Cold Start doctrine that Indian forces are prepared to mount as an air-land offensive against Pakistan if the need arises. The primary objective of this Cold Start doctrine is to not provide Pakistan with a justifiable cause for retaliating with a largescale nuclear attack on India.
This would then see the Chinese use of swarms of drones to unsettle India’s frontline forces. Apparently, Chinese military experts along with the Pakistanis have studied the way Azerbaijan’s forces targeted the Armenians (equipped with lots of Russian equipment, as Indian forces are) in their recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus. The drone strikes provided enormous advantages to Azerbaijani forces in their 44-day conflict against Armenia. And as China is today a major manufacturer of small unmanned drones (along with Turkey, now a supporter of Pakistan), Indian forces need to enhance their counter-drone capabilities that are currently limited. This in turn could lead to Indian artillery and surface-to-surface short-range missile strikes on Chinese troop positions along the Himalayas. However, as India now has not one, but two Strike Corps with at least two divisions of 7,500 men each—one in India’s east and the other in the north, ready to exploit Chinese weaknesses and make gains through what the military calls the “revolving door strategy”—China cannot easily bring to bear the forces it needs to make any major gains in the Himalayas. These ‘strike corps’ are designed with multiple military employment options, backed by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, UAVs, light artillery, heavy-lift helicopters and attack helicopters. Although, historically, the Strike Corps were established after much deliberation in the later stages of a war, as they were in 1971, in the case of China, the earlier they are used, the greater their impact could be on the battlefields.
Following last year’s experience, the Indian Army has shifted certain forces—repositioned them—from the Pakistan border to Ladakh and towards the McMahon Line, some from their locations around towns and cities, to deploy additional divisions (each with about 7,500 men with tonnes of weapon systems) with a lot of air power, since dealing with China would not be limited to troops on Himalayan frontlines. By a SWOT Analysis given by a thumb rule of mountain warfare, China as an attacker has more disadvantages even if it moves in more forces to the Himalayan front because each defending Indian division requires at least six Chinese divisions to push it off its defensive lines. Therefore, a defender in the mountains needs far fewer troops compared with the attacker, if deployed on heights as Indian troops are now. Thus, India currently has an adequate number of soldiers deployed along the LAC and the McMahon Line. China would need at least 45, if not 50, army divisions. China can rapidly deploy up to 36 divisions across India’s frontiers, but in fair weather and not in winter. Even with its well-developed road network across Tibet, China can deploy its fighting divisions only if it faces no other threat along its vast frontiers. Although China could deploy more artillery fire units than India, there is no mathematical equation available for how many an attacker would need on the border to succeed against a determined defender like the Indian soldier.
PERHAPS, THE PLA’s best face-saving bet would be to try another Galwan-type encroachment along the Himalayas, without troops opening fire. But that could deal a further blow to the PLA’s reputation as India’s soldiers are now ready and waiting. Almost all Indian Army infantry units of about 700 men have a “Ghatak” platoon of 36 men. These men, hardened after years of battling terrorism in Kashmir are chosen and punishingly trained to kill with their bare hands, as they did during the Galwan clashes. The Chinese army, on the other hand, looks impressive in ceremonial parades and in doctored videos, but unlike the Indian Army it has practically no battlefield experience and is barely able to cope with the harsh Himalayan winter. Besides, with China’s one-child policy, its soldiers are unwilling to die, say some reports. The only edge that China has is with rocket forces which could cause considerable damage to Indian airfields in Leh and DBO—not aircraft—as India’s air armada is expected to operate from airfields far away in Srinagar, Pathankot, Agra, Bareilly, Siliguri and Tezpur.
In mountain warfare, China as an attacker has more disadvantages because each defending Indian division requires at least six Chinese divisions to push it off its defensive lines. A defender in the mountains needs far fewer troops, if deployed on heights as Indian soldiers are now. India currently has an adequate number of soldiers along the LAC and the McMahon Line. China would need at least 45, if not 50, army divisions
However, the Indian Air Force (IAF), despite its depleted war-fighting numbers, can still be a deadly gamechanger. It wasn’t used in the 1962 conflict because of a view among Nehru’s advisors that its use would escalate the conflict. But if it had been, the story of 1962 would have been different. But with the IAF having undertaken its biggest air exercise in three decades in April 2018, named “Gagan Shakti”, over an 18-day period, it is said to be ready for the two-front threat since Gagan Shakti had met “more that its objectives”, as per Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, of sending a clear signal to China and Pakistan that despite the noises about the IAF’s dwindling fighter fleet, it could still defend India from the skies. Moreover, with the Chinese intrusions in 2020, India went in for a sudden buying spree of Russian fighter jets—Sukhoi-30 MKI and MiG-29—to add to its existing fleet of Russian fighters. Besides, India now has the first batch of Rafale fighter jets and these are more than a match for Chinese J-17 fighters. Adding to India’s capabilities are the purchases of US-made C-130J and C-17 military transport aircraft, CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters for the Army.
But what could be India’s trump card is the silent sentinel in the high seas—the Indian Navy. Adding punch to the Indian Navy’s capabilities—the only Asian country to operate an aircraft carrier group—the Government ordered US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles and MH-60 Seahawk maritime helicopters and indicated its desire to soon finalise a 30 drones deal for either the MQ-9 Reaper or the Predator-B drones, with 10 each for the three services. These can have a major impact on reconnaissance and attacking targets. Interestingly, the Navy’s P-81 maritime patrol aircraft were seen in Leh adding to the IAF’s surveillance capabilities in the mountains. By some accounts, India’s Navy does have the capability of inflicting unacceptable pain on Chinese forces in retaliation for any adventurism not only in the mountains but also at sea around India’s coastline, such as blocking the Malacca Strait near Singapore and the route for China and East Asia’s sea supplies—for at least a few days that would push China to the negotiating table. Even though China now claims to have the largest naval fleet in the world, the Indian Navy is no pushover as it is reportedly “up to NATO standards” and an important partner of the US-led Quad in the Indo-Pacific that can restrict the movements of the Chinese navy.
As for China’s maritime claims, with its stated aim to have the largest navy in the near future, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is indeed fast expanding at present but it would have its limitations if it were to operate near India’s coastline. Its aircraft carriers are new and PLAN is no match against the US and its nuclear submarines are known to be inconsistent in their underwater capabilities. The US, which is keen to reduce China’s ambitions, not only has the largest and most experienced aircraft carrier groups (over 11 carriers with 80 fighter aircraft each in 2020) but the total carrier deck space of US carriers in operation is over twice that of all the other nations combined. The Chinese had two aircraft carriers in 2020—with plans for two more—but their naval aviators are still struggling to get their act together. PLAN has, however, a longer history of acquiring and building a submarine fleet that by 2030 could expand to 60 diesel subs with 16 nuclear attack subs, more than the current US total of 52, only half of which are for the US Pacific Fleet, with “drone subs” being adopted to mitigate the challenge. But the technological edge of the US plus the combined fleet of its allies is still awesome.
Theoretically, when a conflict reaches a stalemate between nuclear-weapon states, there is a chance that there would be threats issued discreetly or directly—by state-patronised media outfits like China’s Global Times—that a nuclear attack could follow. However, war-gaming studies have shown that nukes were never considered for use even under grave provocation because, unless India faced a complete military rout (and that, as has been explained above, is highly unlikely), Delhi wouldn’t talk about a nuclear strike on China, despite its array of nuclear-capable missiles like the Agni-5 which has a range of 5,000 km and can hit any target within China accurately. Moreover, even though India now has an inventory of nuclear-tipped missiles and the capabilities of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and well as fighter jet-mounted nuclear weapons for delivery on China and Pakistan, such a miscalculated strike would invite an overwhelming Chinese nuclear response—a second strike—that could be disastrous for India. However, the unpredictable joker in the pack is Pakistan that would be itching to jump into a Sino-Indian conflict. It would provide Pakistan possibly the best chance to achieve its ambition to capture the Kashmir Valley. But studies had shown that even at the height of the Brasstacks crisis in 1986-87, Pakistan’s generals didn’t seriously look into the use of nuclear weapons against India, never mind what their ill-informed politicians often brag about.
Apparently, Pakistan intends to use its short-range low-yield nuclear warheads—supplied by China as many believe—to stall any advance by Indian forces towards key Pakistani cities like Lahore, or to cut off Pakistan’s Punjab from Sindh, as General Sundarji had indicated during Operation Brasstacks. But that will also have a major fallout on Pakistan’s towns and villages in the areas close to the blast, as Indian troops race in their nuclear warhead-equipped armoured vehicles to grab maximum Pakistani territory which is the essence of India’s Cold Start doctrine. This would be done without any troops being directed to the Himalayas, as in the 1965 India-Pakistan war. However, how far India would be willing to go for such a hot war scenario would depend on India’s revisionist neighbours. The cost for everyone would be prohibitive and the results are unlikely to satisfy any of the warring parties. Most well-informed strategists agree that nuclear weapons are a deterrent, and having them prevents your adversary from climbing the escalatory ladder. The concern about “mutually assured destruction” from nuclear weapons—MAD, as strategists call it—often puts the brakes on even the biggest hawks.
Therefore, both Beijing and Delhi have made it known that they believe in “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. But Pakistan hasn’t. Moreover, India has in the past been seen as a status quoist willing to accept the reality on the ground and negotiate a settlement, and not alter it by force. Thus the steady improvement of India’s infrastructure all along the Sino-Indian border—as part of Delhi’s strategy is essentially to hold on to the territories it has—and the Chinese know that. The claims by rightwing Indian politicians to get back—what they believe they can—territories that China and Pakistan have occupied since 1947 can only be a trigger for escalation, as we have seen with the creation of the Union territory of Ladakh, and the maps that followed, which drew a response from China similar to the days when Nehru chose to publish a boundary map in 1954. Those who know history would be wise not to let it be repeated. If not, they should learn from it. India today is certainly not the India of 1962, but nor are the ways of warfare. However, signs of a Chinese-led escalation would provide the US and its allies the ‘Pearl Harbour moment’ that reports say Washington has been waiting for, even though it is hard to tell if it could lead to a combined military initiative of the US and Japan that would show the Chinese in an embarrassing light against Taiwan, which for Beijing is another part of their unsettled business of territorial expansion. The question that only Xi Jinping can answer is “whether he is willing to trade any gains he might make against India with China’s ambitions over Taiwan”. Or, would he be prepared to do what power-drunk leaders such as Hitler and Napoleon did when they opened two or more fronts in a military campaign? History tells us that this strategic error was their undoing.