The sudden and large-scale transgression by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh in May and the continuing intransigence to pull back has raised numerous questions about our future strategy to deal with China. Among these debates is a discussion on the revival of the Mountain Strike Corps, whose raising had been prematurely halted due to a lack of funds.
There is undoubtedly a need to enhance India’s military preparedness, but it would be instructive to look at the force development and warfighting strategies being pursued by India and China to decide the type of future capabilities that should be acquired.
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In the past decade, India has significantly strengthened its posture along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In 2010, two new army divisions were raised for deployment in Arunachal Pradesh, and in 2013, the Indian government sanctioned the raising of a Mountain Strike Corps for the Northern border. In addition to these accretions, the Indian Army is procuring the M-777 ultra-light Howitzers and has deployed an armoured brigade in Ladakh.
The Indian Air Force has positioned frontline aircraft in the eastern airfields, and Hasimara, in West Bengal, is being readied for the Rafale. The induction of the C-130, the C-17, and the Chinook helicopters has tremendously improved the strategic and tactical lift capability for quickly moving additional forces along threatened areas of the LAC.
The Indian Navy has an ambitious plan to build three aircraft carriers and six nuclear attack submarines for sea control and sea denial. India has a huge geographical advantage at sea. In conflict, it will seek to block the entry of PLA Navy through the narrow straits leading from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean and engage in commerce warfare by interdicting Chinese trade.
These enhancements in military capability, coupled with improvements in road infrastructure, have led to a change in strategic thinking. Two noted experts, Anit Mukherjee, and Yogesh Joshi have pointed out in their article ‘From Denial to Punishment: The Security Dilemma and Changes in India’s Military Strategy Towards China’ that the new Indian strategy has shifted from “deterrence by denial” to “deterrence by punishment”.
The Indian military hopes to blunt any ground offensive by the PLA along the LAC by holding defences strongly and effectively employing the air force that enjoys an edge over its adversary due to the limitations imposed on Chinese aircraft that are forced to operate from high-altitude airfields. The Mountain Strike Corps will take the battle into Chinese territory while the Indian Navy will dominate the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese force development has followed a different trajectory, as evident from the ongoing military reforms unveiled in 2015 with the objective of “winning informationised local wars”. The reforms included reducing 3,00,000 soldiers, restructuring the seven military regions into five joint theatre commands, and creating a joint logistics support force.
China’s second artillery force was upgraded to a full service by establishing the PLA rocket force and a newly created strategic support force unified China’s space, cyber, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare. In addition to these reforms, organisational changes have included the conversion of divisions to combined arms brigades, expansion of special operations forces and the Marine Corps, and a major naval modernisation drive.
The 2013 Defense White Paper of China outlines four different kinds of conflicts that China must prepare to face in the future. It envisions a high-intensity war against Taiwan or a “hegemonic country attempting to slow down or end China’s rise (a reference to the US).”
In the case of territorial disputes with neighbours, a “medium-to-small scale, medium-to-low intensity” conflict is visualised.
Although China is often termed an expansionist power, it is unlikely to risk a major ground war with India. War in the Himalayas against strong Indian defences would be too bloody for the PLA and victory uncertain. The use of military force by China would primarily be an attempt to establish psychological dominance by asserting the power differential between the two countries. The PLA would not seek substantial territorial gains but exploit its advantages through the use of superior technology in cyber, space, electronic warfare, and missile warfare.
Thus, the approach of the two militaries in capability enhancement has followed different paths. The Indian Army, in particular, has adopted an approach that puts more boots on the ground at the LAC, both for defensive and offensive operations. This presupposes large scale Chinese offensives and a close-in land battle.
The PLA would want to minimise close physical contact. They will engage in war from a distance, employing long-range missiles to target strategic locations in India’s hinterland, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, electronic warfare to degrade the command and control networks, and attempt to achieve information dominance. Some battles will have to be fought at land, sea, and air, but only to exploit the advantages already gained.
One problem with a force development strategy is that it is often focused on the type of wars that we wish to fight, and not on the type of wars that we could be forced to fight. In analysing our future capability, we must carefully study the PLA military strategy. The three services must look to achieve greater jointness and focus on areas like advanced technologies, cyber, and information warfare that will have an outsize effect in future conflicts. The vulnerability of China in the Indian Ocean must be exploited by building a stronger navy.
It had long been felt that relations with a rising China could be managed through political, diplomatic, and economic engagement. This notion stands disabused, and the political leadership may now be ready to invest more in military power. However, this investment will not be fruitfully utilised if we only follow an incremental approach of adding more divisions, aircraft, and ships.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.