China in Ladakh - Band Aid and Tactical Non Solutions
Silence and confusion
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. (Seehttps://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/as-the-lac-heats-up-reading-china-s-playbook/story-0b7pzNwsL282ktzMsj5YWK.html).
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 exponentially.”
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 reassuring.
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.
Cover Photograph Representational (a ceremonial border personnel meeting in January this year)