With the situation prevailing in Ladakh, this is not the opportune moment for political brinkmanship or speculative assessment about whether India is militarily prepared to face Chinese expansionist designs. The reality is that if push comes to shove, the Indian armed forces will have no choice but to fight with their existing capabilities. Minor augmentation is possible through rushed delivery of already contracted-for material and ammunition and assorted ordnance purchases off-the-shelf, but beyond this there is no magic bullet.
Some analysts believe that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a decisive edge over the Indian Army due largely to its superior numerical strength, infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) abutting the Line of Actual Control (LAC), weaponry and recently accomplished joint service operations. Even so, it does not necessarily give China a definitive edge, as the potential conflict is unlikely to remain confined to ground forces.
Looked at in the wider context of mountain warfare, arduous and complex at the best of times, the odds are in no way stacked in China’s favour.
Firstly, on ground, India has moved additional troops, howitzers, main battle tanks, infantry combat vehicles, varied missile batteries and air defence systems to the LAC in Ladakh. This deployment is backed by BrahMos medium-range supersonic cruise missile, the quickest and the world’s most lethal in its class. Other than land, the Indo-Russian BrahMos is also capable of being launched from combat aircraft and frontline warships.
On Thursday, the government approved Rs 18,148-crore procurement of 33 Russian fighters, including 21 upgraded MiG-29 and 12 licence-built Su-30MKI fighters, missiles, and ammunition to boost military capability. This delivered a distinct signal that the perceived paucity of funds and the recession spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic would, in no way, thwart India from squaring up to China’s military threat along the LAC.
Besides, unlike the PLA, which has fought just one war with Vietnam over 40 years ago, the Indian Army is battle-hardened. It has fought five wars since 1947, four in which it ably acquitted itself, and has vast experience in hybrid mountain warfare, initially in the north-east and more recently in Kashmir.
Most crucially, the commitment of PLA troops, most of them Han Chinese, to defend distant frontiers populated by rival Tibetan ethnic groups who believe in a living God, is really no match to the commitment Indian troops have to preserving their territories. The fierce loyalty and pride of Indian troops to their paltans is unmatched in most other armies around the world and is a force multiplier.
Secondly, unlike the 1962 border war with China in which India came off worse, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will play a significant role in the event of hostilities. A majority of IAF bases are located in the nearby plains from where combat aircraft like the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI, upgraded MiG-29M and retrofitted French Mirage 2000H can operate with a full load of fuel and weapons. In contrast, the payload of PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) fighters located at bases across the TAR at heights above 4,000 mts is circumscribed.
Moreover, PLAAF fighters like J-8Fs, J-11Bs and J-16s, reverse engineered from Soviet-era and Russian platforms, are operationally inferior to the IAF’s advanced fighters which are also armed with laser munitions with pinpoint accuracy. The procurement of SPICE-2000 bomb kits from Israel, approved recently by the government, will also reinforce the IAF’s capability to take out ground targets from a safe distance. By contrast, PLAAF pilots have not operated against a real opponent.
Thirdly, China borders about 14 countries, but has frontier disputes with as many as 18 states. None of these countries is likely to intervene in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict, but New Delhi can expect some, if not all, of them to share intelligence and information, especially in the maritime domain, to thwart added threats in the strategic Indian Ocean Region. Most of these satellite states are inimical towards China and fearful of its blatant hegemony.
Both sides have also placed aircraft carriers at the centre of their maritime force development plans, using elements of Russian technologies. But each side has started from a different base level of experience and of adopting their own path to securing carrier capability.
China is relatively new to carrier operations and has had to start from scratch, with no aircraft, vessel, training pipeline, or operational experience to build upon. By contrast, India celebrated the 62nd anniversary of its aviation wing in May 2015 and can claim 54 years of continuous carrier operations. Indian Navy (IN) officials, therefore, maintain that their “institutional” maturity, experience, and knowledge gives it a decisive operational edge.
Much of China’s cockiness stems from its delusion of economic and military invincibility which, looked at objectively, defies reality. In its clash with the Indian Army at Nathu La near Sikkim in 1967, for instance, the casualties suffered by PLA were almost four times those on the Indian side. Again, 12 years later in 1979, China boasted that it had driven Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia. The reality, however, was that Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia for another decade after China’s self-proclaimed victory.
After the clash between Indian Army and PLA troops in the Galwan Valley area along the LAC on the night of 15-16 June, an embarrassed China declined to reveal the casualties it suffered.
Wars are not won by making self-serving claims of military superiority before they are fought; they are won by tangible results on the ground, achieved through superior strategy and tactics and as Napoleon Bonaparte said, lucky generals. When criticised for winning battles simply because of luck, Napoleon retorted: I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.
Over decades India has negotiated an uneasy peace with China, largely through economic compromise and security concession, but this has not worked. While India should not abandon hope of finding a peaceful solution via diplomacy and negotiation, the sombre reality is that China appears to be in no mood to relent.
If anything, Beijing appears inclined to exacerbate tensions by unsubtly involving its surrogates in Nepal and Pakistan, countries it dominates through a combination of financial bullying, security, military and nuclear pacts, but, above all, by exploiting their visceral antipathy for India. Sadly, this can only mean a prolonged military impasse, which could well escalate into a conflict, at huge cost to both sides, including China.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 4 under the title “When push comes to crunch.” The writer is former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence.
C. Raja Mohan writes: Growing power differential is what lies behind China’s assertion in Ladakh
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