By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
After half a century, the Indian Army (IA) is once again radically increasing its numbers. Both times it was to cater for threat from China. After the 1962 rout, six new divisions were raised; two infantry and four mountain divisions, and the Officer Training Academy in Madras were established. Now, between 2009 and 2011, the IA raised two mountain divisions and the third artillery division, and a new Officers Training Academy has been set up in Gaya. A corps headquarters and two more mountain divisions will be raised in the 12th defence plan (2012 to 2017). Huge amounts will be spent on building infrastructure, accommodation, equipment and ammunition storage facilities against China. And by the 14th defence plan (2022 to 2027), the IA hopes to have its first air assault division; 54 mountain division has been earmarked for this role. The once-again threat from China provokes two pertinent questions: What happened to post-1962 preparedness? And, is India bracing itself enough this time to dissuade adversaries from military adventurism, and fight a successful war, if needed?
For 14 years after the ignominious 1962 debacle, India had no relations with China. After the Chinese unilateral troops’ withdrawal from Indian territories, a 320km Line of Actual Control (LAC) came up in Ladakh where the IA had given a reasonable account of itself. The eastern sector, called McMahon Line, where the IA performed abysmally, remained a ‘frontier’ rather than a ‘border.’ The word ‘frontier’ denotes the limit of a nation’s political and military influence, while ‘border’ is defined as the territorial limit of national sovereignty. While diplomatic relations were restored with China in 1976, domestic political upheavals delayed the initiation of a military build-up against China until 1980 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi returned to power. In 1980, the army chief, General K.V. Krishna Rao presented a strategic military plan called Operation Falcon to the Prime Minister which she accepted. Repudiating Nehru’s ‘forward policy,’ in a step-by-step approach over 15 years, the army’s planned heavy deployment on the Chinese front where forward build-up would keep pace with infrastructure development along with viable lines of communications. Arunachal Pradesh, north Sikkim and trans-Ladakh range were to get special attention, and the Prime Minister made it clear that in a future conflict with China, Tawang should not fall. Recalling his deliberations with Mrs Gandhi, General Rao in a detailed interaction with FORCE in August 2005 confirmed that the Prime Minister took great interest in the army’s initiative. Issues like would China get provoked by India’s military preparedness and start a conflict and the possibility of it using nuclear weapons were discussed threadbare. The plan could well be called a top-down approach. Keeping with times, the plan did not cater for a two-front war, and was an amalgamation of first and second generation warfare with the Indian Air Force (IAF) in a tactical support role. The first generation warfare reflected the tactics of line and column, while the second generation relied on massed firepower. The concepts of air-land battle and active defence had yet not been borrowed from the United States; a mere co-ordination rather than jointness between the IA and the IAF was the need of the hour.
In a show of goodwill, India under Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao abandoned Operation Falcon in 1988, just when China focussed on its neglected west and commenced furtive military infrastructure build-up in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) against India. New Delhi’s decision was taken without consulting the IA, which was informed that the external affairs ministry would engage China by diplomacy. The Indian defence forces were told to instead concentrate on Pakistan. All lessons of the 1962 conflict were forgotten and it was business as usual. India signed the 1993 and 1996 agreements with China; both worked to India’s military disadvantage. The first re-named the entire disputed border as the LAC which by definition meant it could be altered by military force, and the second ensured that no division and high formation army exercises would be held close to LAC. Even for a brigade exercise involving 3,000 troops, India will be required to inform China well in advance.
Meanwhile, the Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) military plans were unfolding quietly. After India’s 1998 nuclear tests, the PLA started pushing LAC inside India by its aggressive patrolling, and whenever India objected, the concerned pockets were added to the increasing list of ‘disputed areas’ by China. Giving the high altitude and harsh climatic conditions on TAR, the PLA did not intend to station troops close to the LAC and hence it had little need to conduct exercises in location. It instead concentrated on building Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF), 30 divisions of which, in Indian estimate, can be brought from nearby Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions to TAR in one season against India. Excellent border management and mind-boggling infrastructure on TAR would support the PLA divisions to fight a war on Indian territories. In comparison, India lacks RRF capabilities, and is building defences along the LAC to keep its troops perched on high altitudes holding ground. The IA started feeling the heat of PLA’s regular transgressions by the turn of the century. In March 2001, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee allocated funds and cleared construction of 73 strategic roads on the Chinese border to be completed in a decade. Nothing much happened on the ground. In December 2011, defence minister A.K. Antony informed the Parliament that 13 out of 73 strategic roads had been built and massive allocations have been made for infrastructure construction to include bunkers and storage facilities.
Today, the IA, the fourth largest in the world after the US, Russian and Chinese, is already 13,00,000 strong. It has 37 divisions, five force headquarters for counter-insurgency operations (each equivalent of a division), 10 independent brigades (over three divisions), higher field formations’ headquarters, and various combat support arms elements. Of these, 12 divisions and three independent brigades are pitted against China, the rest are meant for Pakistan. According to the IA, it no longer thinks in terms of threats from Pakistan and China, but has chiselled a larger role for itself under the rubric of transformation. It is transforming from a threat-based to a capability-based force to meet challenges of the entire spectrum of war below the nuclear threshold. From conventional to sub-conventional war (terrorism), capabilities to secure island territories, out-of-area (intervention) capabilities to protect India’s interests and provide assistance to friendly neighbours, including humanitarian help and disaster relief, and participation in UN operations. The driver for the transformational thinking is not the government, but IA’s own assessment that it needs to absorb the technology revolution underway in the world, and given India’s rising economy, it should possess capabilities to meet the nation’s strategic reach aspirations.
Considering that threats from Pakistan and China have increased and not diminished, isn’t transformation oxymoronic? Not at all, says a general associated with IA’s perspective planning. The government has kept the defence forces on the fringes of national security policy-making. Neither understands one another. But as the force with boots on ground, the IA has to be prepared for all contingencies, was the firm reply. Notwithstanding denial, one can easily detect IA’s rivalry with the other two defence services. While being the largest of the three defence forces, in terms of numbers and capital expenditure, the risen profile of the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) may have spurred the IA to seek its own transformation. In the larger sense, if the three defence services had been united, the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which was declared ineffective by the Group of Ministers’ report in February 2002, would have worked better. So well, that they would not have missed opportunities to be part of national security policy-making.
The first came in the Fifties. On 25 March 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced in Parliament the change of the designation of the Commander-in-Chief of the three defence services to Chiefs of Staff. He added that his government was going into the matter of integration of the defence ministry and the three services headquarters. The Prime Minister intended to be fair. While dismissing the need for a military advisor to the Prime Minister of independent India, he desired the defence forces to be part of national security policy-making. The defence services failed to hold the Prime Minister to his promise missing the point that integration of defence services with the defence ministry would position them as the more knowledgeable partner able to influence policy-making. Nehru was persuaded by the wily bureaucracy in 1961 to designate the three service headquarters as ‘Attached offices of the Department of Defence’ under the Government of India ‘Allocation of Business Rules.’
The next opportunity had to wait for the subcontinent’s security status quo to get altered with the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. Within a year, after the 1999 Kargil conflict, the K. Subrahmanyam headed ‘Kargil Review Committee Report’ noted that:
‘India’s is perhaps the only major democracy where the armed forces headquarters are outside the apex government structure. The Chiefs of Staff have assumed the role of operational commanders of their respective forces rather than that of Chiefs of Staff to the Prime Minister or defence minister. They simultaneously discharge the roles of operational commanders and national security planners/managers, especially in relation to future equipment and force postures.’
Following the Report, the Arun Singh-led task force on ‘Defence Management’ recommended the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and integration of defence services headquarters with the defence ministry. Both suggestions were watered down before acceptance by Group of Ministers report announced by the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani in February 2002. Instead of the CDS, Advani suggested a step-by-step approach; while holding out the promise of the CDS, a Vice-CDS was formed, which was subsequently re-named as the Chairman of Integrated Staff to Chairman (CISC), Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The three services’ headquarters were cosmetically re-designated as ‘Integrated Headquarters of Ministry of Defence’, without actual integration.
While all this was happening, what did the defence services do? It is an open secret that the Indian Air Force (IAF) opposes the CDS. Unlike the tactical air force that it was, since the arrival of Su-30 aircraft, it talks about strategic reach. Moving away as a support service to the IA, the IAF is building capabilities for effect-based operations. This implies an emphasis on offensive counter-air operations, which would by its effect assist land operations. The IAF fears that a CDS from the IA may seek to curtail its offensive posture. While it is debatable if this would happen, the argument was welcomed by the bureaucracy worried by the Arun Singh committee recommendation of the CDS becoming the Military Advisor to the defence minister. In 2010, the matter was finally settled, when the bureaucracy amended the ‘Allocation of Business Rules’, with the defence secretary made responsible for the ‘Defence of India and every part thereof’. Ironically, the three service chiefs in 2011 in turns (not together) deposed before the Naresh Chandra task force set up by the government to review the decade old GOM report. The three service chiefs sought a formal say for themselves, individually, in security policy-making. Shouldn’t they have approached the Prime Minister together years ago to seek integration of the services headquarters with the defence ministry? If they could do so for the Sixth Pay Commission, surely this issue that has implications at the strategic, operational and tactical levels deserved fuller attention. Unfortunately, the intense rivalry between the services has played into the hands of the bureaucracy. Before we discuss the negative fall-outs of this matter, we need to assess the possible military threats to India’s sovereignty.
Learning from Past
Armies, it is said, prepare for the last war. The IA seems to be no exception. Since 1990, when Pakistan-supported proxy war started in Jammu and Kashmir, senior army commanders have been conscious that unlike the 1971 war, little preparatory time would be available next time around. A trigger in J&K could easily escalate into a full-fledged war, and the IA would have to fight with whatever wherewithal it has. Another truism became evident after the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan: the next conflict, if it is to achieve meaningful military aims, would have to be short, swift and intense; anything between seven to 10 days, after that a mix of enormous international and nuclear weapons spectre would loom large.
During the 1971 war, the army chief, General Sam Manekshaw had sought six months of preparatory time for war from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The military posture against Pakistan was: strategic defence with operational level offence(s). It was appreciated that after three to four weeks, military results would start showing in favour of India being the larger force. This military thinking has been drastically altered by three factors: nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and Pakistan Army’s ability to use irregulars (terrorists) as its first line of offense. A going back to 1971 is nothing short of suicidal.
Yet, in all recent conflicts, the IA does not seem to have grasped the realities. During the 1999 Kargil conflict (Operation Vijay), the IA was caught completely off-guard. Overnight, flights were sent to Russia and Israel to procure stores and ammunition; the artillery was moved from various theatres, creating operational gaps in the event of an escalated all-out war, to reinforce firepower in Kargil; guns were employed in direct firing role, a near impossibility in case of a total war; and the army chief admitted major equipment shortcomings by saying: “We will fight with whatever we have.” All this happened when the Pakistan military did not even join the war; its Mujahids, and the then paramilitary force (Northern Light infantry) did the fighting.
The next crisis, Operation Parakram, when the two armies stood facing one another for 10 months, from 18 December 2001 to 16 October 2002, was no better. The IA took 22 days for its build-up of offensive (strike) forces, and according to the government, 800 lives were lost/debilitated during preparatory phase. There are two other frightening little-known facts about this crisis. Insiders have confirmed to FORCE that once mobilisation for war was ordered, the then Northern army commander (responsible for J&K, the supposed trigger for a full-fledged war), Lt. General R.K. Nanavaty told the army chief, General S. Padmanabhan, that he needed preparatory time as troops lacked essential stocks of ammunition, stores and spares. The IA ineptness got covered up by disingenuous political naivety. It was believed that international pressure, especially from the US, during the IA’s preparatory phase, dissuaded the Vajpayee government from going to war with Pakistan. The truth is devastating. The then US National Security Advisor (NSA), Condoleezza Rice has confirmed in her recent memoir: No Higher Honour, that it was the other way round. The US had resigned to a war between India and Pakistan, when India’s NSA, Brajesh Mishra, who was doubling up as the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, frantically called her for help. “I cannot contain the war lobby here without some help,” he said. This led US President George Bush to speak with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to persuade him to make the statement that his soil would not be allowed to be used by terrorists; the fig leaf for India to not start war. Mishra had indicated that Musharraf was forced to make the statement because of India’s successful coercive diplomacy. The then President, APJ Abdul Kalam told Parliament on 17 February 2003 that: “After the December 13 (2001) attack on our Parliament by Pakistan-based terrorists, we were constrained to deploy our troops along the international border. This decision achieved its purpose by showing both our firmness and our self-restraint in dealing with our hostile neighbour.”
Put into perspective, mobilising the IA was a knee-jerk reaction of the Vajpayee government in the vain hope that Pakistan would get coerced. He did not consult its own army before ordering mobilisation. After the de-mobilisation, the army chief, General Padmanabhan said on 9 November 2002: “Whenever there is a situation calling for the army’s help, the latter’s role should be clearly defined to avoid confusion.” Here was a government which instead of coercing got coerced, and the army chief who ordered his command to mobilise for war without knowing what he was supposed to do. If travesty of national security could not be imagined further, one had to only wait for 26/11 attacks in Mumbai to happen.
FORCE has the politico-military inside view of 26/11 from one of the three service chiefs at the time. For first three days as Pakistan-sent terrorists were creating mayhem in Mumbai, the government in New Delhi seemed in a tailspin; the political leadership did not contact the military leadership, and the three defence services did not deem it necessary to consult one another. After 72 hours, the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan called the three chiefs for a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which the intelligence agencies were not present. By then, it was clear that Pakistan was behind the dastardly act. The mood in the room was tense and all agreed that Pakistan should not get away with its audacious move. When asked, the army chief, General Deepak Kapoor suggested artillery fire and raids by Special Forces across the Line of Control. The chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major recommended punitive air strikes inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to hit terrorist camps and visible infrastructure, to which the army chief added that it would certainly lead to a full-scale war. There was disagreement over whether the Pakistan Army would escalate matters if the IAF conducted a few punitive sorties across the LC. The army chief felt that had the IAF crossed the LC during the 1999 Kargil conflict, the Pakistan military would have joined the conflict. The navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta kept his counsel; he was neither asked much nor did he offer advice. Strangely, nuclear weapons were not discussed or even remotely mentioned especially when Pakistan has an undeclared nuclear weapons policy which has led to the speculation that it may use weapons early in a war. Maximum time was spent on debating the most inane issue meant for researchers: Pakistan’s motives behind 26/11 attacks. The overarching sense was to explore retaliatory options which would not lead to war. As none existed, the meeting broke with the Prime Minister telling the service chiefs to prepare for war. However, the army chief was unequivocally told by the NSA to not recall personnel from leave or move any formations forward till further orders as it would alert Pakistan. The next day, the defence minister A.K. Antony held his meeting attended by service chiefs and senior ministry bureaucrats. The single point agenda was the need to procure critical war equipment for the three services on fast-track basis.
The service chiefs heard nothing from the Prime Minister’s Office for a week, after which NSA informed them that India would not go to war with Pakistan. The inevitable two conclusions of the single meeting between the Prime Minister and his service chiefs on 26/11 are: Neither wanted war and all hoped that the crisis blow over quickly, and none wanted to talk about nuclear weapons; probably there are too many unresolved issues. The services sought to utilise the crisis to make up for its critical equipment, something they never seem to do during peacetime. Few nations would have let 164 people die in vain as India did after 26/11 attacks without retribution for the aggressor. The killings which worried the world of a possible war were a non-event for India and its defence forces.
The first decade of the century was an unusual period for the IA. There were lessons to be learnt from operations Vijay and Parakram, even as five force headquarters (about 75,000 troops) remained committed on counter insurgency (CI) in J&K. Repeated incursions by the PLA across the LAC demanded attention. The IA was most affected by these transgressions; it needed to worry about its own defunct infrastructure vis-à-vis PLA’s excellent border management, capability and capacity-building and likely intentions. Then there were cogent reports of increasing PLA footprints in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
The biggest challenge for IA has been to develop its doctrines against Pakistan and China without assistance from the two desired quarters: government and other two services. Considering that military threat from Pakistan has been traditional, the IA continues with its military posture of ‘strategic defence and operational level offence(s)’, with two changes. Called the pro-active or Cold Start war-fighting strategy, the changes aspire to reduce mobilisation time of offensive forces vis-à-vis Pakistan’s strike forces, and have sought to guestimate Pakistan’s nuclear weapons red lines in each theatre of likely operations (FORCE December 2011 issue). In truth, the wrought changes are unrealistic. Senior army commanders accede in private that mobilisation time of strike formations as witnessed during Operation Parakram can best be reduced from 22 days to 14 days. Lesser mobilisation period requires building cantonment infrastructure close to the border which is unlikely to happen soon if at all. Even this cannot match Pakistan’s advantage of elongated geography; it can mobilise its holding and strike formations in 96 hours simultaneously. On nuclear weapons’ red lines, this will eventually be decided by the political and not the army leadership. Past experience of both Operation Parakram and 26/11 attacks suggests that unless pushed to the wall as in the case of Operation Vijay, the political leadership does not have the stomach to fight nuclear Pakistan.
In contrast, the Pakistan Army (PA) has changed its war-fighting strategy drastically after the arrival of nuclear weapons. Anyone who has followed the pattern of warfare between India and Pakistan understood the three distinct stages of war over Kashmir: political subversion, an attack by infiltration, leading to a limited, high intensity conventional war (third generation warfare) where both armies matched one another at the operational level of war for a limited conflict. A mix of each phase in varying proportions is discernible in the 1948 and 1965 wars over Kashmir. Irrespective of the territorial gains made by either side, a compromise was always struck under pressure from outside powers and gains made on the battlefield were lost on the negotiating table in the aftermath of the war. This led to the realisation in Pakistan that a limited war, if taken to the third phase, becomes counter-productive. With the coming of nuclear weapons, the PA adopted the fourth generation warfare, where regular and irregular forces retain flexibility. The irregular (terrorists) forces under the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) could act independently, as well as become the vanguard for conventional forces. The 1999 Kargil war (called Operation Badr by PA) was the litmus test for this doctrine. In PA’s assessment, the new doctrine worked well. While keeping the two forces separate, the need was for the top commander to understand their sequential employment. This explains why General Ashfaq Kayani is the first army chief to have had tenures as DG, ISI and DG, Military Operations. With the arrival of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, possibility of conventional war has been further curtailed as certainty of achieving worthwhile political objectives has diminished. The biggest benefit of the new doctrine for the PA is that, unlike India, it has little reason to go to war. Its war by irregular forces continues, and should India decide to retaliate, it would be labelled as the aggressor. How has the IA coped with PA’s fourth generation doctrine? While continuing to prepare fitfully for the last war, it has built a fence around it and is diligently combating terrorism within J&K.
The PLA threat is new and has been read differently by the three services. The Indian Navy is concerned about the growing PLAN (People Liberation Army’s Navy) influence in the Indian Ocean, the IAF is focussed on PLAAF (Peoples Liberation Army’s Air Force) capabilities, and the IA has been left to itself to safeguard the sanctity of the disputed border. So divergent is PLA threat to the three services’ headquarters that the COSC till date does not have a combined assessment on Chinese military threat. In a largely single-service driven assessment, the army headquarters finally persuaded the defence minister, A.K. Antony to issue his five-yearly directive due in February 2009 differently. Without many details, the directive has asked the defence services to prepare capabilities for a two-front threat: Pakistan and China. Unlike the 1980 interaction between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her army chief, this time around it was a bottom-up approval primarily meant as government stamp for financial clearance of defence services’ procurements.
According to IA’s assessment, India desires a non-confrontationist posture against China, which is considered a powerful neighbour. This means that the IA will patrol well short of its perceived territory, and it hopes that the PLA will not transgress its territorial sovereignty. Should the PLA continue to violate India’s borders, beyond a point, it is feared, this may snowball into conflict. Thus, as in the past, disputed border would be the likely reason for crisis turning into conflict. To avoid this from happening, the IA has adopted the military posture of ‘Strategic defence and tactical offence.’ The government seems to share the IA’s independent assessment that border violations may lead to confrontation. To ensure this does not happen, New Delhi hopes to sign an agreement on joint boundary mechanism at the 15th round of bilateral special representatives’ talks expected in beginning 2012. The mechanism aims to establish direct contact between New Delhi and Beijing to curb needless escalation over LAC misperceptions. This will reinforce existing communication channels between local commanders.
India’s anxiety that this agreement be signed soonest stems from the assessment that in case of a conflict with China, Pakistan would most certainly open its front against India, leading to the nightmarish scenario of a two-front war. The reverse, India believes, is unlikely. In a war with Pakistan, China is expected to support its ally diplomatically and with military wherewithal only. China, it is reasoned is unlikely to take advantage of an India-Pakistan war. So confident is the IA about this scenario that it has dovetailed employment of four dual-use division-sized formations in a war with Pakistan. According to IA top sources, once the recently-sanctioned four mountain divisions against China are fully raised, it will be possible to move equal numbers of mountain divisions from China to Kashmir. These dual-use divisions would not require re-equipment and conversion training as they would already be on mountain division war establishment tables, and would be adept at fighting in mountains.
As in case of Pakistan, the IA appears to be preparing for the last war, the 1962 war and the 1987 Sumdorong Chu crisis, with China. Its war-fighting strategy of ‘Strategic defence and tactical level offence’, is meant to defend areas of vital interest with limited offensive capability. One such is Tawang (to be defended at all costs), held by a division, with its 190 mountain brigade holding defences ahead of Tawang round the year at heights between 10,000 to 15,000 feet. The Chinese troops (border guards, equivalent of India’s paramilitary forces) facing Tawang has at least 10 tactical advantages.
One, unlike Indian troops that require three-stage acclimatisation (minimum 14 days) each time they come to occupy forward defences, the Chinese on the Tibetan plateau at 16,000 feet and above are already acclimatised.
Two, the Chinese rely on technology much more than the Indian side. They use fully networked tactical surveillance means which are monitored regularly.
Three, the fact that border guards and not regular PLA soldiers are sparsely manning forward posts puts Indian troops under psychological pressure.
Four, between forward defences and PLA regiment headquarters, located way behind, Chinese have huge barren flat ground suggesting reliance on Rapid Reaction Divisions (RRDs).
Five, in the absence of roads and tracks, Indian troops walk from a few hours to two days from Tawang road-head to reach their posts carrying essentials.
Six, Chinese have excellent road communications to all forward posts. The PLA has capability to bring three to four RRDs on the Tawang sector in short time.
Seven, the Indian side lacks essential artillery, both for the contact battle and for interdiction in depth.
Eight, while there is a shortage of forward ammunition dumps, airlifting in case of a crisis poses myriad challenges. Given that land communication are similar to what existed during the 1987 Sumdorong Chu crisis, ammunition worth crores of rupees was lost then as retrieving it after the crisis was not found cost-effective.
Nine, extreme cold, broken terrain and fast changing weather plays havoc with electronic equipment, artillery firing and ISR capabilities. Unlike China, India does not have space-based ISR assets.
And lastly, the build-up of follow-on forces would be a formidable exercise.
Notwithstanding shortcomings, field commanders told FORCE that in the event of a border war, they were confident of a stalemate over Tawang. The battle for Tawang will certainly not be a cakewalk for PLA. With the Dalai Lama ensconced in Dharamshala, what good is Tawang for China? Moreover, Beijing, which is pitted against the United States for supremacy in Asia-Pacific, would lose its enigma if it fought a border war with India. China does not desire to conquer or dominate. What it seeks is deference; that nations in Asia-Pacific have respect for China’s core concerns of Tibet, Taiwan and South China Sea, and they consult Beijing while formulating their policies. The United States’ strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, The Grand Chessboard, writes that: “The Chinese word for China — Chung-kuo, or the Middle Kingdom — both conveys the notion of China’s centrality in world affairs and reaffirms the importance of national unity. That perspective also implies a hierarchical radiation of influence from the centre to the peripheries, and thus China as the centre expects deference from others.”
Consistent with Chinese thinking and diplomacy (FORCE, December 2011 issue), the PLA has embarked on the fifth generation warfare — a rough equivalent of US’ smart power, a mixture of hard and soft power — whose singular war-fighting rule is that there are no rules. The fifth generation warfare combines economic, diplomatic, electronic, cyber, space, proxy, military and propaganda tools to exhaust an adversary and weaken his political will so much that he turns deferential towards Beijing. The fifth generation warfare is about conducting successful coercive diplomacy. As Joseph S. Nye warns in his brilliant book, The Future of Power, “If a threat is not credible, it may fail to produce acceptance and it may lead to costs to the reputation of the coercing state”, the Chinese believe in multi-prong pressure on an adversary to ensure that the sum-total outcome is the desired one. Once this is understood, it becomes easier to comprehend Beijing’s approach towards India. While maintaining relentless pressure on the disputed border, China had adopted a four-pronged approach to coerce India: showcase military might for a border war, entangle India in a disadvantageous economic relationship, support Pakistan fully short of a bilateral defence accord, and permit no political and diplomatic concessions to India.
Regarding a border war in the Himalayas, the PLA has four distinctive operational advantages over the Indian military. The biggest is unity of command. The TAR is a single unit military district which faces IA’s four army commands; northern, western, central and eastern. Moreover in India, command of air and land forces needed for successful air-land battle have different operational boundaries. TAR, on the other hand, will have the benefit of getting resources from two neighbouring military regions, Chengdu and Lanzhou each of which maintains RRDs for quick deployment. All air regiments of PLAAF located in Chengdu and Lanzhou are under the command of the overall commander of the military region. This is not all. Learning lessons on ‘jointness’ from the successful US 1991 Iraq war, the PLA has evolved improved Group Armies (GA) for its military regions; all GA’s have combat, combat support and combat service support or organic logistics under a single commander. Thus, a single PLA commander commands all land forces and air forces in his theatre.
The second operational advantage is that the PLA has concentrated on force multipliers: electronic support measures, defensive and offensive electronic warfare equipment, battlefield command and control systems, increased surveillance capabilities on the battlefield, precision guided munitions, and innovative fire application means to name a few. The third advantage concerns operational logistics. Considering that local resources of food, oils and lubricants are scare on the TAR, the PLA has found an interesting solution. They have emplaced a number of logistics brigades in TAR, which will hold fast-expending commodities including fuel and ammunition stocked and dumped overtime. This brilliant logistics plan will help overcome the organisational weakness of PLA divisions whose manpower is combat heavy with a limited logistics component. The last but not the least, PLA’s advantage is preponderance of conventional ballistic missiles. The conventional missile forces (CMF) are consistent with PLA’s high-tech warfare where an important requirement is massive firepower. Such thinking has obliged the PLA to have greater terminal accuracy of missiles, and to integrate them into theatre (regional army) united campaign programmes. The CMFs will be employed in conjunction with the PLAAF to allow the latter to retain sorties for achieving air superiority.
The strategic advantages of PLA as an important component of government, and its strategic sustenance system for timely procurements are well known and require little elaboration. What needs emphasis is that in a Himalayan border war, outside powers will be reluctant to intervene and India will have to handle things all by itself. There is thus an urgency to demystify Chinese soldier, especially for Indian political leadership which has not got over the 1962 debacle trauma. More to the point they do not want to resurrect the politico-military debate, a subject they know little about and care even less to learn. This explains why India does not have official military history after the first war of 1948 with Pakistan. Writing account of the 1962 war would require the government to make public the Henderson Brooks’ committee report. The two-member committee comprising Lt Gen. T.B. Henderson Brooks as chairman and Maj. Gen (later Lt. General) P.S. Bhagat as member was constituted by defence minister Y.B. Chavan after the war with strict terms of reference. It was to go into the military aspects of the operations only and not concern itself with individual responsibility for the defeat. However, the report submitted to the defence minister in August 1963 would surely have insinuated the political leadership, and indicated how not to conduct politico-military relations. Only a government with courage to reform national security will have the audacity to declassify the report. This is a must for genuine military preparedness against China, the starting point of which could be inclusion of the three service chiefs as regular invitees to the CCS headed by the Prime Minister.
Against this backdrop, it appears that the IA is preparing against Pakistan and China on incongruous turfs. Its capability to cope with fourth and fifth generation warfare necessitates formal political involvement. Once done, this will have the desired consequences: at strategic level, integration of defence services headquarters with the defence ministry, and at operational level, jointness will replace coordination. In the absence of this, the IA has played the safe bet: Transformation, something that the other two services are doing as well.
The thinking at army headquarters is that a war with Pakistan is unlikely; all that is required is expertise in counter-terrorism. However, there is the need the keep the powder dry, whatever that means. On China, the view is that as a border war cannot be ruled out, the IA needs to be prepared for three levels of threat. The low level threat would involve five to six divisions, the medium level would comprise 10 to 12 divisions, and the high level threat which is improbable as it would lead to an all-out no-holds bar conflict could involve 18 to 20 PLA divisions. In IA’s assessment, the terrain on TAR allows PLA the frontal deployment of maximum 10 to 12 divisions.
Preparing for the PLA border threat has three aspects: IA is raising new divisions. The infrastructure building comprising roads, tracks, defences and storage facilities are under the defence secretary over which the IA has little control. And procurement of equipment is an excruciatingly slow process involving formulation of General Staff Qualitative Requirement, scaling, categorisation, request for proposal, trials and transfer of technology. All this is done under the rubric of IA’s long term planning which does not have defined financial underpinning, and annual defence budgets where personalities (relationship of service chiefs with defence ministry mandarins) come into play, and services attempt to get whatever is possible. The biggest casualties of this procedure are the intangibles like stores and ammunition, which requires banishment of the perennial attitude to not lock capital in spares and items that disallow the War Wastage Reserves (WWR) to be maintained optimally. For example, despite claims by ordnance services of fully computerised inventories, it was found after the 1999 Kargil conflict that exact availability of logistics stores and even ammunition was not known. Considering there would be an immediate international clampdown on sales of equipment, stores and ammunition, the IA would need to keep better inventory management.
The other issue that should take precedence are procurements of critical operational gaps. For example, the air defence and artillery are in extremely bad state, the armour and mechanised infantry leaves much to be desired, ISR capabilities including variety of UAVs are nascent, and network centric warfare under the tactical command, control, communication and information system (Tac C3I) is nowhere close to stabilisation. While the latter’s sub-systems comprising CIDSS (command information decision support system), ACCCS (artillery command, control and communication system), BSS (battlefield surveillance system), AD&RC (air defence & reporting system), and BMS (battle management system) are in various stages of development and implementation, turf wars are impeding work. Unless the twin issue of WWR and operational gaps are not attended to, the IA will continue to lack credibility for conventional war. The third issue that is intricately related to conventional war is mind-set. The earlier the IA, which prides itself over expertise in counter-insurgency operations, abandons this and goes back to its primary task of fighting external threats, the better.
The IA sees no contradiction in adopting the capability-based approach even when there are threat-based unresolved issues. The IA is not new to the capability-based approach which was first adopted in the Eighties under General K. Sundarji when India had embarked on military activism in the region. Then, 54 division was earmarked to be converted into air assault division; the actual implementation, it seems, will be done now. Given the unique position of IA chief of staff, as senior-most operational commander and procurements manager, it is prudent for him to decide what approach the service should adopt. Should the IA go for transformation (capability-based approach) when the army chief has little interaction with political leadership, there is no jointness between the services, and his authority does not amount to much in procurements matters?