By Air Cmde Jasjit Singh (retd)
Writing this I felt it was useful to remember that nearly four decades ago, China launched a war against India explicitly because of the border dispute where it is occupying one-third of Ladakh in the western sector and claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But when Mao decided to launch his war against India, he had categorically asserted that he must ‘crush’ Nehru whom he was as envious of, due to various reasons as he was of India. He felt that India was getting undue attention from the international community, — attention, that he, along with PRC, deserved, for their revolutionary war. The Sino-Indian war was more an outcome of Mao’s ego and the interplay of realpolitik among the major powers than the simplistic assumptions in India; and the future may well be like the past.
Premier Chou En-lai, was questioned by the President of Mongolia, Zedenbal, four weeks after the Sino-Indian war had ended on why China had attacked India. Zedenbal perceived India as a ‘neutral’ country and hence, favourable to the socialist bloc. Chou’s answer was that the ‘war was not about territory’ and it was to teach a lesson to India which was moving too close to the United State. In the post-Stalin phase, Mao and Khrushchev fell out. Mao felt that China was the logical leader of the Socialist bloc instead of the Soviet Union, a position unacceptable to Moscow. At the same time, Chinese leaders wanted to be recognised as the leaders of the Afro-Asian decolonising countries, who preferred to look towards India.
Having decided to humiliate India, Mao looked to see whether Chiang Kai-shek, who was making preparations to invade the Mainland, would actually do so, when PLA was preoccupied with its war with India. So, subtle hints were dropped and Mao got his answer: that the United States had clearly cautioned Chiang against any such moves as he would not get any help from them. Meanwhile, Soviet Union and the US were sliding into the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev had told Mao earlier that he had signed a MoU with India to give them MiG-21s and even manufacture them, besides offers of other arms. Predictably, this news was not well received by Mao. Wary of Mao’s allegiance and aware of the aggressive US stance, Khrushchev played his cards carefully. He announced that China was a close friend and that he had held up the Soviet-India arms agreement. Hence, the first public reaction from Moscow when the Sino-Indian war started came as a rude shock to New Delhi. But once the Cuban missile crisis de-escalated Moscow played its diplomatic cards clearly in favour of India, infuriating Mao.
Military Doctrine of PLA
Briefly, as it started its four modernisations after the Sino-Vietnam War which demonstrated serious deficiencies in its war-fighting capabilities, China modified its traditional doctrine of ‘Peoples’ War’ initially to ‘Peoples’ War under modern conditions’. By mid-Eighties, serious thinking went on about its war doctrine along with reforms in the military and military-technological areas. Finally the CMC (Central Military Commission) approved a new doctrine of ‘local-border war’ in 1985. One can speculate why this doctrine was enunciated in 1985? An easy assumption would be a showdown between the nuclear powers which would lead to unavoidable collateral damage. The other could be closer home. Pakistan, given all the nuclear technology, design and enriched uranium for two bombs of the Chinese design, had carried out a test of a nuclear device at Chinese Lop Nor nuclear test site. India had tested a nuclear device in 1974; and it was rational to believe that with all three countries possessing nuclear weapons capability, any war must remain a local-border war if the risk of escalation to nuclear level was to be avoided. Apparently, Mao had actually wanted to transfer nuclear knowhow to Pakistan as early as 1965. While this doctrine has undergone a number of changes (like high-technology modern war) since then, largely as a consequence of the employment of military power in armed conflicts and wars by the United States and other western countries, the centrality of ‘local border’ as the bedrock of PLA doctrine and strategy has persisted till now when single service doctrines do not match the joint doctrine. This evolution of China’s war-fighting doctrine took into account the existence of nuclear weapons, the limited advantage (especially against a nuclear weapon-armed state) of any deep thrust by land forces, and maximum reliance on a fundamentally altered doctrine for the employments of aerospace and missile power.
Local Border War to Long-Range Strikes: Military logic makes it clear that in a limited and/or local-border war that land forces would normally be restricted to areas close to the border and not attempt a deep strike and penetration if the other country possesses nuclear weapons since escalation to nuclear levels would then be almost inevitable. China has been placing great emphasis on the role of air power in such wars based on the experiences of wars since the end of Cold War. Once it adopted the doctrine of local-border war, its dependence on air power naturally increased. However, it still did not possess technology for modern air power systems. But the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up new unprecedented opportunities for acquisition of selected high-technology weapons systems for China’s military modernisation. As a consequence of new capabilities coming in, the air force leadership sought more budgets (which were provided by slashing the strength of the land forces) and clearly started to expound their plans in public.
By the end of Nineties Chinese Air Force commander was publicly expounding the new strategy for the air force. He publicly sought a greater role for the PLA Air Force declaring that the Chinese Air Force will strive for a transformation from the air defence type to an offensive and defensive type as soon as possible. He announced that, “At the turn of the century and in the early part of the new century, the Air Force will have a batch of new-types of early warning aircraft, electronic-equipped fighter planes, and ground-to-air missiles” and that the air force “must give more prominence to air offensive, gradually integrate offensive and defensive, and build up a crack, first-rate air strike force.” His aspirations seem to have finally taken shape as a study by a leading German think-tank has concluded that the ‘Chinese air force is the only branch for which the 2008 defence white paper identifies offensive capability.’ However, the centre of gravity of the Chinese military will remain the army because of its predominant role of underpinning the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party thus making it primarily — domestically oriented. Projection of military power outside the state, however, would rest with the air force, navy and strategic forces.
The result could be clearly seen a decade later in its bold and unambiguous announcement of military strategy in its 2004 White Paper on National Defence. The crucial section candidly stated is reproduced below:
‘While continuing to attach importance to the building of the army, the PLA gives priority to the building of the navy, air force and second artillery force to seek balanced development of the combat structure, in order to strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, and conducting strategic counter-strike.’
At the same time China has focused heavily on (ballistic and cruise) missiles and modernise them. It has developed the Manoeuvring Re-entry Vehicle (MaRV) in addition to the earlier MIRV capabilities for the warheads for its ballistic missiles. It has also been developing and testing its own BMD system based on the Russian supplied S-300 and S-400 air defence and anti-missile systems. In January 2007, China destroyed its own obsolete satellite at around 700-km altitude by a ground-based missile mainly to showcase its ASAT capabilities.
In the context of the brief overview of China’s military power and strategy outlined above, if an armed conflict and use of military force does break out between China and India, what is the most likely scenario that we are likely to face? Here, it may be useful to remember that China has historically used its military power when certain of victory, used force for rapid effect, and very often with politico-military goals that may have little to do with the country that it was using forces against. In other words, “China could use force for reasons that have little to do with its territorial disputes.” It has adopted the precept of ‘strategic partnership’ with India. On the other hand, it has adopted a posture of increasing assertiveness against India since the early years of this century becoming more marked after 2005, when it became clear that India was growing in power even if lagging behind China.
Broadly speaking, it can be generally concluded that China would not risk a military conflict unless the stakes are very high like serious turmoil in Tibet or Xinjiang, and it is seen by Beijing as necessary to take that risk to sustain great power image. However, conflict can evolve through escalation and miscalculation especially when the Line of Actual Control on disputed borders is not demarcated as required by the 1993 and 1996 India-China bilateral agreements but there is little progress. Considering what by now is a vast amount of literature on China’s military power, one can hypothesise how China might fight a local border war with India, if it decides to do so. Broadly, and without going into details, one can assume high probability for the following integrated joint campaigns.
Chinese land forces would aim to fight a local border war along the approximate frontier, strategically remaining on a defensive posture and tactically adopting an offensive strategy. China is holding the territory it wanted in the first place in Aksai Chin since it alters the frontier from the Karakoram Range to Kunlun Range. However, we cannot assume that China may not try to occupy Towang (in Arunachal Pradesh) although it had gone way beyond it in 1962 but had unilaterally vacated it and returned to the generally accepted border along the McMahon Line. PLA land forces may be expected to employ heavy firepower in the mountains especially against Indian Army’s artillery.
Chinese Navy would play a minimal role in the Indian Ocean (except with submarines) at least for the coming decade primarily due to limitations of naval assets to operate so far away even though ports like Gwadar etc. may be available. Little politico-military advantage is likely to accrue to China by attempting naval warfare in India’s backyard.
The major contradiction of the local-border war doctrine is the shape and mission of the Chinese Air Force in future. PLA Air Force would undertake long-range precision strikes into India aiming to dominate Indian Air Force and army formations. Toward this end, it can be expected to attempt to (i) neutralise IAF bases, (ii) engage IAF in air warfare, (iii), neutralise Indian Army’s artillery units in the mountains where siting locations will be limited, and (iv), interdict logistic lines of communications. PLA Air Force would also provide territorial defence against IAF strikes and aim to protect its vulnerable lines of communication (like the Golmud-Lhasa railway line, etc.).
The second contradiction of the local border war doctrine is the strategic strikes by the Strategic Forces with IRBMs armed with conventional warheads and MaRV (Manoeuvrable Re-entry Vehicles which would pose serious challenge to BMD when it becomes operational) is the upcoming deep strike instrument with or without nuclear weapons with range of around 1500-km against fixed targets (especially air bases) essentially for interdiction of road/railway lines and junctions to restrict the movement of logistics and reinforcements.
Pakistan’s 5th War Against India?: Pakistan has reached a tipping point into serious instability which its army may find difficult to control in spite of robust military and economic aid from the US and other western countries on one side and China on the other. The internal struggle for power and ideology amongst multiple groups seeking a dominant role in future may be expected to exacerbate during the coming three years when the US starts to wind down its commitments to the war against terrorism in the AfPak theatre. Once it realised that its proxy war through terrorism in J&K had started to be counter-productive after 2001, Pakistan and its semi-state and non-state actors began to organise and support groups within India to engage in terrorism.
The deep rooted burning desire to defeat India has been a major factor in all the four wars it has fought with India. It is conceivable that as Pakistan goes down the slippery slope to greater instability, it may perceive a war on India to divert the domestic and international opinion as a way out of the morass it has got into. Conscious of the risks associated with nuclearisation, Pakistan’s basic goal would be to fight a limited war under the nuclear umbrella and expect the international community to intervene early on and pull most of its chestnuts out of the jihadi fire. Hence, the land forces are likely to maintain a strong defensive posture (though threatening a major armoured offensive), with longer range firepower (artillery and conventionally armed missiles like the recently announced Nasr) being used extensively to create as much damage to Indian Army as possible and employ the longer range (ballistic and cruise) missiles with conventional warheads to target Indian Air Force air bases. Hence, the main thrust would rely on the Pakistan Air Force and missiles seeking air dominance over IAF. Here we must note the likelihood of assumptions that IAF with its unplanned drop of combat force level from nearly 40 squadrons to perhaps as low as 28 squadrons would be hard put to manage a potential threat from the north as well as fight a competent PAF from the west.
Pakistan has paid special attention in its modernisation since Kargil to Pakistan Air Force and maritime aerial strike capabilities. It has acquired six Swedish AEWC aircraft and four Chinese KJ-2000 AWACS. Its further plans to acquire aerial refuelling aircraft along with a large complement of maritime patrol and strike aircraft and supersonic cruise missiles indicate a desire to (i) extend its sea denial boundaries as far as possible, and (ii) long range precision strike against high value targets in the Indian peninsula all the way down to Kanyakumari.
The Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus has been obvious since 1965 when Mao was reported to have offered nuclear knowhow to Pakistan. It subsequently supplied a whole range of nuclear designs, technology and materials which made it possible for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons capability (with the US facilitating this process further). China supplied nuclear capable ballistic missiles to Pakistan in 1987 (when it had in all probability assembled its first nuclear weapons) and later via North Korea. China has also been reported to have supplied supersonic cruise missiles. More than 60 per cent of Pakistan’s conventional weapons have come from China or manufactured under licence in Pakistan.
The big question that Indian strategic experts are looking at is the likelihood of a coordinated military action by the two countries against India. The Chief of Staff of Army was quoted in December 2009 to have advised the Indian Army to be prepared for a two-front war besides undertaking counter-terrorism duties. Historically China gave not only political-diplomatic support to Pakistan in its military aggression against India, but also raised the stakes when President Ayub and the foreign minister Z.A. Bhutto paid a secret visit to Beijing pleading for help against India. However, China remained apparently neutral in 1971 though it continued military supplies to Pakistan. During Kargil, China maintained near total neutrality.
Hence what conclusion can we draw from the past history? If China triggers a military clash, Pakistan may be expected to take advantage on the western front. But if Pakistan (believing that there is a window of vulnerability of IAF till the end of this decade, after which, it would not be able to match the IAF) launches a military adventure overtly or covertly, China may not necessarily undertake any hostile action unless Pakistan is seen to be losing the war (as indeed happened in 1965). But in any case, New Delhi has to remember that (i) it has been facing two front military modernisation at a rapid pace, (ii) collusion between China and Pakistan may be situation-specific, but India’s defences would have to cater for two theatres each requiring a significant quantity and quality of armed forces for defence, and (iii) China will continue to supply nuclear-missile technologies, BMD technologies and even potentially its MaRV armed ballistic missiles directly or through North Korea to help Pakistan target IAF air bases and the missile delivery capability. Any further delays in force modernisation in Indian Armed Forces would only prolong the existing window of vulnerability which diplomacy may not be able to manage adequately and nor should we be expecting external assistance in case of conflict on our frontiers.
(The writer, India’s leading air power expert is director, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)