Bottomline | Lessons From Doklam

Serious issues deserve political and military gravitas not rhetoric

Pravin Sawhney

The message conveyed by the military uniform donned Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the Commander-in-Chief, Joint Operations Command, Xi Jinping while inspecting the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th Founding Day Parade was unmistakable: the PLA, denoting military power, will be in the vanguard of China’s foreign policy.

And military power is one area which the Indians seem to have not fully comprehended; especially the way it is determining China’s foreign policy choices. There is no other reason to explain the casual manner in which sensitive statements are being made by those responsible to deliver in case of an escalation.

Take defence minister Arun Jaitley for instance. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on July 28, he said: “The armed forces are fully equipped to face any contingency and any shortfall of ammunition would be expeditiously made up.” For starters, the task of a defence minister is not to help procure ammunition for the armed forces from within the country and abroad. This is the job of the bureaucrats — both civilian and military — who do not seem to be paying attention to this issue. This is exactly what the recent Comptroller and Auditor General 2017 report has lamented about when referring to the grave shortfall of ammunition.

Jaitley’s grandiloquence has been more than matched by the army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s assertion that, “The Indian Army is ready for a two and a half front war.”

There are four problems with his statement:

    • It is suicidal, impossible and fantastical to believe that war objectives — however modest — can be attained by defeating two nuclear weapon powers;
    • Having achieved good interoperability, the two adversaries are capable of fighting common conventional war missions together;
    • Given the numerous capabilities across various war domains, no single service (the Indian Army) can declare that it is ready for war; and
    • The army leadership has not thought it necessary to have a common assessment of the Doklam face-off with the other two defence services.

At the time when the Indian Army was reportedly building up troops to meet the Doklam challenge, the other two service chiefs were out of the country on peacetime missions. The air force chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa was in France from July 17 to 20, and the navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, who is also the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, was away to Mozambique and Tanzania from July 23 to 30.

The inescapable conclusions are: while war (primarily because China does not want it) may not be on the anvil, India is definitely not ready for it. And, yet the political leadership is not directing the armed forces to build capabilities for a winnable war.

Given these realities, seasoned diplomats cannot be blamed for making irrational comparisons. For instance, a former foreign secretary compared the 2017 Doklam crisis with the 1986-87 Somdorong Chu face-off, which led to troops build-up on both sides for one year, and was finally resolved after nine years. He has argued that longer the Doklam face-off continues it will be beneficial for India, suggesting that China with all its military might will appear a wimp.

Unfortunately, the two situations are as different as chalk and cheese. China today has much more hard power. It is assertive and unlikely to have a prolonged military face-off with India since it cannot be seen as India’s rival; and it has capabilities both to inflict damage ‘short of war’ and to fight with minimal loss of lives.

Unlike India, China has built military power which implies achieving synergy by optimal utilisation of all military capabilities across various war mediums. This has been achieved by military reforms keeping pace with technological progress. Unfortunately, India has not done this which is why its political and military leaders keep assuring the nation that a repeat of the 1962 war (when India was militarily routed) will not happen.

China has built warfare capabilities in six domains of war, namely, land, air, space, sea, electromagnetic and cyber. In addition, it has a plethora of ballistic and cruise missiles, and armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles with good accuracy which it says it would use freely to complement its air force.

In order to synergise these capabilities, President Xi Jinping, as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the commander-in-chief of the Joint Operations Command, has initiated far-reaching military reforms in 2015. Two aspects of these reforms that directly affect India are noteworthy. One, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is being strengthened with increased budgets, manpower, capabilities and capacities. For sustenance of PLAN warships across the Indian Ocean region, China is building up logistics facilities (read military bases) in India’s backyard, namely, Pakistan, Djibouti and perhaps Sri Lanka. The implication of this is that unlike all wars that India has fought, the next one, both with China and Pakistan, will have a dominant naval component. The war will not be restricted to land and air domains.

And two, the People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) which has traditionally led and fought wars will no longer do so. The PLAA numbers are being reduced by one million (10 Lakh), from 2.3 million to 1.3 million by 2022. China’s annual defence allocations (at USD 151 dollars, which is three times India’s allocations of USD 49 billion) will be spent more on the PLAN, PLA Air Force (PLAAF), Rocket Forces (ballistic and cruise missiles), and Strategic Support Force (space, cyber, electromagnetic and other technical assets).

The implications for India are two-fold: One, the PLA will fight a non-contact war with minimal casualties. And two, since the PLAA will have minimal war role (its utility will be more in peacetime: for offensive border management posture, and for military coercion), the Indian Army will not have much to do more than maintaining an operationally defensive posture with minor counterattack possibilities. Instead, India will need to focus on its Special Forces to meet the enormous PLA challenge in this domain.

Not only will the PLA concentrate on non-contact warfare, it will use its ‘short of war’ assets which in conjunction with its psychological warfare capabilities will be employed to the hilt. For example, if the PLA was to unleash its offensive cyber war capabilities to black-out Indian communication networks in the military, government and financial spheres it cannot be construed as an act of war. Similarly, the PLA could kill India’s satellite in low, polar or even geo-synchronous orbits with its proven anti-satellite capabilities. This too would not be enough reason for India to go to war. In other words, China has the means to retaliate against the Doklam face-off at its place of choosing from a position of strength, without getting into a slanging match with India.

Given this, it is difficult to agree with the recent assessment of the army vice-chief, Lt Gen. Sarath Chand that, “China is bound to be a threat for us in the years ahead.” This assessment is, at least, two decades old. China became an immediate threat in 1998 when after India’s nuclear tests, the PLA, because of its good border management, was able to do regular LAC transgressions. Today, the threat is at level 3. Level 1, because of its better border management; Level 2, because of its military reforms wherein the focus has largely shifted to non-contact warfare; and Level 3, because of its good interoperability with the Pakistan military. This has changed the warfare further.

On the one hand, the Pakistan military has better operational capabilities and logistics to sustain a long war with India. On the other hand, the PLA can fight India without showing its hand. For instance, in a war with Pakistan, it will ensure that the Indian military (all three services) will find it extremely difficult to shift limited war assets from east (against China) to west (Pakistan). This will be true for the Indian Air Force too which despite airpower flexibility will find it difficult to swing its combat capabilities for use against Pakistan.

With so much at stake regarding military power, it would be prudent for India to handle its relations with China with deftness, restrain and patience. And by formulating a strategy that finds an answer to the two-front dilemma and a roadmap for building military power.

PS: Read Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China through Military Power.