India should focus on improving its border management against Tibet
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Even as Sino-India talks continue at the political and diplomatic levels on the border issue, there is a need for India to prepare itself for the twin-dimensional military threat from the PLA. In immediate terms, India needs good border management to match PLA’s offensive border management posture. In the long term, a progressive approach to deal with, at least, PLA’s small military threat is necessary. Fortunately, the Task Force on Border Management which was set up by the government after the 1999 Kargil war has made useful suggestions, a few of which were incorporated in the Group of Ministers (GoM) report released in February 2001. It is another matter that the implementation has been too slow for any results to show on the ground.
The three-pronged approach recommended for border management is ‘one border one force,’ a ‘single point control’ and speedy development of infrastructure, especially roads in border regions. It has been argued that one paramilitary force should be responsible for the entire 4,056km LAC with China. At present, the Indo Tibetan Border Police under the Ministry of Home Affairs looks after the 830km and 554km LAC in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal respectively. The 200km and 1,126km border in Sikkim and the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh is the responsibility of the army and Assam Rifles combined, with the latter being under the operational control of the former. While the army and the Assam Rifles function well, there are problems of coordination between the ITBP and the army which is deployed in depth. The ITBP reports to the army through the circuitous route of the home and defence ministries, as, according to the Union Book, in peace-time, the ITBP is required to have a mere co-ordination with the army. It is only in war that the ITBP comes under direct control of the army. Considering that the PLA, since 1998, has resorted to offensive patrolling on the LAC, there have been instances in the western sector when the ITPB was inadequately equipped to challenge the PLA, and by the time the army’s Rapid Response Force (formed in 1999) could act, the damage had been done. The GoM report, therefore, has said that the entire LAC should be the responsibility of the ITBP alone. After much dithering, action on the ITBP taking over from the Assam Rifles in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh has finally begun in 2004, but many more problems remain.
To mark the first anniversary of FORCE in August 2004, we decided to turn east. FORCE visited Sikkim in July 2004, an area with the highest concentration of troops in the world. In the week that we spent there, FORCE travelled to both Nathu la and North Sikkim. The result was this comprehensive cover story, spanning past, present and the future. Read on
The GoM report has accepted the Border Management Task Force recommendation piecemeal. In view of aggressive patrolling by PLA, the Task Force had emphasised the need for border-guarding rather than border-policing, which is only possible by a ‘single point control’. It was suggested that the ITBP come under the operational control of the army until the final resolution of the border dispute. Thereafter, the ITBP could revert back to the MHA. Surprisingly, the resistance to this advice came from the Ministry of External Affairs which said that such a move may annoy China which may read the situation as an accretion of forces by India. The army argued in vain that as all paramilitary and border guarding forces in China are directly under the PLA, China has no reason to interpret the issue wrongly. Moreover, the Task Force also said that there is an urgent need to upgrade the equipment, training and leadership of the ITBP to bring it at par with regular army. The ITBP, thereafter, should be referred to as not a police force, but Indo Tibetan Border Force to conform to its new avatar under the army. The army has given four advantages of ‘single point control’: One, it will ensure an optimal utilisation of resources. Two, patrolling activities will be coordinated better. Three, an immediate response to an untoward incident can be optimally ensured with the help of army’s Rapid Reaction Force. And lastly, it is observed that flag and scheduled border meetings with Chinese sector commanders are attended by representatives of both the army and the ITBP, with no clear cut areas of responsibilities. Once this problem is removed, a more focussed approach could be adopted by sector commanders.
Moreover, for effective border management, the Cabinet Committee on Security in May 1999 had sanctioned the construction of certain roads which were recommended by the China Study Group (CSG) based upon two considerations. Firstly, there are posts in the western sector that are air-maintained. For example, the entire Sub-Sector North is presently not connected by road. Secondly, most roads in other sectors, especially the eastern sector are about 80 to 100km short of the LAC. In order to address these infrastructural shortcomings which directly impinge on good border management, the CSG had said that work on these operationally necessary roads should be finished by 2007. Unfortunately, for various reasons, work has still not begun on these roads. Probably the biggest hurdle is the tardy progress in forest and environment clearances for CGS roads. For this reason, the task force on border management had suggested that assistance from other available construction agencies in the country for expediting road construction in border areas should be explored. Moreover, airlift by suitable helicopters of the Indian Air Force, or those procured on lease, should be pressed into service to lift engineering and earthmoving equipment along the alignment of roads to be able to tackle construction at a number of points simultaneously. It is, after all, critical that India regularly patrol up to its perception of the border all along the LAC, especially the more disputed western and eastern sectors. In addition to the CGS roads, which are an operational priority, there is a need to address other roads and highways to ensure that troop’s movement, when required, is not stalled by the vagaries of weather.
Regarding the small and big levels of military threat, the answer is firepower, both land based and air power. Probably the most suitable land-based firepower for the purpose are the Bofors guns. Interestingly, when Bofors were first inducted into the army in 1986, their deployment was against China during the Sumdorong Chu crisis. According to officers in the 33 corps headquarters, trials of 52 calibre Bofors guns were held in Sikkim in June. The army has pressed the case for procurement of these guns against China. Notwithstanding this, there will be problems of their deployment in mountains, especially when the turn-radius of the guns is large. Then there are problems pertaining to gradient of the gun, apart from the fact that certain stretches of roads do not have strong bridges to take their weight. In simple words, Bofors gun areas will both be limited, and relatively away from the border. Considering that the adversary’s firm base for a land-assault would be, at least, 15 to 20km away from the border, there is a need for longer range firepower. It would be wastage of air power to utilise it for battlefield interdiction purposes, when it would be needed for deep interdiction and offensive counter air mission. Moreover, air force missions would be weather dependent. The answer, therefore, lies in the use of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, which the PLA has reportedly stocked in TAR.
Some thought is already being given to deploy the Agni-1A, single stage with 700km range, with conventional warheads against China. This would remove the problem of having ballistic missiles too close to the border, and would help in matching PLA’s ballistic missiles in TAR
Unfortunately, an employment of Prithvi battlefield missiles with conventional warhead has operational limitations, and may not be politically acceptable. A Prithvi sub-group will encounter similar deployment problems as a Bofors battery in mountains. Moreover, the political leadership would not like to do anything which demonstrates an accretion of forces. For these reasons, some thought is already being given to deploy the Agni-1A, single stage, solid propellant with 700km range, with conventional warheads against China. This would remove the problem of having ballistic missiles too close to the border, and would help in matching PLA’s ballistic missiles in TAR. However, for this to happen, two things are necessary. One, there is a need to change the mindset, even in the military, that Agni-1A, which was first testfired at the height of Operation Parakam in January 2002 is a Pakistan-specific missile. And two, Agni-1A would require a better accuracy to be used with conventional warhead. Considering that the scientists are already seized with this issue, an answer should not be far away. Agni-1A can be employed against both Pakistan and China; against Pakistan, it would be a strategic weapon system, while for China, it could be a useable ballistic missile. Agni-1A, after all, will be able to hit Lhasa, which is about 500km from Gangtok.
Sikkim resists the chilly winds blowing from China
Through the centuries, Sikkim has attracted nibblers
The 1993 agreement adds to woes of the Indian Army
China has always kept India on tenterhooks
While PLA builds capabilities in Tibet, India watches on the sidelines
Chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling is an icon in Sikkim. He peers down from street hoardings, his face smiles from the front pages of the local newspapers and his name is reverentially invoked in conversation by the local population. Given that he is currently running his third term in a row since his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) came to power in 1994, his popularity is on an all-time high. As usually happens with icons, innumerable stories about him float around in the mint fresh air of Sikkim. A famous one goes that when he was a member of the legislative assembly in 1993 he raised his hand in the house to make a point. However, the Speaker, under the influence of the then chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, disallowed him from speaking. Chamling took out a candle from his pocket and went around the house as if searching for something in candlelight. He ended his search by coming to the well of the House and saying in a clear voice, “I am looking for democracy in this House. Since it is not here, perhaps it is in the pockets of the chief minister.” A direct consequence of this cry for democracy was that his one-year-old party, SDF, swept the polls in 1994 and has been in power since. Born in 1950, to Nepalese-speaking parents, Chamling has authored a number of books, both in verse and prose. Apart from that, a few volumes of his collected speeches are also available. A recipient of a number of awards, including Chintan Puraskaar in 1987 for poetry, Bharat Shiromani in 1996 for national integration, public welfare and strengthening democracy and the Greenest Chief Minister of India in 1998, Chamling has successfully created an image of a visionary that elevates him from the status of a mere politician. He spoke to FORCE about the opening of the trade route and other issues related to the development of this border state.