The public perception of the Indian army being smacked around on the border by China needs correction. Actually army units with the Leh-based XIV Corps do “power patrolling”, matching the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) move for aggressive move, including active use of drones, something not publicised by an incomprehensibly reticent Indian government. Thus, while it is known, for example, that the camera installed in the post on the Chumar heights was destroyed by intruding PLA troops, what isn’t is the fact that it was quickly replaced by the Chinese with a new surveillance system once they were told that five of their cameras in similarly exposed sites would be destroyed in retaliation.
The negative impression of a lax and unready army has gained traction, leading to murmurings of a 1962-type of disaster in case of war with China, which’s wrong. An indecisive Indian government has constrained the Indian army with its delayed decision on the offensive mountain corps and the painfully slow construction of border roads and military-use infrastructure. But notwithstanding China’s advantages in these and other respects, the PLA is in no position to overwhelm India’s defensive formations arrayed in depth, even less maintain an attacking force in the field in the face of sustained Indian aerial strike power. It has only 11 Ilyushin-76s for heavy airlift, relies on the antiquated Yak-7 variant of An-32 — the staple of the Indian transport capability as well and, unlike the Mi-26 in Indian employ, has no heavy lift helicopters for tactical support.
The problem is fundamentally of a strategic nature. With China clearly utilising its repeated provocations to benchmark escalatory steps — from push to shove to widespread hostilities to limited war to however improbable, general war, the question is what is the most appropriate Indian strategy if the violence is ratcheted all the way up? The Indian government seems persuaded by the “theatre-switching” maritime strategy of a naval riposte to Chinese aggression in the mountains. According to the estimable Rear Admiral (Retd) K Raja Menon (“A mountain strike corps is not the only option”, The Hindu, July 28, 2013), the ` 60,000 crore sanctioned for an offensive army mountain corps is a waste of money, which ought to have been spent on beefing up the navy’s Sea Lines of Communications “interdiction capability” instead in order to obtain “a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean”. Threaten a cutoff of energy and natural resources from the Gulf and Africa, put its exports-driven economy and prosperity at risk and, voila! goes this argument, Beijing will pull its punches landward.
Convinced about the efficacy of “maritime strategy for continental wars” — a subject he has fleshed out in a book — Menon builds his larger case on Britain’s historical experience of utilising the Royal Navy to contain European continental powers. Except, as empirical evidence shows, a maritime strategy can overcome only island nations (such as Japan in World War II) but by itself can at most seriously discomfit, not stifle, major land powers enjoying interior lines of communications. Even Britain had to rely ultimately on Marlborough, master of the forced march and tactical maneuvering, to settle the early 18th Century Wars of the Spanish Succession in the decisive land battles at Blenheim, Ramillies and Malpalaquet, against the condominium of France and Spain, both boasting formidable navies which, along with the Royal Navy, did little during this period than indulge in “cruising wars”.
An exclusively naval response by India to a conflict in the Himalayas initiated by China is problematic for a host of practical reasons. In a “limited war” launched by PLA, sinking a few Chinese warships found east of the Malacca Strait, or sinking or capturing Chinese merchantmen on the high seas is surely not enough recompense for loss of valuable territory in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and from which the Chinese forces are unlikely to withdraw as they did in 1962. So, the status quo ante will not be restored on land as it will be on the seas. There’s, moreover, the little matter of India’s ability to impose a “total exclusion zone” on the entire Indian Ocean to prosecute an unbridled guerre de course (war on commerce). Alas, a navy of 50-odd capital ships by 2030 will be inadequate for this mammoth task. Then there are the lesser issues of identifying Chinese carriers and targeting them and other ships, possibly under friendly flags plying the China trade. If the latter are to escape the torpedo and only quarantined, eventually to be released, it’ll mean even less cost to Beijing.
Secondly, while a few Indian ships could almost instantly get underway, an all-out effort will require four-to-six days of hectic preparation as stores and assets are marshalled, battle groups constituted and, based on intelligence, an interdiction grid established, during which time the PLA could rack up singular, irreversible, successes in the mountains. Indeed, the Chinese could well achieve their limited war aims before many Chinese naval ships and merchant marine can be found and sunk, and the Chinese economy impacted. The time factor could be further distended if, as is likely, the conflict begins with the usual border incident or two before the PLA chooses to escalate. At what point in this escalation sequence will the Indian government, notoriously timid in using armed force, decide the country is in a war situation necessitating implementation of the maritime strategy? Thirdly, unlike India, China has built up strategic reserves of oil and minerals; these will last longer than the limited war will endure and before India’s maritime counter can have effect.
Any military campaign against China will perforce be land-based with a maritime strategy as subsidiary. India, therefore, has a desperate need for capability to mount offensives on the Tibetan plateau provided by specially-equipped mountain corps. At a minimum, India requires three such corps, not just one. However, Menon’s suggestion that the rugged American A-10 Warthog fixed-wing aircraft, rather than armed helicopters, be considered for close air support is more interesting.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com