War gaming is always a herculean task. So what will an assault on PoK look like? First, India’s just-inducted 45,000-tonne INS Vikrant indigenous aircraft carrier, along with its Carrier Battle Group, floats out of the Mumbai naval port into the Arabian Sea to enforce an unannounced blockade of Pakistani ports. The carrier, with the new Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets as its air element on board, is a power projector for India, with BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles that can destroy targets unnoticed and uninterrupted.
At the same time, around 50,000 Indian troops are mobilised and cross on foot the de facto border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. They will be supported by a range of artillery guns including the newly inducted self-propelled K9 Vajra. Simultaneously India’s new Rafale aircraft with nuclear delivery capability takes off from Ambala airbase and drops Israel-made laser-guided bombs on strategically important Pakistani ammunition dumps along the Line of Control, with air support from the Russian Su-30MKI, which are also armed with BrahMos air-launched missiles.
The Pakistani Military initially caught unawares, responds by scrambling Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets to counter the Rafales. The air battle rages, as Indian troops on ground, backed by T-90 and T-72 battle tanks, move through Jammu into Pakistan, as part of the Strike Corps’ offensive to capture strategic targets deep inside enemy territory. This signals an all-out war between India and Pakistan to take back control of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK); a strategic objective that has been articulated by the Indian military and political top brass in 2019.
As the war enters the second day, it is time for Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, to step in. As Chinese soldiers begin to squeeze Indian forces in the Ladakh region, the PLA tries to synchronise its attack on two fronts from the Shaksgam Valley and Karakoram Pass to cut off Indian soldiers posted in Siachen, to gain strategic advantage over India and to force New Delhi to back off. For decades now, the India-Pakistan conflict along their de facto borders has followed a script. A terror strike inside Jammu and Kashmir, executed by a Pakistan-based terror group, has often brought the two neighbours close to a conventional war. If it was not diplomatic interventions, luck has prevented them from going for each other’s jugular. That script is now passe with the Narendra Modi government modifying the game plan. It is willing to go the extra mile across the border to strike, as witnessed during the 2016 surgical strikes to take out terror camps or the air strike on Balakot last year.
The Modi government has in the last year made noises about proactively taking back PoK and the Gilgit-Baltistan territories. In January, Indian Army chief General Manoj Naravane had said if Parliament approved, his forces were ready. India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have all indicated that India can take back what’s rightfully its own territory, based on a 1994 Parliament resolution. But is India capable of mounting such a military campaign? It is easier said than done. The presence of China in Gilgit-Baltistan with massive investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be a major impediment for an India military offensive because the Chinese would want to protect their interests. The threat in PoK comes more from China than Pakistan.
Iqbal Malhotra, author of Kashmir’s Untold Story: Declassified, says the manufacture of high-end microchips has been shifted to PoK in a massive Chinese-built underground factory away from prying satellite eyes; microchips run a wide range of electronics, aircraft, ships, satellites and more. In Kashgar, they have set up a poly silicon manufacturing plant to make the chips; one of the world’s largest. Malhotra says the Chinese have also built missile silos in PoK. An Indian military move could definitely spark off a two-front simultaneous war mounted jointly by Pakistan and China against India. India is aware of their collusion and has been preparing for a hostile eventuality over the last decade or so.
If it was just dealing with Pakistan in PoK, the Indian Army and the Air Force are more than capable of defeating its forces. India is careful not to initiate a two-front war, but is waiting for a mistake on Pakistan’s part to execute its plans.
The Indian Army’s 15 Corps headquartered in Srinagar; the 14 Corps headquartered in Leh and the 16 Corps with HQ at Nagrota have previously war-gamed punitive strikes on Pakistan to recover PoK—not just once, but on several occasions in the last five years, according to Gen Rawat. The Indian Army can mount a joint infantry and artillery attack along the 740-km Line of Control (LoC) spanning the geographical areas covered under the three Corps with around 100,000 soldiers to carry out a punitive strike. Fortunately, India currently occupies the higher positions in the undulating terrain along the LoC. However, the trouble spot for India is the 110-km Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) along the Siachen Glacier. China, using the Karakoram Pass and the Shaksgam Valley—areas ceded by Pakistan to China—can synchronise a simultaneous attack through the Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK areas to cut off Indian troops posted in the glacier (see graphics).
China scores over India on the missile warfare front. It has inter-continental missiles that can even reach the US mainland. Its DF-21 are aircraft carrier killers. India, on the other hand, has developed the Agni-V missile that can reach Beijing. It is still developing a K-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile with a range of 3,500 km. It has also successfully tested the 700-km range K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Despite India’s 130-strong nuclear arsenal, its declared no-first-use policy dictates that the country must develop and maintain a credible second-strike nuclear deterrence. This doctrine was no longer considered sacrosanct; there are indications of a review. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has stated that the no-first-strike nuclear doctrine can be reviewed if the situation warrants it. This ambiguity is a strategic advantage, which India can put to good use against both Pakistan and China.
As things stand today, if there is a two-front attack on India from China and Pakistan, South Block expects both the US and Russia to support it. While Russia has been a traditional diplomatic friend of India and values this relationship more than with any other country, the US has shed its Cold War era doubts and has been taking sure-footed steps toward better diplomatic and economic ties. Moreover, the US has more defence business to do with India than with China or Pakistan, which could be a key factor in deciding Washington’s allegiance if India has to defend itself from the China-Pakistan military axis. America’s arms business with India is nearly $18 billion in the last 12 years with defence diplomacy between the two nations only growing since 2007. The same is true with Russia, though China is also a major defence customer for Moscow: a factor that India needs to be wary of.
The writer is a New Delhi-based defence and aerospace journalist.