August 4, 2020
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Defensive response
Possibilities of confrontation with China

With the Chinese attitude of constant pinpricks through border violations inspite of declaration to maintain peace and tranquility on the Line of Actual Control, there is always the possibility that one of such intrusions could spiral out of control and confront India with a border war.

It is a contingency that needs to be confronted without scales over one’s eyes and wishful thinking of the kind that led to the miscalculation in 1962 that China will not attack India. It would be better to be prepared than be sorry for neglect and dereliction of duty.

India has hitherto been tepid in its response to these Chinese provocations and thereby, perhaps, inviting further provocations. Ladakh in the western sector currently appears to be the focus of Chinese intrusions but it may not be the core issue which lies elsewhere.

What the Chinese appear to be doing is trying to consolidate its holdings in the Aksai Chin area through which its major road and future railway and oil and gas pipelines are to be laid. It would not want India to be able to interfere or disrupt these facilities for any length of time.

Conversely, India will have to ensure that whatever facilities it has on the ground at the moment (given that the road infrastructure is well behind schedule) is preserved and provides assured logistics to troops on the forward edge of the likely battleground.

So far nothing inspires confidence given that the Chinese were able to enter the Depsang valley through 19 km of territory without being spotted and stopped and the incursion was repeated several times thereafter including one in which the cameras set up for long-range reconnaissance were smashed and returned to the Indian border guards.

Lack of infrastructure

Much is being made of the ability to land the C-130J Super Hercules Special Forces transport aircraft at the Daulat Beg Oldi airstrip which has recently been refurbished and reactivated. This airstrip is less than a dozen kilometers from Chinese positions and it will not be difficult for them to see the landings and takeoffs and take steps to disrupt them with heavy artillery both guns and missiles. It will be impossible to sustain military operations from Daulat Beg Oldi once hostilities begin.

It is obvious that it is in the absence of adequate infrastructure like roads and rail links that the dependence on air bridges is being resorted to. What if that air bridge is disrupted in the very first flush of open hostilities?

As things stand the landings and takeoffs of military aircraft from DBO signifies possession. Whether we will be able to hold on to it and use it day in and day out is an altogether different matter.

What the Indian Air Force is doing is highlighting the fact that there is no other way for replenishments and reinforcements to be brought into the area given that the nearest railheads are at Shimla and Joginder nagar and Nagrota. The road from Shimla stops about a kilometer from the international border. The alternative route through the Rohtang Pass will take three more years to fructify.

In several issues STRATEGIC AFFAIRS has been suggesting several ways to prevent being caught by surprise again and to be in a position to respond with adequate firepower to stop the Chinese in their tracks and prevent the kind of deep inroads into Indian Territory as happened in 1962.

Achievable options

One of the suggestions was pre-selecting likely “killing zones” through which the Chinese may make ingress or we draw them into areas where our artillery is massed. Given that there are no roads what needs to be done is that heavy artillery like the 155 mm Bofors howitzer (currently being indigenized at the Jabalpur Ordnance Factory based on drawings that the original Bofors company had supplied more than a quarter century ago) and the other indigenous weapon the 214 mm Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher (which proved so effective in Kargil where it was used as a line-of-sight weapon) be dismantled and carried in mulepacks or manpower using improvised carts.

The armed forces have tried to belittle the suggestion by saying that such activity is impossible during hostilities. Of course it is and that is why we have suggested that it should be done now, during peace time so that you are ready when the Chinese make their next move. The Vietnamese beat the Americans by using such innovations along the Ho Chi Minh trail through neighboring Cambodia.  

Not doing a good job of dismantling and pre-positioning heavy artillery during peacetime will leave the armed forces totally dependent on the air bridge which is unsustainable.

If this is not done, expectations that India will be able to hold the Chinese at the Line of Control itself will be belied. If India is able to hold the Chinese at the Line itself, it will be a major psychological victory.

Clearly the Indian Air Force is about to repeat a mistake it made in Kargil by not learning the lessons from the Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the manner in which the latter dealt with helicopters and aircraft in the mountainous terrain. It was because of this that India lost one aircraft and one helicopter to shoulder-fired missiles and had to redesign air-to-ground attacks in Operation Safed Sagar. That was when the use of heavy artillery in the direct fire mode proved so successful.

The basic issue is what should be the Indian military objectives in the Jammu and Kashmir theatre. The answer to that should be clear enough.

In the absence of an ability to capture and hold Chinese territories (or claim lines along the Line of Actual Control), the next best thing would be deny China access to the Arabian Sea via the Karakoram Highway.

Long range interdiction with Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft should be aimed at the QTR rail link connecting mainland China to the Tibetan hinterland and it is intended to ensure rapid transit to thousands of Chinese troops for massing along the LAC at short notice.

Simultaneously, the Aksai Chin road, the main bone of contention in 1962 should be reduced to rubble as soon as possible. More importantly the link between Tibet and the Arabian Sea through the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir should be cut at the several very important bridges that Pakistan and China have never allowed to be photographed.

This will ensure that all traffic on the Highway will be disrupted for several years as happened when a landslide caused a massive lake to form north of Gilgit and goods had to be transported by boat. It is still not repaired three years after the landslide.

Since China and Pakistan are using disputed territory to create the economic corridor between the two countries, India will be remiss if it does not disrupt this game plan that is designed to present New Delhi with a fait accompli about the future of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir without any possibility of addressing Indian requirements of a direct access to Afghanistan, either through Pakistan held territory or Chinese controlled land routes.