The prolonged standoff at Dolam, Bhutan between India and China has removed the facade of perpetual stability along their mutual frontier that certain quarters have sought to portray based on their unshakeable belief in the efficacy of various confidence building measures the two sides have put in place over the past few decades. However, the fact is, that ‘despite not a shot being fired’ for a long time across the 4057 kilometre (km) long Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India and China, the Chinese have assiduously sought to change the territorial status-quo, one road construction unit at a time. But that strategy is something that the Indian Army (IA) is not willing to countenance anymore. Indeed, the IA is no longer willing to let China do so even in Bhutan, keeping aside the strategic military significance of Dolam for the moment.
For years, India had deliberately kept its frontier with China devoid of much access infrastructure due to a premise that the absence of such connectivity would lead to attacking forces getting bogged down, thereby giving time to the Indian military to regroup and respond to an invasion. Even now, the Indian strategy in a few sectors seeks to let Chinese forces concentrate within the narrow confines of a valley before focusing an assault from the flanks. However, this outlook of basically conceding some territory up-front during an enemy advance began changing by the early 1990s, when Beijing started building a massive rail and road network of its own in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) that created a situation whereby the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP) can attempt both creeping encroachment as well as salami-slice tactics along the LAC between India and China.
As such, the LAC is divided into three segments: the Western Sector, from the Karakoram Pass to Demchok in Eastern Ladakh, the Middle Sector, from Demchok till the Indian border with Nepal and the Eastern Sector, from Sikkim up to India’s border with Myanmar. In some places, particularly lacking in connectivity, the Chinese could even build some rudimentary infrastructure of their own even during peacetime, as evidenced by the discovery of Chinese helipads inside Indian territory in the past. In fact, an official Indian report from 2010 mentioned the possibility that India may have lost a small parcel of land to Chinese encroachment in Eastern Ladakh.
The Chinese could also create a favourable balance of forces (for themselves) along certain points on the LAC and then even sustain gains by extending their own border infrastructure very short distances into Indian territory, relatively quickly. In at least two places in Ladakh, Chinese border roads extend till points that lie within what India perceives to be territory controlled by it. Typically, the Chinese ‘road head’ is either right up to the LAC or is just a few hundred metres short of it while the Indian ‘road head’ could be anywhere between a several hundred metres to several kms short of the LAC, although this is changing now. In any case, the Chinese have built motorable tactical roads from their Western and Eastern highways in TAR till all 31 passes (eleven in the Western Sector, five in Middle Sector and 15 in the Eastern Sector) that are of military significance along the LAC. In addition to this various border ‘laterals’ of low classification also exist just south of subsidiary axes to the main tactical roads that may be used for an advance.
With India now pushing back against Chinese encroachment both at the LAC as well as what it considers to be its sphere of influence in South Asia, tensions are on the rise. Three years ago, what was supposed to be a new beginning for India-China relations, with President Xi Jinping becoming the first major head of State to visit India after Modi assumed office, turned sour as Chinese troops intruded into Indian territory in Eastern Ladakh, even as the visit was underway. Since then, India’s ties with China have been characterized by dissonance, with China opposing India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier’ Group (NSG), Indian worries about trade imbalances, Chinese hostility towards the Dalai Lama’s travels to Arunachal Pradesh and finally India’s decision to oppose China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), made in no small part due to BRI’s flagship project being the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which impinges on India’s sovereignty. Throughout this period, the LAC has seen numerous Chinese transgressions in certain sectors as well as airspace violations.
With CPEC, China has essentially inserted itself into the Kashmir dispute in a major way. The wariness of the Indian political class about the peculiar bilateral ethos of Sino-Pak relations which predicates itself on countering New Delhi has now crystallized into fears about the possibility of a collusive two-front threat from India’s two biggest neighbours. India’s polity has therefore accepted the Indian Military’s need to be prepared for a two-front conflict and there seems to be consensus across party lines on the need to build-up the necessary wherewithal to be able to hold-off a Chinese attack while being engaged in a short punitive war against Pakistan or conversely to hold off a Pakistani attack as Indian forces move to contain a Chinese offensive across the LAC in a quid pro quo scenario.
The backbone of being able to wage a serious two-front campaign (apart from C4ISR and firepower to ensure maximum attrition of enemy formations) is infrastructure. The focus in recent times has been on building infrastructure that makes it easier for the Indian military to access even rather remote mountainous frontiers, such the easternmost parts of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), where in places such as Kibithu in Anjaw district the Chinese have been ‘asserting’ themselves. Indeed, Kibithu, is believed to be one of the likely targets for a Chinese attack in the event of hostilities. Other targets of value for the Chinese would of course be Tawang in Western AP where the Sixth Dalai Lama was born, Chaglagam in AP’s Lohit district, the Depsang Plains and Chumar in Ladakh (where PLAGF troops intruded during Xi Jinping’s 2014 visit) and possibly Barahoti in Uttarkhand’s Chamoli district.
Chinese Capability in Tibet
In all, the PLAGF used to have four combined arms group armies (GAs) in the PLA’s erstwhile Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Region’s (MR’s) that were of relevance to India. These were the 13th & 14th of Chengdu MR and the 21st & 47th of Lanzhou MR. Post re-organization, the total area of responsibility (AOR) under the former Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs has been merged into the newly created Western ‘Battle Zone’ or Theater Command (TC), which now controls the 76th and 77th ‘Combined Corps-Level’ GAs that have been created by enlarging the 21st and 13th GAs respectively. The 76th and 77th will likely absorb elements of the 47th which has now been decommissioned, with the 14th having been earlier assigned to PLA’s Southern TC and is being decommissioned as well.
These new ‘Combined Corps-level’ GAs are not merely integrated arms units of PLAGF but are also supposed to progressively include inter-service elements from the PLA Air force (PLAAF) and the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) in furtherance of integrated joint operations (IJOs) that are supposed to be a key facilitator of China’s doctrine of ‘winning local wars under conditions of informationization’ as enunciated in the 2015 White Paper on China’s Military Strategy (CMS). These new GAs are also expected to further the PLAGF’s move away from a division-based structure to one based on ‘modular combined arms brigades’ to apparently enhance mobility, and flexibility with high lethality. In addition to the 76th and 77th, Xinjiang Military Division (MD) and Tibet Military Division (MD), that are part of the Western TC have some additional 8 infantry divisions/brigades and 2 special operations brigades at their disposal.
Be that as it may, Indian military sources believe that the 77th, which as the 13th was designated as a ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ (RRF) and the 76th which was termed an ‘offensive mobile force’ as the 21st could concentrate the equivalent of up to 7 division sized formations in TAR within a week’s time with one RR division being inducted into Lhasa in as little 24-36 hours. Nevertheless, most of the deployed forces from lower altitudes will take at least two weeks to get acclimatized and this must be added to the time taken for simply mobilizing a certain quantum of forces from outside TAR. As an aside, traditionally the Indian establishment keeps a watch on Chinese military movements across the Tsangpo. Significant movement across the Tsangpo, is regarded by the Indian side to be suggestive of serious military intent by the PLAGF. If a conflict were to at all take place this year, it is most likely to be during late-September or Early October when the skies clear up.
For sustaining whatever forces it inducts into Tibet, the PLAGF, apart from the specialized storage facilities it has built there, can also leverage various ‘civilian’ logistic nodes that have ‘dual-use’ billeting and warehousing complexes complete with loading ramps and traffic loops as well as hard standings. Such nodes exist in the vicinity of places like Hetian, Garr, Xigaze, Lhasa, Nagqu, Nyingchi (only 30 kms from the LAC with Arunachal Pradesh) and Chayu. The multi-functional logistics centre at Nagqu which facilitates freight movement, storage, packaging, processing, distribution and information transaction with a throughput capacity of over 2.2 million tonnes is of particular significance. The Nagqu centre probably also hosts facilities for military command & control (C2) and surveillance.
As part of the China Advanced Info-Optical Network (CAINONET) project this area is also connected with the Chinese mainland through an OFC network to facilitate secure communications. to provide the backbone for a command, control, communication, computer, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) network necessary to prosecute a local war under ‘informationized conditions’. Indeed, the newly created PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) will look to play a key role in any conflict in India by disrupting Indian C2.
Since 2012, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been conducting live fire exercises in Tibet that have included providing support to ground forces training for the ‘capture of passes in high-altitude regions’. Winter operations have also become routine after being carried out for the first time in 2012. Night flying drills out of Lhasa Gonggar have also been reported in the Chinese media. In addition to the airfields in TAR, the Western TC has over a dozen other airfields within 1200 km of the LAC from which PLAAF aircraft could be based during a conflict with India. Incidentally, two very large helicopter bases are located in Aksai Chin, all 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of which is claimed by India in the Western Sector of the LAC.
The PLAAF can also look forward to integrated joint operations with the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) in TAR, with the latter having at least two major missile bases with three missile brigades each in the Western TC. PLARF could use conventionally armed missiles in the opening stages of any conflict to attack Indian Air Force (IAF) airbases in addition to other targets such as C2 nodes, AD sites etc, thereby making it a key enabler of air operations for the PLAAF. Or the PLARF could be used later in ‘retaliatory mode’, if the Chinese start facing reverses in various sectors. The view that the PLARF will not be employed at all, since India would perceive any incoming ballistic missile to be nuclear-armed is not shared by Indian military sources that I have spoken to. Indian military wargames apparently always factor in a major conventionally armed missile attack by the PLARF in various scenarios.
The Indian Build-up
Probably the target of greatest value for the Chinese is Tawang, since they specifically claim the concession of the Tawang tract to them as a pre-requisite for settling the India-China border dispute. The Chinese also occupy key features opposite Indian forces deployed in Tawang which allows them to peer into Indian territory. Nevertheless, an entire IA mountain (Mt) division, the 5th under IV Corps has its headquarters in neighbouring West Kameng district with the defence of Tawang as its focus. Indian forces deployed in Tawang have the best firepower the IA has at its disposal and have essentially fortified Tawang with numerous bunkers, dugouts for artillery, underground shelters for prepositioned war materiel, camps for acclimatizing troops before deployment to higher altitude posts on the LAC and small live fire training areas to ensure continuous readiness. Of course, there is still essentially a single axis road that connects Tawang to the plains below but that road after years of neglect is now being re-carpeted with long lasting concrete by India’s Border Roads Organization, which also intends to construct a tunnel to bypass the Sela pass which one has to traverse on the road from Bomdila to Tawang. An ALG is also being constructed in Tawang.
In addition to 5 Division, India has eight more Mt divisions in India’s North-East (with two added just this decade) under the III, IV and XXXIII Corps of its Eastern Command, which are all defensively oriented against the Chinese. An additional infantry division, the 23rd, based in Ranchi, Jharkhand is under III corps but is a ‘dual-tasked formation’ (DTF) since it is also attached to a ‘Strike Corps’ meant for the Pakistan border.
Another flashpoint is of course the Depsang plains that abuts the Siachen Glacier and the all- important Karakoram Pass. In 2013, the area witnessed a major incursion by the PLAGF that led to a standoff which was defused only after the IA managed to deploy sizeable forces there with the support of IAF Mi-17 helicopters since road connectivity was non-existent at the time. Indeed, a few months later the IAF demonstrated a C-130J landing at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) advanced landing ground (ALG) in Depsang, which is at an elevation of 5065 metres, making it the highest airstrip in the world.
Nevertheless, the area continued to be perceived by the PLAGF as vulnerable given that it had a road that led right up to the Chip Chap river and had also deployed armoured columns in the vicinity using the Western Highway. Moreover, PLA’s Western TC also has three airfields in the vicinity at Kashgar, Shiquan and Hotan, wherefrom PLAAF fighters can take-off with sizeable payloads. However, India has reinforced this area with a brigade in addition to deploying T-72 tanks in the area. Importantly, India is in the process of deploying an entire armoured brigade in Eastern ladakh, with two T-72 regiments already operational. DBO is also now connected via a new black top road that begins further south in Durbuk and winds its way to the former via Shyok. Besides providing a stouter defence of DBO, the armoured brigade in Eastern Ladakh could also be used to spearhead an attack towards the Western Highway passing through Aksai Chin via the Chushul-Demchok axis. Two more ALGs are currently operational in Eastern Ladakh at Fukche and Nyoma, with the latter also hosting a T-72 regiment.
Turning to a possible contest in the skies, it is clear that IAF aircraft will have an endurance advantage in any air war over Tibet. Moreover, the adverse meteorological conditions over Tibet are difficult to negotiate at the best of times and it remains to be seen how well the PLAAF would cope with that during a major air campaign, especially given the limited infrastructure at most TAR airfields. In sharp contrast to this, all major IAF airbases with relevance to the LAC have been upgraded as part of the modernization of airfield infrastructure (MAFI) project which has seen the installation of air traffic control and landing aids that makes them capable of hosting aircraft for day/night all-weather operations. Out of the seven ALGs activated by the IAF in AP in recent times, the airstrips at Menchuka, and Pasighat and have also been beneficiaries of the MAFI project. Other IAF transport aircraft such as An-32s and C-130Js also make regular visits to these ALGs.
Meanwhile, the first division of the IA’s Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), the 59th, headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal is set to be operationalized this year and is meant for the Eastern sector of the LAC. Though the ammunition stocks for the 59 Division had to be built-up by using emergency financial provisions, the specific equipment meant for the MSC or XVII Corps is on course to be acquired as part of the IA’s modernization budget. An example of this would be the M-777 155mm/39 caliber lightweight howitzer, two units of which have already been delivered with all 145 scheduled to be in the IA’s possession by 2019. The MSC’s second division, the 72nd headquartered at Pathankot is likely to fast-tracked as well and may end up being raised before the currented projected timeline of 2020.
When fully raised, the MSC will have four high-altitude infantry divisions in all including the 59th and the 72nd, two independent infantry brigades, two armoured brigades, 30 new infantry battalions and two Para Special Forces (SF) battalions. Apart from the M-777s, XVII Corps will also feature a strong aviation component that will eventually include AH-64E Apache attack helicopters (AH) and indigenous AHs like the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) which will achieve initial operational clearance this year. India is also inducting a regiment of the Brahmos Block III land-attack cruise missile (LACM) into its NE which has ‘trajectory shaping’ capability, that allows it to attack targets buried near mountain sides. In the future, a new SRBM called the Pralay will also be brought into this sector. The idea is to level the playing field for the IAF via a symmetric counter to the PLARF’s conventionally armed missile deployments.
In the final analysis, it can be said that Indian hopes of an enduring détente with Beijing, now stand diminished. A lot of people wonder as to why Beijing may risk conflict with India, given that 1962, while a military victory for China, galvanized India into becoming a credible military power and created deep discontent about China among a whole generation of Indians. However, it is equally true that 1962 and all that China has done subsequently to complicate India’s security interests has not got in the way of the Chinese managing to penetrate the Indian market so significantly, besides the fact that India has not really done anything since to hurt China geopolitically. In the Chinese calculus, despite India taking a firm stand on issues such as CPEC and the IA holding its ground in Dolam, the Indian polity in particular, probably does not come across as willing to do anything more than push back when threatened and that too within carefully calibrated limits. At a time when BRI is set to flounder under the weight of its own contradictions, making India a scapegoat for its failure while sending a message to China’s periphery may seem attractive to Xi Jinping’s coterie of political allies who are part of the ‘Advancing the Development of the OBOR’ group set up in 2015.
Even if we suppose that this is not a prime mover behind heightened tensions, it has long been suspected by some in the Indian military, that the PLA has been looking to test both the efficacy of its newly acquired hardware and the major reorganization that it has undertaken in its ranks. Those who subscribe to this line of reasoning believe that the PLA may not be averse to a short calibrated conflict on its Western flank to ‘road-test’ some (not all, obviously) of its new systems and concepts in a bid to be prepared for more ‘significant engagements’ due East. Given Beijing’s ability to filter information to its people, it may deem that perceptions about the outcome of a minor conflict are rather manageable. The recent fake story about a Chinese rocket attack on Indian troops should be seen in this context. In any case, at the end of the day, it is probably not so much the general populace, that either the PLA (the Party’s Army) or the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be concerned about, but each other.
Saurav Jha is the Editor-in-Chief of Delhi Defence Review. Follow him on twitter @SJha1618
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