Thursday, 2 February, 2023
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To deal with China on LAC, India must downsize and restructure the armed forces

Converting the LAC into LoC will only drain India’s resources and stymie modernisation.

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There is optimism in the air with respect to the proposed 12th round of Corps Commanderlevel talks between India and China that are likely to be held in near future. As per anonymous government/military sources, a deal is likely to be struck for disengagement in the Gogra-Hot Springs area. 

It is hoped that this may pave the way for disengagement in the remaining two intrusion areas in Depsang Plains and south of Demchok. Given the past experience, the best India can hope for is disengagement with buffer zones, spread mostly in areas earlier under our control.

Whatever be the outcome of the diplomatic/military engagement, confrontation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh and elsewhere has created a new strategic reality for India. China, which is hellbent on exploiting the unsettled borders to assert its hegemony, is now India’s primary and permanent adversary. Mutual suspicion will force deployment of reserves within striking distance of the LAC. India has to review its strategy to deter China, which so far has been based on reactive massive deployment of land forces to safeguard further loss of territory.

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Strategic review

A strategic review will highlight the harsh reality and tough decisions that India must take to confront and compete with China.

There is a huge differential between the comprehensive national power (CNP) of the two neighbours, particularly with respect to economic and military components. Until our GDP becomes at least 50 per cent of China’s, which will take no less than 10-15 years of sustained economic development, we have to rely on deterrence by dissuasion and denial rather than punishment.

Our defence budget too is unlikely to increase exponentially in the near future. Our salary and pension budget is disproportionately high. Unless we reduce and optimise the size of our land forces, we cannot modernise them.

The probability of fullscale decisive wars between nuclear weaponarmed States is very low. Future wars/conflicts will be limited in time and space, and highend military technology, in which China has a distinct edge, will play a predominant role.

On land, China has a distinct terrainandcapability advantage, particularly in eastern Ladakh. Unless we militarily alter the status of the 1959 Claim Line that China has now secured, the Daulat Beg Oldi Sector (DBO) and areas northeast of Pangong Tso will remain defensively untenable in war. We do not have the capability to punish China with a major offensive to seize our territory under its control in a limited war.

Due to the limitation of “highaltitude takeoff” on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has a relative edge. With Chinese naval commitments in the Western Pacific Ocean, surveillance support of QUAD navies, the bottleneck of Malacca Straits and Beijing’s dependency on sea lines of communication for its energy needs, the Indian Navy also enjoys a relative advantage in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, it would be prudent to modernise and enhance our air and naval power to deter China.

Massive deployment of the Army along the LAC to confront China will drain our defence budget and adversely effect modernisation. More than that, little or no money would be left for modernisation and enhancement of air and naval power.

In a nutshell, to militarily deter China for the next one to two decades, we must optimise the size of the Army and modernise it, and exponentially enhance the capabilities of the IAF and the Navy. At the same time, we must continue to maintain/enhance our qualitative military edge over Pakistan.

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Short-term strategy

India should bide its time to reduce the yawning economic and military differential while pragmatically managing the unsettled borders.

Subtly breach the taboo of nuclear brinkmanship. Even an overwhelmingly superior power takes note of it, else the US would have done an Iraq on North Korea. It is also time to shed our passivity on Tibet.

Diffuse the ongoing crisis by negotiating disengagement/de-escalation even with buffer zones, mostly in areas earlier under our control — in Depsang Plains, Gogra-Hot Springs and south of Demchok. This is de facto acceptance of the 1959 Claim Line in all areas except the Indus Valley. In any case, it is a fait accompli despite our massive deployment.

If feasible, negotiate de-escalation to permanent locations to restore status quo ante April 2020. Since mutual suspicion may not permit such an agreement, settle for what is mutually acceptable in terms of equal forces at equal distance.

Adopt a pragmatic strategy of dissuasion and denial as opposed to a punitive strategy, until we catch up in terms of capabilities.

Enhance our surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities at strategic and tactical levels to prevent being surprised and preempted.

Converting the LAC into LoC will only drain India’s resources and stymie modernisation. For same reasons, do not commit a disproportionate number of troops on defensive tasks. Our preMay 2020 deployment is adequate to stalemate the Chinese at our main defences on favourable terrain in a limited war, so long we have fail-safe surveillance and quick reaction forces to cater for any adverse contingency in the relatively unfavourable terrain along the LAC to prevent preemption.

To cater for vast disadvantageous terrain ahead of the main defences, dot the entire LAC with ITBP posts to act as a “red line”. Reorganise the divisions into tailormade all-arms Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) to rapidly occupy our main defences and where necessary, to locally preempt the Chinese along the LAC. Selectively modernise the IBGs to make them more potent, particularly the ones being likely to be used offensively. In the next two to three years, modernise and restructure the two Mountain Strike Corps into IBG with state-of-the-art technology.

In the short term, carry out only need based modernisation of front line formations of the Army, but do not neglect the modernisation of the IAF and the Indian Navy.

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Long-term strategy

Carry out a long-term strategic review to formalise a National Security Perspective 2050 and based on this formalise a progressive National Security Strategy. This is the responsibility of the government and not the armed forces. The National Security Advisor had been tasked to prepare the National Security Strategy in 2018.

Based on the long-term strategy, prepare a comprehensive plan for transformation of the armed forces to fight the wars of the 21st Century in all domains. There is an urgent need to downsize, restructure and re-organise our armed forces, particularly the Army. Transformation of the armed forces must be steered by the government and overseen by Parliament.

Do not directly challenge China until India’s GDP is worth nearly $10 trillion and armed forces are transformed. China’s GDP was $2.75 trillion in 2006 (roughly at our level today) and $10.48 trillion in 2014. Note how the GDP growth influenced its pursuit of national interests. Therein lies a lesson for us. 

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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