As freezing Himalayan winters approach and both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) become infested with troops, tanks, artillery, logistic convoys and buzzing jets, the Indian army hunkers down to watch her forces get sucked into the mountains, valleys and gorges. There is anxiety and an element of fear in the Indian military war rooms; ill-prepared and disillusioned commanders huddling to make urgent contingency plans under pressure of losing precious time.
In a previous article on “Chinese Cold Start in Ladakh,” we argued that the Chinese were able to create a military ecosystem in the inhospitable terrain and weather of Ladakh sector, ensuring a quick assembly of forces by using rail, road and air transportation systems and unnerving the opponent. The Chinese military had virtually paralysed the Indian political and military leadership and the third largest military spender of the world seems to have no utility of its military in defending the border of the so-called Asia Pivot.
In another piece published in The Express Tribune on “Brass Tacks of Indian Military Leadership”, we highlighted that despite the passage of four months of Chinese incursions, Indian army commanders, from Army Headquarters to Brigades, had miserably failed to mount a suitable tactical or operational response, which indicates a poorly trained and demoralised chain of command. While giving credit to Col Babu and his subordinates who lost their lives in the boulders of Galwan River, Indian intelligence establishment and military leadership have been thoroughly exposed for its poor foresight, bad planning, lack of decision-making and paralysis of the entire chain of command.
Some of the Western and Indian opinion-makers and defence analysts have discussed the future scenarios. We have also tried to glean through Chinese media so as to peep into minds of Chinese politico military leadership. This paper looks ahead, mainly covering strategic and operational options available to both sides and how the coming winters would test the leadership.
Strategically, China is in a comfortable military position, PLA has reclaimed 1,000 square kilometres in four sectors including Depsang Plains, Gogra, Galwan and Pangong Tso Lake and have increased pressure along five additional but critical pain points of Chushul-Darbuk, Himachal, Sikkim, Doklam and Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese echo system across the LAC houses major upgraded airbases, heliports, drone and quadcopter hubs, field hospitals and state-of-the-art logistic bases. PLA and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have conducted live firing exercises regularly and Chinese military media has displayed a smart, robust and technically superior force, which could be unleashed across the LAC within hours.
Apparently, Chinese diplomatic and military engagement and talks with Indian counterparts have made it clear that de-escalation is only possible if the Indian army withdraws beyond the Mao claim line of 1959, which the PLA after routing the Indian army, reached in 1962 war and from which PLA graciously pulled back — that’s almost 15 to 30 kilometres behind the current holding line of Indian 14th Corps.
The Indian army neither mounted any tactical or operational response in the past four months nor displayed any will to fight. Indian Godi media has tried to build a fake facade of bravado and rhetoric. Most of their defence analysts have been busy in projecting basic SOPs, defensive deployments and logistics build-up as military operations. While this may be politically motivated to cover the faux pas by military commanders and to keep the 1,300 million poor Indian population in good humour, no one is willing to buy the Indian military narrative of so-called mirror deployment as military operations. Let us discuss some military scenarios:
Scenario 1; status quo: Indian politico military leadership absorbs the shame and contends with an extended standoff, implying that LAC becomes something similar to the Indo-Pak Line of Control (LoC). Indian leadership would try to convince the public that since the LAC is a perception line, India has held the ground and not lost something worthwhile — after all Ladakh’s freezing mountainous desert has no economic potential.
This scenario has serious implications for Indian prestige in the comity of nations. After all, India as the new darling of the West is being projected as the Asian pivot, which is supposed to become the lynchpin in the next cold war against China. For China, it will be a win-win situation, as she has achieved her immediate objective of discrediting India through an astute and classic Sun Tzu manoeuvre, without firing a shot. This scenario will also set the future stage — China will emerge as the pre-eminent military power in the region and beyond having exposed the third largest military in the world for being unable to defend few boulders and mountains in Ladakh. Since the status quo will have to be quietly agreed by Indian politico military leadership, it will allow China to come back again and push India for Mao’s claim line of 1959, so practically status quo scenario does not help India in any way and keeps its military permanently deployed on the new LoC.
Militarily, India will have to bear a humongous cost of deploying almost a third of its army and half of its air force along the new Himalayan LoC, military equipment wears out fast in harsh terrain and India will have to spend billions of additional dollars on maintaining current force posture.
Scenario 2; limited conflict, short of limited war (Kargil redux): Either by design or default or due to miscalculation, a tactical military commander, under pressure, launches a military operation across the LAC. This could lead to snowballing effect and start a shooting conflict, short of a limited war.
This scenario has drastic implications for Indian military as the conflict may expand to entire LAC across the Himalayas, from Daulat Beg Oldie to Arunachal Pradesh. China has already considered this scenario and the pressure on additional four pain points mentioned above has been maintained to stretch the Indian army. China has publicly claimed that she does not recognise Arunachal Pradesh and it is actually South Tibet. PLA and PLAAF’s military echo system allows it to launch pin pricks and reclaiming the Mao claim line of 1959; Chinese military had displayed in 1962 that it had the will and wherewithal to conduct a multi-directional advance in the Himalayan terrain, PLA of 2020 is an efficient war machine and its ability to rout Indian army should not be downplayed.
Limited conflict could also see some maritime operation in the Indian Ocean, disrupting Indian trade and commerce and losses of Indian navy. The financial cost of this conflict could cripple Indian economy, which is trying to survive at 24% quarterly negative growth
This scenario could also cause further losses of India and set the stage for disintegration of Indian Union as oppressed communities like Khalistanis, Nagas, Kukis, Gorkhas, Naxals, Dravidians and Kashmiris may find an opportunity to get rid of Hindutva cabal sitting on the Raj Path.
In a nutshell, Indian military options are no more than Zugzwang options, that is, choosing the least bad option from a set of bad options. Does the Indian military have the stomach and the will to choose any of these options?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2020.