The Doklam crisis of 2017 is a watershed in the heightened preparations for war in the Himalaya along the 4,000-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) that denotes the Sino-Indian border. It triggered the drive that saw China doubling the number of its air bases, air defence facilities and heliports on the Indian border in the three-year period until 2020. In turn, this was a consequence of India’s accelerated push for infrastructure construction in the Himalaya after the 2013 face-off in Depsang.
In international relations literature, there is a concept known as “security dilemma”—‘Nation A’ perceives a threat from ‘Nation B’ and begins building up its capabilities. However, as it does so, ‘Nation B’ begins to feel vulnerable and further boosts its military capabilities. ‘Nation A’ and ‘Nation B’ are now in a vicious cycle that may enhance their capabilities but may actually reduce their security and increase the chance of war.
The events of 2020 caught India by surprise. The clash on the Galwan River and the Chinese blockades at various points along the LAC in eastern Ladakh led to an Indian response that saw the addition of forces and equipment along the LAC. Both sides stationed 50,000 to 60,000 additional troops and equipment close to the LAC in Ladakh.
Taken by surprise, New Delhi was compelled to urgently reorient one of the three strike corps facing Pakistan to focus on China. It also reoriented one of its divisions in Dehradun northwards to plug an area of vulnerability in the central sector.
Speaking at the annual news conference on the eve of Army Day in January, Army Chief General Manoj Pande said the situation along the LAC was largely stable. “We’ve an equal number of troops on our side,” he said. “There is a slight increase in the number of troops (by China) opposite our eastern command but we are keeping a close watch.” He noted that the Army’s preparedness levels were of a very high standard. “We have adequate forces and reserves in each of our sectors to be able to effectively deal with any contingency,” he said.
Any discussion on military preparedness on the LAC must take into account the asymmetry of the terrain of the two countries. This accentuates the logistical challenges for both sides. While China has to contend with a high plateau that is distant from its heartland, India has to deal with road construction in the fragile Himalaya.
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In terms of organisation, the Chinese are well ahead of India in deploying their forces under a single theatre command since 2015 or so. Further, they have now reorganised their forces into smaller combined arms brigades, while the Indian side is yet to get going with its planned creation of theatre commands and integrated battle groups. Given the all-pervasive surveillance and precision strike capabilities, armies today field smaller, more mobile units as compared to the divisions and corps of the past. Brigades are around 5,000 strong, divisions about 16,000, and corps about 60,000.
So far, India and China have had a war in 1962 and some minor skirmishes in 1967, 1987 and 2020. A Sino-Indian conflict could range from the unthinkable—a nuclear exchange—to a limited 1962 type war, or a skirmish of the Galwan variety.
Both sides have substantial nuclear capabilities and although China is rapidly modernising its nuclear forces, there is nothing to suggest that it would contemplate any situation where it could stare down India’s nuclear weapons capacity, however small it is. Formally, both sides are committed to the No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, the only two to do so among the eight declared and undeclared countries that have nuclear weapons.
So, we could assume that any future clash would be a skirmish of sorts but given the size and capability of the forces that are being raised, this could range from small ones as in Galwan to a wider clash such as the India-Pakistan one in Kargil in 1999.
In 2020, the Chinese caught us off guard and occupied a number of areas in eastern Ladakh. But since then, the Army has been prepared for all eventualities. It has maintained a countervailing force in Ladakh to deter any Chinese action and it successfully countered a major Chinese effort to overwhelm Indian posts in a recent incident in Yangtse near Tawang.
As of 2015, Chinese military doctrine calls for being prepared for fighting and “winning informationised local wars”. It noted the trends in modern warfare towards developing and using long-range precision strikes and smart and unmanned weapons and equipment. Space and the cyber domain have become the “commanding heights” of strategic competition. So, to gain victory, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will seek “information dominance, precision strikes on strategic points, [and conduct] joint operations”.
So, what we really need to be prepared for is a war of the Ukraine variety, where the Chinese use their superior logistics, artillery and missile capacity to batter Indian positions by attrition. In addition, we need to be prepared for the use of precision-guided missiles that could target Indian logistics nodes and command and control centres across northern India from the North East to Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
Given the asymmetry of the terrain, the task of maintaining resilient supply lines will be tough. In the fragile Himalaya, roads can be easily breached, whereas it is more difficult for India to disrupt Chinese logistics on the flat plateau of Tibet.
At present, India has some advantage in terms of its Air Force, which is located in a number of bases spread in an arc from Assam to Ladakh and which has an edge over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). But the Chinese are working hard to set up their own chain of air bases, along with heliports and surface-to-air missile systems to negate India’s edge.
India also needs to ensure that it has the wherewithal to resist the Chinese surge of cyberattacks as well as efforts to knock out our satellites. Ukraine has been greatly aided by the US in dealing with Russian space and cyber capabilities. Companies like Microsoft and Apple have helped on the cyber front, while Elon Musk’s Starlink system has enabled Ukrainian forces to maintain communication links.
The Western Theatre Command (WTC) of China, headquartered in Chengdu, is responsible for the border with India, as well as half of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. It has two broad subdivisions—the Tibet Military District (TMD) and the Xinjiang Military District (XMD). The TMD covers the area along Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh, while forces of the XMD face India in Ladakh.
The “slight increase” in numbers that the Indian Army chief spoke of relates to reports that the Chinese are in the process of operationalising three new medium combined arms brigades that will function under the TMD, where the PLAAF has also begun the construction of two new dual-use airports.
According to an analysis by the Belfer Center of Harvard, Chinese manpower in the TMD is around 40,000. Besides seven border defence regiments (equivalent to our Indo-Tibetan Border Police), they have the 52nd and 53rd Mountain Brigades, in addition to the 54th Mechanised Infantry Brigade in Lhasa, the 308th Independent Artillery Brigade, and the 651st Independent Air Defence Artillery Brigade. There are also three independent battalions. A new brigade located north of Sikkim has now been set up. Two other combined arms brigades will come up over the next two years, probably with the independent battalions as the core.
The XMD has a vast area of responsibility and it is usually two of its formations, the 6th Mechanised Infantry Division (13,000 personnel) and the 4th Motorised Infantry Division (13,000 personnel), that are responsible for Ladakh, along with support formations of artillery, air defence and so on.
These are just the bare numbers of conventional forces facing India. In the last two years, according to Chinese writings, there has been a large-scale upgradation of equipment in the WTC, especially in the forces facing India. New vehicle-mounted 155 mm howitzers have been introduced as well as Type 15 light tanks and ZTZ-99A Main Battle Tanks. There are plans to replace these with the newer 40 tonne Type 96B tanks. In addition, there has been some reorganisation of the forces themselves into combined arms brigades and battalions.
The Chinese have claimed that before the recent reforms, “the quality of mechanisation was roughly the same as that of the Indian Army” and the quantity was roughly the same. But now, they have boosted mechanisation by adding lighter tanks and wheeled assault vehicles while reducing their heavier tanks. Besides increasing personnel, they have also added to their artillery and air defence systems.
There are other elements that add to their lethality. For example, the Chinese are building underground facilities in several areas such as Lhasa, Gyantse and Shannan counties to house tactical and battlefield support missiles to target Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and new long-range surface-to-air missile facilities are associated with them.
The most significant part of the Chinese build-up relates to the PLAAF. A study from the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington DC said that “the air power build-up on China’s western frontier is sweeping in scale”. The study identified 37 airports and heliports within Tibet and Xinjiang that “have been newly constructed or upgraded since 2017”. Of these, 22 were identified as military or dual use and the pace of construction has “sped up significantly in 2020”.
Equally significant is the development of heliports close to the LAC through its entire length, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Such facilities will enhance the speed of movement of the PLA in mountain areas.
Besides strengthening their capabilities at existing airports like Lhasa-Gonggar, Shigatse, Gar Gunsa and Chamdo-Bangda, which house roughly 60 Multi-Role Capability Aircraft (MRCA), the PLAAF is building brand new airbases at new airfields that are coming up in Tingri, north of Nepal, and Shannan-Lhunze, which will house another 120 MRCA. All the bases will feature new hardened shelters for the aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles and are co-located with the HHQ-9 Long Range Surface-to-Air missiles, indicating that the PLA are worried about India’s BrahMos missiles.
Operating from the high Tibetan plateau, Chinese aircraft pay a weight penalty and cannot carry a full war load. Besides, Indian radar systems located high in the Himalaya pick them up as they take off. Indian fighters are located in Tezpur, Misamari, Jorhat, Hashimara, and Bagdogra in the east and are mainly in the plains in the west. They can take up full war loads and pop up over the Himalaya to strike.
Overall, the Chinese say that their strategy is to “defend the west and attack in the east (Taiwan)”. Since India has no claims on Tibet, except to recover Aksai Chin, its posture is mainly defensive but the Army does plan for local offensives. This would suggest that the possibility of a larger border war is not very high. The Chinese, however, remain determined to maintain their dominance in the western sector and their response to the Indian efforts to play catch-up is to further enhance their capabilities and continue probes along the LAC.
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Given the logistical problems arising from the terrain, India keeps some 225,000 troops near the LAC. Chinese deployment has been thinner and spread throughout the vast WTC area. In the last couple of years, however, the Chinese have constructed permanent facilities to station troops closer to the LAC. This is especially true of the eastern Ladakh area opposite the new Indian road linking Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi. The Chinese perceive a threat to Xinjiang and their road in Aksai Chin from Indian deployments in this area.
India needs to convey to the Chinese that incidents on the border are unlikely to change the trajectory of its foreign policy, which includes closer ties with the US. And New Delhi will also not let up on border infrastructure construction. By its tough response in occupying the Kailash Range on the south bank of Pangong Tso, India is now able to survey important Chinese military deployments in the Spanggur Tso area. And in the east, at Yangtse near Tawang, Indian soldiers successfully beat back a Chinese effort to physically overwhelm Indian posts that face them on a strategically located ridge. The new deployments along the LAC now feature two strike formations—1 Corps and 17 Corps—whose job is to carry the battle into Tibet in the event of war. With these moves, India has indicated that it is willing to take a more aggressive posture on border management.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and the author of Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalaya .
- A Sino-Indian conflict could range from the unthinkable—a nuclear exchange—to a limited 1962 type war, or a skirmish of the Galwan variety.
- What we really need to be prepared for is a war of the Ukraine variety, where the Chinese use their superior logistics, artillery and missile capacity to batter Indian positions by attrition.
- India also needs to ensure that it has the wherewithal to resist the Chinese surge of cyberattacks as well as efforts to knock out our satellites.
- In the last two years, according to Chinese writings, there has been a large-scale upgradation of equipment in the Western Theatre Command, especially in the forces facing India.
- A study on China’s western frontier identified 37 airports and heliports within Tibet and Xinjiang that “have been newly constructed or upgraded since 2017”.
- India needs to convey to the Chinese that incidents on the border are unlikely to change the trajectory of its foreign policy, which includes closer ties with the US.