As the latest episode in the Sino-Indian border dispute
continues to fester, questions of how India should manage China’s reliance on coercion and manipulating risk to achieve its territorial objectives brooks no easy answers. While many will be content to lay the blame only on China, questions also need to be asked about the systemic shortcomings in strategic analysis and intelligence.
At the operational level, the Chinese build-up and subsequent intrusions along four points of the Line of Actual Control
(LoAC) have revealed intelligence failure of the armed forces to detect the incursion and mirror the Chinese deployments in a timely manner. This, despite similar attempts in the past by the Chinese on LoAC. And now, with the first fatalities being reported since 1975 — when an Assam Rifles patrol was ambushed and killed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh — the ongoing stand-off has an uneasy similarity to the origins of the 1999 Kargil War.
Although India claimed military and political success after Kargil, serious deficiencies in its defence and intelligence capabilities were exposed. The Kargil Review Committee
(KRC), established by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, believed that India’s intelligence apparatus had failed. However, despite adopting selective recommendations from KRC — like the creation of the National Technical Research Organisation and the Defence Intelligence Agency to help process disparate intelligence collection and analysis — India continues to suffer from poor strategic assessment. The inability to correctly monitor and analyse the redirection of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) elements taking part in an exercise on the Tibetan plateau to positions close to LoAC is one example of this.
on the current border standoff suggest that the intelligence agencies had reported PLA troop movements as early as February. If true, it would suggest that Indian military commanders underestimated the threat posed by these developments.
In a country like India where society is deferential to the military, the lack of political review or accountability on performance during conflict or peacetime has resulted in a culture of mediocrity to take hold within the military leadership.
Is it time to revisit the absence of accountability for chain of command failures? Pinning accountability, however, means admitting failure. The aftermath of the Kargil conflict saw little accountability fixed on individuals in the army who had ignored may indicators of a Pakistani intrusion. PLA’s incursions in the Galwan River and Pangong Lake areas look eerily similar, and failure to deploy troops in time by the Udhampur-based Northern Command or by Army HQ suggests command failure, or poor military strategic assessment.
Generalship during a crisis or conflict is extraordinarily difficult. During the 1962 war, Lt Gen BM Kaul was replaced and army chief Gen Pran Nath Thapar resigned. The yet to be declassified
classified Henderson Brooks report was critical of political interference in the army, the ineptitude of India’s generals, and their failure to adequately advise India’s civilian leadership.
The counsel and information offered by the military is key for the political leadership to decide on a course of action. To this end, the post of chief of defence staff (CDS) was created on KRC’s — and subsequently the Naresh Chandra Task Force’s and Shekatkar Committee’s — recommendations, to provide a single-point of advice to GoI on military affairs, and to synergise India’s three armed services. However, CDS Gen Bipin Rawat, otherwise known for his frequent moments of public frankness, has lately been curiously ‘missing from action’ in the current crisis. And the assessment
put out in public by the Army Chief Gen Naravane after the initial clashes not too long ago reflected a lack of appreciation of the impact of the incursions or of China’s strategy of manipulating risk to achieve its territorial objectives.
When the dust settles down, it will be important to determine the nature of the shortcomings that led to the failure to anticipate or learn from previous incidents since the Chinese threat was especially evident. There are no easy formulae for the assessment of Indian military effectiveness vis-à-vis PLA. But investing in more technologically advanced military and intelligence infrastructure to detect and deter future Chinese attempts in changing the status quo may be a first step.
A version of this commentary originally appeared in the Economic Times.
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