Author : Deepak Sinha

Originally Published 2017-09-12 06:13:48 Published on Sep 12, 2017
Taking the bull by the horns: A case for pro active defense to counter potential Chinese aggression
It isn’t as if a bitter or prolonged conflict with China in the immediate or near future is our inevitable fate. In fact, one hopes that cooperation and convergence, leading to mutual prosperity and progress, rather than confrontation and conflict, will be the mantra of the future. Yet, the manner in which our interactions are progressing points to an increasingly difficult and dangerous path of confrontation and divergence in the future. Not only does China illegitimately occupy Indian territory and vehemently lay claims on Arunachal Pradesh, but has also taken to supporting Pakistan’s use of terrorists in its proxy war against India by refusing to acknowledge or allow Masood Azhar to be declared a terrorist by the United Nations. Moreover, it has de-facto attempted to question Indian sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir with its $ 46Billion investment in the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).In retaliation India too seems to have shed its inhibitions and is taking steps to counter Chinese actions such as increasing official cooperation with the Dalai Lama and strengthening its ballistic missile capability.<1> For our military, preparations to face the unexpected and the unwanted in defence of national sovereignty and integrity remains its primary task, for as is well known, there’s no place for the runner’s up in war. Thus, we would do well to remember the homily, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”, attributed to President Abraham Lincoln. In battles, armies may suffer terrible reverses or even defeat, but these are always temporary and transitional in nature. Determined and motivated troops directed by a professional leadership can turn around the situation to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Examples are too numerous to quote but the Burma Campaign of the Second World War, in our vicinity, stands out as an exemplar. The debilitating and utterly unexpected defeats at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army, including the ignominious surrender of Singapore and rout from Malaya and Burma, should have signaled the loss of India for the British. Yet, the British Indian Army was able to consolidate its positions in Assam, stop the Japanese offensive in the battles for Kohima and Imphal and subsequently launch a counter offensive that eventually led to the capture of Rangoon before the Japanese were forced to abruptly surrender. Wars, on the other hand, are always won or lost in the mind. It is a commonly accepted truism that the Vietnam War, for example, was not lost by the U S Armed Forces in Vietnam, but at home. As former US Presidential hopeful and, Senator John McCain, wrote in the Wall Street Journal “the U.S. never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war. Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn’t. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It’s hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can’t deny its success.”<2> So too was the case in our conflict with China in 1962. Our capitulation and defeat then was signaled not so much by the fact that the vast majority of 4 Infantry Divison had upped and run, as those reverses could be turned around by competent leadership, but because of Prime Minister Nehru’s farewell address to the Assamese over All India Radio. That sounded the death knell to any hope of reversal of fortunes and clearly showed up our lack of will to fight for what we believed was rightfully ours. Despite the fact that only a fraction of our forces were actually involved in the 1962 Conflict, the consequences of that defeat continue to haunt us to this day. George Washington is known to have advocated that “offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only means of defence.”<3> Yet we have been so traumatized by events of 1962 that in all these years since, neither our political establishment nor our military leadership has ever considered the option of taking the battle to the enemy, in the event of a war. The most obvious sign of this timorous mindset has been the lack of any serious attempt to construct roads of the requisite capacity required as axes of maintenance for our troops deployed forward. This lack of development has been justified on two grounds. Firstly, that the Chinese may take robust action in support of their objections to any infrastructure development in areas they claim or dispute. Secondly, well-developed road axes would then provide the PLA with multiple axes of advance in case of conflict and make it difficult for our forces to discern major thrust lines. In all fairness to military commanders they did have an additional issue in that construction of new road axes would require the raising of additional forces that the Government of the day was certainly unwilling to do. Our lack of offensive spirit has been justified in most quarters by suggesting that we are only facing reality, given the hugely adverse ratio against us in every aspect of national power, vis-à-vis China. While such a view has its justification to some extent, this paper will attempt to show that we have let the Chinese occupy our mind –space far in excess of their actual capabilities. What we consider to be a justifiable defensive mindset, given our limitations, is in actual fact nothing more than giving in to our fears and needs to be squarely seen for what it represents, a defeatist mindset.<4> We seem to have forgotten that very important tenet of all tactical and strategic posturing that even in the most defensive of postures there is a necessity to ensure that adequate offensive capabilities are built in. It is true that our political establishment has become more pro-active in the past decade, especially more so since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014. There is a clear focus on upgrading infrastructure concentrating on road-building and capacity enhancement of Advanced Landing Grounds close to the LAC. In addition force accretions and deployment of IRBM’s to meet enhanced Chinese threats in the region have also been undertaken, which includes the piecemeal raising of elements of the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC). While these developments do reflect some changes in our manner of thinking and indeed suggest a more aggressive frame of mind among the senior political and military leadership, it certainly does not go far enough. The fact of the matter is that our defences along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is based on the political directive that “not an inch of territory to be lost. This necessitated heavy defensive deployment of forces. The terrain in the mountains literally ‘eats up troops’. This twin compulsion has resulted in holding ‘every inch of the boundary’ leaving no uncommitted forces as reserves…… Therefore, the requirement of a strategic reserve dedicated for the Northern Borders became an imperative in dealing with the existing military weakness and our prosaic doctrine for defence”.<5> The Kargil War led to the raising of HQ 14 Corps in Ladakh organized in a manner that it can “absorb additional forces that may be inducted and be in a position to conduct limited offensive operations across the LAC in the East or the LC in the West,”<6> something that Divisional Headquarters at Leh had been unable to do. The absence of a similar capability in the Eastern Sector was to be made good by the raising of the MSC.

The Three Warfares and their Impact

As stated earlier the Chinese Government’s blatant actions in blocking our attempts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and their unconditional support for Pakistan’s use of terror as state policy against us clearly reflects an attitude that exudes hostility. Their motives for keeping Indian ambitions in check and preventing it from breaking out of its South Asian sub-continental constraints and its attempts to dominate the relationship is easily discernable, though not particularly conducive to either regional harmony or good neighbourliness. However what is more difficult to predict is actions it may undertake and the extent to which it may go to protect its perceived interests. What may help us unravel this problem and take the requisite counter-measures is predicated in an understanding of their “Three Warfares” concept that they seem to have adopted with all seriousness. To fully comprehend the finer points of this concept the reader will require to study Prof Stefan Halper and his team’s exhaustive paper “China: The Three Warfares”.<7> For this paper it would suffice to say that this concept was first enunciated in2003 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Central Committee, and approved by the Central Military Commission (CMC)which controls and directs the Armed Forces. It is a novel concept that, as Prof Halper suggests, is the “is a dynamic three dimensional war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means.”<8> It is a flexible and subtle methodology that seeks to alter the strategic environment by suggesting that kinetic engagement is irrational. It reflects the PLA’s underlying belief that war is not simply “a military struggle, but also a comprehensive engagement proceeding in the political, economic, diplomatic and legal dimensions.”<9> It comprises of the under mentioned processes used in tandem:
  • Psychological Warfare that seeks to influence and/or disrupt an opponent’sdecision-making capability and will to fight using threats, false narratives and economic blackmail.
  • Media Warfare aimed at long-term influence of perceptions and attitudes of the domestic population of the countries seen as hostile using all means available. It aims to generate public support at home and abroad and thereby weaken an enemy’s will to fight.
  • Legal Warfare that exploits legal loopholes to achieve strategic objectives. It involves the use of employing bogus maps to‘justify’ claims and the distorted us of domestic and international legislation. The refusal to accept unfavourable pronouncements by International tribunals and Authorities is also a standard practice.
While the concept may have been enunciated only in this millennium, it is based on the ancient premise expressed by Confucianism, a leading school of thought in this period that “advanced a monist ideal, which denied that a legitimate international order could rest on the formal co-equality of sovereigns.”<10> Simply put, the Chinese refuse to see any other nation as an equal and will do all in their power, preferably without having to resort to violent conflict, to become the dominant power in that region. In our context too the Sino-Indian imbroglio beginning with the transfer of power from the British and further accentuated by the Chinese annexation of Tibet has been cleverly manipulated by the Chinese leadership with extensive use of false historical narratives, dodgy maps and unbridled coercion. Thus, at the present time we have to be ready to defendourselves not just against a rampaging China, keen on establishing its hegemony over the region, but also having to deal with the likelihood of Pakistan and China colluding militarily in the region as its financial stakes in the CPEC go up. There can be little doubt that peace or hostility in our region is not subject to actions we initiate, but based on what suits China depending on what its immediate goals at that time are. This is especially so if the internal security environment in Baluchistan, where the Government is subject to increasingly violent conflict with pro-independence rebels, adversely impacts the Corridor and Gwadar Port.

The Chinese Concept for War Fighting

In the context of operations against India, their Western Theatre Command located at Chengdu would be responsible for coordinating all forces and the conduct of the campaign at the operational level. The PLA doctrine of Limited War Under Hi-Tech Conditions and Informationalisation, which our forces will confront in the event of a conflict, envisages “combined arms and joint service operations. In depth strike – ‘aim is not to engage enemy at forward positions but in depth through infiltration, forced penetration, air projections and flank intrusions’…..China will, therefore, initiate war by a series of concentrated offensive operations at all the points of decision.”<11> Its initial attempts would, in all likelihood, be to degrade our Command, Control, Communications, Computing, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems (C4I2SR) capabilities through protracted cyber- attacks and other non-attributable means. Such non-attributable attacks are likely to extend to degrade/damage our economy, including the civilian communication infrastructure, especially rail connectivity to the Eastern Sector, power grids and air traffic. Subsequent actions would involve force on force interventions and incursions along the LAC till it is able to “manufacture” a suitable incident that provides it the diplomatic space to unleash its offensive forces against our holding formations. Targets would be so selected that their loss, while causing serious embarrassment and loss of face to the Indian State and leadership would still not provoke escalation into the nuclear realm. In the event that we continue with our existing strategy of being defensive and reactive and are unwilling to take any proactive measures in the face of provocations, there is little doubt that we will once again face the ignominy of defeat.

Vulnerabilities of Mounting Bases in the Tibetan Autonomous Region

It is reasonable to assume that any future conflict with China, ground operations will be focused on the LAC bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and offensive operations would be launched using TAR as the mounting base. That is the very reason China has made enormous and rapid infrastructural improvements in that region and it is estimated to be able to induct approximately five times its present force levels along with their supporting elements within a month<12>. There is off course a remote possibility of the Chinese launching their offensive from Yunnan along the old Ledo Road. That would enable them to completely outflank our defences in Arunachal Pradesh. This option would however involve an attack through Myanmar along an extremely long and tenuous road axis, which, while upgraded in certain parts continues to be in fairly rudimentary condition and would require major engineering effort to enable sizeable forces to be maintained. The rugged terrain, climatic conditions and the fact that the movement would be against the grain of the country would also be factors to be considered. Moreover, the distances involved are greater than when an offensive is launched through TAR, though outflanking/turning movements tend to have that in common. This option, if one were to disregard the international repercussions of advancing through another sovereign Nation, something that has been done with impunity through the course of history in other campaigns worldwide, provides incalculable strategic surprise and makes our defences along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh vulnerable, if not untenable. Interestingly, some Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG’s)/ Airfields have been developed in Myanmar with Chinese partnership, which could obviously be utilized by the Chinese for their own movement of troops and logistics if they did decide to pursue this option. Regardless of whether the PLA mounting bases are in TAR or Yunnan, the simple unalterable fact that has major implications will be that the campaign will be conducted by the PLA along exterior lines. Modern warfare, especially in the Plains and Deserts has to a great extent made the question of interior and exterior lines irrelevant given the cross country mobility that forces have at their disposal, especially supporting elements, the availability of a plethora of aerial delivery systems and the limited space-time continuum within which campaigns and wars are fought. This however, does not hold good in the mountains, even more so in HAA terrain, as both concentration and dispersion of forces is time consuming and difficult to achieve, as are organizing and protecting the lines of communication and maintenance. Moreover, while the PLA may have sizeable forces available for deployment, actual deployments are greatly limited due to thin air at high altitudes. This combined with extremely low temperatures, poses unique challenges that test human endurance and the military’s capabilities to wage war at those altitudes to extreme limits. The need for acclimatization, therefore, cannot be overlooked, which in itself restricts force levels. The heights, terrain and gradients make movement on foot extremely slow and torturous apart from greatly hampering the ability to construct required infrastructure for sustaining operations. Weather conditions and cold greatly reduce accuracy and effectiveness of weapons and equipment, including helicopters, aircraft, artillery and electronic equipment. The PLA has already attempted to counter these disadvantages by stationing additional military forces in TAR as well as rotating troops through from other Theatres on a regular basis to keep them acclimatized and oriented for operations in this terrain. In this context the Indian Army’s defensive campaign along interior lines, while vulnerable to outflanking moves has definite advantages, especially given the adverse ratio in troop strength we face, provided our communication lines provide the required capability to move forces and support elements rapidly, to be effective at the point of decision. Unfortunately, that is not the case at the present moment and we need to focus on construction of lateral connectivity on a priority basis. Moreover, as any study of military history clearly shows and Antoine-Henri Jomini, the well- known military theorist, strongly emphasized that operating on interior lines was advantageous if the forces hinged their operational aim on the conduct of a strong offensive- defense strategy. We thus find ourselves at the present moment basing our defensive campaign on interior lines with neither the lateral connectivity required nor a robust offensive-defensive strategy in place, both of which are the essential ingredients for the successful conduct of such a campaign. That apart, the vulnerability of TAR to external interdiction and impact of internal disturbances can seriously jeopardize PLA plans and estimates of force levels that they will be able to induct or launch against India. It is worth remembering that civil disturbances in TAR in 2008 required the induction of two divisons to quell them and TAR was isolated for months. Such disturbances, if organized in coordination with Special Operations Forces (SOF) acting covertly will cause far greater difficulties, especially given the fact that Tibetan anger against Chinese ill-treatment has only been exacerbated by the day due to ongoing human rights violations, clampdown on religious practices of the Tibetan population and attempts to push through rapid demographic changes with the mass migration of Han populations from other regions. According to Tibetan exiles, currently the region is home to about 7.5 million Han Chinese compared to 6 million Tibetans.<13> A volatile insurgency within TAR may be further exacerbated in the event the lines of communications, including supply lines, are attacked by separatist forces. It is worth noting that the Qinghai-Tibet Railway linking Golmud to Lhasa, a distance of 1142 Km, traverses across the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain ranges and crosses 286 bridges and 30 Kms of tunnels. Of this distance 960 Kms of track is at a height over 4000 meters and of the 900 Kms over permafrost approx. 100Kms is over unstable soil.<14> Similarly, the oil pipe line from Golmud to Lhasa covers a distance of 1080 Kms with eleven pumping stations along the route. It is the only pipeline transportation route in Tibet, with the capacity of supplying TAR with 230,000 to 250,000 tons of oil. Consumption in 2006 was however only 114,000 tons.<15> Thus while the construction of ALG’s close to the LAC and of the railway and its extensions (from Lhasa to Shigatse and on to Nyingchi near the Arunachal Border) greatly enhance the PLA’s mobility and logistic support capability, they are also extremely vulnerable to interdiction both by ground and air elements which could cause serious disruptions to PLA offensive plans. Moreover, its protection will force the PLA to deploy sizeable forces, even if it is Armed Police or Border Guards that will only add to the logistics burden and thereby impact the size of the forces that can be made available for the offensive campaign. In this context, it has been estimated in some quarters that approximately 35 Divisons can be inducted into TAR for operations. If, therefore, the Indian military had suitably organized forces at its disposal for launching counter thrusts into TAR, the force levels that the PLA would then be able to commit for any offensive would reduce substantially. Finally in the context of Tibet, one cannot rule out the key importance of terrain and high altitude environment in conduct of operations. The fact that Chengdu- Lhasa distance is three times that between Lhasa- Guwahati must be given the importance it deserves. As is well known all aircraft operating from air bases in TAR will have major payload restrictions that will adversely impact their capabilities. Also aircraft launched from bases located at lower altitudes will have extremely limited time that they will be able to spend in the theatre of operations (loiter time) given the distances they will have to cover to reach it in the first place. These give our own Air Force substantial advantages that in themselves are war winning factors if utilized to best effect. Also, we need to factor in the unassailable fact that the Tibetan Plateau is a high altitude desert that makes concealment of infrastructure, communication hubs and artillery and troop concentrations extremely difficult and especially vulnerable to aerial interdiction. In essence the argument being made is that we should not look at TAR as an invulnerable mounting base from where the PLA will have the ability to launch an estimated 34 Division offensive against us. Instead, we should look at it as an “island”, located over three days away from its supply bases, which can be interdicted and isolated with disastrous consequences for forces located within.

Defining Victory

In a conflict involving behemoths the size of China and India how do we define victory? While ‘mutually assured destruction’ is a feasible, though an extremely unlikely scenario, given their respective nuclear strike capabilities that could hardly be claimed as victory by either side. However, in the context of a conventional limited conflict fought below the nuclear threshold victory cannot be defined as the defeat or destruction of the PLA in battle, or for that matter, the liberation of Tibet. That would be too ambitious and unrealistic to even consider. However, in these circumstances the ability to disrupt, delay or halt any offensive launched by the PLA, let alone forcing them to recoil, would be considered tantamount to victory. As was the case during the Sino-Vietnam conflict, in which Vietnam was certainly seen as victorious having withstood the aggressive designs of a larger bully, despite losing some territory. Given the fact that any conventional conflict between two nuclear armed states will be restricted in time and space, any credible capability on our part to launch offensive operations that threaten PLA mounting bases in TAR will not only have a serious deterrent effect, but also have strong dissuasive value. It is therefore incumbent on our political and military leadership to focus on the issue of creating a substantial force capable of carrying out an offensive into TAR. Thus, the raising of the two Mountain Divisions to enhance the force availability of the holding formations has already enhanced our ability to conduct of limited offensives locally. There is, thus, little doubt then that the concept of having a strategic offensive force like the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) is inescapable, though its existing organizational structure, similar to that of other corps sized forces, appears eminently unsuitable for the job in hand. This is because suitable strategic objectives within TAR are located in depth and appear to be beyond the capability of a conventional ground force that the MSC was envisaged to be. This is especially so given the lack of suitable communication infrastructure on our side. Secondly, while manpower is of critical importance in mountains, it also acts as a hindrance as it adds to the logistics requirements and adversely impacts capabilities to supply and maintain large number of troops. While technology also has grave limitations in high altitude terrain, we will have to look at developing the right mix of technology and personnel that will allow us to fight in that difficult terrain to our optimal capability. If, therefore, we are to aim at achieving any substantial objectives within TAR that would force the PLA offensive forces to recoil or lead to a stalemate, we have little choice but to think out of the box.

Thinking Out of the Box: Operation Merkur

The German airborne assault to capture the island of Crete in May 1941, Operation Merkur, as it was codenamed, may have some important lessons for us in this context. It was one of the most extraordinary and significant operations of the War and marked the culmination of the German campaign to conquer Greece and Yugoslavia. The strategic importance of its capture was two- fold. Firstly, it would help protect the southern flank in the Balkans for his planned assault on the Soviet Union. Secondly, after the occupation of Greece and onset of the Desert Campaign, it had the potential to provide suitable air fields from where the Royal Air Force could dominate the Eastern Mediterranean and hamper Axis shipping from providing essential logistics support that their forces deployed in North Africa required. Thus while the capture of Crete may have been inescapable, the Germans faced a dilemma, somewhat similar to what we face along the LAC. Firstly, they had limited ability to get ground forces into the theatre of operations given the superiority that the British Navy enjoyed. There were also sufficiently large defensive forces available on the Island, deployed in a manner to counter any envisaged airborne assault. Though the German High Command was under the impression that there were only 5000 troops defending Crete, the Allies had approximately 32000 British, New Zealand and Australian troops supported by the remnants of 10 Greek Divisons, a total of not less than 45000 troops deployed across the Island, though rather short of artillery and air support. Based on their own incorrect assessment the Germans decided to adopt an audacious and wholly unconventional approach to resolve their problem and launched Operation Merkur, which truly exemplified the strategic offensive employment of airborne/air-transported forces with a limited link up planned after the Island had been captured. This operation utilized approximately 22,000 troops, consisting of the 7th Airborne Divison with four Regiments and subsequently an ad-hoc additional Airborne Regiment tasked in the airborne/ glider borne assault role to capture airfields with a supporting mountain infantry division for follow- on tasks in the air-landed role. The Sea-borne element was unable to link up despite the British Navy having suffered grevious losses. The plan formulated by General Student was simple. It involved utilizing three of Division’s four regiments to capture airfields at Maleme, Rethymno, and Heraklion, where airstrips were located. Once captured, these airfields would be used for the landing of heavy equipment and the Mountain Divison. The Airborne Division’s fourth regiment would be dropped in the area of Chania and Suda in order to secure the two towns’ harbors in preparation for the arrival of 7,000 seaborne troops who would only be available subsequently once the British Fleet had been forced to evacuate the island. Although Student expected that his initial strike force would be outnumbered by the defenders, he was confident that the combination of the element of surprise, the high quality of his troops, and the Luftwaffe’s total air superiority would produce victory. Despite incorrect intelligence assessments, limited preparation time as Hitler only approved the operation on 21st April and the lack of surprise given the fact that the British Intelligence had broken German codes and was aware of its operational plans, the Germans achieved astounding success. It was even more impressive given the fact that the Germans encountered stiff resistance from the local population as well. In the final analysis more than 7000 Allied troops were killed or wounded, another 18,000 evacuated, while a similar number became prisoners. It was also an unmitigated disaster for the British Navy which lost 2,000 sailors killed, as well as crippling losses of major ships, which resulted in its withdrawal from the Aegean. The battle for Crete was, in fact, the costliest British naval engagement of the Second World War. It was Hitler’s inability to see the strategic opportunities that the victory presented and his focus on the invasion of the Soviet Union that followed a few weeks later that the operation ultimately turned out to be a pyrrhic victory.<16>

Fighting Smart: A New Design for Pro- Active Defence

While the MSC in its existing avatar may have run out of steam in the current scenario, it can still be revitalized by playing smart. Unwittingly, and despite serious opposition within, we have already raised substantially large Special Operations Forces. These have unfortunately not yet been able to define a strategic role for themselves, except in the context of Out of Area Contingencies (OOAC), which though increasingly important, does not in any way counter any existential threats that conflict with Pakistan or China can result in. These forces include a division plus of Special Forces (PARA SF), a division minus of Airborne Forces (PARA) and in addition a divison worth of irregular guerilla forces capable of operating in that terrain. More importantly, with the induction of new generation of US aircraft, such as the C130’s and the C17’s, we have available an air lift capability that can probably drop an Airborne Divison sized force in one lift in a suitable air defence environment. SOF are an important and integral component of our force profile, especially since they can play an exceedingly important role given the fact that TAR is primarily a desert plateau ringed by mountain ranges. This makes the PLA located in the TAR susceptible to vertical envelopment operations, with all the advantages that they provide. More importantly, Dropping Zones (DZ’s) in TAR are at best 500-700 Kms away from suitable mounting bases within India, which ensures that the aircraft can carry maximum payloads with limited exposure to counter air actions. Finally, while the Indian Air Force may be vastly inferior to the PLAAF in numerical terms, it has the capability to create overwhelming local air superiority in TAR since the air bases there have the ability to support limited numbers of aircraft and bases in Chengdu and elsewhere are too far away to be effective as has been brought out earlier. While some may suggest that the future battlefield is completely different from what forces encountered in the past, they would only be partially correct, because while battlefield capabilities have improved incrementally so have counter-measures. If we thus decide to fight smart we have the ability to create havoc within TAR with irregular forces fighting in conjunction with local insurgent groups. These groups would be tasked to tie down internal security forces and interdict rail, road and supply communications. In the ‘Hot War’ phase, our Air Force and Ballistic Missile units will be able to also carry out interdiction of communication targets in conjunction with PARA (SF) elements to prepare and sufficiently degrade PLA capabilities. Conventional forces would engage the PLA and carry out a coordinated defensive battle in conjunction with Scout units that act as stay behind and raid parties, and halt the offensive forces well before they are able to capture any objectives of importance. Army SOF in conjunction with a reorganized MSC could be utilized at an appropriate time to take the battle into TAR. The SOF would establish multiple Air-Heads (AirH’s) within TAR which could then be used to rapidly induct elements of the MSC which establish a sizeable enclave thereby drawing in reserve forces, seriously disrupting PLA offensive operations and forcing its offensive elements to recoil. Ground link up with this enclave would be carried out by the uncommitted forces available with the holding formations for limited offensives. Our design of battle would ensure that the PLA is forced to simultaneously contend and counter interdiction of its communication and infrastructure nodes in depth by irregular elements of the SOF, Air Force and Ballistic Missiles; at intermediate depth by SOF and MSC and with the ground offensive where troops are in contact. Necessarily such an operation raises questions as to how the irregular elements would operate; our capability to establish suitable AirH’s and the manner in which the follow on forces would operate and be maintained. At the outset, it is worth emphasizing that vertical envelopment operations, by their very nature, are very high risk with correspondingly high returns as well. More so, for the commanders at the highest level who plan and direct such operations to be undertaken. Field Marshal Montgomery, for example, came in for excessive criticism, despite his immense standing within Britain and in the military community, for the manner in which Operation Market Garden, the airborne attempt to capture the Arnhem Bridge, was organized and conducted. There should be little doubt about the capability of irregular elements we could utilize, because by belonging to the same ethnic community they can link up and merge with the local population. Given their extensive training they can organize and assist the civil resistance movement that continues to operate throughout the Tibetan majority districts of TAR and other regions. Such elements can be supplied, if required, with explosives, weapons and ammunition through the use Remotely Controlled Aerial Delivery Systems (RCADS). Most importantly small elements will have the ability to infiltrate months earlier, probably as a response to commencement of the early non-attributable phase of conflict, provide the necessary non-attributability required and prepare the theatre of operations by striking against communication infrastructure and supply nodes. They should be able to, as Pakistan has done to some extent in Jammu and Kashmir, tie up the PAP and other military elements in line of communication duties. At the appropriate time SF elements could also be infiltrated in to reinforce irregular elements in performance of tasks. For this, however, SF personnel must be given the necessary language and cultural orientation. Once the PLA commences its offensive operations, based on its progress and the situation on the ground, SOF elements can be utilized to establish a number of Air Heads, including the capture of air fields. Appropriately tailored light infantry divisions with their support elements can then be air landed to reinforce and enlarge the Air Heads, capture strategic objectives and establish a suitably organized defensive perimeter that will force the PLA to divert reserves and may lead to recoil of offensive forces. Our SOF elements have the ability to establish two brigade sized AirH’s based on air fields. While our air assault elements would be air lifted by available air transport available with the IAF, air transported elements may require the use of commercial aircraft to allow for rapid build-up. In this context Air India must have the requisite number of IAF pilots seconded/deputed to them who have the necessary expertise required for such an operation. There is an urgent necessity to ensure the MSC is suitably organized and equipped for air transportation of its mechanized, AAD, Artillery and Ballistic Missile and other supporting elements. Off the cuff calculations would suggest that a Battalion Group would require 3-4 commercial aircraft of the A330 variety and 1-2 C17’s for transportation of all essential transport, combat support and logistics stores. The speed of build- up of such forces is unlikely to be effected by the air effort available but the availability of suitable of airfields and their capacity to handle aircraft. Of necessity the objectives must be able to ensure that the two divisions of the MSC and heavier elements of the SOF are inducted within 24-48hours. The fact that we have mounting air fields within one hours flying time of likely targets makes induction and support of such forces relatively easier. Finally, as for selection of objectives, they should be so located that any limited offensive by our holding formations would have the ability to link up with the air landed elements of the MSC. Ideally, if the objectives so selected as to provide depth to our politically sensitive areas that are likely to be selected by the PLA as their objectives, we would get additional advantages accruing to us. In this context there are areas where we have overwhelming advantages in the matter of launching our limited offensives. We must keep in mind that suitable objectives are also available in some areas which require either minimal or no acclimatization at all. We must also consider some of the ALG’s constructed close to the LAC as suitable terminal objectives available to us.


It is not anyone’s case that we are likely to be embroiled in a conflict with China any time soon. War between nuclear armed states is inherently dangerous and can easily escalate into the nuclear realm, if either of the opposing sides feels that it faces an existential threat or unacceptable losses. There is however space for limited conflict below the nuclear threshold as we witnessed in the Kargil Conflict of 1999. In the unlikely event that such a situation arises, it is incumbent on our politico-military leadership to be prepared for such an eventuality. In those circumstances we must be willing to think offensively and play smart as it would be foolish on our part to believe that we will be able to stop the PLA through only defensive actions. With limited reorganizations, realistic training, especially for our SOF including the irregular forces, and greater integration of forces we have the ability to create a viable offensive force without breaking the bank. In the context of training our SOF and the transport units of the Air Force will have to radically alter mind-sets, review existing holdings of equipment and work towards establishing operational doctrine and SOP’s that will be required to conduct airborne/air transported operations in mountainous terrain. Our irregular forces, too, will have to be reoriented and reorganized in view of the fact that over the years they have been lying dormant and seemingly purposeless, which would certainly have impacted their motivation levels. We must take advantage of the fact that while the Indian military is battle hardened given the extensive operations they have participated in since 1962 the same cannot be said of the PLA, which has seen no combat since 1979. A capability of this nature greatly increases the cost of conflict for China. In addition we have an extremely potent force available that will be able to deal with any foolishness that Pakistan may indulge in, either on its own or in collusion. With bold planning, last exhibited during the Bangladesh Campaign of 1971, we can create an offensive capability that will act as a deterrent and dissuasive force to any Chinese hegemonic designs that it may have to curtail our growing influence within the international Community. At the end of the day we cannot afford to forget that nobody else will fight our battles for us and the Boy Scouts motto of “Be Prepared” holds just as well for our military as it does for the Scouts.


<1> Harsh V Pant; How rekindled Sino-Indian tensions are reshaping Asian geopolitics; South China Morning Post 18 Jan 2017; <2> John McCain; He Beat us in War but never in Battle; The Wall Street Journal 6th October 2016; <3> John Simpson and Jennifer Speake (Editors); The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (5th Edition); Oxford University Press, 2009. <4> More can be read about the subject of mind-set in my article “Bull in the China Shop”, Indian Defence Review. <5> Lt Gen J S Bajwa; Relevance of Mountain Strike Corps; Indian Defence Review <6> Ibid <7> Prof Stefan Halper; China: The Three Warfares; 2013; <8> Ibid pp11-12. <9> Timothy Walton. ‘Treble Spyglass, Treble Spear: China’s “Three Warfares’. Defense Concepts. Volume 4, Edition.4. 2009.P.51. <10> Christopher Ford. The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations. 2010. Pg37. <11> Bajwa <12> Shishir Gupta; The Himalayan Face-Off; Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt Ltd; 2014; pg 108 <13> Beijing sends a new flood of Han migrants to Lhasa: Tibetans risk disappearing; Asia New .it : 27 Jan 2015 <14> Kunchok Dolma; Report by the Environment and Development Desk Department of Information and International Relations Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamshala, India; China’s Train, Tibet’s Tragedy pp 11-14. <15> Ibid <16> Alexandros K. Kyrou;“Reassessing Operation Merkur: The Significance of the Battle of Crete, May 1941”; Lecture Presented at Hellenic House, American Hellenic Institute Washington, D.C. May 16, 2011;
This commentary originally appeared in Indian Defence Review.
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Deepak Sinha

Deepak Sinha

Brig. Deepak Sinha (Retd.) was Visiting Fellow at ORF. Brig. Sinha is a second-generation paratrooper. During his service, he held varied command, staff and instructional appointments, ...

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