Instead of pouring money into raising a force that can hardly address the Indian Army’s drawbacks at the border, our decision makers should have focussed on addressing China’s weaknesses in the Indian Ocean

In the history of Indian strategic thought, the decision to create a mountain strike corps against China will remain a landmark. While the file on the subject has apparently been circulating for a while, the absence of open discussion on so momentous a decision is deeply disappointing. Some commentators are of the view that the Chinese incursion in the Depsang plains swung the decision decisively in favour of the strike corps. If so, it doesn’t make much sense, for, where is Depsang and where is Panagarh — the headquarters of the mountain strike corps?

What irks a strategic commentator about this decision is the question whether our reaction is wiser, more mature and better institutionalised than it was in 1962. At that time, the Prime Minister had “instructed” the army to “throw out” the Chinese following which Brigadier Dalvi’s mountain brigade made its fateful advance across Namka Chu. The big question today is — what were our options? Did we examine more than one option and select the best one? Presumably, it is to guarantee that we go through an intellectual process that we now have a Chiefs of Staff Committee, an Integrated Staff, a National Security Council and Adviser, and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Did they actually look at alternatives, or was it a straightforward case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a mountain strike corps?

The first step

The first thought that strikes a strategic thinker is whether any non-military options were first examined. This is an inevitable first step in the long and tortuous process that leads up to military action. The Depsang incident, it will be remembered, took place in a part of the country which, before 1954, was always shown as un-demarcated or undefined. What, for instance, were the arguments in the CCS for and against the Johnson-Ardagh Line and the Macartney line? Those who are unfamiliar with these names can take a look at Wikipedia. It is the essence to understanding a possible settlement of the boundary dispute. The fact is that while our case in Arunachal Pradesh is strong and undisputed, the situation is not quite similar in the west where the recent intrusion took place. Admittedly, the political numbers simply don’t permit the government to commit itself to a grand bargain with China on territory. The Chinese are in a similar position. But if the border problem hinges for a solution on a strong, domestic government, it is indeed better for both countries to postpone the solution to the next generation — as the Chinese suggest. So how did we come to the conclusion that the Chinese may force the border issue now, leading us to raise a mountain strike corps?

It has been argued that China is a continental power with a huge land army. It is making amends by funding its Navy strongly, to change the balance. But its army reforms have converted its land forces into a large armoured and air mobile force capable of rapid redeployment.

Under these conditions, to raise an infantry heavy mountain strike corps has obvious disadvantages. First, it would be geographically confined to one or two axes of movement and capable of being blunted. Secondly, whatever we may do on land, we will remain an asymmetric power vis-à-vis the huge People’s Liberation Army (PLA), whose defence budget is thrice ours. Thirdly, a strike corps in the mountains denies us the time and place of a counter offensive, because it is geographically limited. These arguments should have come up during the process of examining options. If they didn’t, it is tragic and shows little improvement from the confusion and bluster of 1962 preceding the disaster.

Infantry heavy

The Indian Army is a fine institution and no one grudges it any funding. But it is also one of the most infantry heavy armies in the world. Its armour-to-infantry ratio is badly skewed, it is not air mobile, its manoeuvre capability is poor and Rs.60,000 crore would have addressed all these deficiencies and more. Instead, with the strike corps it will become even more infantry heavy and Rs.60,000 crore will have been wasted in barely addressing the tremendous disparity with the PLA’s mobility, numbers and manoeuvre capability. It must be remembered that we are addressing mountain warfare, where high altitude acclimatisation is a necessity for soldiers before being deployed. So the mountain strike corps would already be at high altitudes with little possibility of being redeployed without huge air mobility. All this should have been apparent to the Army Aviation Corps whose leaders seem bereft of strategic thinking, having flown light helicopters all their lives. Stopping the advancing Chinese in the mountains strung out through the valleys should have required specialised ground support aircraft like the A-10 Warthog, another strategic choice which was probably ignored by the army aviation branch. By not examining non-army options we seem to be repeating the mistakes of 1962 when the Sino-Indian war became a purely army-to-army affair for reasons that have still not been established.

Strengths & weaknesses

We are not privy to the notings in the file preceding the decision to raise a mountain strike corps, but it would certainly appear that the border issue appears to have been treated purely as an army problem for which only the army can find a solution, with the other arms of the government contributing nothing. Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore.

No one minimises the pinpricks that the Chinese are capable of but what we are looking for is an asymmetric capability to balance the Chinese four-fold advantage in GDP over India. Finding the solution requires all arms of the government to debate where our scarce resources should go. A geographically limited one axis offensive will not destabilise the PLA, but a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group in the Indian Ocean can economically cripple mainland China.

(Raja Menon retired as Rear Admiral in the Indian Navy)

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