General V.K. Singh's leaked letter on deficits in India's defence has fostered hysteria. Fearsome as China's military build-up might be, it isn't clear why Indians should be fearful.
In 266 BCE, the armies of Emperor Antigonus II Gonatas laid siege to Megara, hoping to seize the small, but wealthy, city's harbours. The contest was, at first glance, hopeless: Antigonus's armies were much larger and backed, moreover, by phalanxes of battle-elephants.
Faced with certain defeat — the ancient military historian Poluainos recorded in his classic, Strategems in War — the Megarans hit upon a tactic of considerable genius. The city's pigs were doused in resin and set on fire as they were pushed out of the gates. Panicked by the sight of the burning, squealing pigs, the elephants broke ranks and fled, trampling many of Antigonus' army.
Indians panicked by Army Chief V.K. Singh's grim warnings on system-wide deficits in the country's war-preparedness might profit from the lesson of Megara's burning pigs: in war, the side with the bigger guns doesn't always win. The anxiety underpinning much of the debate provoked by General Singh's leaked letter to the Prime Minister isn't hard to miss. The rise of an allegedly-malevolent China, many in India's strategic community fear, makes the prospect of a war almost inevitable: a war that Pakistan, more likely than not, will capitalise upon.
Back in 2008, Defence Minister A.K. Anthony is believed to have issued a formal directive calling on the armed forces to prepare themselves for a two-front war. Mulayam Singh Yadav, India's former Defence Minister, even told Parliament in November 2011 that he had evidence China was “going to attack us soon.” “The attack can take place any time,” he asserted.
The facts behind fears like these are well known. China's declared military budget for this year is $106.4 billion, up from about $91.5 billion in 2011, and in line with a more than a decade-long expansion of over 12 per cent a year, a little over the growth of its wealth. It is expanding its cruise and ballistic missile arsenal; the new Dong Feng-21D, comes with a manoeuvrable warhead that constitutes the first serious threat to United States carriers in the Pacific. It has rolled out a prototype for a fifth-generation stealth fighter and inducted an aircraft carrier.
Fearsome as China's military build-up might be, though, it isn't clear if Indians need to be fearful. India isn't, for one, China's principal threat. Eight of China's 18 Group Armies — the equivalent, roughly, of a corps — face out on its south-eastern seaboard, trained and equipped for a war over Taiwan. “Much of the observed upgrade activity,” the U.S. Department of Defence noted in a 2011 report, “has occurred in units with the potential to be involved in a Taiwan contingency.”
In the Koreas, the People Liberation Army (PLA) must consider the prospect of everything from a full-blown war involving nuclear weapons to a meltdown which could send millions of refugees across its borders. Its forces must be prepared to deal with an insurgency in Xinjiang, and potential disorder in Tibet. They must protect China's trade routes, and guard contested basins of energy in the high seas. Each of these threats could conceivably lead to a showdown with the U.S. — the world's pre-eminent power.
India's second reason not to be fearful of China's military growth is this: the threat is made up of gunpowder, but also hype. The case of China's submarine threat is instructive. Five years ago, analysts in the U.S. were predicting that the PLA Navy would outstrip their submarine holdings by 2011. But Russia, concerned about the expansion of China's naval power, held back on supplies of critical technology — and the U.S. doubled its submarine production.
Last year, the U.S. estimated that China has five nuclear-powered attack submarines, three of them 091 Han-class vessels that are reaching the end of their service lives. In addition, it has some 50 diesel submarines, half of them obsolete, and a handful of experimental ballistic-missile submarines.
The U.S. Navy, though, has 53 attack submarines, four guided-missile submarines and 14 ballistic-missile boats — 71 in all. All this not counting the fleets of its European partners, and regional allies like Japan, Korea and Australia.
Lessons of 1962
None of this, China-sceptics in India argue, is reason to be sanguine — pointing, almost always, to the war of 1962 as an example of the costs of complacency. In fact, that war is an excellent illustration of the proposition that weapons capabilities alone don't win wars. From P.B. Sinha and A.A. Athale's History of the Conflict With China, 1962, an official account commissioned by the Union Defence Ministry in 1992, we know this: “Chinese weapons, equipment organisation and training were better than that of the Indians. But this superiority was only marginal. By itself it would not have proved decisive.”
India's Air Force, notably, was actually better equipped than its Chinese adversaries — crippled because the country's rupture with the Soviet Union had left it without access to spares, and without airfields in Tibet from where its jets could carry full payloads. However, India chose not to use its superior air power — fearing, among other things, that it would open the way for retaliatory strikes.
John Galbraith, the U.S. Ambassador to New Delhi, also lobbied hard against air strikes, fearing his country, then engaged in a stand-off with the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, would be dragged into the war.
The then-Director of Operations at air headquarters, H.C. Dewan, argued in a 1988 interview that the use of air assets would have been of limited use, since the North-East's jungles provided infantry with cover to the attackers.
Dr. Sinha and Colonel Athale, however, disputed this proposition, noting that air strikes would have crippled China's logistics, and made the passage of its forces through mountain passes lethal going. Either way, the lesson is simple: superiority doesn't mean military victory.
Last year, in a talk delivered around the same time Mr. Yadav was holding out his prediction of imminent assault, the scholar Kanti Bajpai offered several sound military reasons why 1962 wouldn't happen again. He pointed to the difficulties in destroying India's Air Force, necessary to secure China's logistics; the robust defensive positions occupied by India's Army in the Himalayas; the limited capabilities to wage a naval campaign in the Indian Ocean; the risks of internal conflict in Tibet breaking out; and, above all, the risk of a nuclear conflagration.
Dr. Bajpai concluded by asserting that “war between the two countries is not very likely unless one or the other engages in highly provocative, ill-judged behaviour — and even then, with nuclear weapons and air power, it would be very risky to go to war.”
What is to be learned
Indian diplomats have been listening, but not its military: the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently stated that India has become the world's largest importer of arms in 2007-2011 — playing catch-up with China, which held top position in 2002-2006. It seems unclear, though, precisely what kinds of war these acquisitions are intended to address. In 2010, former Army Chief Deepak Kapoor spoke of a two-front war. Not many weeks later, Gen. Singh suggested he saw little risk of conventional war, but insisted that India “should have a great amount of conventional capability.”
Precisely what a “great amount” might be has never been defined: in military debates, everything from all-out conventional wars to limited, localised wars in the Himalaya are discussed, often in the same breath. Indeed, it's hard to erase the suspicion that India is still preparing to fight the 1962 war again: its forces are deployed on much the same axis, and its tactical language remains unchanged.
Faced with questions, Indian military strategists often argue that armies need to prepare for possible wars, not just predictable ones. This proposition isn't as robust as it first seems. No army in the world has infinite resources — and in a volatile world, almost any war is conceivable.
Gen. Singh's letter has had the salutary impact of focussing attention on delays and corruption in defence acquisition. It has also had the wholly undesirable consequence of engendering a public culture in which any, and all, military claims for equipment are seen as legitimate.
For India to shape a serious response to the military rise of China, its intelligentsia and military establishment ought be studying China far harder. India's universities, intelligence services and military all have large shortages of staff even familiar with the language of our most important neighbour, let alone the intricacies of its strategic thinking. India may well need more hardware — but it needs to think about what hardware it needs, and how to use it to best effect like the Megarans.
India's pre-1962 military, the official history recorded, conducted “no studies of Chinese war tactics.” “No debriefing was done,” it continues, “after the Korean war to learn about their ways of working and fighting. Nobody seems to have cared to know [sic].” Few, it seems, still do.