Analysis | Escalation unlikely, despite the deadly clash in Ladakh

Army patrol teams in the sub sector north along the Line of Actual Control with China. File photo for representational purposes only.   | Photo Credit: Dinakar Peri

The presence of an effective nuclear and conventional deterrent marshalled by India and China is likely to prevent an escalation of military tensions between the two neighbours, despite the loss of 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese troops in Ladakh on Monday.

“We are at a stage when a full-scale conventional war between India and China can be ruled out, though sporadic armed face-offs are possible. India has an effective nuclear and conventional deterrent vis-a-vis China, despite existing shortcomings in delivery systems, such as the Agni-V missile,” says Manpreet Sethi, Distinguished Fellow and head of the Nuclear Security Project at the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies.

The Agni-V, which is apparently in the final stages of development, is a three-stage solid fuelled missile, which can carry a 1,500 kilogram nuclear warhead to a 5,500-5,800 kilometres distance, covering China.


But even in the absence of the Agni-V, the Indian atomic deterrent vis-a-vis China is not toothless. A report by the Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs estimates that “around 10 Agni-III launchers can reach the entire Chinese mainland. Another eight Agni-II launchers could reach central Chinese targets.”

Besides an estimated two squadrons of Jaguar IS and one squadron of Mirage 2000H fighters, totalling around 51 aircraft, have been earmarked for nuclear missions.

Across the border, it is estimated that the Chinese side can deploy 104 missiles, with an all-India reach. These include about a dozen DF-31A and six to twelve DF-31 missiles, which can strike anywhere in India. Besides, a dozen DF-21s hold New Delhi at risk, the report said.

Despite the Chinese edge in missiles, India’s conventional deterrent is robust, spearheaded by the Indian Air Force (IAF). “China operates in the theatre from high altitude bases. Because of the lower air density, these planes cannot carry full bomb load. But the IAF has no such restrictions as it has the flexibility of operating from a string of established low altitude air bases ranging from Chandigarh to Chabua,” Air Vice Marshall (Retd.) Amit Aneja told The Hindu.

“...China lacks the redundancy and related force survivability compared to India in their comparative numbers of regional air bases. In sum, India has a stronger regional air position, with a large number of airfields in the east and west, so even if some airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations,” the Harvard study concludes.

Most of the Chinese airfields to target Kashmir, northern India, and northeast India — Hotan, Lhasa/Gonggar, Ngari-Gunsa, and Xigaze — are vulnerable to IAF attacks. Ngari-Gunsa and Xigaze reportedly have no hardened shelters or blast pens for their aircraft, which sit in the open, while Lhasa/Gonggar has recently developed hardened shelters able to protect up to 36 aircraft, says the report. Hotan reportedly hosts “two aircraft shelters” of unknown capacity. “An Indian early initiative to destroy or incapacitate these four bases — and achieve air superiority over them — would compel China to rely more upon aircraft from its rear-area bases.”

Compared to an estimated 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across the three China-facing commands of the IAF, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) under its Western Theatre Command facing India can deploy around 157 fighters and a variety of drones. “On a strict comparison of available 4th generation fighters, authoritative assessments hold that China’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable to India’s Mirage-2000, and that the Indian Su-30MKI is superior to all theatre Chinese fighters, including the additional J-11 and Su-27 models,” the Harvard study concludes.

To compensate for its vulnerability in the air, the Chinese are likely to launch long range missile strikes on Indian air bases. But, because of the availability of several air bases, it is unlikely that these attacks can “incapacitate” the IAF’s widely dispersed ground infrastructure.

On the ground, the report estimates a near parity in China’s deployment of 200,00-230,000 troops, compared to India’s 225,000 personnel. But it spotlights that the near equivalence of ground forces is “misleading” as a “significant proportion” of Chinese forces would be reserved for the Russian border or for countering possible “insurrection” in Xinjiang and Tibet, China’s two major strategically vital but potentially restive regions.

Analysts point out that a large proportion of Chinese military capability is locked up in the Asia-Pacific theatre, where Beijing faces its primary threat from the Indo-Pacific command of the United States . “Growing tensions with Washington in the West Pacific is expected to encourage China to de-escalate tensions along its border with India,” Dr. Sethi observes. For the first time in three years, the U.S .Navy is deploying three aircraft carrier strike groups in the Pacific as a part of a new post-COVID-19 military build-up against China.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:00:25 AM |

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