Rethinking the defence doctrine

Over four months ago, the Chinese army entered territory that India has long considered its own, and never left. In effect, the multiple incursions have changed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and India has lost territory, at least for the time being. How could this happen?

In part, it was a failure of the warning-intelligence system. Either Indian intelligence services did not collect sufficient data of Chinese intentions and early moves, or they did not interpret it correctly, or their policy and military customers failed to take the warning seriously. Wherever the fault lay, the system apparently failed.

In part, however, the problem also lay in the Army’s concepts for defending the country’s borders. It is, as the current crisis shows, simply not postured or prepared for the type of security threat China presents.

As I argued in a recent research study for Carnegie India, the Army’s prevailing doctrine is designed to deter and defend against major conventional invasions. This determines how the Army is organised, what equipment it operates, and where it is deployed. The Army expects to win wars, against Pakistan or China, by launching its own punitive offensives after an enemy attack, to either destroy enemy forces or seize enemy land.

In this mindset, the Army expected that any Chinese bid to capture Indian territory would come as a major conventional invasion, as it did in 1962. The Indian response would accordingly involve large formations, with planning and command decisions made at the Corps headquarters or higher.

But the Chinese army’s initial forays in April and May did not look like a guns-blazing invasion. It crossed the LAC in several places nearly simultaneously, and in larger numbers than usual. Still, the Indian Army probably expected the stand-off would repeat the pattern of years past: China would make its point with a temporary transgression and retreat after talks. In the meantime, Indian forces would reinforce their positions but hold back. Indian forces were under strict instructions from New Delhi that any aggressive response must be avoided as it would inflame the situation.

It is now clear that the national security leadership and the Army miscalculated. China has no interest in launching a major conventional invasion, but this is not just a typical probe either. Rather, its quick land grab looks increasingly permanent, like an attempt to change the border without triggering war. This fait accompli leaves India with two awful choices: either start a war by launching its own reprisal attack, or do nothing and accept a new status quo.

Addressing this type of security threat requires preventing, not reversing, such fait accompli land grabs. This requires a fundamental shift in the Army’s doctrinal thinking, from strategies revolving around punishing the adversary, to strategies that prevent its adventurism in the first place.

Speed is of the essence

In practice, this does not mean an unbroken picket of soldiers all along the border. It does, however, mean a greater investment in persistent wide-area surveillance to detect and track adversary moves, devolved command authority to respond to enemy aggression, and rehearsed procedures for an immediate local response without higher commanders’ approval.

In countering China’s ‘grey zone’ tactics of quick land grabs, speed is of the essence. The military must be able to detect adversary action and react quickly, even pre-emptively, to stop attempted aggression from becoming a fait accompli. In peacetime, local commanders must have the authority and gumption to take anticipatory action and go on the offensive or fill forward defensive positions. The late-August incident at Chushul demonstrates how this can and should work. Indian special forces troops took position on previously unoccupied heights south of Pangong Tso. In so doing they have complicated future Chinese moves to consolidate their position, and may even hold some Chinese positions at risk. The country’s attempts to seize more ground have been foiled.

Unfortunately, China was not foiled in its initial seizure of Indian territory. Reversing that occupation will require a remarkable feat of Indian statecraft. A military solution is decreasingly likely as China reinforces its deployments. Taking strident offensive actions now, amidst a heavily militarised crisis, may be hazardous because it carries new risks of unintended escalation. The challenge for India is to learn the right lessons and be alert to similar tactics in other regions, like the Indian Ocean. It must not rely on doctrines forged in wars half a century ago.

Arzan Tarapore is a South Asia research scholar at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 11:07:29 PM |

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