Chandigarh: India’s enduring military deployment along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, that began in May 2020 to counter the ambush by China is feted, ad nauseam, by the country’s establishment and media as a major feat.
Senior serving and retired military personnel, government ministers, civil servants, diplomats, analysts and even journalists, never tire of extolling the Indian Army’s mobilisation to Ladakh in response to what in effect was the PLA’s avoidable ingress. The attendant scrambling by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy in their respective spheres, in reaction to this preventable Chinese action, too are lauded by them, although in lesser measure.
But this acclaim – merely for deploying and preventing further PLA ingress – is somewhat hyperbolic and glorified as it ignores one fundamental question: did the Indian armed forces have any choice other than to swiftly deploy to the LAC after the PLA presented them with a fait accompli in Ladakh?
Is rapid deployment in the face of a grave external threat like the one posed by the PLA not the Indian military’s primary – and only – operational duty, task and mission?
Or has the military effected something extraordinary this time round?
By thus deploying, was the country’s military not simply doing its job, executing what it has been cosseted and equipped for over decades, to meet a palpable threat on its borders, like numerous times earlier? The only difference, however, is that on preceding occasions it was lionised, not just for deploying, but triumphing, especially in 1971 and in 1999.
Besides, was not deploying against the PLA ever even an option?
If obviously not, then why the constant, wide-eyed and breathless plaudits for something all militaries do when faced with an enemy. In contrast, however, few linger over the reality that had the Indian Army and the country’s security establishment been more conscientious and vigilant, the military’s reactive deployment along LAC would not have been needed.
“It’s senseless for all people concerned to make a virtue of necessity with regard to the military’s deployment,” said defence analyst Major General (retired) A.P. Singh. Instead of applauding this, it would be more useful to evaluate why it at all became necessary in the first instance, said the officer who was earlier posted in Ladakh.
India’s principal shortcoming, Gen. Singh added, was its failure in collectively exercising its comprehensive national power (CNP) to deter Beijing from infringing past border agreements aimed at maintaining the status quo along the LAC, pending its eventual settlement. Other than hard military capability, CNP comprises economic, diplomatic and technological muscle in addition to other related factors and unquantifiable soft power force multipliers.
Over 50,000 Indian Army troops are at present deployed across large portions of the 800-km long inhospitable LAC in Ladakh for the past 13 months, having weathered the savage winter at heights averaging 15,000 feet, in a situation most military planners admit is likely to become permanent.
They also hesitatingly concede that this arrangement will mirror the perpetual military standoff with the Pakistan Army on the nearby Line of Control or LoC and the adjoining Siachen Glacier. With luck, the LAC face-off would preclude the exchange of frequent artillery, mortar and small arms fire that broadly personifies the situation along the LoC.
“The army needs to be equipped for the long haul all along the LAC, even at the added human wear and tear and economic costs this entails,” military analyst Lieutenant General Pradeep Bali (retired) stated in The Tribune newspaper on June 17.
Alongside, the IAF’s transport aircraft have been pressed into service to provide the Indian Army near-constant logistic support, while its fighters are engaged in continually patrolling the LAC’s Himalayan territory. The Indian Navy, for its part, has intensified its presence in the Indian Ocean Region or IOR, where the PLA Navy is expanding its hegemonic reach, in a bid to try and influence the LAC standoff.
It is instructive to evaluate the factors encompassing the LAC’s militarisation that led to a clash between the two rival armies in the Galwan Valley exactly a year ago, in which 20 Indian Army soldiers, including a colonel-rank officer, and four PLA personnel died. The skirmish, that involved hand-to-hand combat and the employment, by PLA soldiers, of bespoke clubs studded with nails, was the first between the rival armies since 1975. At the time, four Assam Rifles jawans were killed when their patrol was ambushed by the PLA at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of ‘southern Tibet’.
Over the years, Indian political leaders, intelligence agencies, diplomats and military personnel had all jointly misread and mis-evaluated eventual Chinese intent with regard to extending its boundaries along the LAC in total disregard of five bilateral protocols agreed between Beijing and New Delhi, 1993 onwards to maintain its inviolability or status quo.
Conversely, the politicians, for their part, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has had some 18 meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2014, failed to gauge the latter’s irredentist objectives; as did diplomats from Ministry of External Affairs, many of whom had extended tenures in Beijing, and were fluent Mandarin speakers.
Alongside, operatives from India’s generously funded Research and Analysis Wing or RAW, too proved inept in forecasting Beijing’s intent with respect to the LAC, much like the high-powered China Study Group (CSG) at present headed by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Established in 1975, the CSG includes India’s cabinet, foreign, home and defence secretaries, all three Armed Forces’ vice-chiefs of staff and the Director of the Intelligence Bureau or the DIB, personifying the cream of what passes for the country’s security, intelligence and strategic affairs talent.
Costly, unexplained lapses
But the most immediate, and detrimental causes behind India’s much-applauded LAC military deployment, are the unexplained – and, as yet un-investigated – lapses into the three-tiered surveillance grid along the disputed frontier, that resulted in the PLA seizing territory India has long considered its own.
This network comprised joint ground patrols by the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and concomitant monitoring by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and a ring of 6-8 ‘dedicated’ military satellites, whose imagery feed is disseminated to the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) in Delhi and varied security, intelligence and related agencies.
DIPAC is supplied these crucial images by four Cartosat-2 series and Gsat-29 satellites which are complemented by the advanced radar imaging Risat-2 that was launched in May 2019, and is capable of operating in cloudy conditions and providing detailed images of earth objects, structures and changes in movement on the ground, up to a resolution of around 0.8m. These are further complemented by other space and electronic assets of the National Technical Research Organisation that has operated under the NSA since its inception in 2004.
The resulting imagery from these multiplicity of sources, including UAVs, created at immense cost over an extended period, are analysed by specialists from the army’s Directorate of Military Intelligence and the NTRO and expert operatives from the Aviation Research Centre, a RAW adjunct.
It’s logical to presume that all these assets, employed to monitor the LAC, would undoubtedly have captured the PLA’s exercises on the Tibetan plateau that began around February-March 2020, followed by its steady movement eastwards to transgress the LAC. The ensuing imagery, and analysis, would customarily have been forwarded to the Indian Army’s Directorate General of Military Operations or DGMO, one of whose specialised section deals exclusively with imagery from the Pakistani and Chinese borders.
There is no reason to believe – and no credible information has emerged so far to the contrary – that this procedure was not pursued in the run up to the PLAs ingress. Hence, it can be premised that the PLA’s military exercises, abutting the LAC February 2020 onwards were exhaustively monitored and picturised by Indian satellites and passed on to the DGMO and concerned departments.
This imagery would, no doubt, have picturised numerous PLA platforms like howitzers, light tanks and Type 81 and PHL-03 multiple rocket launchers that participated in these manoeuvres, but failed to return to base. Instead, supplemented by some 50,000 PLA personnel these platforms moved forward across the LAC, directly menacing at some points the 255-km long Darbuk Shtok-DBO strategic road which the Indian Army claims as one of the casus bellis for the PLA’s aggression.
The overall PLA ingress, and its subsequent face-off with the Indian Army, occurred at around six places including Pangong Tso Lake, the nearby Kailash Ranges, Galwan, Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang in northwest Ladakh. However, in February both militaries agreed to mutually disengage in the Pangong and Kailash Range areas, where the Indian Army decidedly had the tactical advantage over the PLA. The remaining four areas continue to be dominated by the PLA, which is presently reinforcing infrastructure for its troops and platforms, denoting an extended, if not permanent, stay in the area. No more meetings between senior military officers are planned following 11 earlier rounds, the last one taking place in early April.
The LAC saga is a catastrophic retroactive replay of the Pakistan Army’s occupation of the Kargil heights exactly 21 years earlier, across a 160-km frontage to a depth of 8-10 km, of which the Indian Army was informed by Gujjar herdsmen. The rest – the 11-week long Kargil war, in which nearly 600 Indian Army soldiers died and some 1,200 were injured, some permanently handicapped – as they say, is history.
Meanwhile, the LAC deployment May 2020 onwards has also prompted the re-orientation of the Indian Army’s forces, occasioning changes in its long-established order of battle or ORBAT to ensure credible deterrence against China which truly has emerged as Enemy Number One as former Defence Minister George Fernandes presciently dubbed it in April 1998.
This ORBAT alteration has necessitated the Indian Army switching its operational focus to a great extent from the Pakistani to the Chinese front, thereby extending its operational limits and leaving it limited or no reserves to deal with contingencies.
In short, there is a massive price in blood and treasure that is being expended for the seemingly collective negligence of multiple military and security agencies via the Indian Army’s perennial deployment along the LAC. The Indian establishment should have heeded the advice of Henry Buckley, the UK-born 19th century Australian politician who sagely said: the time to correct a mistake is before it is made.