In a recent article, former chief of army staff General M.M. Naravane has argued that since India does not have ‘strategic depth’ against China, the army will need to maintain heavy forward deployment on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This argument displays ignorance about India’s threats and options on the two military lines. Not only is the concept of strategic depth irrelevant against China and Pakistan, but army’s relevance also will be minimal in a war with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
‘Strategic depth’ is the distance between the front-line and an army’s base (away from the nation’s strategic assets and vulnerable areas) where it has its operational sustenance (troops and war waging materiel) for war. If this distance is more, the frontline may be held lightly to tempt the enemy to walk into a killing zone with stretched lines of communication. When this luxury is not available, the frontline needs heavy deployment.
While ‘strategic depth’ is about tactics, and army-led defensive operations, the PLA’s war will be campaign level offensive operations which will completely bypass the army’s tactical level of war. Recall, the 1991 operation Desert Storm by the US military against the Iraqi military, where there were neither tactical combat nor the need for ‘strategic depth’. After 43 days of air campaign by the US at the operational level across the entire war theatre, the tactics were limited to 100 hours of mopping up operations. The brave and battle hardened Iraqi Republican Guards (who fought 10 years’ war with Iran) were decimated from the air by the US Air Force with support from outer space.
Unlike the major power, US, and medium power, Iraq, the PLA war with the Indian military will be expansive and will go beyond the combat theatre. Worse, the PLA has capabilities to combat in six war-domains (land, air, sea, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, outer space) compared with Indian military’s three domains of land, air, and sea.
The Indian military has no answer for PLA’s war with nine exceptional characteristics. One, in a lightening and intense campaign without any warning time, the PLA will combat simultaneously across the war zone (whole of nation) and combat zone (across the entire theatre of operation). The war zone will witness coordinated employment of cyber, outer space and information operations (misinformation, disinformation, and synthetic reality involving fake texts and deepfake videos on social media). By destroying, disrupting, and poisoning data in cyberspace, these operations will bring civilian life to a standstill with maximum cognitive pressure on the political leadership.
Two, in the combat zone, the PLA will exercise total war control by dominating the battlespace comprising cyberspace, Electro Magnetic Space (EMS), and outer space domains, which will snap communications at all levels of command. Unlike the Indian military, PLA has capability to combat, compete, and confront in these three critical war domains which work under PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and report to the Joint Staff Department (JSD) responsible to the PLA’s highest body, the Central Military Commission headed by President Xi Jinping. The PLA, therefore, will exert control over war aims, war concepts, speed, tempo, intensity and outcome. This involves seizing the initiative, paralysing the enemy, dominating the escalation ladder, and laying grounds for early war termination on one’s own terms.
Three, since the Indian defence services are not even fully networked and hence don’t have the continuum of cyberspace, EMS, and outer space to be destroyed or disabled by the SSF, the PLA’s Rocket Force (PLARF) will destroy the partially networked command, control, and communication centres. With an impressive inventory of ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise missiles, the PLARF working closely with PLA Air Force (PLAAF) bombers and PLA Army (PLAA) long range precision artillery fire will unleash intense salvos on IAF’s main, diversionary, and hinterland bases, blowing up ammunition and fuel dumps to ensure that enemy combat aircraft remain grounded. Priority would be accorded to communication towers, power centres, bridges, tunnels, radar sites, air defence systems, and command and control hubs. Since most Indian targets will be static, well-mapped, and watched, it will not be difficult for the PLA to hit them with precision. Working together, under the JSD, the PLARF and PLASSF will render the Indian military blind with no communications at all levels of command leading to command breakdown.
Four, the PLA’s massive sensors network on land, air, and in outer space will provide real-time situational awareness of the combat zone, operational logistics lifeline (or what Naravane calls communication zones where operational sustenance will travel), and high value targets in the hinterland. There will be no place to hide from the PLA’s accurate firepower.
Five, the PLA and Indian military will combat at different tempo and speed of war. The PLA’s tempo of war will be determined by the speed of light through cyberspace, and conventional surface-to-surface missiles with the ability to hit targets thousands of kilometres away at speeds of Mach 20. One Mach, which is the speed of sound, is 1,235 km per hour, and the speed of light, which is in nanoseconds, is 300,000 km per second. In addition to the traditional missiles, bombs, and munitions, the PLA will place a premium on electronic warfare, cyber warfare, and directed energy weapons (laser and microwave weapons) operating at the speed of light. The Indian military’s fastest platforms are its conventional BrahMos cruise missile with maximum speed of Mach 3.7, and the Rafale aircraft with the speed of 2,450 kmph.
Six, the PLA has an unmatched inventory of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) with all its services. It has loitering munitions, mini drones with facial recognition capabilities (slaughter-bots), legacy aircraft converted into Kamikaze drones, and swarm drones with front-end computing capabilities.
Seven, with the entire combat zone in disarray with PLASSF, PLARF, and PLAAF accurate fires, the PLA would use its special forces, heliborne forces, aviation brigades, and air assault brigades for vertical envelopment and air insertion missions right till the Brahmaputra valley. The PLA is assessed to have over 150,000 airborne combat troops.
Eight, China has a self-sufficient and vibrant defence industrial base, something that India lacks. As evident from the ongoing Ukraine war, the NATO nations are unable to match Russia’s defence industrial infrastructure which can meet war surge requirements of tanks, guns, missiles, and specialised munitions. A nation without indigenous war surge capabilities cannot win a war, whether limited or protracted against an enemy which has it.
And nine, India’s nuclear weapons will have no use in a war with China. On the one hand, the PLA campaign based on military strategy of cognitive defeat will happen at hyper-speed leaving the political and military leadership groping in the dark for lack of information. On the other hand, if India tries to flex nuclear muscle or move its nuclear assets, China could exercise one of the three options: destroy Indian nukes’ kill chain with cyber, electronic, or long-range precision hypersonic glide vehicles; threaten to use low yield nukes in campaign as a warning signal; or adapt to Launch on Warning (LOW) nuclear posture.
It becomes clear from the above that the concept of ‘strategic depth’ and even the lead role for land forces (army) is meaningless. Using its far superior technology and war concepts, the PLA has the capability to wrest India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh with minimal casualties of its own forces in a short, swift, and intense multi-domain decisive war.
It seems Naravane has got mixed up in war and ‘grey zone’ operations done below the war threshold in peacetime. The June 15, 2020 Galwan clash which was the high point of grey zone operations forced the two sides to reinforce their front-line capabilities. Situation for the Indian army got complicated by China’s boundary law which became effective on January 1, 2022. By stating this law, China has framed the border dispute as an issue of its sovereignty, which will be defended at all costs. Thus, if the Indian army manages to make tactical gain on the LAC, the PLA under its law, will be obliged to use arms by ending grey zone operations. On the other hand, the PLA will permanently maintain pressure on the LAC with its grey zone operations, thereby ensuring that the Indian Army is unable to reduce its forces in the foreseeable future. These grey zone operations will rise and ebb depending on China’s relations with India at the given time, irrespective of a mutually agreed peaceful LAC.
The ultimate irony for the Indian army is that it needs large numbers in peacetime for grey zone operations against PLA. But in an event of a war, these large numbers will become a liability, as they will have little operational role.
Even in the case of Pakistan, where both sides will fight war of attrition, the concept of ‘strategic space’ has become irrelevant. For one, since both military lines are active, it is impossible for the Indian military with limited capabilities and capacities to even consider expanding a war with Pakistan beyond the Line of Control to the international border, where in the desert, Naravane talks of acquiring ‘strategic depth.’
For another, Indian military simply does not have credible conventional capabilities to fight with Pakistan, let alone a two-front war. If India had credible war waging or counter-offensive capabilities against Pakistan, Rawalpindi would have been compelled to review its proxy war strategy as a costly adventure which could boomerang. It is regrettable that Indian army leadership has failed to create credible conventional deterrence against Pakistan since 1990 when trouble started in Jammu and Kashmir.
Pravin Sawhney is the author of The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China.