As Beijing Engages Delhi in Discursive Talks, Maintaining Troops at LAC Becomes a Costly Affair

Experts believe it would cost India around Rs 100 crore per day to sustain a 25,000-30,000 strong force along a 250-300 km frontage to prevent the PLA from seizing more territory than it has already.

Chandigarh: China appears to have embarked on a battle of financial and military manpower attrition with India, following their unresolved standoff along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, in a bid to ‘beggar and debilitate’ its neighbour without a fight.

Senior security and military officials claim that having steadily occupied territory that India perceives as its own in Ladakh since early May, Beijing has no wish to further escalate the situation. Hence, it is now entwining New Delhi in an ‘inconclusive domain’ it knows only too well: unending talks and negotiations.

After all, for 27 years, after China first ‘persuaded’ New Delhi into accepting the LAC in 1993, it successfully duped successive Indian governments and its military into assiduously pursuing all five subsequent confidence building measures to perpetuate the un-demarcated frontier.

China’s ploy was to buy time and peace in order to significantly augment its overall economic, technological and military capabilities, a goal in which it has been incredibly successful.

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Conversely, the arrangement also suited a naïve and weaker India that bought into China’s deceit, as it freed Delhi from expending blood and treasure along the LAC for nearly three decades, and concentrating instead on the threat it faced from Pakistan.

In effect, both sides were content with the slack arrangement around the LAC that India ingenuously believed would one day be delineated.

But, once again under China’s calculated manoeuvring, at a time when the world remains preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, all that slowly changed May onwards. Over four months later, a ‘new normal’ has emerged in its place for India along the LAC, one that will be hugely manpower intensive and costly for an interminable period.

“China is continually engaging India in an endless round of discursive discussions at the political and military levels, but with no serious intent to either disengage or withdraw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and restore the status quo ante along the LAC that prevailed in April,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired).

Indian army trucks depart towards Ladakh amid standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh, at Manali-Leh highway in Kullu district. Photo: PTI

Winter is coming

It’s merely waiting for the onset of winter, around mid-October, to further ‘degrade’ India’s depressed economy already battling recession, but without relinquishing the territory it occupies at present, he added.

General Singh and other army personnel who have served along the LAC in Ladakh estimate that conservatively, it would cost India around Rs 100 crore per day or Rs 36,500 crore annually to sustain a 25,000-30,000 strong force along a 250-300 kilometre (km) frontage to prevent the PLA from seizing more territory than it has already.

This would include a near-permanent deployment during the six winter months till April that are the severest for the troops, and the dearest to financially undertake.

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Some analysts, however, believe that a portion of this large sum could be ‘fixed costs’ of pay and allowances and the overall daily amount to sustain the army, somewhat less. But all such evaluations are a work in progress at present and difficult to accurately enumerate, except to state that these would be ‘awesome’.

The cost of erecting habitations to accommodate troops at forbidding heights of 13,000 feet and above in harsh temperatures, averaging minus 20 degrees celsius and an even greater wind chill factor, too, would be additional and enormous.

As would be that to establish heated garages to house vehicles and armaments like main battle tanks, howitzers missile batteries and ammunition, alongside assorted other infrastructure needed to operationalise such a large force.

In the closest such comparison, the daily cost of maintaining a large brigade of some 5,000 personnel along the 76 km-long 17,700 feet high Siachen Glacier that India captured in 1984, is at present around Rs 6 crore a day or around Rs 2,190 crore per year.

File photo of Indian soldiers in Siachen. Photo: India Army via Business Standard

But this is the amount it costs to sustain the Glaciers 102 Independent Infantry Brigade, 36 years after the army has adequately developed the area, rendering it more habitable.

In the process, the cost in soldiers’ lives at Siachen has been unduly heavy.

In July 2018, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) informed parliament that 869 soldiers, including 33 officers, had died in Siachen since 1984 as a consequence of harsh environmental conditions. It further stated that the ministry had spent Rs 7,500 crore to import clothing and mountaineering equipment for soldiers deployed on the Glacier.

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Extrapolating this financial yardstick onto the upcoming LAC deployment connotes expending not only massive amounts in making the inhospitable region habitable and stocking it with industrial quantities of rations and fuel for the six winter months, but also equipping over 25,000 troops with Arctic clothing and equipment.

All of this is currently under ‘fast track’ procurement from Europe at high cost, as the deadline for winter is rapidly approaching.

Additionally, the army will need to instantly import hardware like advanced radars to monitor PLA activity, unmanned aerial vehicles possibly armed and a host of related surveillance equipment via the special financial powers delegated to the three service vice-chiefs of staff.

This authorises the vice-chiefs to undertake capital acquisitions worth Rs 300 crore, and stores and ordnance worth Rs 500 crore, at one time, without laborious MoD clearances. The army is also seriously considering acquiring light tanks, thereby incurring another huge expense.

Could derail plans to downsize numbers

Meanwhile, a senior army official told The Wire that the additional LAC deployment would also ‘seriously derail’ the forces’ plans to downsize numbers and kick-start its long-deferred modernisation, as all its financial resources would thus be ‘soaked up’ by the Chinese threat.

Last September, the former Army Chief General Bipin Rawat now the Chief of Defence Staff or CDS had in an interview remonstrated against having a “Line of Control (LoC) mindset at the LAC”.

He was referring to the 747 km-long ‘and hot’ LoC with Pakistan, manned by thousands of troops from either side, who almost daily exchange mortar and small arms fire.

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General Rawat had also stated that the army’s focus would be to create ‘reserves in depth’ to defend more vulnerable areas, and to deploy better surveillance systems that were not. He had in no way anticipated what lay in store for India along the LAC a few months later.

All General Rawat’s assessments regarding the LAC and his declared intent of reducing troop numbers by at least 100,000 to effect savings, now appear to be an apparition.

Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat. Photo: PTI

Creating troop reserves too seems chimerical, as most of these had over the past three months been rushed to Ladakh to bolster the Leh-based XIV Corps. Army formations from across India were also widely deployed along the remaining 2,500-odd km of the equally vulnerable LAC in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and also in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, leaving no reserves.

The Mountain Strike Corps

Senior officers, meanwhile, said that it is also possible that the army will fast-track the raising of the 90,270-strong 17 Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) for deployment along the LAC that was abandoned three years ago due to a resource crunch.

Approved by the MoD in July 2013, for an estimated Rs 60,000 crore, the MSC comprising two high altitude infantry divisions of around 30,000-40,000 personnel, including Special Forces had been scheduled for completion by 2021 with its headquarters at Panagarh in West Bengal.

These forces would have been further supplemented by one artillery division, equipped with the under acquisition BAE Systems M777 155mm/39 calibre lightweight howitzers, two independent armoured brigades, assorted helicopter units and corresponding engineering and ancillary support.

In all, the Corps was to have created some 250 headquarters stretching across the 3,488 km long LAC stretching from Arunachal Pradesh to Pathankot in the northwest, and beyond.

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Army sources said some 90 of these headquarters had been raised since 2014-15, but only by diverting personnel from existing formations and materiel from the army’s already depleted war wastage reserves (WWR).

This latter move was severely criticised by the parliamentary defence committee in early 2016, which had observed that the existing WWR levels were inadequate to cater to existing stipulated requirements, leave alone provision a whole new formation. “Milking existing resources, which, in some cases, are not fully up to the authorisation (levels), is suicidal” the report had warned.

Equipping the proposed MSC would, once again, entail additional funds, further depleting Indian resources.

In March 2018, for instance, the army had tellingly informed parliament’s defence committee that the marginal increase in its budget for financial year 2018-19 was barely enough to cater to the rise in expenses on account of inflation. It did not even cater for taxes, the army complained.

In conclusion, it appears that Beijing is adroitly pursuing Chinese military strategist Sun Tsu’s oft quoted axiom: to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.