By its ill-considered announcement that ‘rules of engagement’ have been changed for the Indian Army after 20 of its soldiers were killed in action, the Narendra Modi government has altered to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) advantage the ‘no use of weapons’ system of managing encounters along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has been in place for 27 years .
While not officially clarified, the new rules mean that Indian soldiers would be armed with orders to fire – in self-defence, of course – when face-to-face with the PLA. However, the government has not realised that escalation, once initiated, is controlled by the militarily stronger side, in this case the PLA.
Within hours of the announcement, the PLA, as a defensive counter measure, reportedly moved additional forces including tanks and artillery forward to the LAC. Not stopping at that, it also immediately laid claim to the entire Galwan valley and made a deep, brazen ingress into the Depsang plains. China’s official mouthpiece Global Times warned India on the consequences of firing the first shot. Meanwhile, China’s envoy in India, Sun Weidong, put the onus on New Delhi to ease tensions and not complicate the situation.
New rules can have unintended consequences
The ‘rules of engagement’ statement was largely meant to assuage a dejected domestic audience who felt short-changed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stunning declaration of June 19, in which he asserted that “Nobody has intruded into our border, neither is anybody there now, nor have our posts been captured.” While subsequently the government insisted that the statement did not mean that India had silently accepted PLA’s grab of its territory, it was difficult to shake off this perception. Consequently, in a bid to show that it retains the initiative, the new ‘rules of engagement’ were announced. This has led to two unintended consequences.
One, it has exposed the Modi government’s tendency of passing off perception as reality. This is the game it had successfully played with Pakistan in the 2016 surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot attacks. But the PLA is not the Pakistan military, and China is not Pakistan; especially when the war preparedness of both sides is not hidden. Barely had India shown its bravado came the news that defence minister Rajnath Singh was in Moscow seeking fast-tracking of spares for tanks, aircraft, guns and platforms in the pipeline for delivery to the Indian armed forces. Without war materiel, realistic combat training in intended war theatre is not possible. The army also lacks the habitat and ecosystem for operational logistics for large additional numbers at altitudes of over 10,000 feet.
The PLA has all that the Indian army lacks. And more. It has been doing combat training since early 2018, including firing, both for recalibration of its long-range weapons including anti-tank missiles for high altitude warfare, and combined arms training to include employment of non-kinetic electronic warfare and management of the electromagnetic spectrum. After the 2017 Doklam crisis, the PLA has amassed nearly 200,000 combatants in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) facing India at 16,000 feet, complete with habitat and storage of war materiel.
Two, there is a tacit admission that LAC management in the form of appeasement, which worked thus far, has been rendered irrelevant owing to the increased PLA threat. Since India has no idea of how to deal with an escalation, the field is now wide open for more PLA incursions easily blameable on India. Worse, a continued impasse, which looks likely, would work to China’s military and strategic advantage.
Repercussions of an undrawn LAC
In my 2000 book, The Defence Makeover: Ten Myths That Shape India’s Image, I had argued that given the PLA’s improved border management at the time, the signing of the 1993 agreement on peace and tranquillity with China – where the border was renamed the LAC (military line), without agreed mutual and equal security – was a blunder. Analysts, however, said that the LAC, while not agreed on maps and on the ground, had helped ensure peace, since no shots had been fired. What was collectively underplayed was the appeasement of China this involved. India consistently maintained that owing to ‘differing perceptions’, the reported LAC transgressions were by both sides. This was a lie.
In its first ever admission, the external affairs ministry on June 11 said that the LAC was well known on the ground by both sides. The Indian Army, it asserted, does not cross the LAC. Left unsaid was that all agreements with China, namely, in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013, gave more to China than what India got in return. Thus, the volatile border was managed by a dual approach. The army, by downgrading its role from border guarding to border policing, joined the paramilitary ITBP in preventing the PLA border guards from entering the Indian side of the LAC. Heavy manpower, including elements of the army’s 17 mountain strike corps, have been employed for this task which amounts to the psychological defeat of the soldier trained to kill.
Ironically, despite the downgrading of the army’s role on the ground, the army leadership continued to dabble in the fantasy of fighting a two-front war. Meanwhile, the diplomats operated in their silo, working out appeasement agreements, euphemistically called a ‘modus vivendi’, with China each time the PLA sauntered across the LAC.
This dichotomous arrangement was bound to end once, post-Doklam, the PLA made the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) its operational base with 200,000 combatants. However, the army leadership, fixated on Pakistan, and the diplomats in their bubble, did not see the Ladakh crisis coming. Since China appears to have made its November 7, 1959 claim line in Ladakh the new LAC by sheer brute force, the 1993 LAC has been consigned to history. And along with it, all the subsequent agreements made for peace.
What makes the present situation even more dangerous is the fact that the Indian military leaders don’t know the war that the PLA, if needed, would fight. The materiel that Rajnath Singh sought from Russia is meant to cater only for PLA’s military coercion as the consequence of its excellent border management. With the changed rules of engagement, and the possibility of an escalation becoming real, the PLA would not fight to the Indian military’s supposed strength of attrition land war. Such a war, fought in 1962, has long been superseded by a change in the character of war owing to the induction of new technologies and concept of operations.
Reckoning with a virtual war
The PLA would start the war in the virtual and not physical domain, which would affect not a defined battlefield or battlespace, but the whole nation. The war fought in the electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS) can destroy, disrupt or disable communication from the Prime Minister’s Office to the frontline soldiers without firing a single shot. Without communication, there would be little command and control. The reality is that the side which cannot win the war in the EMS cannot win the overall war.
Most devices that constitute modern information and communication technologies send and receive information encoded in electromagnetic (EM) radiation. EM radiation is a form of energy, like heat and sound, and radiation of different wavelengths (or frequencies) occupy a continuous spectrum called the EM spectrum, or EMS. Parts of the spectrum that human technologies have found useful – whether to measure or manipulate – include radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays and gamma rays. These are types of EM radiation that differ only in their wavelengths. For example, radio waves have a longer wavelength while gamma rays have a shorter wavelength, and this feature determines their applications.
Satellite-based receivers and transmitters also predominantly use EM radiation to communicate. But unlike ground-based assets, the wavelengths of radiation that assets in space can ‘talk’ or ‘hear’ can’t be changed after launch, rendering them more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Once malicious instructions are encoded into the EM radiation, perhaps after evading safeguards like encryption, space-based assets could even be damaged or left inoperative.
There are two ways by which EMS could be disrupted or destroyed: By cyber malware assaults and electronic warfare (EW). Focus on cyber operations does not imply that the traditional method (before the internet) of attacking and denying EMS to an adversary by EW are downgraded. EW is the ability to use EMS — signals such as radio, infrared or radar — to protect, sense and communicate. At the same time, it can be used to deny adversaries the ability to disrupt or use these signals. It can also be involved in listening and collecting an enemy’s radio signals or sensing hostile incoming missiles. It is no secret that the PLA has formidable EW capabilities including cognitive EW, aided by machine learning.
Moreover, whatever would be left of the Indian use of EMS could be destroyed by PLA’s formidable inventory of missiles under its Rocket Force. The missiles would hit communication nodes and formation headquarters. The above in a nutshell is the first phase of war that the PLA would fight, since the military objective would be capitulation of the enemy’s political and military will. Capture of territory would not be needed in the present PLA campaign.
China’s end game
Coming back to the present impasse, China’s increased aggression in Ladakh on the pretext of defending itself against India’s new ‘rules of engagement’ will further strengthen its position when Xi Jinping meets Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November. There may even be a trilateral RIC summit later this year.
Since China negotiates from a position of strength, its altering of the status quo on the ground in Ladakh was both an end in itself and the means to get Modi to favourably consider its two major demands: restoration of the status quo ante in Ladakh; and neutrality in engaging with China and the United States when the two lock horns in the geopolitical struggle of this century.
Pravin Sawhney is the editor of FORCE newsmagazine.