In 2021, India's Military Faces Myriad Challenges

While the standoff with China will dominate the operational agenda for all three services in 2021, they will also have to cope with equipment and resource shortages.

New Delhi: The operational prognosis for India’s military in the New Year is, to put it mildly, perilous.

It faces enhanced and relentless deployment along its unresolved and restive frontiers against belligerent nuclear and military allies, China and Pakistan and will continue to be hobbled by enduring critical equipment, ammunition and ordnance shortages. It also has to battle a declining defence budget and reorient its outdated doctrinal and warfighting strategies to meet 21st century challenges.

Indisputably, the continuing military standoff with China along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, will dominate the gruelling operational agenda for all three services in 2021, especially that of the Indian Army (IA).

Presently, over 40,000 IA personnel and varied platforms including main battle tanks, howitzers, missile batteries, amongst other force multipliers, are deployed in a heightened state of alert along the LAC’s freezing desert frontage over a 350-400 km frontage, at heights above 14,000 feet. Their burdensome task in the rarefied environment is to thwart further ingress by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into territory claimed by India as its own, in temperatures that currently average minus 40 degrees Celsius.

To make matters worse, indicators denote that this formidable and skulking threat is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Senior military planners concede that hereafter, the IA’s heightened LAC deployment will duplicate its perennial, enervating and financially draining employment along the Line of Control (LoC) against Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and across the 76 km long 17,700 feet high Siachen Glacier.

And though the LAC deployment is likely to exclude the frequent artillery, mortar and small arms firefights that define the LoC engagement, it is challengingly offset by its vast expanse, comparative lack of infrastructure for troops and above all, unfamiliarity with the lesser-known and better-accoutred enemy.

“The IA will have to remain in a state of constant operational readiness on the LAC in Ladakh for an extended period to counter the PLA’s unrelenting aggressive posture,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). Under the circumstances, the IA’s deployment here is almost certain to become permanent in order to prevent a duplicitous China from seizing additional territory, added the two-star officer who was earlier posted in Ladakh.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh hinted as much in a recent interview to ANI in which he declared that no “meaningful solution” had emerged from diplomatic and military level talks with China to resolve the LAC impasse. He stated that a “status quo” of mutual army deployments had emerged at the LAC May onwards, a euphemism for the ‘new normal’ along the inhospitable frontier in 2021 and beyond.

Army trucks move towards the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Photo: PTI

Senior IA officers too remain sceptical over anything positive emerging from talks with the PLA, through which India is futilely seeking to restore the ‘status quo ante’ that prevailed along the LAC before its siege commenced in April 2020. “The eight previous rounds of military talks between India and China have merely been talks about talks with little or nothing emerging from them,” said a one-star IA officer, declining to be identified.

India, he cautioned, cannot harbour illusions regarding an unconditional PLA pullback from the LAC, as that would be a major loss of face for Beijing, and one which it simply cannot countenance because of its own internal dynamics. Hence, the overstretched, inadequately-equipped and underfunded IA faces formidable resource and manpower challenges, ensuring a demanding year ahead. Other veterans said that the PLAs incursions will also enduringly ‘tie down’ the IA on the LAC, leaving it inadequate reserves to counter challenges elsewhere. The IA’s force levels, they warned, will need to be seriously re-evaluated and revamped over the coming months.

At present, the IA is re-orienting its Mathura-based 1 strike corps – one of three such ‘sword arm’ formations, with the other two headquartered at Ambala (2 Corps) and Bhopal (21 Corps) – to convert it into a mountain strike corps to counter the PLA along the 800 km long LAC in Ladakh. According to newly formulated plans, two of its infantry divisions are to be trained in mountain warfare before being gradually deployed to Ladakh in summer.

For several decades, a resource-strapped and diffident India has pursued the path of least resistance against China, sheltering behind multiple bilateral border treaties and confidence building measures to somehow secure peace with its more powerful neighbour. China, for its part, already embarked by the early 1990s on its path to global economic dominance, patronised India by lulling it into a false sense of security through these pacts which, in hindsight were little better than delaying tactical stratagems by Beijing.

Successive governments in Delhi remained in denial over possible military adventurism by China, driven in fact by the reality that India simply could not afford significant force deployment along the LAC other than the Leh-based 14 Corps. This situation persisted despite repeated PLA infiltrations of varying periods across the LAC in Chumar, Depsang in 2013 and 2014, and thereafter in Doklam in 2017. And though this lacuna is now being redressed after the PLA presented its fait accompli over nine months ago in Ladakh, analysts said that the IA continues to concentrate the bulk of its forces against Pakistan. Twenty two of its 38 divisions are earmarked for Pakistan, whilst 14 divisions are ranged against China, the obviously more formidable of India’s two adversaries. The remaining two divisions are, for now, earmarked as Army Headquarter reserves.

Also Read: India’s 2021-22 Defence Budget Needs Honest Financial Reckoning, Not Empty Rhetoric

Air Force and Navy also stretched

Conversely, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) capacities too, like those of the IA, continue to be stretched as its transport and heavy-lift helicopter fleets endeavour to keeps the army’s logistics chain in Ladakh operational by ferrying personnel, equipment and assorted supplies to the LAC and its environs. Simultaneously, its depleted fighter squadrons, marginally boosted by the induction of eight French Rafale multi-role combat platforms, will also need to continue conducting combat patrols over Ladakh in 2021 to counter the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) threatening drills over the Tibetan plateau.

a Rafale combat aircraft at the Air Force Station in Ambala on July 29, 2020. Photo: IAF via PTI

Likewise, the Indian Navy (IN) will need to sustain its state of perpetual alert that it has maintained in the Indian Ocean Region and surrounding waters over the past few months, in an effort to ‘coerce’  Beijing into vacating occupied territory and pulling back from the LAC. It recently concluded the  Malabar exercises with the Australian, Japanese and US navies amongst assorted manoeuvres with other countries to try and forge an incipient anti-China coalition and leverage its maritime muscle against the PLA Navy. But like the IAF and the IA, the IN will need to reinvigorate its efforts in the New Year to sustain its operational momentum, despite the twin handicaps of equipment and resource shortages.

Meanwhile, the military impasse with the PLA has rendered palpable the advent of the terrifying collusive two-front threat from strategic allies China and Pakistan. Such an alarming scenario that successive Indian service chiefs have periodically, but perfunctorily enunciated, appears to be emerging. In recent months, senior retired military personnel and analysts warned the services and the federal government to abandon its earlier casual theorising regarding such a possibility and to begin seriously planning for a two-front conflict with its nuclear-armed neighbours.

And though the contours of such an engagement are unknown and speculatory, in all probability even to India’s antagonists, it presents Delhi an ominous Hobson’s choice; treating lightly such a forbidding possibility would be foolhardy, but preparing for it would be equally overwhelming, entailing, at the very least, colossal expenditures which India can ill afford.

Also Read: India Is Still Throwing Good Money at Hopeless Military Programmes

Senior military analysts have called upon India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat to oversee the development of operational capabilities to deal with such an apocalyptic challenge by revamping outdated strategies and doctrines. They have stressed the long overdue requirement for all three services-particularly the IA-to abandon WW II concepts of attrition and manoeuvre warfare, familiar to generations of commanders and ones they feel ‘comfortable’ planning for and executing like in the 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars with Pakistan.

Instead, they recommend that India concentrate on 21st century ‘informationalised’ instrumentalities that China has been pursuing over nearly three decades for conflict execution and which are on display in Ladakh. In short, Beijing has presented India with a complex and lethal Chinese Puzzle which is going to be tough to resolve in 2021 and for years afterwards.

Military analyst Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda (retired) and strategic affairs expert Happymon Jacob from Jawaharlal Nehru University criticised the country’s military for focusing unduly on major platforms like aircraft, ships and tanks and not enough on future technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber and electronic warfare. In their jointly authored analysis in The Hindu in late December, the two bluntly stated that it would indeed be ‘prudent’ for India to prepare for a two-front threat.

“In preparing for this, the Indian military needs to analyse how this threat could manifest itself and the type of capabilities that should be built up to counter it,” they suggested. They also warned that a two-front conflict presented India’s military with two dilemmas – of resources and strategy and of deploying both shrewdly and judiciously along putative primary and secondary fronts.

An Indian Border Security Force soldier patrols the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, located southwest of Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. A BSF soldier patrols the fenced border with Pakistan in Suchetgarh, Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

Budget woes

However, the biggest challenge India’s military faces is monetary in times of acute indigence and a shrunken economy, hammered further by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Even in fiscal year 2020-21, when the economy faced none of the prevailing daunting challenges, the Centre was unable to meet the military’s monetary demands, leaving a gap of Rs 1,03,535 crore between their requirements and the eventual budgetary allocation.

Already the services have made purchases worth around $2 billion after the Chinese threat emerged under the emergency financial powers accorded to the services. This, in turn, had adversely impacted the perennial shortage of funds for modernisation and other operational expenditure which had soared to keep the LAC manned by over 40,000 troops in extreme climatic conditions.

Without doubt, the military’s monetary requirements will be substantially higher in the coming fiscal, adding to the government’s woes in the forthcoming financial year.