Chandigarh: The Indian Army’s (IA’s) deployment and high state of operational alert along the disputed line of actual control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh is likely to become permanent for the foreseeable future to foreclose any further military adventurism by China.
And though public and media discourse over the military impasse in Ladakh has somewhat abated domestically in recent weeks, overtaken by the deadly second COVID-19 wave ravaging the country, the continuing threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army or PLA remains ominously palpable along India’s northern Himalayan borders.
The IA chief of staff General M.M. Navarane reiterated this recently when he told varied media outlets on May 19 that the PLA was refusing to disengage from Gogra, Hot Springs and Demchok, areas it had occupied over a year ago, following routine military exercises on the adjoining Tibetan plateau.
General Navarane paradoxically stated that 50,000-60,000 IA troops continue to be stationed along the LAC, even though ‘trust’ between the two rivals was ‘building’. However, the PLA, the army chief said, continued to block Indian patrols in the strategically located Depsang Plains in northwest Ladakh, in addition to rapidly upgrading their overall military infrastructure along the LAC including roads, troop billets, helipads and surface-to-air (SAM) missile bases in ‘depth areas’. He likewise confirmed that India too was not lagging behind the Chinese military in this regard, indirectly indicating the inevitability of the IA’s deployment in the region being long-drawn-out.
Several serving and retired IA officers too told The Wire that the army’s year-long deployment at heights of over 12,000 feet across the LAC in Ladakh would persevere for long, as there was no indication whatsoever of any PLA pullback or de-escalation from several critical areas it had forcibly ingressed.
“For all practical purposes the LAC has been converted into the line of control or LOC with Pakistan, but without the customary exchange of artillery, mortar and small arms fire, at least for now,” said military analyst Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the New Delhi-based Security Risks Group. This enduring placement of men and material in this region is, at the very least, going to be economically challenging, he declared, adding that above all the government needed to fast-track political and diplomatic efforts to defuse this seemingly intractable situation with Beijing.
The only pullback by both armies, so far, took place in late February from the southern and northern banks of the Pangong Tso Lake, where troops were arrayed cheek-by-jowl for over eight months in a militarily incendiary situation across a 20-25 km stretch on the eastern side of the LAC. This extraction followed the 10th round of bilateral army commander talks, following which there has been no such further interaction, and neither is one imminently anticipated.
Major General A.P. Singh, who was chief of operational logistics in Ladakh till 2013, too does not anticipate any further Chinese withdrawal, as indicated by the PLA currently conducting its annual summer exercises, paralleling last years’ manoeuvres, in exactly the same region abutting the LAC. Therefore, he believes that this leaves the IA no option but to deploy permanently to the area, but much closer to the LAC, to obviate further Chinese mischief, for which additional infrastructure would need to be built, at great expense. However, he cautioned that for several years to come, these deployments would be mirrored in an almost eyeball-to-eyeball configuration by both sides, begetting additional operational hazards and to an extent paralleling the IA’s positioning on the LoC.
Furthermore, other veterans said that the IA would need to keep additional troops in reserve in the area to deal swiftly with any ‘adverse eventuality’ by the Chinese along the 800 km-odd long LAC in Ladakh. Accordingly, the IA was re-orienting two infantry divisions of 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) – into a Mountain Strike Corps or MSC. “The dismantling in 2018 of the designated MSC and the hurried conversion of 1 Corps to a MSC indicates an inefficient approach to capacity building” admitted General Singh.
The two-star officer was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration scrapping plans three years ago to raise the new 90,270-strong 17 MSC for deployment against China, headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal. Approved by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2013 for Rs 600 billion, the proposed MSC was to comprise two high-altitude infantry divisions of about 30,000-40,000 personnel, including special forces, supplemented by one artillery division, two independent armoured brigades, assorted helicopter units and corresponding engineering and ancillary support.
In total the MSC would have necessitated some 250 unit and formation headquarters stretching along the LAC, but the project was called off in July 2018 after some 90 of these were set up by diverting personnel from existing formations and materiel from the army’s already depleted war wastage reserves (WWR).This was prompted largely by the BJP governments confidence in burgeoning political, diplomatic and economic Sino-Indian ties, following some 18 meetings between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping. Official sources said these bilateral interactions made India chary of appearing militarily belligerent towards Beijing and challenging the PLA by raising the MSC resulting in its abandonment. The IA meekly acquiesced, lulled into a false sense of security by the government, concentrating instead its bellicosity towards Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the avoidable face-off in Ladakh, has morphed into yet another of the country’s operationally active territorial irritations, which have periodically- and inevitably- been outsourced to the military, despite their obvious limitations in resolving such crises. It’s also ironic that 74 years after independence, over a third of India’s 15,200km long land borders remain unresolved. And rather than conclusively firm up its frontiers, like all other countries, despite the myriad complexities involved, successive Indian governments had proven inept at dealing with its two irridentist neighbours to achieve this goal.
This in turn had catapulted India into becoming the world’s third largest military spender in 2020, after the US and China. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, the US had spent $778 billion on defence in 2020, China $252 billion and India $72.9 billion, even during a year wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic and when the global gross domestic product (GDP) of all countries had appreciably declined. India’s economy too was no exception, and presently the ongoing second virus wave augurs an even greater financial downturn at a time when the military threat from China tangibly persisted.
India’s unsettled borders, comprise the 3,488 km long LAC with China, the 747 km-long LoC with Pakistan alongside the 76 km long Siachen Glacier/Saltoro Range territory. Other than the massive financial burden, militarily manning all these putative frontiers over decades had also posed a colossal human and logistic burden on the country. Besides, India’s territorial disputes with both its militarily collaborative neighbours were also amongst the world’s longest running, and further rendered chillingly threatening as the nuclear arsenals of China and Pakistan were controlled by their respective militaries.
Till May 2020, when the PLA breached the LAC at eight spots in Ladakh, the unmarked frontier between the neighbours was peaceably patrolled by their two armies in accordance with five mutually agreed, but Beijing-driven protocols, albeit with no tangible indicators for a final settlement.
These complex procedures were agreed 1993 onwards by the two sides to maintain Peace and Tranquility along the LAC and prevailed till last year’s incursions that miraculously and inexplicably evaded India’s three-tier surveillance grid. This comprised joint ground patrols by the IA and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and concomitant monitoring by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellites. Over a year later there has been no explanation for this monumental lapse from either the military, or the equally financially flush security establishment and it’s highly unlikely that there ever will be.
However, these periodically upgraded arrangements agreed upon by Delhi and Beijing suited both sides. India prudently accepted them, as both in manpower and financial resources, it could ill afford to oversee the LAC, like it actively did the LoC with a weaker and indigent Pakistan.
China, for its part, looked upon these Border Defence Cooperation Agreements or BDCAs as an opportunity to gain time to peaceably grow its economy. But adroitly, Beijing kept the LAC issue suitably nebulous, via numerous stratagems India did little to oppose, with the devious objective of providing China eventual leverage in manipulating the boundary issue to its advantage.
Beijing’s carpe diem moment came after the first round of the coronavirus pandemic erupted in India in January 2020 that not only its government, but also its military which displayed laxity and inattentiveness, not only in detecting the PLAs ingress, but also in timely deploying to the invaded areas. Within weeks thereafter, the PLA’s territory-grab led to the first clash between the two armies in 45 years in June 2020, in which 20 IA soldiers, including a colonel-level officer, died. It was only eight months later in February 2021 that Beijing’s state-owned media disclosed that four PLA soldiers too were killed in the skirmish, that involved hand-to-hand combat and the employment, by Chinese soldiers, of bespoke clubs studded with nails.
India’s troop and equipment build-up followed, as did hurried- and costly- construction of infrastructure to house it and the hugely expensive import of Arctic tents and winter clothing for the impending winter when temperatures average around minus 25 degrees Celsius, dropping even to minus 35 degrees Celsius and a windchill factor of even greater intensity. Official sources said the MoD had spent an ‘unbudgeted’ Rs 208 billion in Financial Year 2020-21 to procure ammunition, missiles, stores and varied ordnance to meet the Chinese ingress, further burdening the country’s depreciating kitty.
Analysts and diplomats, however, concede that though the army’s swift deployment did deter the Chinese, it also delivered a ‘body blow’ to India’s complacent and unimaginative military planning doctrinally, logistically, and above all financially, especially in dire economic times. But serendipitously and with Karmic-like resignation, military and security planners are presently monitoring the LAC calamity, which, even if it were to magically evaporate, would still necessitate permanently manning the LAC, leaving nothing to trust.