India did not modify its strategy to make optimum use of limited capacity and virtually courted defeat in 1962.
India lacked a clear security strategy in 1962, and continues to suffer from the same problem till date.
In 1992, George Tanham of the Rand Corporation had famously written that historically India lacked strategic culture. Our political governments have never evolved a formal national security strategy nor given any strategic directions to the armed forces spelling out the political aims for external or internal conflict.
The start point of a security strategy is the political aim and the end-state the nation is seeking and matching it with its own and the adversary’s military capacity. If there is a mismatch, then diplomacy has to be resorted to until the required capacity is built. If a war is forced upon in an asymmetrical situation, in the short term, the political aim has to be modified to make optimum use of the military capacity.
From 1947-1962, our long-term political aim was clear – flag and secure our Himalayan frontiers. However, we failed to create the border infrastructure and the military capacity to achieve the same. We failed to correctly assess China’s strategic intent and its military capacity. And when faced with an asymmetrical war, we did not modify our strategy to make optimum use of our limited capacity and virtually courted a defeat.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategy for this period was pragmatic – rely upon diplomacy, flag and secure our frontiers using police and paramilitary forces, create the border infrastructure and the requisite military capacity. This strategy was remarkably successful as highlighted in my earlier column. Despite the likelihood of a new front opening up, the military capacity was not increased. Modernisation plans had barely begun and the border infrastructure remained inadequate.
After the border clashes in 1959, the revolt in Tibet and the grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama, the probability of a military conflict had increased manifold. The correct strategy would have been to rely on diplomacy and negotiations, maintain status quo, build up the border infrastructure and create the military capacity for an eventual conflict. However, we doggedly continued with the existing strategy albeit more aggressively.
Facing mounting political and public criticism, Prime Minister Nehru made the Army responsible for the border and the strategy adopted was known as the “forward policy”, which actually became forward movement of the troops. It entailed continuous establishment of military posts to secure our territory even if this led to confrontation with the PLA, which was engaged in a similar exercise. The erroneous premise was that war was unlikely and in the worst case, low-end border clashes could take place.
We continued to inch forward, establishing more and more posts particularly in the Aksai Chin area. In the northeast, we aggressively contested the Chinese perception of the McMahon Line in the areas of Thagla Ridge and Kibithu. In Aksai Chin, we established posts directly opposite the Chinese posts and at times to their flanks and rear to cut off supply routes. Chinese restraint was interpreted as weakness and tactical withdrawal by the PLA in Chip Chap and Galwan rivers’ areas was interpreted as a strategic success, making us more aggressive.
In hindsight, the situation was comical. An ill-equipped military, led by acquiescing and politicised Generals and without the requisite logistical infrastructure, was being prodded forward to call the Chinese “bluff” by quixotic politicians. It is difficult to find any parallel in military history.
October 1962-November 1962
After the Galwan river and Dhola incidents, the PLA mobilised and prepared for a proactive war. I cannot accept that the government was unaware of the Chinese preparations. We had been flying Canberra photo reconnaissance missions with impunity over Tibet. Chinese preparations were hard to miss. More so because the troops on the ground could see the PLA taking up battle positions. In my view, we just wished away the threat.
A logical strategy should have been to stalemate the PLA offensive with minimum loss of territory to create conditions for negotiations. This entailed intensive use of air power to interfere with the build-up and fighting from dominating terrain along the Pangong range and the Ladakh range, in Ladakh, and Tawang-Sela-Bomdila-Walong areas in the northeast. All forces deployed on the indefensible terrain as part of the “forward policy” would be withdrawn after delay. The enemy would be further delayed and harassed along the axis to the main defences and along the infiltration routes by covering forces and air power. The intent being to force the culmination of the offensive at the main defences by end-November when winter sets in and military operations become extremely difficult if not impossible. PLA’s axis of maintenance would be cut off due to snow-blocked passes. The fate of the PLA would have been what ours turned out to be. This strategy required the political leadership to give up the flights of fantasy and needed a military leadership that remained steadfast in dominating defences.
Also read: How India asked for trouble in 1962
What happened in reality was exactly opposite. The “forward policy” forces “defending every inch” from the indefensible positions were isolated and routed in six days from 20 October to 25 October. This defeat had a catastrophic effect on the military morale that later led to abandonment of the main defences. Luckily, due to the time required for build up by the PLA, we got one month to prepare our main defences. However, no attempt was made to systematically delay the enemy along the main axis or the infiltration routes. IAF was kept out of the battle due to the imagined fears of a “superior” PLA Air Force.
Last but not the least, from 15 November to 20 November, the military leadership lost its nerve and shamefully abandoned its impregnable main defences at Sela-Bomdila. The only worthwhile battle was fought at Walong. Chushul, with a captive air field, was abandoned after only two companies out of 12 were lost and that too after the Chinese had announced a unilateral withdrawal.
Also read: Not China, 1962 war called India’s bluff
In my view, despite a flawed strategy, with the winter setting in, we could have still stalemated and forced a withdrawal by the Chinese had the military not psychologically collapsed to abandon its main defences.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.