A strong response from the Indian Army to the Chinese push at the Line of Actual Control on 15 June and the subsequent caution by Prime Minister Narendra Modi against expansionism set the ball rolling for China to ease back. The Indian response has toppled China’s carefully nurtured image of ‘invincibility’, which has prevented the northern neighbour from admitting to the number of soldiers killed in the clash at Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
But the dangers to India’s peace and stability from China’s onslaught is far from over.
The Chinese are now expected to dig-in just 1,500 metres away, at the edge of the agreed 3-km temporary buffer zone. While they do so, their artillery and tanks would remain far away but they can be brought to the front when required. This situation is identical to what they did in July 1962 after a clash at Galwan. They returned three months later with a massive force and over-ran the Indian defences.
New Delhi must make the stakes high for the Chinese to take any military action against India and renege on signed agreements. China, on its ascendency to superpower status, is not expected to back down, because doing so will mean loss of face.
It is clear that China’s decision to militarily occupy Galwan Valley and other areas of Ladakh was not taken in a spur of the moment, but was planned and had authorisation from the highest levels of the Xi Jinping government. China had huge forces standing by some distances away and had created logistical support and medical infrastructure in preparation. We must plan carefully to firmly resist and fight China.
India has the ability to counter China
In the current standoff in Ladakh, the Chinese have been calling the shots so far and intimidating India at their whim.
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After the recent talks between National security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, no common statement was released. While India desired earliest complete disengagement, China emphasised its liberty to defend ‘their territory’ that now includes Galwan. No timeline is specified, but the initiative rests with them. On a wide front, stretching some 2,000 km, Chinese forces can launch multiple operations against India.
The size of India’s military is not comparable to that of China but we certainly have the ability to counter all the forces that China can throw into Ladakh.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has modernised in a big way. But they have not yet been exposed to any significant operations. In comparison, the firepower that the Indian Air Force (IAF) can bring far exceeds the parity level that we had against the Chinese in 1962. Today, our three services — Army, Navy and Air Force — are well integrated from day one in developing operational plans. Incidentally, the three service chiefs are course-mates from the National Defence Academy (NDA), that promotes cohesion.
Despite possible distractions posed by the coronavirus crisis and economic slowdown, India’s intelligence assets are good and would certainly be monitoring the Chinese activities at LAC and beyond. Even if the US, Europe and others wish to support India, it may take months or years to form a concrete action plan.
A challenging zone
One can imagine Ladakh as a ‘box’ filled with mountainous deserts, glaciers and fast-flowing seasonal rivers. It cannot accommodate large militaries, and throws serious challenges for the movement of large ground forces.
In the Ladakh ‘box’, the weather can become unpredictable, high altitudes make the planes sluggish, communication gets affected, good airfield support is far, serious limitations are imposed in manoeuvring, weapon accuracy suffers and coping with emergencies on-board becomes a challenge. The stress levels of the aircrew could go very high.
To operate in this environment at night is even more challenging. The IAF should be knowing the capabilities of all the machines that the PLA Air Force can deploy in the ‘box’. These machines are within the capabilities of our Air Force to counter. India can conduct an effective joint air/ground operation within this ‘box’ — and can also launch a strong offensive action far beyond the ‘box’.
Like Ladakh, there are other areas along the LAC that can be described as ‘boxes’. And each ‘box’ has its own peculiarities and rulebook.
Steps India must take
China is never in a hurry; its strategy is to tire out the adversary with prolonged negotiations in bits and pieces and at different levels, all intended to take away the heat and focus from the given situation. India must remember that the 1962 war happened nearly 60 years ago, but important issues still remain unsettled. Our borders are still to be demarcated.
Since the Chinese threat is unlikely to go away anytime soon, India must plan in a big way.
First and foremost, we must improve access at the LAC. We need to double the speed at which we are building roads, and expand the rail projects in the Himalayas. This is happening but far too slowly.
We also must build a number of airstrips that can accommodate transport aircraft and helicopters. We need these to move soldiers and machines when in a hurry, and also maintain the infrastructure there. Our aircraft designers must, on priority, design and develop aircraft that can carry equipment, passengers and livestock safely to high altitude airstrips.
Moreover, the rulebook of Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has to be turned upside down. Air transportation in the hills must become as common as bus-services. We need gas and oil pipelines to run across the Himalayas. We need the best of business minds to create economic activity that is essential to support our building effort. Mining could be a possibility.
India also needs to build hospitals and related infrastructure. Tourism can change the shape of our lives in the hills. We can create Hiking Parks at hundreds of places and Grand Canyon-like creations are waiting to be discovered that would attract thousands of adventurers and visitors while maintaining the beauty of the region. To achieve all this, we have to believe in ourselves.
Time to push the enemy back
In 1963, I stayed with the Army for a few months and walked a lot with the soldiers stationed in Ladakh. The Leh area was like a desert — it had no grass or greens, Changla Pass was not built, Chushul area was green and flat and looked like a football field, our C-119 Packet aircraft used to land there on steel strips.
But Leh and the neighbouring areas have been transformed today. It has a great number of people, buildings and even cultivation that could not be imagined in 1963. We have done a lot of development and we can do far better. Our political wrangling and television debates are draining our energy. This should stop. We need to think and discuss progression, new ideas, new ways on how to make India more prosperous. We do not want political slogans. If only we can leave it to the people and create opportunities, India can shine. The Chinese will gradually disappear and take their tents away.
While India does not wish a war, we can’t give up our land to a belligerent enemy. Having suffered subjugation under Mughal and British rules, we must firmly counter hegemony. If we give into China’s vicious plan or fail in our efforts, our future generations will not forgive us. We must guard firmly and if a war is to be fought, we shall do so in unity.
The author is a retired Air Chief Marshal, who was Chief of Staff, Indian Air Force, 2001-2004. Views are personal.
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