The conflict with China on the borders of Ladakh, and the brutal murder of 20 Indian soldiers has led to furious allegations by retired service officers as well as opposition leaders such as Sonia Gandhi of ‘another’ intelligence failure. The ‘another’ refers to the Pakistani incursions in Kargil in 1999 that took India by surprise.
While there are some broad likenesses to that unfortunate war, such a sweeping assessment of intelligence failure is difficult to make at this juncture. That cry will reverberate, despite little understanding of intelligence and its methodology outside its immediate circles. I shall clarify this, by taking the Galwan incident as an example, to arrive at an initial assessment of where the problem lies.
A political scanner
First is political intelligence, which is usually the base for early warning; in this case, the relative power status of President Xi Jinping and his immediate advisers, and whether this coterie was, among other things, threatened from within or not. A resounding ‘yes’ from a number of expert studies would have alarmed agencies, given that weak leaders tend to go adventuring for ‘victories’ to score off potential rivals waiting in the wings. But that’s information. To convert it into intelligence, requires some confirmation from decision-making sources. That, in the case of a country with few equals in opacity, is a difficult – though not an impossible – exercise.
Therefore, assessments by India’s external agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), would have cautiously estimated that the man at the top in China was in a belligerent mood, its roughhousing of Australia being just one example. Another would be Beijing’s summoning of the defence attaché over the 9 May scuffle in North Sikkim, since it has never before done so. Political assessments would have flagged Chinese ire, and Indian and US experts agreed that the time was inopportune for Beijing to pick a fight. After all, Wuhan’s lockdown had been lifted barely a fortnight earlier.
A military scanner
A second layer of continuous assessment would be that of the Chinese military leadership and capability. Fairly reliable open-source analysis at different levels is available on China’s People’s Liberation Army, and far too much on its capability. Beijing tends to showcase its abilities in an over-the-top fashion. So does the US, which likes to present its enemies in a larger-than-life role, sometimes quite far from the truth. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessments of the Soviet Union just before it collapsed were still embarrassingly gushing. The truth usually lies somewhere in between.
Meanwhile, India’s technical intelligence gathering has improved substantially, with the setting up of the NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) after Kargil, and it’s unlikely that the movement of Chinese troops in large numbers would be missed. That the January exercise of China was far closer to India’s border than expected, demonstrated a formidable capability in logistics, already apparent in 2018 when tonnes of military equipment was hauled south of the Kunlun mountains. The exercise was reported by every China watcher, and would have been analysed in detail by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). Again, the move towards the west sometime in April, as part of planned exercises, was also not unexpected.
Chinese propaganda organs claimed that this movement of troops and vehicles from Hubei, whose capital Wuhan lies at about 53 ft above sea level, was done ‘in a few hours’, which seems unlikely, given acclimatisation required for the climb to 13,000 ft. Chinese logistical capabilities are however undoubtedly impressive. Therefore, the last ‘leg’ towards the Line of Actual Control (LAC) would have been alarmingly quick over a distance of some 200 km (estimated broadly from Rutog). Reports claim intel on movements got more specific by April, with validation sought from ground-level intel. That intel would have been directed towards Pangong, where by mid-May, two clashes had already taken place, at least one where the Chinese came ‘armed’ with iron rods and the like. Galwan, as always, remained peaceful.
Ground intelligence in the Galwan area is with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), together with local stations of the formidable Intelligence Bureau. It is unclear if the ITBP at Ladakh was at all aware of the India-China tensions elsewhere. Coming under the home ministry, this hardy force has long been accustomed to the pushing and shoving that takes place along the LAC. However, the incident on 21 May, when the Chinese objected to the track to Patrolling Point 14 from the upgraded Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi road was a little out of the ordinary, and would have been reported quickly.
ITBP intel would also have been best placed to spot any increase in Chinese presence opposite Galwan. It is unclear if this crucial intel was shared at the routine multi-agency meetings at the state level. But matters were moving swiftly. Four days later, there were intrusions in two other points. Even then, alarm would have been allayed by local commanders’ talks by end-May, and a media briefing from the external affairs ministry, which made hardly any mention of the border issue. Placatory statements from the Chinese foreign ministry, donations from the Jack Ma Foundation and Ali Baba Foundation for fighting the virus, and the amiability of the Chinese ambassador did nothing to increase fears.
On the ground, however, Colonel Santosh Babu, Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar, was still dismantling Chinese incursions at Galwan, despite promises of disengagement, as decided at the 6 June military senior-level talks. When the murderous attack took place on 15 June, there was no ‘strategic’ reason to expect it given the overall atmosphere, except that the attack seemed to be by ‘fresh troops’. Whether local intel was able to warn about this is unclear. That the casualties were not higher was clearly because the Army had already pulled up its forces. But troops to the rescue were only able to reach the spot after scrambling over a loose track. China has roads practically to its last point, and if recent reports are to be believed, has even made a culvert across the Galwan river. That’s logistical nimbleness.
Identify the real bad guys
As can be seen, the situation bears no resemblance at all to Kargil, where the whole operation was a surprise. First, routine intel would have followed almost all movements until almost the final phase. Certainly, political assessments were as chancy as in 1999, when no one expected a financial crisis-ridden Pakistan to do a Kargil. Countries, like people, are unpredictable. Second, while technical intel can flag movements, it’s the final validation that counts. Local intel would have upped its capabilities if there was already a suspicion that the Chinese were up to no good. Reform in terms of faster intelligence sharing, both forward and backward, was the main focus of the Kargil Committee Report.
Backsliding was however evident some years later, especially where agencies report to different ministries. This needs review. Third, while quick intel would certainly have meant that forces could deploy early on in the game, their effectiveness would still have been in doubt given the slow pace of infrastructure development. Following the Depsang intrusions in mid-2013, the Air Force under Air Chief N.A.K. Browne quickly decided to push in the first-ever landing of C-130J special ops aircraft at Daulat Beg Oldi just three months later to provide valuable support to the Army. That’s operational nimbleness. Recommendations for full-fledged fighter bases at Nyoma and extension of Kargil runway however languish, leading to dependence on just two airfields at Leh and Thoise.
The Army’s Mountain Strike Corps has been hit by lack of funds and the ITBP’s requirements for all-weather border posts at Pangong long been delayed. Fourth and most importantly, while Report(s) of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence highlighting depressing delays – 68 per cent of Army equipment is classified as ‘vintage’ — these and other documents emphasise that we are still fighting the last war. In a nuclear environment, a manpower intensive war is highly unlikely. Capabilities, including in intel collection have to be freshly imagined, and most importantly, reoriented towards the real enemy at our gates, rather than the nuisance that is Pakistan.
And finally, recognise that this is a China that will continue with its salami slicing. Adolf Hitler was no aberration of history; therefore the stick rather than appeasement. With a future budget likely to be hemmed in even more, that stick needs to be honed by prioritising our list of bad guys. That would show a rare intelligence. Crying wolf on failures is just the reverse.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.