Friday, 21 January, 2022
HomeOpinionCalling LAC conflict 'intelligence failure' is lazy. It ignores India's real problem

Calling LAC conflict ‘intelligence failure’ is lazy. It ignores India’s real problem

Both India’s political and military intelligence would have picked up signals of the change in China’s stance. Only, if we prioritised China as much.

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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.

Also read: To check China’s hostility, India, Taiwan and Japan need an intelligence-sharing alliance

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.

Also read: Indian intelligence failure again? Heroism at Galwan must lead to reforms

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.

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  1. Everything would have been known to our top level. Our fear is if we send more troups, china will send multiple of that.. china has much more muscle power than us. It is that bitter truth. If we had preparation for galwan valley, they will open somewhere else. This is long haul journey. There is no point in guessing china thinking

  2. Inspite of huge defence budget exceeding Rs.3 lakh crores, why do the armed forces suffer from shortage and have to put up with vintage equipment. Similarly, the Ministry of Home affairs also has a huge budget. Who or what comes in the way of modernizing the military and paramilitary forces? The usual bureaucracy, sitting on the files, and questioning every requisition. I know one IAF officer, who was in Sia Chen duty. When some defence ministry Babu sat on some requisition, some clever military liaison officer took him on a joy ride to Sia chen. He wasn’t brought back the same day, on the pretext of bad weather or technical problem with the helicopter! Next day, when the recalcitrant, but grateful Babu returned to Delhi, the first thing he did in his office was to approve or clear the file he was sitting on!

    • Major part of the defence budget goes to revenue expenses. Salaries and pension. In 2019 pension out go was more than salaries itself. Nothing much left for capex. find out how much a brigadier level officer from downwards get as pension.(I am leaving out those aboe)

  3. China (Communism) and Pakistan (Islam) covet all of India. But plan to take it slice by slice and with a thousand cuts. Mahomet (who was a camel driver) speaks of this in the story of the camel and the tent which became a central tenet of the desert bandit cult called islam. First the camel puts its head inside Mahomet’s tent, then little by little the camel works its way into the tent and Mahomet has to sleep outside.
    Nehru sacrificed Tibet to Mao hoping this would appease China. Mao then described Tibet as the palm of his hand reaching out for all of India and and the Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh as the five fingers of the palm. This is the basis of the Communist Party’s claim on all of India and like Mao, China follows the teachings of Sun Tsu. Islam however claims all of India on the basis of Quran and Hadith.
    So, India yielding even an inch of territory to the enemy is merely an incentive for the enemy to take more.
    The Government orphans the armed forces and National Security just as it orphans citizens not on Bureaucratic, Police, Judicial and Political service or pay roll: Out of sight out of mind?
    Every time there is an opportunity which the Chinese see, the Chinese come further into Indian territory. This is like moving forward towards the goal in Rugby or American football.’
    Apart from on going fluid opportunities due to lack of border infrastructure for the Indian Armed Forces, the Indian Army presented the Chinese with two significant opportunities, which they took advantage of.
    (1) During Kargil, the Indian soldiers were moved from their positions at Daulat Beg Oldie to reinforce the forces taking on Pakistan’s Norther nLight infantry in Kargil Heights. Kargil was a classic example of Indian failure in intelligence, logistics, military command and control as well as political leadership. In effect, the Pakis had moved into the heights and entrenched themselves when the Indian Army moved down during winter. Just as the Chinese did when the Indian Army moved from Pangong Lake (Daulat Beg Oldie) to Kargil. And India had to retake what was originally its own at enormous cost of Indian blood and lives owing to poor preparation, lack of ammunition, lack of reliable and appropriate equipment and weaponry, lack of co-ordination and laughable, unrealistic “Charge of the Light Brigade” Brass Hat commands, totally divorced from the reality on the ground or the methods of 20th Century warfare..
    (2) Owing to the lack of proper high altitude winter equipment, the Indian Army again moved to lower slopes more recently vacating territory which the Chinese quickly occupied.
    In both cases, the buck stops at the table of the politicians and bureaucrats at Delhi who constrain the Army into having to cope with what they have and carrying out orders issued with scant understanding of warfare or operational command. This the Government does not want exposed.
    The Indian Army on returning to these heights in fairer weather resume patrolling in India’s side of the LAC only to find themselves challenged by the Chinese who are now in occupation leading to these tussles.
    There is also the pathetic faith of India’s “diplomats”, “bureaucrats” and “politicians” that foreign powers are more honest than themselves and will adhere to promises, agreements and treaties more faithfully than they themselves do. Hence, there is an excessive faith in diplomacy and that China will adhere to what was the agreed Line of Actual Control rather than in building, refining and applying Indian hard power.

    • Even in this hour of defeat and disgrace hold on to bigotry, hatred and intolerance.

  4. No funds for the Mountain Strike Corps but Modi spends 20000 crores on Delhi’s Central Vista.

  5. A very informative and balanced article from someone who knows what she is talking about. We need more such articles in the national interest from The Print rather than articles from the usual anti Modi sickular brigade.

  6. If not failure of some hue then what. You criticise Nehru for whatever his follies and do the same by cosying upto Xi. Whe will we ever learn that China will never look upon any as friends least of all India. This 56″ believes in befriending every leader of every country except of maintaining at least Norma l relations with all leaders in his party, in his alliance fold and the opposition. This he is constantly at war within his country and at his friendly-friendly best without. China etc are but a result of that. Because the entire administration gets its directions from 56″ and acts accordingly. 18 times meeting with China therefore led to the sense of betrayal that must be hurting inside the 56″ chest. So at the All Party meeting he blurted out what he thought would be the truth but which wasn’t because Xi like Chou before him betrayed him.
    About time India and her PM’s learnt the bitter truth and never never let the guard down.

    • Everyone knows the Chinese are not trustworthy but you have to let sleeping dogs lie for the sake of stability and prosperity in the region. Rattling China has affected the relations with all our neighbors and we cant hope to match the amount of aid they give to India’s neighbors. That doesnt mean we werent prepared for a 2 front war. We have always been preparing
      Did you seriously think people would have agreed or accepted the tough action we have to take (in terms of ban of apps and other goods) if there wasnt a clash? From all assessments, China is doing this because we are seriously planning to take back POK and Gilgit Baltistan in near future and they are miffed with our closeness with US. As we get more powerful friends, we should expect powerful enemies.

  7. Very sensible article clearly steering away from sensationalism and the proclivity to blindly blame the agencies responsible for our security..the blame for the delay in upgrading vital border assets lies squarely with the political establishment specially in Ladakh

  8. There are three basic matters to be considered:
    1. Lack of infrastructure.
    2. Absence of electronic/satellite survilience.
    3. No Clear identification of hostilities.
    We should be specific about what is a violation and not wait for removal once identified it should be destroyed.

    • Agree with point 1. We have already addressed points 2 and 3 with the deployment of satellites in last few years. The issue with China is that they regularly keep coming in, do some surveys and go back and at the most, it gets resolved with some pushing/shoving/punching so you cant expect the army to be fully deployed each time they indulge in their usual provocative acts. But this time, they went too far and going forward any encroachment will be immediately flagged

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