File image of Indian soldiers in Ladakh | By special arrangement
File image of Indian soldiers in Ladakh | Representational image | By special arrangement
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Keeping in view the differential in technological military capabilities between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the positional terrain advantage secured by the latter through its preemptive manoeuvre, it is a prudent strategy for India to persist with military and diplomatic engagement through an indefinite face-off to achieve the political aim — restoration of status quo ante April 2020. Even a strategy to achieve a compromised political aim — status quo ante with buffer zones where no patrolling, deployment or development of infrastructure will be carried out —  would be pragmatic.

The logic of this strategy is simple — tire the Chinese out because it is difficult to sustain an indefinite large-scale deployment in this difficult terrain with extreme weather in winter. However, the danger is that if the Chinese come to sense India’s strategy, they may raise the ante and attempt to seize Daulat Beg Oldi Sector and areas to the north-east and east of Pangong Tso.


Also read: India has to plan for a hot war where friends are few. US-China cold war won’t help it


Coercive military pressure

This strategy can only succeed by maintaining coercive military pressure, and not without “exerting any military pressure” as spelt out by the de facto official spokesperson quoted in a recent report in The Indian Express. I am sure this relatively junior government/military official has let his imagination run wild. This is almost signalling defeat and accepting fait accompli. I sincerely hope that this is not the view of the Narendra Modi government and the military hierarchy.

As per The Indian Express report on the situation at LAC, a government official was quoted as saying, “New Delhi has decided to stick to its strategy of ‘incremental change despite slow progress’ while pressing for the end-goal, the restoration of status quo ante as of April. It has also ruled out application of any kind of military pressure against China as an option, so as to avoid any inadvertent escalation.”


ALso read: India has two options with stubborn China. The better one involves taking the battle to them


The disturbing silence

It is unusual and disturbing that an anonymous “government official” is holding forth on national security strategy in a casual manner while the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, National Security Advisor, Chief of Defence Staff and the service chiefs remain silent. The only charitable explanation could be that these statements are part of strategic deception. But if that is the intent, such statements must be made formally at the Defence Minister/NSA/CDS level.

At the Friday meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, both sides agreed to hold further talks at the level of Corps Commander. Status quo continues to prevail at Depsang and north of Pangong Tso with no progress on disengagement. At Hot Springs and Gogra, the disengagement is not as per the agreement reached during earlier talks. It is only in the Galwan Valley that the troops have disengaged and a buffer zone of 4 km has been created.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin highlighted the four rounds of Corps Commander-level talks and three meetings under the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India Border Affairs. Wenbin said, “As border troops have disengaged in most localities, the situation on the ground is deescalating and the temperature is coming down.” The statement indicates that China does not visualise any further disengagement.


Also read: Galwan lesson for Indian soldiers: Don’t wait for orders, just assume them


Strategic and tactical significance of areas of intrusion

The terrain of Eastern Ladakh is unique. Up to Leh and 150 km to the east, the terrain is extremely rugged with narrow valleys and surrounding hill ranges, varying in height from 15,000 to 23,000 feet. This topography also prevails up to 130 km north of Pangong Tso along the Shyok River up to Depsang plains and east of this line for 60-80 km. Beyond these areas is the extension of the Tibetan plateau. The valleys become broader, the base height rises to 14,000-15,000 feet, and surrounding hill ranges are a mix of rugged and relatively gradual terrain. The latter terrain is only 2,000-3,000 feet higher than the valleys and after reconnaissance, it can be negotiated by tracked and high-mobility vehicles.

Since peace prevailed along the LAC, it was not defended like the Line of Control (LoC), but only policed by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). The main defences of 3 Infantry Division were based on the Ladakh Range and Pangong Range in the Indus Valley and Chushul bowl, respectively. The DBO Sector being a plateau, the defences are based on relatively higher features. The Galwan Valley was only policed by the ITBP.

The main defences are based on the sound principle of dominating heights and convergence of avenues of approach. This left a forward zone of 10-80 km to the east, which was policed by the ITBP and kept under surveillance.

In the event of a war, this area was to be dominated by selective defensive/delaying positions and mechanised forces. While the bases of the formations are well to the rear, sufficient force was maintained near main defences for preemptive tasks on and across the LAC, particularly in areas of differing perceptions. However, we failed to exercise this option.

The LAC was based on the positions held by the rival forces at the time of the 1993 agreement. China’s 7 November 1959 assertion (also known as 1960 claim line) north of Pangong Tso and in Depsang Plains was further west of the LAC by 10 and 20 km, respectively. The alignment of the 1959 claim line had been carefully planned by the Chinese. It is tactical in nature. It allows the PLA to cut off our forward deployment in all sectors and completely isolate all sectors from each other, particularly DBO Sector.

The preemptive intrusions and concentration of troops at Depsang, Galwan river, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La and north of Pangong Tso places India at a disadvantage in a war. The DBO Sector is likely to be completely isolated by an offensive in Galwan River valley and the bottleneck area at Burtse. Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area can be cut off at Phobrang by an offensive from Finger 4 and Ane La. This places us at the risk of losing our entire territory east and north-east of Pangong Tso along with the DBO Sector. Also, our major riposte options get restricted to Chushul Sector,Indus River Valley Sector and Chumar Sector.


Also read: Modi has chosen discretion on China because India’s real failure is in defence capabilities


Recommended operational strategy

The strategy should be to strive for status quo ante with or without buffer zones with an indefinite “face-off” while simultaneously remaining poised with “fortress defence” of the areas likely to be isolated and attacked, and by maintaining a potent counter-offensive capability.

In execution, it implies fortifying the DBO-Galwan Sector, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La-Tsogtsalu Sector and Marsimik La-Ane La-Phobrang- Fingers 1-3 Sector with overwhelming resources that must have an inbuilt tactical counter-offensive capability. The defences and habitat should be of a permanent nature. These sectors should be prepared to fight even when isolated. Main defences on Ladakh and Pangong Ranges must continue to be manned. Our reserves must be arrayed for an operational-level counter-offensive in Chushul/Indus River Valley/Chumar Sectors.

India’s armed forces have the capability to execute the above strategy, which, apart from tiring the PLA out, caters to its escalation while maintaining a responsive or self-initiated capability for an operational-level offensive. It would be prudent to formally inform the nation about the essentials of our strategy rather than let unnamed officials run riot with their imagination.

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. Views are personal.

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13 Comments Share Your Views

13 COMMENTS

  1. If India wants to tire China out on LAC……. Reminds me of Henry Kissinger coming out of those prolonged Paris talks with North Vietnam representatives. Asked why this is dragging on with not much progress, he replied Americans have Watches but the North Vietnamese have lots of time. No clear winner here!! I hope I paraphrased it right!!

  2. Gen Panag always sounds a defeatist. China can cut off this, China can cut off that. In a real war like situation how difficult would it be for India to cut of the Karakoram highway connecting China to Pakistan? It would take just a few dedicated strikes using Brahmos or Scalp missiles to blow up some important bridges on the highway and bring the Chinese Pak nexus on its knees.

    • Three points: (i) loss of territory is permanent, bridges and roads can be rebuilt. (ii) the Kararoram highway is closed for 6 months of a year, so destroying bridges is significant but not strategic. (iii) attacking Pakistan will draw them openly into a war. Why would we do that when our main adversary is China.

  3. Sense less article keeping a view that China as a dominant state can destroy India at will. Author conveniently forgets to mention that China also secretly harbours an ambitious goal of achieving global leadership role and pushing herself in to a war with India will only mean putting an end to this desire forever. For India, on the other hand, hardships and struggles are not new and people generally are ready to sacrifice their life comforts in the interest of overall good of Country. There can be no clear winner in the modern warfare and both parties will suffer which will only benefit Western world.

  4. In the short term, the period October to mid-December will be crucial as this is when the Chinese may launch their offensive to cut off and then seize DBO which must be prevented by reinforcements and counter-attacks. In the long run, the road from Sasoma to Saerla and onwards to DBO must be made functional to as far as possible during this and the coming year. China may even resort to a two-front war and we must seek American help and involvement, the consequences would any day be better than facing defeat and major territorial loss. India needs to shed false inhibition.
    India has the capability to launch limited counteroffensives in certain areas like Chumar, Indus valley, and Chushul and should launch the same should the balloon go up and American air logistics support will enhance the capability manifold.
    The ultimate aim must be to press on a proper delineation of the LAC on the ground. Need to remain alert, resolute but not rash.
    When enough is enough India must revoke recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and question its very locus standi in the Area. The ideal solution is liberation of Tibet. It is very difficult but not impossible.

  5. Discussing these “strategies” in a public forum does not benefit anybody, least of all India or the the Indian Defence Establishment. I am sure that the General, an erstwhile Army Commander, is fully aware of this.
    Hence these discussions raise the question of motive.
    Is it just that the General and the media feel that by discussing these in the media, the right to freedom of expression etc is upheld….the least I can say is that it is the most irresponsible interpretation of freedom.

    Regards

  6. It is ridiculous to expect Corps Commander level talks to solve the impasse. The Chinese Corps Commander would have been ordered not to budge.
    Even the NSA and Foreign Secretary talks will fail unless Xi agrees which he wont.
    Why is Modi not talking to Xi? All these years he was gloating on his ‘excellent’ relations with XI having met him no less than 18 times. Talks have to be held at the highest level so the lower level can work out the modalities.
    Hope that Modi increases the Defence budget which was the lowest in terms of percentage of GDP since Independence. He miscalculated that China will not upset the status quo and that the only threat was from Pakistan. He needs to ensure a time bound plan to make up the deficiencies of the Armed Forces and ensure completion of the raising of the 17 Corps. He should also ensure that the planned lateral road connections from Ladakh to Nagaland are completed expeditiously. This will enable the Army to switch forces to varios trouble spots easily.
    He must also ensure that the ITBP is placed entirely under the Defence Ministry and not Home. They must be brought up to the standards that Assam Rifles have achieved.

  7. What is the motive to discuss these sensitive issues in open forums?
    And what is The Print’s motive in allowing this to be published?
    The motives are clear.

  8. The suggestion made by Lt Gen H S Panag in this article definitely look practical. For China, no country is a friend, nor it’s enemy. They had border issues with Russia; China couldn’t fight it, so China agreed to what Russia wanted and made that border peaceful. With smaller countries it uses force as it thinks it can get away with it. As with Vietnam, China got a rude shock. With India it thought it can get away, like in 1962, but it got rude shock in 1967, 1983, 1987, 2013 and in 2017 (Doklam). So what China is doing all along is to improve its infrastructure near LAC so it can have military advantages. India is continuously doing the same mistakes by not developing infrastructure and by no proper policing. The bigger mistake is actually done by careless politicians who simply make big statements in Parliament without proper ground realities. Before 1962 people criticized Nehru, but the real culprits were Morarji and a few other opposition leaders who simply wouldn’t even talk properly to the Chinese premier who came to resolve border issues. As if by taking an unbending stand will prove ownership of the land! These guys didn’t realize ground situation, misused their demicratic rights to make irresponsible statements. But that was before 1962. After that too now comes this Amit Shah who made exactly the same mistake. This mistake is bigger as he didn’t learn from history. In any case India has no other option but to improve infrastructure along the LAC, increase military capabilities and make China blink.

  9. The war of attrition and the “Maginot line ” approach that General Panag proposes would impose an immense financial burden and ensure that the GDP gap between China and India keeps on widening.Remember that China always moves according to a very long term plan. If today the GDP of China is 5 times more than that of India and after a decade it becomes 10 times more than India’s China would be quite satisfied to keep Ladakh like a millstone around India’s neck for the next few decades. However a very senior Chinese Professor Mr.Victor Gao who was an interpreter of a former Chinese Prime Minister and thus represents the views of the Chinese establishment has written a two part article in The Wire in which he says that China has occupied Finger four so that it can bring large number of troops and armor within hours from Tibet via fast moving naval craft and the Galwan valley would only be used as a second choke point. He also says that in order to avoid war India must:
    (a) Dissociate itself from QUAD
    (b) Recognize Gilgit as a part of Pakistan
    (c) Remove all restrictions from Chinese apps and trade
    (d) Join BRI which last would by itself achieve the above objectives without political turmoil.
    No one in India has reacted to this article but Sources and newspaper gossips have claimed that India might then block the Malacca Straits. This is easier said than done because that would be war and then China might react by destroying all of India’s ports halting all imports into India in a Quid Pro Quo. The consequences of this would be unpredictable but not surprising as the fragments of an erstwhile empire take time to reach equilibrium. Europe took 1000 years to reach equilibrium after the end of the Roman empire.However I feel it would be wiser if India first and foremost makes peace with its own people and then and then only with its neighbors.The first thing Lenin did after getting power was to take Russia out of the First World War even if that meant giving large chunks of captured territory back to the Ottomans.

    • No,. none of that is going to happen.
      India will develop its economy and military simultaneously.. the projection is the difference between China & India’s GDP will narrow.
      For China to remain 5x India’s GDP, it has to grow 5x as faster as India is continuously which going by recent trends is not happening.
      In 2030, India’s GDP is projected to be $10 trillion & China is supposed to be $30 trillion.. so 3x instead of the current 5x. The gap is narrowing.

    • Chinese slave, bootlicker. Disgraceful. One a slave, always a slave. You do not have any pride in yourself nor your country.

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