That China has come on India’s borders with a huge force is no more a revelation, especially after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s Parliament statement. It is the timing that Beijing has chosen which is of bigger concern for New Delhi. India faces double whammy — a national health emergency coupled with an economy that is under severe strain. China has used Covid well to its advantage and attack India.
An instant reaction to Chinese incursion in Galwan and other areas was to label it as an ‘intelligence failure’ (of the government). The Army and the intelligence agencies would certainly have had the Chinese military dispositions (routine observations), but not the ‘intention’ of the Chinese or their plan to escalate. A deeper analysis of the happenings in China and at the borders could have possibly given some indication of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) intent, but the Covid situation acted as a global smokescreen and attention was diverted.
China has consistently refused to participate in demarcating the borders, which made it convenient for them to creep forward and claim the encroached territory as theirs. Even in the current stand-off, the Chinese idea of a pull back and creation of a ‘no-man zone’ was a move to make some parts of Indian territory at the border unusable. Dominance is the core principle of the PLA and it pursues expeditionary motives. However, democratic India’s defence forces, as they are termed, are established to protect its land and territory. Our political slogan of ‘never to give up an inch of territory’ reflects the current directions.
Past political blunders
The Indian political system had shown magnanimity in the past, returning hard-fought gains of our defence forces — be it the Haji Pir Pass or the 93,000 Prisoners of War (PoW) with no guarantees from the enemy. India has learnt the hard way. It left me disappointed to read a diplomat stating that since India stands committed to one-China policy and Tibet to be a part of China, it would be wrong on India to go against these commitments.
Contrast this with our knowledge of China rarely sticking to even signed bilateral agreements. Pakistan gave away the Shaksgam Valley — Indian territory — to China in 1963 and no eyelid batted. When China has taken an aggressive stance in 2020 to discard every single bilateral agreement signed with India, it is only logical for India to counter the aggression by deciding to re-look at the one-China policy, and lend support to the Tibetans in their struggle.
A previous government in India also brought in big shifts in foreign policy to match the contemporary realities — establishing diplomatic relations with Israel was one such move. Israel is now India’s strategic partner. For China’s rouge behaviour, today, a lot of blame goes back in history — Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made the biggest mistake of feeding the dragon and waking it up in 1972 and the word bears the consequences in 2020.
Intelligence is seldom perfect
Deliberations that follow an intelligence report or analysis are quite complex, like a jigsaw puzzle. No information is ‘scant’ or ‘not actionable’. Information is collected in layers by special agencies, examined, sifted through and analysed before it is taken to a higher level. Intelligence information is seldom perfect. Certain protective actions are initiated, and simultaneously, work begins to substantiate the findings. Amid all these steps, the government is always kept informed of the development.
To counter is a complex task
To counter the adversary’s move, once detected, could be even more complex. One could decide to feign ignorance, observe the actions and plan counter-action to ‘throw them out’. However, that depends on the military dispositions on either side, the kind of escalation that could happen and the consequences. At times, it becomes necessary to re-align our military dispositions by anticipating enemy reaction and re-designating responsibilities. A broad plan is evolved to counter. It is tough for those sitting at the decision-making level in the military and in the government to arrive at a decision. A lot depends on the seriousness of the situation and our tolerance level. Other factors include understanding of the complexities involved, approving action, defining the objectives and the end-state to be achieved, anticipating likely reaction from the adversary, getting assurance of achieving the objectives/end-state, being clear on damage containment, anticipating global reaction, being aware of possible consequences on economy/ trade/ foreign relations, exploring alternatives and consequence of ‘doing-nothing’ and many more.
Typically, it is an OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop and the consequences can be severe. A simple desire of initiating action ‘to throw them out’ has to go through many of these steps. A knee-jerk reaction (despite political and other compulsions) would be most inappropriate and possibly that is what the adversary may be looking for. They would have planned their actions meticulously. In 1971, it is well known that Field Marshal Manekshaw sought time from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before launching the offensive on East Pakistan. In the meanwhile, Indira Gandhi went out to meet heads of other governments to exchange views and get support. Immense diplomatic actions were initiated in preparation. It is not a simple action to push or shove the intruder and ‘throw them out’. There is every risk of falling into a trap.
Filling the military inventory
The people are aware that the government is trying its best to make-good shortfalls in the military inventory. We must realise that buying a couple of dozen combat aircraft may not serve the purpose. It may take years to get these matched with the existing inventory. We learnt our lessons; many operational purchases made at the start of Kargil conflict and Operation Parakram took years to fructify. Machines acquired, if not upgraded to the existing Indian standards quickly, could be used to train operational crew, thus saving on flight hours of operational systems.
The weight of decision-making
In the past, many of us have experienced and participated in the decision-making process in emergent situations. The weight of decision-making on the government to give a go-ahead to the military for actions like Surgical Strikes or a ‘deep strike’ like Balakot is very heavy indeed.
The current government took unparalleled and gutsy decisions. Firm decisions reflect the resolve with which our Jawans fought and killed the Chinese in hand-to-hand combat at Galwan. In the past, the general impression that governments carried was that military operations across the borders were too risky and use of air power would be escalatory.
It is a very difficult decision for any government to approve even the smallest military operation across the border. To take such a call, trust in the military and its capability is a must. Operation Parakram is an example. It took very long for the government to come to a decision, but it was put off after all preparations were made. Today, we are fortunate that the government and the military work as a team and have immense faith and trust in each other. In this regard, it could well have been a deliberate decision on part of the government not to go public about the happenings at the border, far from the conjecture that the government is scared to reveal. Safety of our troops, security of our plans and understanding of the situation are vital. There was no need to hurry to reveal the details to the public.
Current debates in Parliament and in the media on the LAC stand-off are confined to political bashing — some experienced and informed professionals have joined the fray to demand an investigation even before starting an operation. The media has orchestrated debates covering the developing situations at the border, borrowing some commercial satellite pictures to illustrate their version, which is likely to be incorrect unless the information has been released by the government. Nevertheless, the drama moves at a high pitch — similar to Sushant Singh Rajput case — possibly targeting TRPs.
Launch of a military operation from our own soil is a very serious issue. We expect unity of all citizens to support the decisions, besides politicians of all hues. We witness debates, practically every day — channel hopping by half-a-dozen experts, making conjectures without being aware of the actual situation. Though the written commentary on the LAC situation is more tolerable, many experts reflect their own sentiment and present contrarian views that could confuse. The commentary is taking a higher pitch while Parliament debates the stand-off.
Once another ‘Sushant like’ story emerges, the interest on LAC may die down, but action at the borders will continue. There could well be a battle or two for India to fight. I wish that the media would refrain from using terms like ‘martyred’ or ‘sacrifice’ while covering military operations. Military is a profession. Death does not bring glory but only winning does. We want every man and machine to perform well, our military to stay strong and fight with pride and enjoy the glory.
The author is former chief of Indian Air Force. Views are personal.
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