China has reportedly expressed concern about the Indian Army’s ‘Him Vijay‘ exercise currently taking place in distinct phases in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese reaction is hardly surprising given the strategic significance of this exercise, which marks the unequivocal operationalisation of various elements of the Indian Army’s XVII Corps or Mountain Strike Corps, headquartered in Panagarh, West Bengal.
As the name suggests, this Corps has been specifically raised and designed to undertake offensive operations across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. This, in turn, reflects a major change in India’s military posture vis-à-vis China, which has historically been of a wholly defensive orientation. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) can no longer simply decide when and where to provoke the Indian Army, while being content with the belief that the best India could do was reinforce its position in the vicinity of the provocation.
More importantly, the Mountain Strike Corps signals a shift in the way India defines deterrence in its relationship with China.
Deterrence as a military tactic
Deterrence usually takes a couple of forms. The first is the case of ‘deterrence by denial’. In this, the strategy is to deter enemy action by undermining a potential aggressor’s confidence in being able to attain key objectives, without incurring unacceptably high costs or risks. The second is ‘deterrence by punishment’, which seeks to temper aggressive intent by threatening to impose unacceptably high penalties on a potential attacker.
Since 1962, India has essentially maintained a ‘deterrence by denial’ posture along the LAC with the creation of several Indian Army mountain divisions designed to deny the Chinese any target of value, such as Tawang, which has historically been the most contentious element in India-China’s border dispute. This strategy, referred to as ‘dissuasion’ in Indian military parlance (dissuasion being the French word for ‘deterrence’), saw border areas being intentionally kept devoid of adequate infrastructure in order to make a Chinese advance that much more difficult, even as large Indian Army formations would seek to keep a close check on them in localised battles.
Unfortunately, by the 2010s, this dissuasive strategy became increasingly inadequate to deal with China’s current strategy of leveraging the potent communications infrastructure it has created on the Tibetan Plateau to intermittently provoke India with transgressions and even intrusions. These Chinese infringements intend to serve as a blackmail, reminding New Delhi of the possibility of de-facto occupation of parcels of territory owing to the mobilisation advantage possessed by Beijing’s forces.
The Indian Army’s response to this Chinese game has been to forward deploy troops even as it scrambles to fix infrastructural gaps. As a consequence, the Army is now almost linearly arrayed along the LAC without adequate defence in depth in certain sectors. It has also had to reinforce these forward posts over time in order to prevent them from being overwhelmed by Chinese patrols, besides increasing the frequency of its own patrols. But defending every ‘inch of soil’ along a Himalayan frontier is a financially expensive and logistically cumbersome proposition.
Moreover, while it is true that the PLAGF has been surprised by the sheer number of Indian troops it has encountered during recent transgressions and may even face reverses in a minor skirmish, the overall problem of the Chinese being able to mount a major offensive, with India being on the strategic defensive, cannot be addressed by forward deployment. If anything, it further reduces the Indian Army’s flexibility. The Chinese are still able to choose where and when to concentrate forces, and India is left scrambling to respond to a Chinese build-up.
Utilising MSC to an advantage
The answer, therefore, for India to be able to counter such threats lies in the creation of an offensive element that can deliver a ‘riposte’ by capturing a target of value in Tibet, just so that it could be used as a bargaining chip during a negotiation settlement on post-cessation of hostilities.
However, merely creating an MSC headquarters somewhere and raising a sizeable number of Indian Army troops does not constitute a deterrent. For the MSC to be effective, it must have very peculiar characteristics in terms of structure, equipment pattern and employment concepts, which in turn have to be refined via operational training.
This is precisely why ‘Him Vijay’ holds significance and has worried China. It shows that the MSC has matured enough for it to be operationally trialled in a major exercise.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that for ‘Him Vijay’, the MSC is deploying three Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) that are offensively oriented and brigade-sized formations with integral artillery firepower and support elements. The troop strength of these IBGs suggests that the Indian Army has arrived at a fighting formation strength and structure suited to the logistical realities of mountainous terrain.
Now, there will always be a temptation to employ MSC elements in local counter-attacks to supplement the defensive fight by Indian Army mountain divisions. Indeed, the choice of exercise area for ‘Him Vijay’ in Arunachal Pradesh may lead some to believe that this might be a key role for the MSC to display its military prowess.
However, reportage about the objectives of the three IBGs being deployed during ‘Him Vijay’ suggest that the MSC’s brief is true to its name with ‘air assault’, ‘troop mobilisation’ and ‘mountain assault’ capabilities being tested during the exercise.
The positioning of the MSC’s other division, the 72nd, all the way North in Pathankot, suggests that the MSC is not going to be an area-specific enterprise, which intends to make it difficult for Chinese planners to pre-empt an offensive by blocking possible axes of advance into Tibet.
MSC — India’s prized possession
Interestingly, there is an obvious target for the MSC that the PLAGF may not be able to do much about. One is, of course, referring to the Chumbi Valley at whose foot lies the Doklam plateau that has emerged a flashpoint in recent times.
In fact, a credible MSC will undermine whatever psychological bulwark the PLAGF has been trying to gain by encroaching Doklam from the narrow confines of Chumbi.
Not only is there a major Indian presence on the flanks of Chumbi, the MSC will also in due course confer upon the Indian Army the capability to occupy dominating positions closer to the head of the Chumbi Valley in Tibet.
Indeed, the Chumbi Valley represents an ideal location in that the MSC elements will be capable of moving forward from launchpads secured by other Indian Army formations.
Overall, this shift in the Indian posture, if sustained through resources and commitment, will likely lead to a change in the way the India-China border is managed.
Credible offensive capability will make it psychologically easier for India to move back troops from the LAC in certain areas and instead use reserves and remote surveillance to mark its presence, much like the Chinese do today. Of course, this shift can only work once adequate transport infrastructure is in place. Perhaps this is the real challenge India must overcome at the earliest.
The author is a former consultant to FICCI’s International Division and Chief Editor of Delhi Defence Review. His Twitter handle is @SJha1618. Views are personal.