Bull in the China Shop: The Indian Army vs The PLA
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Issue Vol. 31.1 Jan-Mar 2016 | Date : 22 Mar , 2017

While some of the issues raised by Subrahmanyam are undoubtedly valid, there can be little doubt that there were major voids in the available intelligence about the PLA’s war-making capability in Tibet such as its strength, intentions, capabilities, operational doctrine and deployment, which certainly point to a major intelligence failure and can in no way be blamed only on the military.

There can be little doubt that there were major voids in the available intelligence about the PLA’s war-making capability in Tibet…

Clearly, Nehru as Prime Minister and architect of India’s foreign policy after Independence has to accept complete responsibility for the debacle of 1962. Also, notwithstanding the political and bureaucratic errors, and no doubt these were of immense magnitude and impacted greatly, one cannot run away from the simple fact that the military leadership at the strategic, operational and tactical level must carry the blame for the defeat. It was not that competent senior officers were not available or not aware of the situation, but they were all sidelined by Krishna Menon and his cabal. Headquarters 4 Corps, for example, was set up to control operations under Lt Gen B.M Kaul because GOC 33 Corps was opposed to the political nature of the operational tasking.

Thus those responsible for conducting the operations were in complete ignorance about Chinese capabilities and tactics, lacked knowledge of terrain and the impact of high altitude on conduct of operations.

There was also complete lack of inter-service cooperation, poor operational and logistic planning along with inept leadership. The only bright spot in this dismal picture was the courage, grit and fighting qualities displayed by the rank and file and junior leadership and by a few middle ranking officers. This is borne out in the manner in which Brigadier (later General) T N Raina’s 114 Brigade in Chushul engaged the PLA in battle.

While we may certainly dismiss the overall lack of professionalism displayed as just an unhappy and uncharacteristic episode from our history, it certainly bears fair amount of resemblance to the state of our forces at the commencement of the Kargil Conflict of 1999. Just as in 1962, there was a systemic failure of intelligence assessment as the Kargil Committee Report states, “there was inadequate coordination at the ground level among Army intelligence and other agencies. This was lacking even at the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) because of the low level of representation by DGMI in the assessment process and the DGMI representative not coming fully briefed on the latest situation. It is also apparent that the assessment was conditioned by the two-decade old mindset that Kargil was unsuitable for cross-LOC military action.”

That Kargil was won was primarily due to the courage and fortitude of our junior leadership and the rank and file…

Again as was the case in 1962, weapons and equipment were found deficient. The Report says, “There were also comments in the media that troops were inadequately equipped for the extreme cold and hazardous conditions when ordered to assault the Kargil heights. Their weapons and equipment compared unfavourably with those of the Pakistani intruders.

The Army had prescribed extra-cold clothing meant for heights between 9000-13,000 feet in this sector for use in normal times, and special (glacial) clothing for heights above that. Special clothing is issued for use in the Siachen area and reserves held in stock were limited. When hostilities commenced, this reserve clothing was issued to the men.

Troops returning from Siachen discard their special clothing which is then usually auctioned. However, in the previous year, the Corps Commander had ordered that Part-Worn Serviceable (PWS) clothing be preserved. This PWS stock was also issued to the troops during the Kargil action. Despite this, there was still an overall shortage. This warrants a review of standards of provisioning for reserves as well as a policy of holding special clothing for a certain proportion of other troops in Kargil and other high altitude sectors. Though the new light rifle (5.56 mm INSAS) has been inducted into service, most troops are yet to be equipped with light rifles.

Adequate attention has not been paid to lightening the load on infantry soldiers deployed at high altitudes. In broader terms, increasing the firepower and combat efficiency of infantrymen has also suffered as has the modernisation process as a whole. This needs to be speedily rectified.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we as well prepared, over five decades later, to deal with any adventurism that the Chinese might undertake?

That Kargil was won was primarily due to the courage and fortitude of our junior leadership and the rank and file. The senior hierarchy subsequently made amends for its focus on “peace-time requirements”, lack of foresight and straight-jacketed thinking by its speedy reaction once the surprise wore off, as also for some brilliant strategic moves that forced Pakistan to sue for peace.

The move of the Parachute Brigade, for example was one such little known action, to Mushkoh threatened the Shaqma Axis. It was the only axis available to Pakistan to support all operations East of Shingo/ Olthingthang axis that is the Drass, Bimbat, Kaksar and part of Kargil sub-sect. More importantly however, while we are certainly much better prepared to deal with Pakistan today, the question we need to ask ourselves is, are we as well prepared, over five decades later, to deal with any adventurism that the Chinese might undertake?

Defeat into Victory?

Take the well-known quote by Sun Tzu from his Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” One would expect that the Indian armed forces with over fifty years of their confrontation with the PLA, would be pretty knowledgeable about their organisational table, capabilities and weaknesses.

Most importantly, since understanding of their operational doctrine, tactics and leadership techniques are absolutely essential there would have been a concerted effort to ensure that the officer cadre would be deeply engrossed in studying those military campaigns that give us deep insight in their handling of large forces, apart of course, from their latest writings on evolving strategic, tactical and organisational thought. This becomes particularly important in view of the fact that the PLA can currently support and undertake operations from Tibet with approximately 34 Divisions, as per one estimate13.

In this context the two other conflicts involving the PLA were the earlier Chinese intervention in the Korean War in 1950 and the Sino- Vietnam Conflict of 1979. Both these conflicts are worth examining in some detail as the force levels employed by the PLA were between 24-28 Infantry Divisions with ancillary elements.

Without deep study of Chinese tactics and doctrine, we will always be caught on the back foot…

Sadly, this has not been the case as only minimal effort has been made at the promotion examination level for the perfunctory study of one of the most inconsequential battles of the Korean War, Pork Chop Hill. Our attempt at understanding PLA tactics has continued to be restricted to the Field Manual on “Chandal Armed Forces”, an imaginary force loosely based on the PLA, which is neither particularly illuminating nor accurate. With the advent of easier availability of information, has there been a quantum shift in our study of the PLA?

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support such a conclusion. The Staff College Entrance Exams, for their history paper have over the past few years concentrated on campaigns such as the one in Bangladesh in 1971 and in Burma during World War II, important no doubt, but hardly relevant in the context of our present threat scenario.

In our context, a detailed examination of the Korean War will provide us with many lessons, if correctly interpolated in the context of current organisation, doctrine and tactics that the PLA may adopt. For example, Major General PJS Sandhu (Retd), Deputy Director United Service Institution of India, makes a comparative study of the PLA offensives on Se La-Bomdi La and its offensive against the US 1st Marine Division at Chosin Reservoir. As he points out “The near congruency of the two operational plans makes for fascinating comparison. If Se La were to be shown in place of Yudam-ni, Poshing La in place of Sihung-ni, Dirang in place of Hagaru (with Axis Poshing La – Dirang replacing Axis Sihung-ni-Hagaru) and Bomdi La in place of Koto-ri, the similarity is startling. The distance between Se la and Bomdi La is 61 km, while that between Yudam-ni and Koto-ri is about 60 km.

Each of the two divisions was segmented into three parts and each segment dealt with almost simultaneously. A more historically aware higher command could have better anticipated the Chinese strategy and planned accordingly. Those who do not learn from the lessons of history are verily condemned to repeat them”.14

We have been hampered in our operational preparedness in confronting the inexorable Chinese build-up in Tibet…

Even more pertinent and of relevance to us today is the fact that end results of the offensive in both the battles compared were vastly different, with that of 4 Infantry Division ending in a rout while the 1st Marine Division conducted a fighting withdrawal that slowed the momentum of the PLA offensive. While ample availability of artillery, logistics and air resources that the Americans were able to utilise did have great impact, it was the common sense, steadfastness and moral courage displayed by the Commander of the 1st Marine Division, Major General O.P Smith that proved decisive. He refused to be brow-beaten by General MacArthur’s direction to split up his division into penny packets during their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir to ensure maintenance of momentum of the advance and instead insisted on maintaining tactical cohesion that paid dividends when confronted by the surprise counter-offensive of the PLA.15


We have been hampered in our operational preparedness in confronting the inexorable Chinese build-up in Tibet over the years thanks to an all-prevailing belief at the highest levels of our political, bureaucratic and military hierarchy that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. There has, however, been a perceptible change in the past few years with border infrastructure being given priority, the sanctioning of the Mountain Strike Corps and the relocation of IAF combat elements closer to their operational areas in Tibet. That the Mountain Strike Corps, in its present avatar, cannot meet any of our offensive requirements is not in question, given the state of our road communications. Its organisational structure and operational employment need review if it is to be able to carry out its assigned mission. Towards this end, we must consider tailoring it in a manner that it is organised for conduct of large-scale air-mobile operations.

It is high time we get over the mindset that the North East is an outpost and that, therefore, it need not be seen as integral element of the country.

With the Chinese leadership being focused presently on its disputes with Japan and on the situation in the South China Sea, we have been given a window in which to transform mindsets, create the necessary infrastructure, reorganise and retrain ourselves to be able to ensure that our force posture and capabilities sufficiently dissuade the PLA and the Chinese leadership from undertaking any adventures against us. In this, intellectual development of our leaders at all levels is of utmost importance. Without deep study of Chinese tactics and doctrine, we will always be caught on the back foot.

Finally, transformation has to commence with a change of mindsets. It can be set in motion not through incremental change, but by embracing disruption whole-heartedly. Towards this end, the Army must look at relocating its Eastern Theatre Command closer to its area of operations, in Guwahati, for example and pushing forward its Corps and Divisional HQs. Such an action will not only ensure more effective control of forces within its Area of Responsibility, better coordination with the IAF and also clearly demonstrate intent to the Chinese and our own population in the region, apart from greatly adding to economic development in the area. It is high time we get over the mindset that the North East is an outpost and that, therefore, it need not be seen as integral element of the country.


  1. Google Maps, “The Sino-Indian Border”,
  2. Pradhan, R.D; From Debacle to Revival: YB Chavan as Defence Minister, 1962-65: Orient Blackswan, India, 1999, p. 22.
  3. Sinha, PB, Athale, Col AA; History of the Conflict with China 1962;History Division, Ministry of Defence, 1992; pp. 21-24. (
  4. Subrahmanyam, K; Nehru and the India China Conflict of 1962; pp102-3; Indian Foreign Policy the Nehru Years Edited by BR Nanda, Vikas Publishing House, 1976.
  5. Ibid; p. 107.
  6. Wolf Charles & Others; Long Term Economic and Military Trends 1950-2010; Rand Corporation 1989;Table 5 pg 17;
  7. Subrahmanyam, Ibid, p. 114.
  8. Nayar, Kuldip; A Chinese Encounter;; 14 Jul 2012
  9. Garver, John W. “China’s Decision for War With India in 1962,” in Robert S. Ross and Alastair Iain Johnston, New Directions in the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy. Stanford, California:Stanford University Press, 2006.
  10. Ibid, p. 122.
  11. Das, Gautam; China-Tibet-India: The 1962 War and the Strategic Military Future; Har Anand Publication; 2009, p. 158.
  12. Shukla, Ajai, “Indian Army Matches China Man-for-Man on the Border,” Broadsword, 23 April 2012,
  13. Anand, Brig Vinod, The Evolving Threat from the PLA along Indo-Tibetan Border: Implications
  14. Sandhu, Major General PJS (Retd), 1962 – Battle of Se-La and Bomdi-La ( A View From the Other Side of the Hill and a Comparison with the Battle of Chosin Reservoir), USI Journal Volume: CXLI No. 586, Oct-Dec 2011, p. 575.
  15. Halberstam, David; The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War; Pan Macmillan, UK, 2008, pp. 431-437.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a second generation para trooper and author of “Beyond the Bayonet: Indian Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century.” He is currently a consultant with the Observer Research Foundation.

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10 thoughts on “Bull in the China Shop: The Indian Army vs The PLA

  1. The political portion of the report is in public domain unofficially. That is the portion which blames Nehru and Menon. That is what public wanted to know.

    The failure of the generals at SELA pass, and not BM Kaul but a hell of a lot more not guarding the back and side doors and unfortunate withdrawal from SELA is key reason not releasing the other portion of the report. They want to protect their senior and may be retired colleagues name for being poor generals.

    Tell me Brigadier Sahib, what is your interest in running down your colleagues names by releasing the report. Who is going to gain what? All the lessons of that 1962 war have been taken. There is a living testament of 1965, 1971, 1999 war. What else do you want?

  2. Hy Brig Deepak Sinha,

    “Excellent speakers, great moderators, and a perfect organization. So there was a lot of input, great conversations with different people and you could see well-known faces again. : It’s worth it! ”

    thanks for share with us thanks

  3. Further to my post I would add the following facts and events already available in the archives which throw a completely different picture of the Army and the crucial role of political leadership of the nation at that time in history. In 1959(?) three military chiefs – Thimayaa, Air Chief and the Navy Chief – submitted jointly resignations to the Government.. For what reasons? Obviously with matters relating to Chinese activity in the Himalayas. The PM Nehru called a meeting with the military chiefs and after protracted assurances to mend the way things were managed to pacify the military chiefs to take their resignations back. And the dispute ended there in public eyes. In the aftermath of 1962 the Calcutta Statesman brought out a supplement “The Black November” on the debacle where a number of senior army officers recorded their side of the war. In my recollection this is the gist: the Army has warned the Government as late as 1958 (Lt Gen Thapar) of the impending Chinese aggression. In fact the Army intelligence predicted three routes in the Himalaya and in the event the attack came through two of them. Ever since 1954 on a regular pattern, skirmishes were taking place between the Indian army personnel and the Chinese PLA (Kongka Pass). But the authorities in Delhi stayed mum in spite of protests by the military. Of course there were many more such incidents happening beyond the public record. On the international arena the Americans had been repeatedly warning the world that the Chinese were expansionists, but the Indian diplomats were dumb not to absorb the message. Military operations require long time planning, gathering resources and political determination to “win” war. All such elements were totally missing for India. In my books it is the political masters of the nation on whose shoulder the blame must fall squarely for that Black November. The soldiers did best in their individual capacity against unsurmountable odds.

    • Correction to my post : read “Lt Gen Thorat” in place of “Lt Gen Thapar” where it appears referring to the article in the Calcutta Statesman’s supplement. ! Further to note, the American policy makers realised Chinese expansionism from their experience in the Korean war. A number of Indian diplomats did take part in the negotiations following that war as part of the UN team. And they did warn Delhi about the Chinese intentions against India and how double speak they were. All that fell on deaf ears of the PM Nehru. It will be a good idea if IDR publishes a scanned copy of that Calcutta Statesman “The Black November” retrieving from the archives in 1963. That will throw proper light on the Army’s real position on the Himalayan frontier in the pre-1962 days. Doubtless there was gross interference in the military affairs by the political masters in Delhi which led to incompetent army commanders being promoted which led to the disaster. On the Indian side the war was being led by the politicians in reality sitting in Delhi rather than giving the responsibility at the Army’s professional hand.

  4. Author has brought up certain issues which affect IIndo-China relations and our security. Improved relations cannot be a sine qua non for trade, economic ties, investments, development works of mutual benefit. There can be no two opinions regarding importance of carrying forward dialogues between India and China to resolve border disputes, though China is known hard bargainer and we cannot expect favourable outcome so soon. While Forward Policy was certainly not the answer to the looming Chinese threat, yet when we look back, there was hardly any other viable option at that point of time, more so in our assessment China was unlikely to go on offensive. The weakest link or hurdle in our preparedness even today is our poor infrastructure. China has god-gifted advantage of terrain and stable mountain/ plateaus. Massive rails and roadways network in Tibet give distinct advantage to China. Most of our road projects are delayed, way behind schedule and caught up in myriad of problems viz. environmental clearances, land acquisition, poor quality construction and graft. Most of the roads have to be repaired every year because of substandard quality, poor drainage and design. Need for tunnels exist at numerous place to ensure all the year round connectivity. Our tenuous lines of communication are so susceptible to vagaries of nature that it can seriously jeopardize our ops. It will take decades to match the level of Chinese infrastructure.

  5. The study presented here misses the main point, that is the political awareness and the moral standing of the Indian citizens for upholding the fundamentals for nationhood. If it were any European state, the very next day the Chinese struck unopposed and military debacle followed for India, the Prime Minister (Nehru and others in that context) would have been shown the door out in the parliament. But nothing happened to their career – Nehru went on holding his position with cosmetic changes here and there. This is the point the former defence minister George Fernandez once made emphatically in a different issue – the Indian nation has no shame. Until and unless that realization dawns in the general mass, history will repeat itself. There is no point of pointing fingers at Army commanders in their field action (although I do not condone dereliction of duty) as if they were the sole culprits for the drubbing received in the hands of the Chinese. No wonder things are going on with the political masters at the helm and the bureaucratic hierarchy as business as usual.

  6. On becoming COAS, VCOAS or DGMO, it is expected that they must be reading the classified part of the REPORT. However it seems they have been going off to sleep afterwards instead of tkaing steps to rectify the mistakes.

  7. I am having difficulty trying to comprehend what you are saying. Everything about 1962 war with China and the rout is pretty well known. It is one sided story on placing the blame on political leadership. That may not be the whole truth. The forward commanders did err in not guarding the trails which the Chinese took to bypass SELA and the division headquarters 40 miles away. That in military terms is inviting enemy to come in and beat me and in this case thr Chinese gave a good beating. But if these trails had been guarded to prevent Chinese from using them, then imagine three thousand Chinese troops have travelled on mountain roads with scant rations for three days are hungry and tired. Any fighting to gain access the trails would have been Chinese disadvantage. A hungry and thirsty man cannot fight for too long. They would have surrendered in large numbers to Indian troops. In short an error in judgment of not guarding the trails is as much a factor in defeat as political error of Nehru/Menon.

    If you still consider that Chinese were better off, I agree. But battle errors if had not been done then Indian troops had a fighting chance of fighting withdrawal like the US Marine division in Korea, as you mentioned above.

    Some how, after Part 1 of Henderson Brook report made into public domain with only purpose to malign Nehru/Menon. Actually military commanders share the same amount of blame of dereliction of duty in the battlefield. That discussion in Part 2 of the HB report is kept under the wraps, because military leadership today do not want focus on them……..

  8. Well I don’t think we have moved very far as far as the Military preparedness is concerned. There was a rush of issues put forward after the Kargil incident but it has all fizzled away as has happened before. The nation and its armed forces love to slumber till the next kick. We are out of equipment, the Infantry soldier is a little better than the WW II Indian Soldier. Our war making capability is highly diminished. We are an elephantine entity in World War II attire. Our Armed Forces have had little changes and we have remained a Pakistan centric Army, defeating them grandly in every war game. The India Armed Forces need an organizational metamorphosis, we have to break away from the World War II model and move on to counter the Chinese head on. We have to reorg and re-equip and re model our forces to fight the Chinses and in an offensive mode. Infrastructure development has also to take off simultaneously to support the re-organised armed forces. If we prepare for the Chinese, Pakistan automatically gets accounted for. But sadly we aren’t making much headway and the tidings are ominous.

  9. We have the sanction for the Mountain Corps…but nothing much to show on ground. We have the sanction for ground infrastructure…but once again…nothing much to show on ground. Luckily, the IAF has managed to position a few squadrons of Su30 ac in the Eastern airlfields and get some ALGs commissioned, with some more in the pipeline…to be commissioned by the end of the year. The unfortunate part is that the ac are having perpetual servicabilty issues….and hile the transport ac may land at the advanced landing grounds…what after that.
    Have we learnt anything after the humiliating defeat of 1962……for how long will we contnue with the ostrich attitude.
    China maybe busy in the SChina Sea, but it has not closed the Tibetan chapter….the making of a consolidated Western Command, is an indication. Let us not be fooled with pleasantries being exchanged at the border outposts that all is well. It is not….and indications are aplenty.
    It is up to the people who matter to understand the Chinese…their psychology….their modus operandi……strategic and diplomatic…but will the people in the Indian establishment…political….bureaucrats…and military….ever learn.?…..a million dollar question.

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