Military & Aerospace

Lessons from the 1962 Sino-Indian War in Ladakh
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Issue Book Excerpts: The Crimson Chinar | Date : 19 Nov , 2016

At another plane was the apprehension that the Chinese might use their bombers to target Indian cities and it seems this underlying fear was what prevailed in the end. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has provided an insight how this fear could have taken root. While the first Kashmir war was still going on, Pundit Nehru had invited Dr. P M S Blackett from the UK to prepare a report outlining the measures necessary for India to become ‘near self-sufficient’ in terms of defence production. When the force structuring of the Air Force was being planned, Blackett had raised the spectre of the bombing of Indian cities. “In view of the high density of India’s own cities and the impossibility of affording an adequate defence against enemy air attacks, it would seem a great mistake for India to initiate such a campaign of mutual destruction, and probably even a mistake to reiterate in kind even if so attacked.”[9]

Wars are not fought by military leaders; they merely prosecute war within the defined strategic aims of the nation.

The experience of the Japanese bombing of Madras in the Second World War must also have had a sobering effect. Jasjit Singh has written how the Chief Minister of Bengal had advised the Indian Government that use of air power against the Japanese might lead to the bombing of Calcutta. Even the US Ambassador Galbraith advised the Prime Minister against the use of air power. It is relevant to mention that unlike India there were no counter value targets in Tibet, hence it was a ‘no win’ situation for India. To summarise, “The non-utilisation of the Indian Air Force in combat role during the operations was another strategic blunder.”[10]

Lessons of the War

The Sino-Indian War did for India, what was seemingly impossible to imagine just a year prior. It united the country in her darkest moments and gave birth to an India who at least temporarily, developed the will and the resilience for introspection. The two wars fought by independent India, within a short span of fifteen years of independence had revealed a fatal flaw in the Indian national psyche. This was the flaw of lack of strategic vision, perspective planning and maintaining the required consistency in evolving and nurturing of national strategic aims and objectives. The war forced Indian to think beyond the immediate and work for a collective future. The lessons that came out of the war were the cumulative result of the two wars India had gone through-both of them inconclusive; a sure recipe for future conflict and continued strife. For China, this signalled her arrival on the regional scene and a potential global player in the near future. For the Chinese leadership, this brought recognition of a China who had re-emerged to take her rightful place in the world.

Military Forces must be structured and nurtured to achieve the nation’s aims. What the Army in particular was required to do from 1959 onwards, was operationally unachievable.

Higher Direction of War

Wars are not fought by military leaders; they merely prosecute war within the defined strategic aims of the nation. Military Commanders may influence the direction, but their primary task is to prepare their forces and strive for achieving the desired end state and in the most cost effective manner. It is axiomatic that a great deal of mutual trust and professional respect is required between the political and the military leadership. The first Kashmir War had proved that the political leadership had split loyalties and therefore worked towards divergent goals, leading the nation to the brink of disaster. The leadership had learnt little from the lessons of the Kashmir War, as a result, the political and military leadership could not decide on a common approach to the threat that manifested in 1950 itself. Even the best army in the world must be given proper policy parameters and shown the direction and informed of the desired end state to achieve the requisite results.

Military Forces must be structured and nurtured to achieve the nation’s aims. What the Army in particular was required to do from 1959 onwards, was operationally unachievable. The nature, quality and quantity of the nation’s military must remain a political decision for which the leaders are answerable to the people. On the other side, the Indian democratic system should have produced someone to question the wisdom of underplaying and downsizing the forces, especially when her enemies were multiplying in strength. The reasons for applying forces in the manner that they were forced to be employed also needed introspection. That was, and remains the prerogative of the Government for which the political leadership remain answerable.The aftermath of the war called for major structural changes. The Defence Minister was removed and the Chief of the Army resigned. Controversial Commanders were given marching orders and the Government attempted to set its house in order.

The 1962 war proved that much of what India did was ‘incorrect’ as the aim was merely to ‘hold’ the enemy and no more-the aim was never to defeat the enemy.

Application of Forces.    

The principal task of Leaders and Commanders at all levels must be to train themselves to be able to apply military forces at the correct place and time, of the correct type and strength and achieve the desired results. This is the aim and essence of ‘Grand Strategy.’ The 1962 war proved that much of what India did was ‘incorrect’ as the aim was merely to ‘hold’ the enemy and no more-the aim was never to defeat the enemy.

The most glaring omission was the decision not to exploit the offensive capability of the IAF. The controversial decision has been discussed adequately and needless to say that the lesson must be remembered for posterity. The Air Arm with their inherent capability of taking the war to the enemy must be exploited as contributing members for the war effort and there was little reason for them to be sitting out of the battle. On the other hand, the Chinese knew their weakness so they never took to the skies. Thus, while the Chinese played their cards well, India denied herself her strength, while the Chinese multiplied their inherent strength of the ground forces by moving and building up, uninhibited in the rear and even on the front lines.

The Indians were always on the back foot and were only reacting by evasive measures against all the Chinese could throw at her. This defensive mind-set was seen in all planning – diplomatic and military and throughout the month long war. No battle or war can be won by waging successful defence alone, though defence might open up opportunities. Defence by itself does not win wars, campaigns, battles or even skirmishes. Defence, needs to be aggressive or it becomes self-defeating.

Defence by itself does not win wars, campaigns, battles or even skirmishes. Defence, needs to be aggressive or it becomes self-defeating.

In the month long Sino-Indian War, the decision not to employ air power highlighted the Indian fears at the highest level and the fact that India did not consider the use of air strikes even in our own territory is indicative of the extent of this feeling. This fear set in at all levels. In Ladakh, the Indians were caught in a frenzy of building rings for the defence of Leh, more than a hundred and fifty kms in the depth and this was despite the fact that the assessed threat level was only one Chinese Division. Even when the enemy’s strength and intent got clearerand when it became evident that he had only finite resources, the Indian plans remained unchanged and defeatist in nature, as could be seen in the tasking of 114 Brigade for the Battle of Chushul.

Relations with the Media

The pervading interventionist role of the media has become a reality for all wars and its signature has only increased with its proliferation. The role media can play can be both beneficial and negative. The media playing up the Indian sentiments for Tibet were justified but led to the political leaders scrambling for seeking a fig of morality and in a way; this stampeded the leadership into initiating the ill-fated forward policy without taking recourse to any military back up. If the media is to contribute to the national war effort, there are always ways and means. The catchy statement quoted out of context that the ‘Prime Minister orders the Army to throw out the Chinese’ only flared up the tempers. The world watched how, with ‘what’ and ‘where’ the Indians would do something;unfortunately, it was left to the Chinese to provide India the answer.

1962 was a National failure of which every Indian is guilty.It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War.

Conclusion

The anguished words of Brigadier John Dalvi should serve as the biggest lesson: “1962 was a National failure of which every Indian is guilty.It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War,a failure of the Opposition.A failure of the General Staff (myself included);it was a failure of Responsible Public Opinion and the Press.For the Government of India, it was a Himalayan Blunder at all levels.”[11]

The war with China exposed the Indian capability to defend herself-both psychological and militarily. With increasing collusiviety between the China and Pakistan, there is a definite requirement for India to rework her strategic options so that the commissions and omissions of 1962 that Brigadier Dalvi had been so critical of, are never repeated – unfortunately, such lessons are only given lip service: where the need is for operational expediency, actions on the ground are marked with beaurecratic inefficiency – the lack of infrastructure to sustain operations in the mountains,even after fifty-three years of the war bear testimony.

References:

[1]Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has maintained that the IAF had only 300 frontline aircraft organized in 18 Squadrons. The figures quoted above are from the official Indian history of the war  

[2]Prasad S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel, History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

[3]S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel, p-444,History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

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[4] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), p-83, Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years, Centre for Air Power and Knowledge World, New Delhi,2007.

[5]ibid.

* The official History has given the availability as 95 Dakotas, 51 Packets and 23 IL-14s. These may be the total holdings, however, their availability, based on serviceability service seems to be the reason that the Air Commodore has given more realistic figures.  

[6] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years, Centre for Air Power and Knowledge World, New Delhi,2007.

[7] Palit D K, Major General (Retd), p-166-168, War in the High Himalaya, The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962, Lancer International, 1991.

[8]This remains debatable. However, in view of the criticality of the deteriorating situation, even the Naval Aliezes and the Sea Hawks of INS Vikrant had been moved to the forward Air Bases to supplement the IAF’s strike capability.

[9] Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), p- 65, Defence from the Skies, Knowledge World, Centre for Air Power Studies, 2007.

[10]Prasad S N, Sinha P B, Athale A A, Colonel,History of the Conflict with China, 1962, History Div, MOD, GOI, New Delhi, 1992.

[11]Dalvi J P, Brigadier (Retd), The Himalayan Blunder.  

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the 1962 Sino-Indian War in Ladakh

  1. The General has missed many crucial points in his analysis, e.g. the then finance minister Morarji Desai blocked release of funds for purchase of automatic weapons (rifles?) for the army etc although these were sanctioned by the Indian cabinet prior to 1962 debacle. There is also no reference, not to mention an in depth analysis, of the resignation by the army chief Thimayaa in 1959 supported by other higher echelons in the military service which Nehru as the PM succeeded to reverse by his “diplomatic” charm, or better said hoodwinking tactics. In my books, the army commanders, in particular Thimayaa, failed to rise to the occasion to stand up to their political masters to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty in territorial terms by challenging their directives. This stands in stark contrast to what Napoleon had laid out in European context for the military as its foundation for the nation..

  2. Outstanding analysis. I would add one component regarding “fatal flaw”. What was the nature of the Indian polity before & throughout this conflict? What was insufficient about it? What were the social, political components of Indian national identity that were fatal.
    Outstanding historical analysis, but I would have liked to read more about India’s civil-military relations & its consequent political institutions as requisites for prosecuting a war.

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