India-China LAC Face-Off: The Battlespace
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 11 Dec , 2021

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Better roads, large troop presence, modern tank shelters, vast logistic dump, mobile tower at LAC is how the region has changed since May 2020.

Modern tank shelters, vast logistics dump and troop hutments spread over a vast area from Durbok to Tangtse have transformed the landscape. Once an area largely manned by a police force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, with minimal forward deployment of the Indian Army and limited army patrolling in early 2000s, this has now become a substantial forward area military base catering to thousands of troops with a vast array of modern military hardware. The Indian Army’s (IA) 14 Corps is a formation literally fighting the two-front war – Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC) stretching from Siachen to Kargil and up to Drass to the North and West and China in a lock over perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) from Daulat Beg Oldie in the North to Demchok in the South East.

Why did the latest Corps Commander level talks not result in any solution?

The Thirteenth Round of talks failed because the Chinese counterpart appeared to be “not mandated” for reaching any understanding on any de-escalation over the last remaining friction point; Hot Spring. Out of the six, it is claimed that five have been resolved. Hot Spring, in fact, was not as sticky as the earlier negotiated Gogra or Galwan. The Chinese insisted on including a buffer zone for Hot Spring as had been agreed for Gogra and Galwan. India did not agree to that proposal. Depsang and Demchok are issues which the Chinese have treated as unconnected with the 2020 episode. 

The Indian Army is hopeful of an amicable resolution the day the Chinese find a suitable replacement for General Lui Ling. General Lui Ling has recently been moved to their Western Theatre Command. The present Chinese General is in an officiating capacity and lacks the required authority for reaching a solution. Notwithstanding this, the complete resolution to this stand-off will come by once Xi Jinping decides so. The patrolling issue at Depsang is a legacy inherited, and it should not be linked to the present crisis initiated by the PLA last year in May. However, Depsang and Hot Spring continue to be the focus of tensions between the two countries.

The Indian Army’s capacity build up on the ground over the past one year is actually a phenomenal display of strength unhidden from the enemy…

There exists no encroachment over the Indian perception of the LAC. The question was of the threatening proximity of the two armies. Army officers in the know of things do not agree with the veteran Army Commander’s opinion that, “…withdrawing from the Kailash Range was premature and it is for this very reason we have lost our negotiating power.” They say that this was not the case, “We had exercised our option since any leverage to barter has a time bar”. And the Indian Army was successful in getting the Chinese to withdraw to pre-May 2020 positions behind finger eight. This was the major territorial issue resolved in our favour. Encroachment on the North bank of Pangong was of a serious nature involving vast tracts of territory.

The current situation on the ground in terms of force-level parity and preparedness appears absolutely in favour of the Indian Army. The Indian Army’s capacity build up on the ground over the past one year is actually a phenomenal display of strength unhidden from the enemy. This has convinced China that India is not only capable of defending itself, but also has the ability of taking the battle deep inside China if provoked at the tactical and operational levels. However, at the strategic level, the balance is skewed in favour of China. There is an asymmetry in technology and on the economic index. Though on the scale of numbers, the Chinese are ahead, the terrain and unique remoteness of Tibet impose restrictions on the size of forces that can be inducted and operationally sustained. China’s vulnerability is due to the limited ingress routes to the Tibetan plateau.

The nuclear option is suicidal and thus a “no go”. If India is strong at a tactical and operational level, then what are the options the Chinese are left with? The geography is in India’s favour. Thus the friction provided is best suited to the defender, who is well entrenched at an altitude above 14000 feet. For the Chinese to overcome the terrain, would imply amassing troops nearly 12 times more than the defender and concentration of huge assets to achieve high density fire power at the point of decision: human and economical cost would be colossal and certainly unbearable. On the contrary, the open Tibetan plateau accords greater flexibility to the Indian Army. India has augmented its force levels with armour and mechanised elements over the last few years and more so, in the last one year, giving itself an offensive capability even though limited. This implies that the transformation has been from largely defensive strategy to an offensive one. The Chinese have realised this very well and they cannot afford a loss of face even if it is a Galwan-like clash. The fact that they are gradually accepting their losses in Galwan even after a year highlights their insecurities. So the tactical options are limited with the enemy. What they are left with is the manoeuvering in the strategic space.

India has steadily built up its assets and enhanced its capability in this domain as well; the latest being the test firing of a nuclear-capable Agni missile with range of over 5,000km thus covering the whole of China – a strategic deterrence that cannot be brushed aside. A nuclear option, in any case, is not the space any rational leader would like to step into. It will be suicidal for all with Mutually Assured Destruction. The only area left for exploitation is the conventional arena just below the nuclear threshold. This means heavy use of Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMS), long range rockets, drones and heavy bombers. In other words, the battle on the LAC will be decided by a very short duration, high intensity conflict in areas much in depth, something never witnessed before.

The Indian Army has spent around Rs 500 crore in building up logistics to meet the challenges of high altitude warfare…

The Chinese have a plethora of weapons in their inventory to prosecute their will in this space and so has India. Therefore, any flare up on the LAC could result in multiple ‘Kargil-like’ situations spanning all over from Ladakh to the Central Sector to Sikkim and into Arunachal. This could end up in dissipation of limited Indian resources against the Chinese surge. There are reports of China building up their border infrastructure rapidly – air strips, helipads, ammunition dumps, missile storage sites, air defences and much more. All this is definitely not without any reason. Conflict or no conflict, the build-up in any case signals a long haul. This border stand-off could end up continuing for years ahead. As it is, we are running in to second year of the face off.

Having said that, it is not going to be an easy walk-over for the Chinese. India, on its part, is developing and rapidly deploying its GLCMs, drones and long range rockets. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat has hinted at the raising of a rocket force. This will enable high inter-services synergy, better command and control, effective resource management and streamlined logistic and communication support. The idea is indeed to counter the Chinese threat in a robust manner.

The Indian Army Has Something to ‘Thank’ China For

It is a historical fact that the Indian civilisational character is of “not invading any country”. A point highlighted in his speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Leh in 2020. While China may have “the first mover’s advantage,” the Indian Army is confident of an assured punitive response that could even mean a limited offensive across the LAC, as well as countering China’s advantage in the discussed strategic space. Ironically, since the 1962 debacle, the Indian Army had failed in convincing the political leadership for decades about enhancing the capability of the Indian armed forces to counter China. However, what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has done in one stroke of its misjudgement has highlighted the need for faster modernisation and indigenisation of the military, Research and Development as also in equipment and military hardware manufacture. Today, not only are they convinced, but the leadership across the political spectrum in India stands totally with the Indian Army both in terms of action and advice.

Presently, the defensive posture is highly dissuasive and there is going to be no walk over for the Chinese any more. The stories of reoccurring Chinese ingress here and there are the events of the past. Today, the Indian Army is in a mode of heavy deployment and its posture is aggressive with matching force levels with that of the PLA, to the least.

‘We have Come a Long Way’

With regard to the infrastructure India has come a long way from being critically deficient to now nearly matching with that of China in the region. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) must be lauded for the task carried out over the past one year constructing a web of roads and bridges. It was for that effort of the BRO that the Indian Army could deploy up to five armoured regiments with 45 Main Battle Tanks each and even switch forces as the threat evolved at critical places; each tank weighs 50 tonne.”

When, initially the decision was taken to deploy armour nearly a decade ago, it took a tank regiment, a full one year to bring up their tanks from Pathankot to Leh, by road, via the Manali axis. A lot has changed ever since both in terms of scale and time. We should not forget the role played by the Indian Air Force and its workhorse, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. India has the largest fleet of these Globemasters outside the US, providing a unique strategic lift capability. The story would have been totally different if we didn’t have these strategic lift aircraft. The capability of this fleet to build up an armoured regiment in five days and an artillery regiment in two days alongside an Infantry Division in flat six days is by no means a small task. 

China is enhancing its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and securing its basis in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan are steps to be more effective beyond protecting its energy supplies along its Sea Lines of Communications. The Indian Navy’s fleet is being augmented by its indigenous Naval Design Department and commendable ship building effort of the Naval Dockyards. It is not going to be a cakewalk for the PLA Navy. In fact, the much flouted “string of pearls” will prove its biggest miscalculation due to the vulnerability of any forces berthed in these ports.

The Indian Army is in a state of very high morale. The IA troops facing the Chinese eyeball to eyeball are equipped with the best of super high-altitude clothing and shelters. Today, the winter and high-altitude related casualties are at minimum levels when compared to those of previous years. On the contrary, on the adversary’s side we see that the Chinese suffer from low morale arising out of their high weather-related attrition.

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The Indian Army has spent around Rs 500 crore in building up logistics to meet the challenges of high altitude warfare. This stand-off has entered into the second consecutive winter with temperatures dipping below minus 40 degrees. As reported by the press, the Indian Army has enabled the installation of a mobile tower at Demchok, bringing telecom and digital connectivity right to the LAC and this adds to the Chinese helplessness going by their past border management record. The installation of a statue of Buddha at Chhota Kailash in Demchok is also said to have “unnerved” the Communist Chinese. A prick in their eye!

In conclusion, I quote India’s foreign minister who recently said, “China should be in no doubt about India’s position on the bilateral relationship and what is ailing it. I don’t think the Chinese have any doubt on where we stand on our relationship and what’s not gone right with it. I’ve been meeting my counterpart Wang Yi a number of times. As you would have experienced, I speak fairly clearly, reasonably understandably and there is no lack of clarity so if they want to hear it, I am sure they would have heard it. We are going through a particularly bad patch in our relationship because they have taken a set of actions in violation of agreements for which they still do not have a credible explanation and that indicates some rethink about where they want to take our relationship, but that is for them to answer”.

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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

Danvir Singh

Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review, former Commanding Officer, 9 Sikh LI and author of  book "Kashmir's Death Trap: Tales of Perfidy and Valour".

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