Military & Aerospace

Mountain Strike Corps: A Strategic Audit
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Issue Vol. 29.1 Jan-Mar 2014 | Date : 17 Feb , 2014


For India to emerge as a regional power and a global player, there is need for an attitudinal change. India has the wherewithal to protect its interests and assert its rights and claims. With political will, the country will forge ahead without encumbrances. The stakes are high and time is running out. India cannot remain static marking time expending energy wastefully while others zoom ahead consolidating and enhancing comprehensive national power. The location of uncommitted reserves up to Corps level and the Strategic Reserve/Mountain Strike Corps opens avenues that need courageous leadership and the will to be exploited to protect and enhance the country’s interests.

“We should implement the military strategy of active defence for the new period, and enhance military strategic guidance as the times so require. We should attach great importance to maritime, space and cyber security. We should make active planning for use of military forces in peacetime, expand and intensify military preparedness, and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local war in an information age.”

—Report of Hu Jintao to the 18th CPC National Congress, March 2013

India has responded to threats to its security on the borders through diplomacy and refrained from the use of its military option…

Building Up A Case

The Indian Army had, for some time, been war-gaming the need for dedicated uncommitted force(s) for its Northern Borders. The Kargil War exposed the weakness of the existing set up in Ladakh in the tactical and operational realms. The Division headquarters located at Leh had been unable to generate adequate reserves and sufficient firepower to meet the threat by Pakistan or to dislodge the intruding elements from Indian territory. Nor was it structured to take under command additional forces and firepower resources that were inducted into Ladakh as also control two fronts. Its responsibilities in Eastern Ladakh dictated the requirement of maintaining adequate force presence and dominate that sector to counter any collusive venture by China.

Along the rest of the International Boundary/Line of Actual Control (IB/LAC), the political terms of reference – ‘not an inch of territory to be lost’ necessitated the defensive deployment of forces. The terrain in the mountains literally ‘eats up troops’. This twin compulsion has resulted in holding ‘every inch of the boundary’ leaving no uncommitted reserves. The recently raised Divisions in the Eastern Sector have got absorbed in a defensive role. Therefore, the requirement of a strategic reserve dedicated for the Northern Borders is an imperative in dealing with the existing military weakness and the prosaic doctrine for defence propounded.

On July 17, 2013, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), approved the creation of a “Mountain Strike Corps” leading to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issuing the “Government Sanction Letter” (GSL) on November 19, 2013. This has paved the way for the Army to begin the process of inducting manpower required for the new raisings, initially by side-stepping, subsequently through normal induction as they become available under the recruitment process. The GSL authorises these new formation headquarters and units to commence the process of demanding the weapons, equipment and to requisition funds as entitled. Ipso facto, in theory this “Corps” should be operationally effective on the ground in the next seven to eight years. As some strategic analysts and China watchers claim that there is the window of opportunity available up to 2020 for India to bridge the gap between India’s Armed Forces and the PLA. This operationalisation will be co-terminus with such a window, if it exists and will enable the Armed Forces to project a degree of credible ‘dissuasion’. Delay in operationalisation will increase the gap between the capabilities of the forces of the two countries.

The terrain in the mountains literally ‘eats up troops’….

Battlefield Milieu

In his report to the 18th CPC National Congress, Hu Jintao also stated that – “We should closely follow the new global military revolution that is gathering pace, advance reform of our national defence forces in a both active and prudent way, and deepen military transformation with Chinese characteristics. With innovative military theories taking lead, we should enhance our capacity for innovation in defence-oriented research and industries, modernise the military organisational structure, and build a system of modern military forces with Chinese characteristics.” It will be imperative that these statements are analysed and future developments factored into our own planning process.

A force the size of a Corps held as a ‘strategic reserve’ will be committed for operations based on the reading of the battle as it unfolds and the location and the possible commitment of the reserves held by the PLA. The PLA doctrine of “Limited War Under Hi-Tech Conditions and Informationalisation” would be executed as a “War Zone Campaign”. That, war could be initiated by offensive operations which are likely, to be restricted to “non-contact” type of operations.

Strategic pre-emption or a pro-active response is presently not the policy option that India believes in….

The “non-contact’ phase could include an onslaught of offensive cyber operations and electronic warfare disrupting India’s military and civilian communication network, radar surveillance grid and cause collapse of all essential services – banking, stock exchange functions, rail, airline reservation and the electricity grid. China could also target Indian satellites. It could declare the air space over Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ and the Tawang area may be covered under effective ‘Area Denial/Anti Access’ stratagem. When such measures are adopted against India, even if the origins of such cyber or anti-satellite attacks cannot be pin-pointed and attributed to any country, the Government will be faced with the challenge of response. It is a moot point whether such acts should be constituted as ‘act of war’ even though no exchange of fire has taken place on ground, sea or air between the two forces. Strategic pre-emption or a pro-active response is presently not the policy option that India believes in. India will need to factor in the changing forms of conventional threat and consider a declaratory policy of military assertion if the threat disrupts the fundamental functions of governance. However, in such a contingency issuing a mere diplomatic demarche will be an act of extreme passivity.

In the past, India has responded to threats to its security on the borders through diplomacy and refrained from the use of its military option ab initio. Consequently, there is a predominant measure of ‘restraint’ as the underlying sinew of the national security strategy. Therefore, the response to the scenario illustrated above will entail a reactive posture at all levels of operations. Reactive operations have a constraint of operational imperatives. Firstly, since the initiative is with the attacker, the resources for a defensive battle are allocated such that there is a semblance of strength all along the defensive deployment. Secondly, the attacker will concentrate his strength and effort at the point of attack, which, inevitably will lead to penetrating the defences. Thirdly, as a consequence there will be loss of territory. Fourthly, reserves will invariably be sucked into the battle to restore the situation. Fifthly, the situation may be so badly degraded that it may not be feasible to launch the strategic reserves to wrest the initiative by operations elsewhere. Sixthly, the attacker can dictate the timing and manipulate international pressures for the termination of the war with a favourable end state for him.

Committing Strategic Reserves

In a conventional reactive war in the mountains, the potential of strategic reserves can be brought to bear contingent on the operational situation. The tactical battle will be fought to stem the enemy assault. In the process the local reserves, up to the Corps (holding the defences) level will inevitably be drawn in to restore an adverse situation. It could be also possible that due to lack of bold military and political leadership the strategic reserves too, get sucked into the same sector or theatre of operations in a graduated response. The severe constraints of the terrain obtaining along the Northern Boundary, to a lesser extent in Ladakh, impose immense time penalty and restricts deployment of forces to exploit the considerable combat potential available.

PLA’s operations will be suitably disguised behind the cover of strategic deception and political subterfuge…

If however, a portion of this reserve is located well forwarded, on the first indication of conflict, a riposte can buttress the defensive battle. Additional forces of the strategic reserves can then exploit the success of the riposte. Alternately, Brigade group or Division minus size force can be launched in a quid pro quo manoeuvre through an altogether different sector. This effort will require to be reinforced before its culmination. Successes by this force will compel the enemy to recoil thus achieving a favourable end state. In another scenario, when the enemy offensive has been blunted after he has committed his reserves, a strong counter offensive can be launched into the enemy’s vulnerable sector without or with minimum assistance from India’s strategic reserve.

True to its name the ‘Strike Corps’ can the wreak havoc deep in the enemy territory targeting its strategic centre of gravity, bringing about the termination of the war with an end-state favourable to India. The sine qua non for such operations will be deep surveillance, strategic and tactical mobility, commensurate infrastructure, logistic war fighting stamina and bold leadership.

Theoretically, full combat potential of the ‘Strike Corps’ would have resulted in exponential dividends had the terrain constraints been eliminated. The reality presents a formidable unassailable operational mosaic. The classic politico-military objective and centre of gravity seems desultory. The avenues astride axes available are few and predictable. The capacity of these axes is limited and resultant build-up time consuming and vulnerable to interdiction and attrition. Outflanking or bypassing is restricted to the tactical level forces employed self-contained for up to 96 hours. The arc of the manoeuvre and depth of the tactical operation is proportional to the range and quantum of the fire support assets available.

In the India-China context, the battle areas astride the IB/LAC in the Himalayas are along the watershed at altitudes ranging from 13,000 to 17,000 feet Above Mean Sea Level. The geographical reality of the width of the Himalayan Range necessitates forward deployment of even the long range heavier calibre artillery assets including rocket artillery and their equally heavy ammunition supply chain. The infrastructure will require considerable upgradation to make this possible. The rarefied air at high altitudes along the watershed imposes additional restrictions. Acclimatisation of troops is a medical necessity which if curtailed will entail heavy non-battle casualties. Weapons and equipment performance is also affected at these altitudes.

The rise of China has been seen as a threat by most of her neighbours…

The effective range of weapons increase, blast effect radius is reduced, battery life of surveillance devices and electronic equipment is degraded and recharging is difficult as generating equipment cannot be located forward due to the haulage problems and noise which is a tactical taboo. Rotary wing aircraft performance is drastically affected. Payload capacity is reduced significantly, armed and attack helicopters are unable to operate at these altitudes. Moving forward or side-stepping of reserves is a mighty challenge.

The depth of the enemy’s tactical battle zone presents limited targets for Special Forces Operations, those that will impact the course of the defensive battle or that which can be exploited by the riposte/quid pro quo effort. While these forces can be inducted by a drop from a fixed wing aircraft their extrication is left to their own ingenuity. As a result, they are available for single missions only. Considering these imperatives, successful launching of the ‘Strike Corps’ will be determined by effectively factoring in these multifarious challenges. China too will face the heavy degradation of her potential due to terrain friction on the conduct of operations South of the watershed. Effect of altitude on men and equipment and peculiar logistics requirement are major constraints on China’s offensive designs. Any ill-considered misadventure will extract a price she cannot afford to pay.

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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

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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9 thoughts on “Mountain Strike Corps: A Strategic Audit

  1. Dear General
    We have already a corps troops deployed in the NE- sector. To be precise in the Tezpur- Tawang sector. In case of hostilities will the terrain able to sustain additional deployment of troops?. Moreover we must have a powerful artillery cover to take on the enemy so that it threatens/delays his further movement. I doubt that heliborne weapons will be able to take on
    the enemy.due to the terrain condition. Last but not the least is our intelligent services should be sophisticated enough for favourable offence/defence battle.
    J W Danday

  2. Lt Gen JS Bajwas has analysed the need for mountain strike corps exceedingly well. Our combat troops being mainly from the plain hinterland in Ladakh in 1962 Sino-Indian War suffered immensely, besides from poor leadership and obsolete equipment and tactics, from lack of physical and mental fitness. My own Battalion 13 KUMAON that fought ferocious battle of Rezang La in Ladakh and the other at Walong by 6 KUMAON felt the strains of physical ans psychological stress while the Chinese PLA troops who fought the war belonged to Tibet Autonomous Region and withstood similar stress as a routine. Just imagine the Chinese from the Tibet Autonomous Region fighting war in May-June in Rajasthan desert! This mountain strike corps must have troops from high altitude region well trained and led. Also, in the entire war we had no knowledge of ORBAT,units and tactics of the opposing PLA forces. These neglects in future conflicts would be more fatal and MUST be addressed equally well and seriously professionally.

    • Dear Col Nini Bhatia, Chinese PLA too has its problems in tackling the issue of acclimatisation. We need to be alerted well in time for which there is an urgent requirement to invest considerably on strategic surveillance and HUMINT resources. In both these areas we are very weak. China will disguise its preparation through skilful and clever deception. Mind sets on our part will be strategically and operationally dangerous. We need to develop a cadre of Mandarin language experts. Presently we do not have sufficient language experts to even cover the Border Personnel Meetings. Women Officers of the Intelligence Corps can be an efficient resource. We should even be sending them in groups for a two year course to Taiwan and Hong Kong just as the IFS does. This proposal was mooted as far back as 1998-99 but not yet implemented. We will continue to bring these issues to the fore.

  3. Thanks;

    It is informative paper which educates the common man of India’s defensive and offensive scenario on the northern border. War with China may or may not come, our economy will decide that in next ten years. But letting Chinese know that we are well prepared and waiting for them to come is key factor to dissuade them from 1962 type high speed adventurism.

    Much of the info on Strike Corp or state of preparedness on the northern border is from cleverly managed news releases, stupid media reporting and extremely volatile internet military forums where 20-25 years old, who have not seen the business end of gun or seen a 10,000 feet mountain (I am from Shimla), pretend to be experts and discuss at length issues which they are not competent to discuss. Much of the discussion leaves a bad taste in mouth. I complement senior services officers (retired) taking to journalism and correcting the rumours and gossips.

    Thanks again

    Hari Sud

  4. A pithy and to the point article. I would look forward to a sequel to this from Gen Bajwa. The terrain is the biggest handicap to us. Moving forces inter sectorally also poses huge problems; hence the dilemma of committing even a part of strategic reserves in one sector may not allow us to switch it elsewhere in an acceptable timeframe.

  5. I have a couple of questions and points for discussion for the General.
    Firstly we have an obsessive defensive mind set in the Indian Army. Do the Chinese ever try to occupy all ground as is the desire of our military planners?
    Our military deployments are lethargic. Flexibility is lost in employing a large quantum of troops to hold ground. Our penchant to hold excessive ground makes us sluggish and static. Mountains are the playground for a flexible mind. Infiltration, exploitation, degrading logistics, guerrilla warfare, and small unit operations should be the forte of any commander in the mountains.
    The Chinese front is held by three commands, how do you fight a co-ordinated battle there? If you look at the overall picture; the whole of the Tibetan front needs a coordinated and cohesive battle plan, one front balancing and complimenting the other. We need a unified command there and not MO in Delhi.
    To give you a thought scenario – Let’s raise TA battalions from the locals along the border areas. You and I know the economic status of the people living there. They would take up the offer willingly. Train them for defensive role and GW. Fighting in your own back yard policy. The population is rotated to perform these duties. Minimal troops are employed for such role. You have created a vast reservoir of man power available for defensive tasks and is available locally at short notice to occupy defensive positions as on required basis.
    All regular units are tasked for offensive operations at whatever level. Let’s forget counter attacks, let’s get into counter strokes. For such postures we have to increase our heliborne capabilities; which are dedicated to various sectors.

    • Road network and additional infrastructure such as gun positions etc have to be built up. It’s also a battle of logistics – lets be logistically geared up and derail the enemy’s logistics; this is where the Airborne and Special forces come into play. Degrade the enemy’s capability to fight a protracted battle across a 2000 km front. It’s an enormous task but if you have the mind you have the way; if you have a way you will have answers, and when you have the answers you win.
      The crunch point is that we don’t have to raise “A” strike corps. Within ourselves by changing our outlook, mind-set and most of all our ‘operational philosophy’ and strategic sense we have the manpower for a strike corps in each sector against the Chinese. All that we have to do is get a little flexible and reshape and rearm and re-equip our existing forces for offensive operations. It’s more of a matter of the mind we can do it easily and we don’t need 5 to 7 years to do it. Regards JP.

      • Dear Col JP,
        You have raised very relevant issues. Yes the terrain is most suited for decentralised operations at the Tactical level. Yes there will be a major challenge to coordinate a strategic response across the whole Northern Front. The Chinese too have a similar challenge however they have the doctrine “War Zone Campaign” to address this challenge. We are often dismissive about it when we should be studying its feasibility and its implementation. Why we will remain defensive is because India gives prominence to “Strategic Restraint” as the corner stone of its National Security Strategy. Yes we are raising SCOUTS battalions of locals, in Ladakh we have the Ladakh SCOUTS, in Himachal we have the Dogra SCOUTS, Utranchal it is the Garhwal and Kumaon SCOUTS, Sikkim SCOUTS are being raised and there will be two in Arunachal Pradesh.
        Their employment in their classical role must be emphasized on and commanders must not be tempted to draw them into holding defences. In conjunction with the SF, as also brought out in the article, they will yield favourable operational dividends. As regards infrastructure development, I deliberately refrained to bring out any details otherwise the focus would have changed.

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