Force structuring is an outflow of the national interests of the nation combined with the military threats it faces. In the Indian context, we face threats from Pakistan and China. Four conflicts with Pakistan and more than three decades of hybrid war with them has given us a clear view of the threat we can expect from Pakistan. To that extent, it is quite transparent. On the other hand, the threat from China is a fast-growing and more potent one. However, there is lack of clarity on how it will manifest itself. What will be the considerations which will force China into a major conflict with India? Will it ever do so? The author has examined the issues in depth in his article.
Chinese Threat: A Reality Check
In 2001-2, I was researching China for my dissertation during a course in the Army War College, Mhow. Its Four Modernizations program was flowering. China was flexing its muscles in the international arena. During a war game, I was appointed the PLA commander. My task: carry out a high-level offensive against India. I thought like a Chinese general for about two weeks. I was skeptical regarding the reasons for a large-scale Sino-Indian conflict. But then it was a war game. I gave out my offensive plan. The then Comdt AWC remarked – “your plan is a stereotype. To sort out India you must capture the Siliguri corridor earliest. Your plan does not contain that”.
I told him that we had considered a lot of out of the box, original, innovative and audacious ideas. We could capture Siliguri corridor at the earliest through the Doklam plateau, but that force would be decimated. After that tales would be abounding in the annals of military history as to how China was humiliated there. With the force levels then prevailing, any offensive had to be done sequentially along communication arteries only.
The war game ended with Siliguri corridor untouched despite my best effort. So, when Doklam occurred and with recent reports of Chinese firming in there, I reflected on that wargame. I fast forwarded the situation and rebooted all the issues I had considered. The emergent picture that follows is interesting.
There has been a lot of chatter on various issues. China is a hegemonistic and expansionist power. Our main adversary is China. Chinese forces outnumber India. Modern technology renders the Himalayan barrier ineffective. They can mount an offensive in one season. We are not prepared for a two-front situation blah, blah, blah. High-octane Chinese propaganda aided by our imagination makes them look ten feet tall. It is time to carry out a realistic assessment of Chinese strategic and operational considerations before they can even embark on a major offensive against India. That will give us an idea as to what force levels we should maintain. We cannot continue to maintain enhanced force levels based on fertile imagination alone.
The Chinese armed forces were born out of an internal revolution. They are not an expeditionary force like erstwhile colonial powers or the USA. Their primary task is to defend the nation against external aggression and internal threats. Add to it, protection of overseas interests – mainly economic, and increasing by the day. Come what may, some part of its forces will always be committed against its own people till such time as the Government is authoritarian in nature.
China has a land boundary of about 22000 km with 14 nations. While most borders sans India are settled, there are historical and current issues which will force China to deploy meaningful forces on borders with Vietnam (1283km), Russia (3645km) and N Korea (1416km) and some forces elsewhere before they embark on a large-scale offensive along the 3380 km LAC with India. If reunification of Koreas takes place (which cannot be ruled out with the present change in winds) then the USA, through proxies, might be once again across the Yalu to complicate matters for China.
The maritime situation is hot, volatile and fluid. A 14500 km long coastline which has a bulk of Chinese population, economic might and most nuclear facilities is greatly vulnerable. Add huge claims on South China Sea represented by the nine-dash line and disputes with all its maritime neighbours. Facto-in the danger of Taiwan declaring independence if there is the slightest weakness in Mainland China. Thinning out forces from its core is difficult and is fraught with danger in Eastern China. Bulk of Chinese forces are deployed here (Eastern, Central and Southern Commands). The maps are self-illustrative and prove the argument.
The overseas economic interests of China are mainly defined by its huge need for fossil fuels and its latest mega ambition – BRI. If China is committing forces for establishment of bases in South China Sea, Djibouti and Gwader and trying to establish bases potentially in Hambantota, Maldives and off Myanmar Coast it is picketing its interests which are vital and vulnerable. These bases are also pivots from which hard economic power can expand. They also serve to dish out the string of pearls theory.
China will undertake any major offensive against India only under two conditions. One it has some semblance of stability elsewhere. Two, the outcomes must be predictably in its favour. Even for that China will have to muster up enough forces to overwhelm the 7-8 Divisions India has on its frontline not to mention its reserves, its formidable Navy and strong Air Force which will come into play, unlike 1962. Overcoming defences in the Himalayas requires a force ratio of 6-9. Hence the total of requirement forces will be staggering. Will China be able to muster it up? Even if it does so there is the classic Himalayan ground reality.
The Tibetan plateau is bare, open and flat. Camouflage, concealment and surprise is ruled out making the entire forces very vulnerable to ground and air attacks. Past the Himalayan crest line in India, it is wooded, steep and unstable. The logistics of stage managing such huge numbers and progressing operations in such high-altitude areas, with poor roads and space constraints will be a nightmare.
Deployability will be a problem. All the talk that China has built up enough stocks across the LAC is suspect. Stocks, especially ammunition, cannot be held at forward locations at highest levels perennially. Time passes. stocks deteriorate. Static stocking locations can be knocked off in any case. For any offensive, there must be a firm base otherwise recoiling of the offensive is on the cards. China lacks it across the LAC. In the absence of a strong firm base I have always wondered how any can any force carry out deep or decisive operations. The debilitating effect on Chinese war machinery relocated from plains to high or super high altitude will be pronounced. Man, and machine, both will underperform in air and ground operations. It will be a long-drawn bruising affair.
A major factor in the Chinese thinking is ‘Loss of Face’. Considering that they are aspiring for superpower status through economic expansion on an unprecedented scale via the BRI, their propensity to get into conflict with a nuclear power which has strong-armed forces, which knows its ground, is doubtful. The chances of some reverses are omnipresent. A stalemate amounts to failure.
The Tibetan Issue can be raked into a long-standing hybrid conflict situation. Combine it with Xinjang and we are talking of a sizeable portion of China in turmoil. The energy routes through Malacca can be heavily interfered. The BRI can be targeted in Pakistan clandestinely. The nebulous QUAD can take firm shape. Indian public hostility will adversely affect Chinese economy.
The Domino effects of such retaliation will have serious consequences for China. In democracies, governments can be changed like diapers and nations can still clock a hefty GDP growth. That cannot happen in China. A long-drawn conflict could lead to destabilising the already cooling economy and the debt bubble could burst. Consequences could include internal turmoil and change of guard. Risk of Failure would have to be minimal since Cost of Failure will be colossal. In such conditions, war avoidance would be the preferred option as evidenced in Doklam and thereafter.
Then there is the issue of lack of battle experience which was the recent lament of a retiring Chinese General. Chinese forces have fared poorly in battles other than the 1962 Sino Indian War. They are still a largely conscript army and not a professional force. While they are transforming into a modern technology driven force they lack experience in many forms. As the country has got richer its peoples’ commitment to uphold its national values through bloodletting is not too visible. That is quite a dampener. Offensive orientation and thinking though visible through its arrogance is on shaky ground.
They have not encountered conventional or hybrid warfare for over half a century. In fact, they have stayed away from the turmoil engulfing world affairs, waiting for their competitors to burn each other down and then rule the world by default. More of a bania approach. In this entire process they have also gained the unsavory reputation of being nuclear / missile proliferators and friends of brutal regimes. They are also not endearing themselves when they trap nations in debt traps (except of course Pakistan).
In my overall opinion a conventional high-level threat is quite remote. But we are busy preparing for that! Our premise is that if the maximal threat can be met lesser threats can be tackled. That is an unaffordable option for us. We need to see what the realistic threat is which cannot be wished away. That must be met squarely and catered for.
The realistic threat, in my opinion, is a series of small confrontations or face-offs with varying degrees of latitude for application of force. They will be disconnected in time and space. However, the overall orchestration will be not to lose an opportunity to raise border tensions and create situations which will show us in a poor light as a weak nation. Increasing number of incidents along the LAC indicate so. I have argued about it earlier (bharatshakti.in/are-we-ready-across-the-Himalayas/) and that has been playing out on ground. It needs a major rethink the way our forces are structured. I do feel that we are overweight on manpower and under weight on Surveillance, Firepower and other force multipliers.
At the same time there are tendencies to go overweight on technologies which are fancy, costly and clearly unaffordable and probably not needed. Unless there is a balance between the two, our armed forces cannot be considered modern. There is a dire requirement to analyse as to where we are going wrong in our force structuring and accordingly put in course-corrections.
LT GEN P R SHANKAR (RETD)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)