The Indian Army top brass is revisiting a tabletop exercise it carried out sometime in 2018, war-gaming possible Chinese moves all along the Himalayan frontier. This exercise, done in the wake of the 2017 Dolam (Doklam) crisis, had examined possible Chinese strategies and had come up with India’s counter-response. Done across the Northern and Eastern Command geographies, the exercise was conceived by the Shimla-based Army Training Command (ARTRAC).
It had concluded that China would indulge in ‘hit and run’ tactics against India to test its own forces and also map India’s response to small-, medium- and large-scale exercises-cum-mobilisations and that the PLA would apply pressure at multiple points to try and push the envelope. And repeat the sequence in a year or two.
Events since early May have panned out exactly as the 2018 exercise had predicted. As we now know, the conclusions reached at the end of that exercise were mirrored almost exactly this year. PLA ground forces mobilised in larger numbers in Aksai Chin than ever before, deployed armoured and artillery elements at several points close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and created multiple friction points. The PLA’s military aim was two-fold: assess its own drills as well as the readiness of its troops and record India’s response.
Incidentally, the current Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, was the Indian Army Chief and current Army Chief General MM Naravane was heading the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) when the exercise was undertaken.
India’s rapid ‘mirror’ deployment in Ladakh and the robust response all along the eastern Ladakh frontier may have surprised many, including Chinese commanders but it now emerges that the Indian Army had anticipated such a contingency and the moment the Chinese mobilisation close to the LAC was noticed in early May, India deployed reserve troops of 14 Corps quickly and followed it up with the induction of additional brigades from a Mountain Division earmarked for Ladakh but based outside the Northern Command’s Area of Operations (AOR).
In any case, one of the three brigades of this division always exercises in Ladakh’s high-altitude areas during the Spring-Summer months. So additional, well-acclimatised troops were already available in sufficient numbers when the Chinese started testing India’s preparedness in early May. Subsequently, the entire Division was deployed in eastern Ladakh.
Another important finding of the 2018 exercise (and a couple of similar ones in earlier years), was that the Chinese would employ these tactics—deploy, raise the temperature and then withdraw after prolonged talks—at least twice in different locations (Ladakh this year, maybe opposite Arunachal Pradesh the next), spread over a period of three-four years and eventually launch a massive attack across the entire Himalayan frontier to settle the border once and for all.
Indian military planners have also anticipated the Chinese strategy of ‘mobilise-deploy-withdraw’ as a ruse to force India to commit forces permanently in operational locations close to the LAC and raise the cost. “Today it is Ladakh, next year it could be Barahoti area (in Uttarakhand), and Arunachal Pradesh thereafter. After every mobilisation, if we permanently locate additional forces in forward areas, the PLA would be most happy. That is the mistake we will not commit,” a senior military planner revealed.
Forearmed with this assessment, India is watching the current three Ds process—disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction—with extreme caution. The Indian military is not letting its guard down, especially in the context of the betrayal on June 15 when Chinese troops attacked the Commanding Officer of 16 Bihar Col Santosh Babu breaking a long-standing protocol at the LAC. India lost 20 brave soldiers in the subsequent clash but retaliated in equal measure, inflicting heavy losses on the PLA too. The bloodshed and loss of lives was certainly a new experience for the PLA which has not seen any real battlefield action after 1979.
The 15 June clash at Galwan is likely to have created far-reaching ripples, effects of which will not be apparent immediately but the fact is the trust, for whatever it was worth, on the border is now replaced with tension and weariness, demolishing a long-held belief that the India-China border is peaceful.
As for the future, Indian planners are working on various plans to meet another likely Chinese attempt at intimidation and probing advances in coming years even as diplomacy tries to find lasting solutions to the contentious boundary issue. The plans include improving ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability along the LAC, utilising additional heavy lift capability provided by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and speeding up all-weather surface connectivity to Ladakh and other vulnerable areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Raising the strength of various Scout battalions (Ladakh Scouts, Arunachal Scouts, Sikkim Scouts, Garhwal and Kumaon Scouts) is also on the anvil.
The Scout battalions, as the name suggests, function as the eyes and ears of the Army in the forward areas. The recruits are mostly drawn from amongst the local population and are therefore more familiar with the local topography and better acclimatised to high-altitude areas. Their deployment in forward areas helps the Army to get early warning and advance intelligence. More soldiers are likely to be recruited in these battalions in coming years and deploy them in company strength (100-odd men) instead of battalion.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive assessment of the Ladakh episode is currently underway in different segments on the Indian security establishment as well as in government-linked or government-supported think tanks. The three armed forces are carrying out their own review of the Chinese deployments, particular by the PLA and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in Xinjiang, Tibet and in Aksai Chin since early May, while a separate stock-taking of India’s intelligence gathering capability, both TECHINT (technical intelligence) and HUMINT (human intelligence) is being done to figure out what could be done to better collect, collate and analyse varied intelligence inputs that are received from time to time. Think-tanks such as the MEA-funded China Centre for Contemporary Studies (CCCS) are also looking at the possible non-military reasons for the Chinese actions in Ladakh and their long-term consequences for India-China relations.
Nitin A. Gokhale