With the Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh now into its third year, at Bharatshakti.in we decided to ask a few professionals to pen their assessments on issues that are relevant for Xi Jinping to consider before he launches the People Liberation Army to achieve his (Chinese) ambitions. The author analyses that the chances of the Chinese attempting a landing across the Taiwan Strait as too tall a task. That leaves India as its other option!
It has been two years since the current phase of Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh started. The PLA and Indian Armed Forces remain deployed along the LAC in high altitudes. From all available reports, China is making extensive infrastructure upgrades including the construction of new airfields, extension of runways, troop barracks, logistic networks, storage facilities, and so on. Additionally, reports filter in about their troops carrying out firing and maneuver training in high altitudes. There are credible reports that the PLA has also deployed long-range rocket and missile systems in Tibet. China has specifically upgraded its surveillance and intelligence gathering ability. At a macro level, one regularly hears of PLA deploying new weapon systems or capabilities to enhance its overall military combat capabilities. As per the Chinese doctrine, PLA is undergoing a transformation from being ‘Informatized’ to ‘Intelligentised’ in a drive being propelled by Xi Jinping. Overall the expanding Chinese military has postured aggressively to achieve its larger political goals.
At a time when the Chinese economy is cooling, their population is rapidly aging, internal troubles are mounting and China sees its global influence waning, its military expansion is unabated with enhanced budgets. This can lead to deducing only a singular intent and implication. China is likely to attempt to resurrect and establish its global influence and power status, quell internal problems and reignite its economy by externalising the situation and achieving a military victory. In this context, China has two options. Firstly it can annex Taiwan by force. This is a priority task that will fetch out of proportion results including freeing up its Navy for a global role and handing USA a de-facto defeat. Secondly it can teach India a military lesson. Why would it do so? A rising India is gaining in stature globally. It is also emerging as the international alternative and as a prime competitor to China. Putting down or showing India in a poor light militarily will reaffirm China’s prime status.
However the likelihood of any of these options must be seen in the light of two international military experiences. Firstly a full spectrum military power like USA was handed an inglorious defeat in Afghanistan. Secondly, another full spectrum power like Russia is struggling in Ukraine. There has been lot of debate in China regarding these operations which are akin to a ‘Goliath and David’ contest. The general view is that Taiwan is an island too far, at least for the present. PLA is not yet prepared for it. Victory is not assured. The military and political stakes of a failed cross-strait amphibious operation are too high. Hence the only alternative is to do something against India. In this context and in my opinion, a military action against India has higher chances of achieving victory under certain conditions. Hence it becomes a higher priority till China is confident of military annexation of Taiwan. However, any military option against the experienced Indian Armed Forces has to be calibrated and weighed to achieve a political victory and not end up in a stalemate as it did in Ladakh.
What would be the military options that China can exercise to achieve its political aim of showing India in a poor light and dent the latter’s newfound strategic confidence. Ideally, China will hope to hand India a major military defeat on the scale of 1962 at a time and place of its own choosing. Simultaneously it would endeavour to grab a piece of territory which will give it a long-term advantage. To this end, the options are to exploit the Chumbi Valley to capture an area south of the Dolam Plateau (Doklam) to threaten the Siliguri Corridor or capture a significant portion of the Tawang tract. However these are major military options involving significant forces which might transcend acceptable conflict thresholds to enter the nuclear realm. They might not result in an assured victory either. Hence, while the possibility of such options exist, the probability is low. If China is to embarrass India militarily, it must carry out an operation in which it can grab a sensitive piece(s) of territory from which it can not get evicted and ensure that India cannot do a quid pro quo action. To this end, the LAC offers multiple options. Any set of options in any combination can also be superimposed by a punitive ‘shock and awe’ missile strike. The major advantage of this option is that China can undertake multiple grabs and block/restrict any pro quid quo option(s) in such a manner that it ends up retaining more territory than it started with. Further such an operation can be considered as an extension of its earlier operation in Eastern Ladakh where it still holds some territory despite fifteen rounds of talks.
Overall when seen in the larger context of the already held territory and the newly captured territory, the blow to India will be hard. This can be boosted with a surgical missile / firepower strike into our depth areas, which are populated, in the garb of their being against military targets. Any retaliatory strikes by India will be largely nullified in information space since they will be against military targets in the wastes of unpopulated Tibet. It will result in a victory for China where Indian retaliation will be shown as insignificant and weak. The overall effect will be force multiplied with an information blitzkrieg where the strategic weakness of India will be rubbed in repeatedly.
In order to achieve victory, China will expand the physical combat space into a full dimensional war space where the offensive will go beyond traditional domains of land, sea, and air. They will aim to localise the war but expand it into multiple domains including space, cyberspace, electromagnetic, and psychological domains. All this was visible in eastern Ladakh. China will avoid getting involved in a protracted war as is being played out in Ukraine. Any protracted war against India will go against them with the possibility of other fronts opening up through the QUAD platform. Hence in all probability, it will be a short intense war that will begin with a salami-slicing tactic. The effort will be to show or provoke India into being seen as the aggressor so that China can assume the holier than thou status of being forced to defend itself. Its three war strategy of information, influence and legal warfare will come into play in full force. Having achieved a local victory, the effort will be to draw us down into long-drawn negotiations in which they will not budge.
The Chinese will execute the operation as per tenets of their latest war doctrine which seeks victory through their ‘system destruction warfare’ concept. The emphasis in battle will be on paralyzing and/or destroying critical functions of India’s operational system and to ensure ‘loss of will and ability to resist’. Operational systems will be degraded to render them ineffective. Resultantly, PLA will carry out strikes that degrade or disrupt the flow of information within our operational system. PLA will also attempt to degrade or disrupt essential elements of our operational system to include command and control, reconnaissance, intelligence firepower, information confrontation, manoeuvre, protection, and support systems.
Further, it will make an effort to blind/ degrade/negate our information acquisition and information transmission network, C2 networks, and firepower networks. There will be a major effort to disrupt India’s time and space equation to upset our operational tempo. The entire endeavour will be to ensure that CCP gets an upper hand to achieve political victory while controlling the scope and scale of conflict.
If Ukraine has taught them anything it will be that they must use long-range offensive firepower extensively to achieve military deterrence, crisis control, and escalation through punitive strikes, paralysis or degradation of enemy operational systems, destruction or sabotage of important military, political, or economic targets, and the undermining of enemy morale. The thinking in PLA is to use firepower surgically and not annihilatively. Non-contact warfare was gaining traction in their operational thinking which would have been reinforced by the way Russia has employed its long-range firepower assets. It is also important to note that China will attempt to fight the deep and forward battle simultaneously. An important aspect of the Chinese operations is that PLAAF operations will be limited by Himalayan terrain. China will make up this deficiency of firepower with a preponderance of rockets and missiles. Hence China will aim to control the escalation in such a manner that respective Air Forces do not come into play. They will build a firepower asymmetry in their favour through long-range ground vectors.
The next pertinent question will be as to when the Chinese will carry out or attempt such an operation. Given the current state of international opinion and the internal state of Chinese politics especially when its economy is stagnating and the virus is rampant, it will be reasonable to assume that no serious offensive attempt will be made this year. Additionally, as Xi Jinping will be busy getting re-elected for his third term in power. It will also be reasonable to assume that the next 2-3 years are critical when India will be their first priority, and Taiwan will beyond their grasp.
If the Chinese go about their task in the manner as detailed above, India will have to ensure that China does not get the space to carry out any operation as per its designs. India’s deployment along the LAC is reasonably strong and has the capability to carry out quid pro quo land grabs should the Chinese attempt to do so. However, the issue is that should we even allow the Chinese to contemplate such an action. In essence, we should deter the PLA from thinking that they have the capability of even having a sniff of victory.
It implies India must deny space to the Chinese and generate the capability to carry the battle deep into PLA territory. However, carrying the battle deep into enemy territory does not mean a deep physical offensive but an ability to look deep into his areas from where he can launch his offensive. It also means being able to interdict his follow-on forces, reserves, firepower assets, logistics and launch pads.
In Tibet, PLA induction and movement routes for initial deployment and side-stepping are almost fixed and predictable. Hence, there is a dire necessity to look deep into his territory through aerial and ground-based surveillance by both human and electronic means (manned and unmanned). Firepower ambushes and ‘track to kill’ tactics must be worked out based on aerial and ground-based platforms (manned and unmanned). Sensors and shooters must be fused with seamless communications across platforms with adequate redundancies. Special Forces operations deep in Tibet will pay handsome dividends. Overall, PLA must have to start its operations deep in their own territory and should be constantly looking over their shoulders, apprehensive of attacks on his depth movements and echelons. Most importantly, PLA should be convinced that this will occur so that they are deterred from undertaking any misadventure. If they do so they must fight a major part of the battle in their territory. A major facet of such deep operations against PLA will be our ability to dissuade the Chinese from even undertaking such operations through Information Operations. That is the challenge.
Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)