Striking Into Tibet
China’s prolonged incursion into India in April this year, and perhaps the media attention it garnered, finally proved the nudge Delhi required to green-light the formation of new mountain strike corps units to be deployed in the vicinity of the Line of Actual Control between the two Asian giants. The plan will, at a cost of ₹65,000 crores, effectively raise approximately 90,000 men, formed in two mountain strike corps, two engineering, two armoured, one artillery (Brahmos-equipped), one independent infantry, one aviation, and one air defence brigades, perhaps with a few UAV squadrons thrown in too. These will be supported by the recently acquired C-130Js based out of Panagarh in West Bengal and the Su-30MKIs at the Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) of Machuka, Vijaynagar, Pasighat, and Zero. Although this has been mulled not-so-secretly for over ten years, it has suddenly come under public criticism after its announcement.
While many observers have seen Delhi’s decision to go ahead with the mountain strike corps as a resultant of the Chinese intrusion at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and their subsequent vandalism of Indian border posts, the structure of the new units betrays no such motive. In the difficult mountain terrain of the Himalayas rife with unpredictable asymmetric advantages, it would be impossible to land and manoeuvre such large forces effectively. If anything, India’s latest military creation must be seen as the development of capability to leapfrog the Himalayas and fight on the Tibetan plateau. This is a first in Indian military thought – even during the nuclear debates in the Lok Sabha in the 1960s, parliamentarians suggested using nuclear weapons in the mountains to isolate and decimate invading enemy troops than acquire expensive delivery systems that would put the bomb on Beijing’s doorstep.
There are fundamental problems in using the newly raised troops as rapid response units to China’s frequent pinpricks, not the least of which is how far they are stationed from the frontier. Secondly, with a single aviation brigade to conduct airlift operations, reconnaissance, and provide air support, the corps will not be as fast and nimble as it needs to be; in addition, armour will be of limited use in the mountains, and unless new light artillery is acquired, the Indian Army’s present guns would be an additional burden. For all these reasons, it is unlikely that these units will play a major role in countering the regular Chinese incursions into Indian territory. Many of the infrastructural disadvantages the units have on this side of the border will, ironically, disappear in Tibet where China is reported to have built a sufficient network of roads, rail, and airstrips for a rapid deployment of troops in case of a crisis.
There is some apprehension that China’s ability to quickly mobilise and deploy up to 34 divisions – approximately 500,000 men – in Tibet in a war scenario will leave the Indian Army hopeless outmatched. This figure comes from the Tibetan Government-in-exile in Dharamsala, and is thought to include the People’s Armed Police, the Chinese Frontier Guards, and the Garrison Duty Forces. However, the PLA’s main centres, in Golmud and Chengdu, are at least 1,000 kilometres away and the troops there would need to acclimatise to Tibet’s rarer air. Additionally, any significant troop deployment into Tibet would only have to come by rail or road, as the PLAAF does not have the resources to airlift 100,000 men close to enemy positions overnight. It is also unlikely that the PLA would mobilise troops from its other regional centre, Kashgar significantly for fear of stripping another of its restive border provinces of security. Of course, Indian forces would have air cover from Advanced Landing Grounds in India while in Tibet. Ultimately, it is presumptuous to assume that Delhi would order a thrust into Tibet without clear and limited objectives – these 90,000 men are not expected to march onto Beijing on their own and win the war for India. The notion of their being outnumbered and out-gunned, therefore, needs to take this into account.
Some suggestions that have been floated advocate challenging the Chinese in their weak spot, namely, the seas. The reasoning is that India will take a long while to catch up with the Chinese in terms of infrastructure and land warfare capabilities, so a more profitable return on investment for Delhi would be to dominate the seas in return. First and foremost, it must be realised that the cost of a single capital ship and the attractive target it presents enemies is no less worrisome than raising and arming 90,000 men. Secondly, this is not an either-or situation – the PLAN certainly does not share this view with respect to its country;s capabilities as it develops blue-water ambitions. It must also be understood that strangling sea lines of communications (SLOC) is a daunting task in the world’s busiest waterways; to stop, search, and turn around every China-bound vessel would be almost impossible even without a Chinese naval presence. Beijing is also developing land alternatives to its most critical needs, with road links and oil & gas pipelines planned from Central and West Asia to reduce the criticality of SLOCs. Of course, the constraints of deploying aircraft carriers some distance from littoral waters to maintain manoeuvrability and safety from access denial systems such as the Chinese DF-21 (anti-ship ballistic missile) in the crowded waters of Southeast Asia is another concern.
There is, of course, the immediate problem that clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers happen mostly on land and in the Himalayas. While the mountain strike corps do not immediately address incidents like DBO, they were not meant to either – they are intended for a much higher level of conflict than the almost-daily skirmishes that occur on the Indo-Tibetan border. India’s immediate needs in the sector are special forces units which can be fast, agile, and concentrate heavy fire-power on their targets at a moment’s notice. This does not, however, negate the need for units that can strike into Tibet. It is commendable that India’s defence planners are thinking broadly about the country’s defence needs. However, the public’s imagination has been captured by recent events at the border, and objectives are being conflated and questions being asked about how India intends to raise the cost to Beijing of its pinprick policy. That would be another story.