On July 17, 2013, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) finally approved the army’s proposal for raising a Strike Corps for the mountains. Though the approval came after considerable delay, it is a pragmatic move that will send an appropriate message across the Himalayas. It will help India to upgrade its military strategy against China from dissuasion to genuine deterrence as the Strike Corps, in conjunction with the Indian Air Force (IAF), will provide the capability to launch offensive operations across the Himalayas so as to take the next war into Chinese territory.
The new Strike Corps will comprise two infantry divisions and will be supported by three independent armoured brigades, three artillery brigades to provide potent firepower, an engineer and air defence brigade each, an aviation brigade and units providing logistics services. The Corps will cost Rs 64,000 crore to raise and equip over a period of five to seven years. Approximately 90,000 new personnel will be added to the army’s manpower strength, including those in ancillary support and logistics units. The army has already raised 56 and 71 Mountain Divisions and deployed them in Arunachal Pradesh to fill existing gaps in the defences. Some elements of these divisions will act as readily available reserves for the new Strike Corps to add weight along the axis of attack and exploit success. These divisions will also be employed to secure launch pads for offensive operations across the Himalayas. Hence, these must be seen as playing a significant supporting role for the Strike Corps.
Of all the areas of concern that have dampened relations between India and China, it is the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute that is the most disconcerting. Since well before the 1962 border war, China is in occupation of large areas of Indian territory. In Aksai Chin in Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. China surreptitiously built its alternative route from Tibet to Xinjiang through this part of Aksai Chin. In addition, in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in the Shaksgam Valley of the Northern Areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (north of the Siachen Glacier and west of the Karakoram Pass) to China under a bilateral boundary agreement that India does not recognise. Through this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Xinjiang, Tibet and Pakistan.
In India’s north-eastern region, China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory that includes the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, even though physically the territory has always been under Indian control. In terms of area, Arunachal Pradesh is over three times the size of Taiwan. Sun Yuxi, the then Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi, had publicly reiterated this claim just before President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006. The ambassador single-handedly ensured that his President received a cold shoulder in Delhi and the visit turned out to be inconsequential. Since then, Chinese interlocutors have claimed several times that the Tawang Tract is part of Tibet because one of the Dalai Lamas was born there. Chinese scholars visiting New Delhi always hint that the merger of the Tawang Tract with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s often stated official position on such issues is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty.
An inherently destabilising situation stems from the fact that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, implying de facto control after the 1962 war, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The LAC is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km long boundary between India and Tibet. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as patrol face-offs are common and could result in an armed clash between patrols. Also, incidents such as the Nathu La border clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung standoff of 1986 can recur. Such incidents have the potential to escalate into another border conflict similar to the war of 1962. Also, over the last decade, China has spent considerable time, effort and resources to upgrade the military infrastructure in Tibet. The PLA has stepped up the number of military training exercises that it has been conducting in Tibet every year. An airborne division, which is a dedicated rapid reaction force, has also practised induction and deployment in Tibet.
Joint Operations during War in the Mountains
Hence, despite the ongoing border talks between India and China to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, often punctuated by ugly incidents like the PLA incursion in the Daulat Beg Oldie sector in April-May 2013 and repeated incursions into Chumar since then, a limited India-China border conflict cannot be completely ruled. As the territorial dispute with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir is also in the mountains, there is a very high probability that the next conventional conflict involving India will again break out in the mountains. Since the war will be fought under a nuclear overhang, particularly with Pakistan, there is a fair possibility that it will remain confined to the mountains so that it does not escalate out of control to nuclear exchanges. Hence, it was time for India to pivot to the mountains in its quest for building military capacities and it is creditable that the government has given the go ahead to raise a new Strike Corps.
In any future war that the armed forces are called upon to fight in the mountains, gaining, occupying and holding territory and evicting the enemy from Indian territory occupied by him will continue to remain important military aims. While these will be infantry predominant operations, no war plan will succeed without achieving massive asymmetries in the application of firepower to destroy the enemy’s combat potential and infrastructure. Therefore, army-IAF operational plans must be fully integrated. These must be jointly evolved, meticulously coordinated and flexible enough to be fine-tuned to exploit fleeting opportunities and to take advantage of the enemy’s reactions during execution. This is especially so in the mountains where the military aims and objectives are limited in scope because of the terrain. Both the Services must work together to create the capabilities that are necessary to take the battle into enemy territory during the next war in the mountains.
As artillery batteries and regiments cannot be moved and re-deployed easily, operations in the mountains place a premium on battlefield air support. Operational mastery over air-to-ground strikes can influence the outcome of tactical battles in the mountains extremely favourably. Firepower ratios can be enhanced to levels necessary for achieving overwhelming superiority only through a major upgradation in the availability of artillery guns, rocket launchers and missiles and offensive air support. A contract for the acquisition of 144 howitzers of 155 mm caliber has been hanging fire for long and needs to be expedited. The new artillery units that will be raised must be equipped with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that can engage targets deep inside Tibet from deployment areas in the plains. Precision-guided munitions (PGMs) need to be acquired in large numbers both by the artillery and the IAF to accurately destroy important targets such as communications centres. The government must also hasten the acquisition of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.
The peculiarities of terrain and the lack of sufficient road communications, particularly lateral roads that connect the road axes leading to the border, will place heavier demands on helicopter lift for the movement of reserves within divisional and brigade sectors. At the operational level, only an “air assault” formation can turn the tide through vertical envelopment and enable deep offensive operations to be carried out when employed in conjunction with Special Forces. An air assault brigade group inducted across the LoC or LAC by helicopters after the IAF has achieved a favourable air situation can seize an objective in depth. Ideally, each of the infantry divisions of the strike Corps must have one air assault brigade with the requisite air lift. Air-transported operations can also play a major role in influencing the course of the war. During Operation Parakram in 2001-02, almost a complete brigade group was airlifted to Kashmir Valley to enhance the reserves available in 15 Corps for offensive operations. In addition to attack helicopters, which will provide sustained firepower support, a large number of utility helicopters will be required to support offensive operations across the Himalayas, including medium- and heavy-lift helicopters.
The successful launching of Strike Corps operations will depend on the availability of good infrastructure, including double-lane roads with all-weather capability and suitably placed logistics nodes. India’s plans to upgrade the infrastructure in the states bordering China have not been progressing at an adequate pace. In fact, there have been inordinate delays due to the lack of environmental clearances and other reasons. While the new Strike Corps is being raised, equipped and trained, the government must make vigorous efforts to speed up the completion of infrastructure projects. Otherwise, the army will have a new Strike Corps and not be able to launch it effectively.