Following the government’s recent in-principle clearance to raise a Mountain Strike Corps, a debate over the efficacy of the decision to spend over Rs 64,000 crores on the new accretion has begun. Noted Strategic Affairs expert, former Rear Admiral Raja Menon writing in The Hindu categorically asserted: "A geographically limited one axis offensive will not destabilise the PLA, but a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group in the Indian Ocean can economically cripple mainland China." Others have also weighed in with their opinion essentially making the point that India should invest more in its Navy than sinking money in troops-intensive mountain strike corps.
The nub of this argument is: a powerful blue-water Indian Navy can choke the sea lines of communication (SLOC) so vital for China by strategic interdiction on the high seas and therefore the Indian Navy's capability to enforce a blockade must be strengthened. This theory assumes that India can unilaterally do so in case China assumes a belligerent posture across the Himalaya. If push comes to shove, India will certainly be forced to look at this option but the SLOCs are not an exclusive preserve of either India or China and the international community is therefore bound to intervene to keep the passage free to enable trade and commerce to function normally. A selective blockade of China-centric sea traffic is realistically difficult to implement even if on paper the prospect looks alluring.
However, if a conflict between India and China breaks out in the high mountains, the world is not going to be overly bothered for a while. India therefore needs to be prepared to meet this threat all along the 4,000 km long boundary with China. The likelihood of a limited skirmish in the mountains is much more than a confrontation at sea simply because the border remains un-demarcated and prone to frequent misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
The need to have more forces for the northern frontier cannot be overemphasised. This does not mean it should come at the cost of preventing the Indian Navy from expanding. Going by the information available in the open domain, the Indian Navy is in the middle of one of its most ambitious modernisation programmes. Apart from the planned—even if delayed—induction of INS Vikramaditya, the aircraft carrier built in Russia and currently under sea trials, 47 ships of different types and capability are on order in various Indian shipyards. India has activated the reactor on board the INS Arihant, the first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine. With Navy’s long-standing emphasis on acquiring indigenously-built platforms, Indian shipyards can cope only with these many numbers for at least another 10 years.
Coming back to the creation of a Mountain Strike Corps, according to available information, it is just the first step in what is needed urgently –the addition of 40,000 new troops to the Indian Army. The budget of Rs 64,000 crore for the new corps is to be spent over seven years –- which is just as well since raising new formations as large as a Corps is not an easy task. It is further difficult to make that formation capable of mountain warfare. For mountains gobble up troops; they take a heavy toll on man and machine.
The decision on the strike corps is somewhat reminiscent of a similar choice exercised by the UPA government almost four years ago.
The then outgoing UPA-I government's Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was meeting for the last time before the results of the 2009 general elections were to be announced. The sole item on the agenda: Enhancing India's military preparedness against China.
According to insiders present at that meeting, some of the members of the CCS wanted to leave the decision to the next government but better sense prevailed and days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first UPA government went ahead and sanctioned raising of two new Mountain Divisions for deployment in India's north eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh, an area claimed by China as South Tibet. In addition, the Indian Air Force was given the go ahead to reactivate half a dozen Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs) spread all along the Arunachal-Tibet portion of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries and base additional squadrons of Sukhoi-30 combat jets in Assam.
The goal was to plug existing gaps in India’s preparedness along the Arunachal Pradesh-China frontier. The two new divisions were to include a squadron of India’s armoured spearhead—Soviet-built T-90 tanks--and a regiment of artillery.
Now four years later, the two mountain divisions have completed their recruitment, equipping and orbatting in the North-east. One of them--the 56 Mountain Division--after being raised in Nagaland's Zakhama area has been placed at Lekhabali, north of the Brahmaputra adding teeth to Indian Army's presence in East and Central Arunachal Pradesh. The other new Division--71--headquartered at Missamari in the plains of Assam, will enhance troop deployment beyond Tawang in West Arunachal Pradesh in addition to the 5 Mountain Division already stationed at Tenga.
However, one lacuna continues to persist. Road links to forward areas remain tenuous. The China Study Group (CSG), which controls India's policy on China had sanctioned 72 tactically important roads to be built in the tough, mountainous terrain along the China border in the Eastern and the Western sectors. The roads are being built by the quasi-military Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to enhance connectivity. But a combination of lethargic BRO, obstructionist state governments and ministry of environment and forests has meant that these roads are nowhere near completion. Similarly, the half a dozen ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh are also stuck in red tape.
The recent incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh's Depsang area should serve as a timely reminder to the government that timelines for infrastructure development along the Chinese frontier and plans to boost military capability do not have the luxury of slippages.
Diplomacy and timing (cancellation of Chinese Premier's visit over the border standoff would have been a loss of face for Beijing) helped end the face off this time but New Delhi will do well to remember such incident is not going to be one off. The Chinese will continue to nibble at the un-demarcated border and test India's response as they have done for over 50 years.
What will be crucial for the new corps is cooperation and coordination between all stake-holders: The Defence, Finance and Environment Ministries, as well as the Army, Air Force and Border Roads Organization.
In the recent past, objections from the Environment Ministry have impeded upon the construction of crucial roads in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Uttarakhand. In the last case, the lack of connectivity was driven home brutally when torrential rains ripped open the state last month, leaving thousands stranded.
It is nobody's case that the environment should not be protected but a balance needs to be struck in caring for the environment and national security imperatives. The state governments will need to back the plan by facilitating the speedy allotment of land in remote areas.
The climate in most of these states means that the Border Roads Organization can leverage, at best, a four-month season to deliver new routes.
Similarly, establishing permanent infrastructure for troops, including hubs that supply ammunition and deciding strategically-placed artillery gun positions is a long -term and complicated process.
Finding the right contractors with the right skills and willingness to work on isolated, remote areas is another big challenge. The Indian Air Force, for instance, has been trying for three years to sign contracts that will lead the upgrading seven Advanced Landing Grounds or ALGS, crucial for the ability to quickly airlift troops to strategic parts along the China border. But the deals have not been closed because expert contractors find it difficult to work in these areas.
The new mountain corps will require light artillery which can be easily transported, even airlifted in the highest mountains. Given India's painfully-slow process of weapons acquisition, empowering the Mountain Strike Corps quickly will be a big challenge.
It is all the more necessary for the government to walk the talk in making the new formation a reality by adhering to timelines.
Simultaneously, India must re-look and re-tweak its China policy. For instance:
- Insist with Beijing the need for exchanging maps for all sectors immediately so that each side knows the other's claimed LAC and border negotiations can resume
- Instead of pushing for operational control of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Army should step up and assume responsibility to protect the disputed border.
- Ensure timely and effective information sharing mechanism with Indian media and through them the Indian people rather than let different stake holders speak in different and sometimes discordant voices during times of crisis.
- Educate and prepare the Indian people on the need for give and take on border negotiations in the future.
Policy makers in India must be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
(The author is a Delhi-based Security and Strategic Analyst)