Cause for a Mountain Strike Corps
Right from the days when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) decided to use military power to address its border issues with India, the Indian Army suffers from
a serious operational debility. This debility arises from an absence of counter-offensive capability across the watershed of the Indo-Tibet Border or the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Indeed, India’s defence oriented military strategy remains inconclusive unless it has within its ambit a viable component of autonomous counter-offensive or riposte capability to confront the aggressor with counter-threat(s) that forces him to divert or recoil from his venture.
The decade past has found that Beijing, perhaps buoyed by fruition of her military modernisation, is no more able to restrain from exercising her tactic of forcing gradual migration into claimed territories. Having already firmed up her possession of the Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley, she is engaged in preparing grounds for her next phase of expansionism through outlandish claims over the Arunachal Pradesh and many other bits. Accordingly, the LAC is subject to increasing intrusions at Hayuliang-Fish Tail, Asaphila-Longju and Lungma-Kerang areas in the Eastern Sector, Thag La – Barahoti areas in the Central Sector and Chumar, Demchok, Pangong Tso, Depsang Plains and Daulat Beg Oldi areas in the Western Sector of the Indo-Tibet Border. In the process, the PRC has advanced its notional claim-lines well into the Indian territory.
Captain B H Liddell-Hart had argued, with substance of historical proof, that though neither flamboyant nor spectacular as the offensive, it was the defensive strategy in most cases that brought assured victory in the end. However, there is a caveat. According to the universal ‘Principles of War’, for a defensive strategy to come successful, an effective offensive content must be intrinsic to each level of its prosecution. It is so that the various stages of defensive operations to harass, delay, resist, limit and cause attrition to the enemy’s attacking forces have to be infused with offensive characteristics. At the tactical level, this principle manifests in the form of the defender’s raids, spoiling attacks, reinforcing manoeuvres and local as well as deliberately planned counter-attacks, the last named being an exclusive operation for which contingency plans are made and forces earmarked.
Further, as the history of warfare teaches, to trigger final collapse of the enemy’s aggression, a capability to undertake autonomous counter-offensive – as distinct from the aforementioned ‘counter-attack’ phase of a defensive battle – at a place and time of the defender’s choosing must be but imperative to what may essentially be an ambit of defensive strategy.
Beyond the Line of Defence
Navies perform their mandate of defending national waters and coastlines by engaging in operations beyond the nation’s maritime boundaries. The Air Forces too target the enemy beyond the national air space; only in case of hostile ingress would they direct their attack into own territory. In similar vein, in order just to maintain the sanctity of a given line of defence but no more, ground forces have to resort to offensive action across that line. To be really effective, these offensive operations – call it counter-offensive or riposte – have to be launched from distinct firm base(s) and at timing(s) that are well clear from the tumult of defensive engagements; needless to state, in the contemporary context, all of these would be joint serviceoperations. The purpose here is to exploit those sectors where the aggressor prefers to remain in relative dormancy, and so upset his strategic designs by disrupting his force-matrix, terrain-orientation and ‘task-to-time’ equation. The United Nations Forces’ offensive on Inchon in the Korea War of 1951-53, India’s counter-offensive in the Lahore Sector during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War and Israel’s encirclement of the 3rd Egyptian Army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War are apt demonstrations of this principle.
The Idea of 17 Corps
By the Year 2007 or so, the extent of build up of the PRC’s military infrastructure along the Indo-Tibet Border had at last stirred the Indian Government’s conscience. Thus, it raised two army divisions and beefed up air power to round off India’s defence capability in the Eastern Sector. However, the void of that element of autonomous offensive action which must be intrinsic to any defensive strategy, remained unaddressed. That is the deficiency which is sought to be filled by the raising of a ‘Mountain Strike Corps’, the proposal for which had been pending with the Government since some years past; the Depsang La incident in April 2013 may have been the last straw. That was when the Chinese troops set up camp well behind India’s LAC and refused to budge, just as it had done earlier in the Zimithang, Asaphila and Hayuliang areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Demchok area in Ladakh, thus highlighting – for the nth time - the helpless situation that could confront India should Beijing decides to spurn India’s entreaties to vacate intrusion.
According to the official version and its implications, the 17 Corps is under raising at Ranchi, where during the Second World War, General William Slim’s 14th Army had geared up to win back Burma from the Japanese, and where the Eastern Command Headquarters was located till 1953. Once fully raised, the Corps Headquarters would move to establish itself at Panagarh in West Bengal, another World War II logistic base from where the wars in Burma and China were sustained. The Corps would have two specially structured mountain divisions - 59 & 72 Divisions - headquartered at Panagarh and Pathankot respectively. Besides, there would be two each of independent armoured and infantry brigades, one of each being located in Ladakh in the West and the other two stationed in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the East. A Corps being a very large formation of nearly 70,000 troops and vast paraphernalia of weapons, equipment, transport etc., the brigades and units, numbering above 200 odd, would be located variously from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. Another division is reportedly being considered to be orbatted to this Corps in which case the strength would be around 90,000 troops. Of course, there would be many changes affected in the force-structure and their locations as the Corps shapes up in step with its evolving concepts of operations.
The idea of 17 Corps is unique in military history. No field formation has ever been assigned to operational contingencies so fluid, across so distinctly separated frontages and axes spread over 4000 odd kilometres, over freezing deserts of 4300 to 5300 metres altitude where living itself is no less a battle, to prosecute offensive operations as a corollary to strategic defence. These challenges are sought to be tackled over the next seven odd years, to which end elaborate surface and air transportation, communications and base infrastructure are to be created along the border belt. Formations and units are to be located close to air bases and surface communication hubs, expansion of the Air Force transportation, railways and border roads being a step complementary. Even then, it would have to be a formation that is structured to operate at the far ends of tenuous lines of communications, build up and deploy astride rudimentary axes after acclimatising the troops over one to two weeks, and prosecute offensive operations in confrontation with a great military power.
The charter is mind boggling. It is doable of course, but there are complexities and concerns to be dissected in all seriousness and addressed with strategic sagacity. Therefore, a discussion on the core considerations would be in order.
Role and Objectives
The likely role of 17 Corps, within the overall ambit of the nation’s defensive strategy, may be envisaged in light of the preceding discussion. Foremost, it would be to launch in counter-offensive - autonomous or conjoined with other formations - to unhinge any military aggression. Next, it would be to balance out territorial loss in one sector by sallying out in sector(s) of choice, to secure, in part or whole, the Indian version of the boundary alignment. Other roles could be to deploy to limit and destroy the attacking forces, or to invest the adversary’s ingress and to evict it if necessary. In other words, besides its classical counter-offensive role in war, even in ‘no-war’ scenarios when the option of forcible eviction of the intrusion may not be exercised in order to avoid escalation, it would be possible to, firstly, contain the intrusion, and secondly, to counter it by advancing the LAC in some other location – a sort of tit-for-tat.
Proceeding further, the first question to arise in the context of any worthwhile ‘strike’ relates to the possible objectives of significance. Obviously, the objectives would be such as to unhinge PRC’s military aggression, and that purpose would be indicative of the optimum depth of operations. Starting from the Indo-Tibet-Myanmar Tri-junction and ending at the Aksai Chin, the Western periphery of Gongrigabu Qu (River)-Chayu, the Southern periphery of Yarlung Zangbu (Brahmaputra River)-Langquen Zangbu (Sutluj River) and the Eastern periphery of Lingzi Tang-Kailash Range - inclusive of the Western Tibet Highway or its subsidiaries - could be that reckonable depth.
Within the aforementioned belt, one class of objectives could be territorial in nature. Considering the historical legacy, these territorial objectives may be broadly identified as: one, in the North-East, the areas West of Chaya (Rima) and South of Nyngchi, Tsona Dzong, the Chumbi Valley, Khamba Dzong and the Brahmaputra River; two, the Mansarovar (Mapam Yumco)-Sutluj River Belt in the Central Sector; and three, in the Western Sector, the Pangong-Indus (Senge Zangbu) Valleys and the Depsang-Soda Plains. Herein, any of the tactically feasible axes of operations, single or multiple, leading to territories across the LAC or up to and beyond the Indo-Tibet Border may be activated. Indeed, there are many possible areas which may be logistically upgraded within a decade or two to support offensive operations of battle formations ranging in composition from brigade group size to two divisions plus; some of these axes may even be upgraded in just a few year’s time. Notably, while the desolate terrain may not offer classical military objectives, the very act of pulling off territorial riposte would be sufficient to lever India’s cause. Besides, targeting logistic hubs at Nyngchi, Gyangze, Ngari, Rudog and some more, denial of bridges over Yarlung Zangbu and Langquen Zangbu, and breach of the Western Highway or its subsidiaries would definitely tell upon the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) aggression.
The other class of objectives could aim at force-destruction, in which the attacker would be contained in hostile terrain, weakened and then destroyed. Notably, the modest scale of India’s retaliatory strike in comparison to China’s doctrine of massive offensive may not be an issue – just penalising and holding up a giant would dampen his blustery, and therefore could be seen as a politico-military redemption.
By far the biggest challenge in raising the 17 Corps would be to structure a potent and cost-efficient force and equipping it for the kind of terrain - and as a corollary the kind of warfare - it would be called upon to master. In that context, recourse to replication of orthodox tactics, structures and equipment profile would offer strong attractions. However, having seen that the force, terrain and mission, all three are unparalleled, adoption of templates would be a grave mistake. For the right organisation to be devised therefore, it would be appropriate to evaluate the functions of the terrain and conceptualise appropriate battle tactics to harness its nuances.
From India’s view point, the terrain is like a funnel, its narrow stem widening into an expanse as the watershed is approached and the Tibetan Plateau unfolds. Resultantly, for nearly three-fourth of the 300-450 kilometres to the watershed, deployment of forces would have to be along relatively narrow, steep, winding and rugged valleys, mostly over single axes, with availability of shunts and laterals few and far between. Obviously, forces would have to move and deploy in echelons over restricted axes till they cross over to the plateau-land whence they would have the option of either diverging or converging combat power to reduce selected objective(s). Indeed, in that remote and desolate expanse of cold high altitude desert, the quantum of force-application would be decided by the logistic capability to field and sustain battle formations. As a corollary, the Corps may need to divide itself to operate astride multiple axes, even across multiple sectors – North-East, Central and West – in varying combinations of divisions and independent brigades to sally out into the plateau-land.
The severe dictates of the terrain attributes may be turned into tactical advantages provided organisation, tactics, equipment and logistics are customised in exclusivity. For example, induction, establishment of logistic bases and movements through the rugged mountains on Indian side of the watershed may well be rendered much safer from air and missile attacks as compared to the enemy on the plateau-land who would be open to detection and interdiction from air-ground operations. Even from the consideration of time and space, the factors would not be adverse towards India when the traversing distances, communications and altitudes are weighed in comparison. Lastly, when well reconnoitred and adapted to, the plateau-land would offer to the Indian forces good scope for ‘behind the line’ operations.
Factoring analogies from past campaigns as well as concurrent tactical concepts, the tactics would hinge upon manoeuvre of multiple combat elements to shape the battle-matrix and followed up with sharp engagements, rather than a replay of mass assaults of the kind propagated before the advent of Revolution in Military Affairs. The objectives could either be communication and logistic hubs, or opponent forces. Indeed, the campaign would follow the eternal practice of what is currently described as ‘Hybrid Warfare’, in which 4th Generation battles would shoot-off from field formations engaged in deliberate offensive campaigns. Of course, dominance in air power would play a singular role in reconnaissance, information war, destruction, interdiction, support to ground operations, troop mobility and logistic sustenance of the war effort.
In the overall context therefore, organisation and equipment for the 17 Corps have to be exclusive. For example, the Corps may be composed of integral scout, reconnaissance and special service units and brigade groups integrated into flexible mix of light and heavy combat arms. It may also have to be structured for transportable, manoeuvrable and higher volume of fire-power and enhanced grouping of support arm elements. Similarly, provision of in-built force-multiplication elements of information warfare - like command and control warfare, reconnaissance, intelligence preparation and deception – and geo-spatial survey teams would be mandatory for the Corps to fulfil its role. Above all, the Corps operations must be tuned to true articulation of air power for manoeuvre, air assault and operational logistics.
Needless to emphasise, it would be wise to equip 17 Corps with transportable and manoeuvrable war-like equipment, the loss of mass being compensated by higher scales of holdings and brisk operational momentum. The problem is that the global arms industry has not found it profitable to invest in development of weapons and equipment that answer to the characteristics of high altitude mountain warfare, and therefore most such equipment do not form part of importable inventory. Most of its theatres of war being mountainous, India’s defence planners could have turned this dearth into self-advantageous force-superiority through indigenous research and development. Regrettably, they failed to adapt to that rather obvious need, confined as they were with dated notions about ponderous characteristics of mountain warfare. Equipping the 17 Corps in a manner operationally desired would therefore require specific design modifications, field trials and mix of import and customised production under an overarch of economical viability. Given India’s system of functioning, the officially promulgated time-line of seven to eight years to acquire the right range of weapons and equipment may therefore turn out to be rather tight.
But more than that, optimal equipping of the 17 Corps would be an exercise advantageous only if the Indian military fraternity sets out to assimilate what weapons and equipment that may be readily acquired, and subsume the qualitative shortcomings into specifically devised battle-tactics and operational procedures. In other words, to begin with, it would be wise to foster tactical ingenuity to customise orthodox tactical concepts, and accept redundancies in scales to overcome lesser performance from what military hardware is available at hand. Great armies are known to do so; Indian Army has done so before.
The quantum of force that can be committed to offensive operations through a given sector would be dictated by the extent of sectoral logistic capacity, existence of operational axes therein, and the robustness of these. Besides, final outcome of trans-Himalaya operations would be decided by logistic survivability of that force in a terrain so unliveable. By implication therefore, based on the intended counter-offensive tasks of the 17 Corps, logistic infrastructure would have to be developed, both in terms of sectors and axes of possible operations as well as the quantum of likely force-application along those sectors and axes. This capability would have to be built up in the form of static installations - such as roads, air-heads, administrative bases, dumps, services, survivable-habitat, etc – as well as expendables like ammunition, rations and fuel. Besides, once across the watershed, the burden of logistic sustenance would require to be extended, insulation, portability and mobility being the key determinants in this case. Further, logistic capacity-building would have to be maximised to conform to foreseeable operational contingencies. No doubt, planning and build up of logistic infrastructure calls for intelligent forethought and deliberate time-and-cost intensive undertaking at the national level.
Even if well within India’s engineering capabilities, infrastructure development projects would necessitate deployment of additional construction agencies and enormous funding; these two factors would determine whether the projects would take a decade or double that to be in place. As for the turnover or replacement of expendables, the challenge would be even more complex. Life-cycle stocking and turnover of ammunition in itself would be a tedious and costly commitment. Lastly, in environs so excruciatingly hostile, air-power would have to play a lead role in forward provisioning to the forces for them to survive and fight. The period of seven or eight years for the Corps to be fully operational must have been decided based on such considerations. But as to the implementation, there must be alacrity - India’s traditional elephantine pace would not deliver.
In adopting the above mentioned measures, logistic services to be integrated at unit, formation and theatre levels would have to be freed from the standard templates and reconstructed according to the unique conditions of Himalayan warfare, grouping of detachments, manpower, load handling equipment, mobility and communications being the thrust areas. The orthodox advocates of the ‘teeth-versus-tail’ issue may have to reconcile to larger complements of logistic services if they set their hearts to winning a war in the High-Himalayas.
Notably, not just the raising of a Mountain Strike Corps, it would be the build up of commensurate military infrastructure that would signal to the adversary, the scope and options of India’s military deterrence. To forestall military adventurism from PRC therefore, Indian defence planners would be wise to break-out of the festering stagnation that grips infrastructural development in border areas.
A Larger Strategic Dividend
If there is one matter to which the Indian psyche would never reconcile, the military debacle and political drubbing India got in 1962 from Mao’s China would be that one. No wonder therefore that even when conscious of the People’s Liberation Army’s overwhelming combat power, making China pay heavily for any future aggression remains a matter of faith for all Indians, indeed the Indian Armed Forces. So far this aspiration had been stifled by the void of autonomous offensive capability that, to reiterate, must form part of any worthwhile defensive strategy. Raising of a Mountain Strike Corps will therefore round-off the Indian strategy for the defence of its territories. No doubt, the cabal of India baiters cannot be enthused by the advent of the 17 Corps.
Raising of the 17 Corps is one of the landmark events of India’s military strategy. However, to make the best of this unique military formation, the Indian defence fraternity must prepare to prosecute wars that are exclusively ‘Indian’ in nature – exclusive in terms of tactical concepts, force-composition, and balance in deployment.
Finally, as military history tells us, when marshalled with tactical innovation, a strategic force of the nature of the 17 Corps will invariably offer a range of strategic options which may go beyond its role initially mandated. Articulated with free flow of strategic acumen, this military asset therefore may offer exponential peace dividends.
Published in Vivek: Issues & Options, July-Aug 2014