What the next India-China war might look like
India’s military might was on view during its Republic Day parade on January 26. Much of the focus of its armed forces is on China even though they are more regularly engaged in dealing with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. China looms large in the minds of India’s planners – owing to its large military budget, its modernisation plans and the aggressive posturing in the South China Sea – but there is not enough public discussion as to what a future India-China war might look like.
This gap has been impressively addressed in a paper by Iskander Rehman for the Naval War College Review titled ‘A Himalayan Challenge: India’s Conventional Deterrent and the Role of Special Operations Forces along the Sino-Indian Border’. Rehman, senior fellow at Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University, draws on extensive source material and interviews with figures in Indian intelligence, military and special forces to capture how Indian and Chinese strategists think about a border war, the way they are organising their resources and the constraints they face. The paper essentially tries to assess if “India’s operational concepts are sufficiently tailored to…the evolving Chinese challenge”.
To begin with, Rehman outlines four factors that will shape India-China conflict. First, the territorial defence postures of both countries. India maintains its large body of troops relatively close to the border while China stations a limited number in its interior in Tibet. Second is the climate and the difficult terrain. “Areas along the Indian side are not amenable to mechanised warfare, except certain parts of Ladakh and Sikkim.” The high elevation of Tibet gives China some “commanding advantages” for surveillance, artillery operations and acclimatisation of troops to high altitudes. High altitude and extreme cold affect “almost every element of military equipment”; they complicate air campaigns and battle plans. Third, is the infrastructure disparity between the two sides. The People’s Liberation Army has rapid access to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) thanks to the terrain and highways and high-speed railway networks it has built whereas Indian troops “often have to trek several hours, if not days, to attain certain areas.” Fourth, there are very different command structures on both sides – India has several regional army and air force commands, China has one unified western theatre command.
Planners on both sides believe that the next India-China conflict will be “limited in scope and short in duration, rather than a protracted, large-scale, force-on-force campaign”, because of the nuclear overhang and the prospect of a third party intervention if it prolongs. This has a bearing on the kind of war they prepare for. Chinese writings since the 1990s have emphasised “transtheater mobility”, rapid massing of strength, “gaining initiative from striking first” and “fighting a quick battle to force a quick solution”.
In the event of a conflict with India, conventional forces will be rushed in from the interior and these will be accompanied by air, electronic and cyber operations. The PLA’s air force (PLAAF) and artillery will conduct “standoff strikes” to disrupt and delay the arrival of Indian forces coming from the lowlands.” PLA’s Special Operations Forces (SOFs) will be deployed to attack vital targets “to create favourable conditions for main force units.” Rehman writes that India has been following “with a certain degree of trepidation”, the rapid development of China’s airborne assault capabilities via the PLAAF’s 15th Airborne Corps, numbering over 35,000 troops and headquartered at Xiaogan, from where it is expected “to reach any part of China within ten hours.”
Responding to this, India is building on its advantage in conventional troops numbers augmenting its force structure with new battalions of scouts, adding air, missile and surveillance assets, raising a new Mountain Strike Corps and improving its road and rail infrastructure in the border regions. Beyond these material indicators Rehman argues that the most significant change “has occurred in the intellectual domain as Indian defence planners have adopted much more vigorous, tactically offensive approach to territorial defence.” Raising a Strike Corps was a way of moving away from deterrence by denial to deterrence by punishment; to a form of “offensive defence”, a “cross-border riposte strategy”. As an army colonel told Rehman “once the Chinese seize a position, it may be very difficult to dislodge them. Rather than expend much blood and treasure attempting to storm impregnable positions, we should pursue a strategy of horizontal escalation and capture territory elsewhere.” In line with this, Ladakh and northern Sikkim are good locations for a mechanised riposte where India’s forces would “sweep down from…mountain plains to conduct pincer movements behind Chinese formations, with the hope of breaking troop concentration.” India’s air and missile power would aid these mechanised incursions into Tibet, as part of a wider theatre strategy.
Rehman argues, however, that notwithstanding this India’s approach to conventional deterrence has certain limitations. “While Indian planners have moved toward adopting a more-offensive form of area denial, they continue to rely, for the most part, on conventional forces that could be overcome or circumvented in the event of a fast-moving, localised, and limited border confrontation launched from higher elevations.” This leads to several problems. India is reliant on dispersed, poorly equipped paramilitary forces like the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) as “its first line of defence in many of the forward areas most vulnerable to Chinese aggression.” The nature of the topography is such that conventional troops, which are substantially stationed in lower altitudes, are “relatively static” – moving them from lowlands is challenging, and while they wind up mountain roads and valleys during conflict they are vulnerable to artillery, missile or air strikes.
These weaknesses can be addressed, in Rehman’s view, by a greater complementarity between conventional forces and Special Operations Forces that can “play a critical role behind enemy lines, conducting sabotage, reconnaissance, and direct-action operations.” SOF’s can be used to strike airbases, reconnaissance assets and disrupt build-up of PLA forces. SOFs are also useful to counter “gray zone aggression” described by Michael Mazarr as “sequences of gradual steps to secure strategic leverage”, which would include Pakistan’s covert action and China’s use of infrastructural development to cement territorial claims. In view of their utility, Rehman’s surveys in some detail India’s SOFs, their composition, mandates, operational challenges and deficiencies, which will no doubt be pored over by planners (and adversaries).
Some aspects of Rehman’s diagnosis need immediate attention though. Road and rail projects in border areas continue to be delayed. “As of May 2016, only twenty-one of sixty-one border road projects designated strategic had been completed.” Twenty eight strategic railway lines were sanctioned in 2010, “six years later none have been finalized.” Chronic shortfalls in essential equipment continue, including parachutes, night vision devices, high-altitude clothing and even aluminium, belt-attachable water bottles. SOFs have expanded too rapidly “in size and in ad hoc manner, without the benefit of careful, deliberate planning” – and in numerous cases battalions have had to operate with inferior equipment sourced from infantry. There is not enough training capacity to cope with expanded forces. Attrition levels are high; most special forces units have an officer shortfall of 25-30%.
“Perhaps the greatest set of challenges lies in the organizational domain”, writes Rehman. Like other analysts, he calls for restructuring around a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to harmonise the large number of SOFs, address inter-service rivalry and bring about greater strategic and doctrinal clarity.
Rehman’s paper is a remarkable piece of scholarship that serves India’s defence establishment well. One cannot help but wonder reading it why such an important work on India-China conflict happens to be the product of a western institution rather than an Indian one. There are certainly some outstanding international relations scholars in India, who happen to be productive in spite of the prohibitive climate they operate in. It is worth considering the conditions needed for producing valuable academic work. A paper like Rehman’s has a gestation period (requiring institutional support for scholars to pursue time-taking endeavours), it needs financial support, to create congenial conditions for research and to travel for fieldwork and interviews, and it needs access to establishment figures. Indian scholars based in India can rarely count on these; they are more likely to be underpaid and undervalued by the establishment.
Most importantly, a paper like this needs a strategic and intellectual ecosystem that values critical voices and contrarian thinking. Politicians must know that such rigorous scrutiny serves the public good – and that fine academic work is a product of the habits of thought that are nurtured in institutions, principally universities. If universities are instead turned into receptacles of conformity then India will not have the expertise that great powers need. It will also not establish institutions that will have the credibility and influence to define the debate abroad. Right now a paper originating in a western institution is initiating a conversation on India-China conflict. There is, by contrast, no piece of Indian work on American democracy that shapes the debate in the US on the age of Trump.
The author tweets as @SushilAaron