Along LAC, India might need to bolster its stance
As the China threat continues to drive most of New Delhi’s conventional and military posturing, India appears to be improving its strategic position along LAC
China’s move this week of unilaterally renaming 11 locations in Arunachal Pradesh is not only the third time since 2017 that Beijing has adopted this aggressive strategy, but also underlined the persistent risks posed by the Asian giant to India’s territorial integrity.
As the China threat continues to drive most of New Delhi’s conventional and military posturing, India appears to be improving its strategic position along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Prompt responses by local Indian forces helped push back a surprise overnight attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to seize the operationally crucial LAC ridgeline on the Yangtse Plateau in Tawang on December 9. Chinese success would have granted PLA invaluable overwatch over the critical Sela Pass road lifeline to Tawang, as well as an Indian Army battalion headquarters and nearby air force facilities. Through its 2020 incursions attempts, China has also attempted to cut off the Indian Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DS-DBO) Ladakh lifeline road.
This successful pushback is being matched by new Indian investments to stabilise its LAC position. Following the Tawang incident, Indian security planners said that up to 120 Pralay 100-500 km range conventional ballistic missiles will be acquired for bolstering deterrence against China, alongside existing BrahMos supersonic cruise missile battalions stationed in the region. Seven new Indo-Tibetan Border Police battalions, totalling an estimated 8,400 personnel, will also be raised to strengthen India’s LAC presence. New border road developments include the commissioning of an Arunachal Frontier Highway from Bomdila to Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh, and the construction of tunnels providing alternative, hardened military transport options. The recent Aero India symposium also revealed new domestic defence projects with potential salience to a conflict with China. Reflecting the increasing significance of drones in modern conflict, these included an improved Tata Advanced Loitering System-50 loitering munition platform, alongside other Indian UAVs. More offensive punch will be provided by additional variants of the Pinaka Multi-Barrel Rocket System, while India’s tactical visibility will be enhanced by the jammer-resilient “Vayulink” communications and situational awareness system.
Perhaps the capstone Aero India announcement was made by the air force, which declared that it was commencing the process of procuring up to 500 fighter jets. This landmark initiative would finally meet its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, against the 31 squadrons it currently deploys due to procurement delays and ageing technologies.
However, these developments highlight three lingering questions about India’s China strategy across LAC. The first is about the funding of strategies to counter China’s determined LAC-facing military infrastructure advancements and personnel entrenchments over the long term.
The projects listed above — and especially the fighter jet replacement plans — are not fully reflected in the 2023 defence budget. From the planned acquisition of 500 fighter jets, the cost of 114 multi-role fighter jets was previously priced at an estimated $20 billion. The Indian Air Force’s 2023 capital expenditure budget is ₹57, 137 crore ($6.9 billion). While the overall 2023 defence budget is nominally 13% higher than last year’s original allocation, it is only 1.5% higher than the 2022 revised allocation. Once the effects of inflation are factored in, the 2023 real terms budget will be below the final 2022 figures. If India is to catch up to China’s strengthening LAC presence, such trends will need to be reversed and justified to the Indian public. To be most effective, this process should involve greater candour from the Indian government to its citizens about the ground realities in Ladakh and the scale of the threat that China poses elsewhere along LAC.
The second question is how India intends to manage LAC contingencies that may rapidly escalate, including the possibility of increased clashes and potential Chinese artillery bombardment, as outlined in confidential assessments placed before a top police conference earlier this year, and reported in the press. How will India respond to such situations, in a way that deters further Chinese action yet still limits further escalation? Will India seek to eliminate only the specific Chinese artillery systems being used, or select broader target sets to also remove their supportive infrastructure? Should an Indian counter-bombardment be used to then soften the ground for an infantry push to seize the isolated Chinese positions from which the initial attack was launched? Is China likely to respond differently to Indian counterattacks that use Pralays or other cutting-edge precision-guided munitions, and if so, how? More broadly, what escalatory responses does India anticipate from each course of action, and what off-ramps can it construct for China to de-escalate and avert a broader conflict?
The final question concerns the extent to which India wishes to involve its like-minded partners in addressing these challenges. Robust intelligence-sharing with Quad partners would enable a clearer shared LAC operational picture, averting a repeat of the reported purchase of commercial satellite imagery by Indian strategic planners in April 2020 to plug intelligence gaps. These dialogues could also extend to specific technologies that New Delhi feels could aid in anticipating and blocking hostile Chinese actions. The United States lease of two MQ-9B reconnaissance drones to India during the Ladakh crisis, leading to New Delhi’s interest in working with Washington to purchase 30 MQ-9s, is an example of how these partnerships can yield positive results. Another example is the reported sharing of US intelligence during the recent skirmish in Tawang.
Iterative discussions of some of the above crisis scenarios with Quad members would also enable red-teaming of India’s escalatory assumptions, as well as its proposed off-ramps, to support New Delhi’s escalation-control efforts ahead of time.
Given how quickly conditions are evolving along LAC, India should not wait for the next crisis to break out before addressing these questions. Its success in stabilising LAC will depend significantly on how it answers them.
Frank O’Donnell is a Nonresident Fellow in the Stimson Center South Asia Program The views expressed are personal