Shadow on the line - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 3 May 2013

Shadow on the line

This map does not reflect India's claims or actual holding, but accurately represents the area

by Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 4th May 13

Even for the most intrepid helicopter pilots of the Indian Air Force (IAF), flying a sortie to the desolate outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, has always meant pushing the limits. Wing Commander Abdul Hanfee, who had won a Vir Chakra for his devil-may-care flying in Siachen, would take off from the Siachen Base Camp with his Mi-17 helicopter loaded with rations and fuel and set course for Saser La, the towering 17,753-foot pass on the Karakoram range. With the helicopter rotors shuddering as they clawed through the thin air, Hanfee would look down from his cockpit as he flew over the pass, still littered with the bones of camels, ponies and human wayfarers --- the detritus of a bygone era when arbitrary frontiers had not disrupted centuries-old patterns of trade and connectivity.

This was the Old Silk Route that connected Ladakh and Kashmir with Xinjiang --- now, like Tibet, an “autonomous region” of China. Well into the 20th century, camel caravans laden with silk, jade and hemp would set out from Yarkand and Khotan in East Turkestan, and travel to Leh and Kashmir from where they would bring back Pashmina wool, Kashmiri zafran (saffron), tea and calligraphy. After crossing the Karakoram Pass into India, the traders would leave their camels at what is now Daulat Beg Oldi, and transfer their goods onto pack ponies for the cruel journey over the Saser La into the more hospitable Shyok river valley that led on to Leh, Turtok or Srinagar. For the merchants and pilgrims who carried considerable sums in gold and silver, the treacherous Karakoram was far less hazardous than the robber bands and insecurity on the other route to Central Asia through Punjab and Afghanistan.

This isolation has defeated even the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has laboured for over a decade, so far unsuccessfully, to build an all-weather road over Saser La that will connect Daulat Beg Oldi (or DBO, in military phraseology) with Leh, Partapur and Kargil. The BRO has failed equally in bringing another road northwards to DBO from the Pangong Tso Lake, along the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Without road links to the rest of Ladakh, DBO remains an isolated enclave across the Karakoram and Ladakh ranges, dependent upon the IAF for food, fuel, ammunition and quick troop replenishments. Going there on foot involves an exhausting five-day march at altitudes that would exhaust an ibex. The military calls this enclave Sub-Sector North (SSN) and regards it as crucial for the defence of Siachen and Leh.

According to Lt Gen Kamleshwar Davar, a former commander of 3 Infantry Division under which this area comes, “SSN has major strategic value for India. If the Chinese were to come up to Saser La, our control over the Siachen Glacier would be seriously compromised since Saser La overlooks that area. SSN provides a protective buffer to the Siachen sector and also provides depth to the northeastern approaches to Leh. Furthermore, SSN is our land access to Central Asia, along the Old Silk Route through the Karakoram Pass.”

Now, India’s control over SSN is being challenged by the increasingly assertive presence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On Apr 15 the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), which holds and patrols SSN, discovered four Chinese tents pitched on a flat area called the Depsang Plain, with 30-40 uniformed Chinese personnel in the camp well inside the Indian side of the LAC. New Delhi was informed and the MEA contacted the Chinese Foreign Minister to activate a joint consultative mechanism that was set up in 2011 to resolve border incidents like this one. On Apr 18, the Chinese ambassador to India was called to the MEA and conveyed India’s concerns. But to little avail; in three flag meetings held on Apr 18, 23 and 30, the PLA has conveyed a simple message: its patrol has not violated the LAC; but it will withdraw if the Indian Army dismantles bunkers that it has built in two places near Chushul, in southeastern Ladakh.

“The PLA has carefully chosen its spot. Along the entire 4,057 kilometres of the LAC, India is most isolated at DBO, being entirely reliant on airlift. In contrast, the PLA can bring an entire motorized division to the area within a day, driving along a first-rate highway,” says Major General Sheru Thapliyal, also a former 3 Division commander.

Beijing has made it clear that it has demands that must be met before it withdraws. On Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, declared: “the relevant negotiation mechanism is conducive to solving the relevant issue quickly… China and India are talking about the issue for a complete and appropriate settlement.” (emphasis ours)

Army sources protest that the Indian bunkers that China wants dismantled are deep on our side of the LAC, on the western bank side of the Indus, an area that China has never claimed even at its most acquisitive. Driving out the Chinese incursion at DBO would hardly be a problem, say top Indian commanders; a battalion, with adequate fire support could do this within minutes. But the Chinese were better placed for a build-up and would retaliate strongly. Besides, military action would dramatically escalate tensions all along the LAC, which has remained uniformly peaceful since the two countries signed the “Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity” in 1993. A series of tit-for-tat incursions all across the LAC would create a second active border for India to man around the year.

On Tuesday, Defence Minister AK Antony talked tough, suggesting that force would be employed if needed to safeguard Indian territories. Antony said, “There should not be any doubt that the country remains unanimous in its commitment to take every possible step, at all levels, to safeguard our interests.”

Brave words, but New Delhi’s top national security policymakers are not inclined to initiate a military confrontation with China, howsoever limited. That leaves the government with little choice other than diplomatic negotiations during two forthcoming high-level political meetings: foreign minister Salman Khurshid will visit Beijing on Thursday, while China’s new premier, Li Keqiang, is scheduled to visit New Delhi later this month.

Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert in the Jawaharlal Nehru University believes that China is under pressure to resolve the crisis during Mr Khurshid’s visit to Beijing, since it needs a conducive atmosphere for Premier Li Keqiang’s visit. “The India polity is angry about China’s incursion and the opposition wants our foreign minister to cancel his visit to Beijing. If the issue festers, it would have negative implications for Premier Li Keqiang’s visit. Beijing remembers that President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006 had been vitiated after China’s ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, had declared before the visit that the whole of Arunachal Pradesh was a disputed region,” says Kondapalli.

                                                           * * * *

At the root of the crisis is obvious unease in the Chinese security establishment at India’s border build-up, especially the surge in military deployment and infrastructure over the last 5-7 years. Like earlier occasions when the Indian Army enhanced its presence on the border, this time too China is making its disapproval felt.

New Delhi first became conscious in the 1950s of the need to establish a military presence along India’s claim lines in Ladakh and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh). The trigger was Beijing rejection of the legitimacy of India’s consulate in Lhasa and our trade agencies in Yatung and Gyantse (in Tibet). Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered a high-powered committee, presided over by Deputy Defence Minister, Major General MS Himmatsinghji, to study the problems created by China’s occupation of Tibet. The “North and North East Border Defence Committee” made the crucial (and still ignored) recommendation that military posts should move forward to India’s claim lines in tandem with the simultaneous development of administration, road communications and local infrastructure.

Instead, after belatedly discovering in 1957 that China’s newly built Western Highway from Tibet to Xinjiang ran for nearly 200 kilometres through the India-claimed Aksai Chin, a high altitude desolation that DBO is an extension of, New Delhi threw troops pell-mell into these unknown areas in what was known as the “Forward Policy”. Beijing’s insecurities, already inflamed by a massive Tibetan rebellion, were exacerbated by the suspicion that India was backing the uprising. Apprehension turned into animosity when New Delhi granted the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees asylum in India in 1959. The Indian move forward thus degenerated into war by 1962. A much better prepared and equipped PLA easily overran Indian territory right down to the plains of Assam.

It took a traumatized India twenty years to decide to reoccupy the China border again. In 1975, General KV Krishna Rao submitted an “Experts Committee” report recommending military posture and border defences for the next 25 years. It called for a larger number of troops to defend the borders and for better roads to support their logistics. As the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) from 1981-83, Rao persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that twenty years of fearful holding back had to end. In 1983, the army moved forward again, deploying in strength in Tawang and Chushul.

This led to trouble again, with the Chinese aggrieved over India’s move forward. In 1986, a Chinese patrol pitched up tents in a disputed area called Wangdung, north of Tawang. A furious retaliatory build up by the Indian Army almost ended in actual hostilities, but tensions were resolved. Diplomatic engagement led to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China. During Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to Beijing in 1993, the two countries signed an “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Area,” which has led to the largely peaceful border of today.

The current crisis is triggered by India’s third border buildup. Starting from the mid-2000s, New Delhi sanctioned two Indian mountain divisions to defend Arunachal Pradesh; and the IAF activated three Sukhoi-30 fighter bases in Assam along with several units of Akash air defence batteries. Eight Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) have been refurbished, permitting forward replenishment and heliborne operations. In the works is an even greater capability in the northeast, with an armoured brigade and a mountain strike corps scheduled to take the field by 2017.

Of apparently greater concern to Beijing is the growing Indian capability in Ladakh. India has moved at least two additional infantry brigades into southeastern Ladakh and an armoured brigade will become operational by 2017. ALGs have been activated in Nyoma, Fukche and DBO, with AN-32 transport aircraft now flying supplies and replenishments to these isolated outposts.

China’s discomfort will all this was conveyed last month when Beijing handed New Delhi a draft proposal to freeze troop levels and defences on the LAC, institutionalizing India’s disadvantage. While such an agreement would cap the Indian buildup, the intrusion at DBO seems to be a trial balloon for dealing with troublesome Indian positions that already exist. The intrusion has created “facts on the ground,” which can be bartered for Indian concessions around Chushul. And if this work, this method can be invoked in other sectors as well.

* * * *

Like many armies through the ages, the Indian Army finds its operational options constrained by logistics. China has understood that a comprehensive road network is the final arbiter of power in high altitude mountainous terrain. India has more troops on the border but, without a road network, the rugged Himalayas reduce those impressive divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. P Stodan, a former Indian ambassador who is from Ladakh points out, “Around Ladakh, the Chinese can move troops at 400 kilometres a day. We can do a leisurely 150-200 kilometres if we’re lucky.”

In case diplomatic negotiations do not resolve the problem this month, the next watershed in this crisis will be the onset of winter. Since the bitter conditions at DBO make it difficult for the Chinese to winter there in tents, they would have to build more weatherproof accommodation. Furthermore they would have to stock food, fuel and ammunition, for which they would need to move vehicles or helicopters. It remains to be seen if this would force India to react militarily.


  1. Its high time India sent a clear message to the World, that India will NOT tolerate any violation of its borders. Any and all intrusions will be quickly dealt with and all perpetrators will be eliminated. All of our enemies are exploiting this lack of a clear menacing policy as well as the lack of strong leadership within the Indian polity. The chaotic and dispersed loyalties of the Indian people to one another add to the general malaise born of character deficiency. The remedy for which is compulsory military training for all, ala the Israeli IDF.

  2. Factual and operational article , does not go beyond the obvious.

  3. So your theory is that whenever the IA build up Northwards there is a problem...

    Well known are also your theories of Localization of the defence of Arunanchal even if it does not have recruitable population for one battalion..

    Finally you will land up handing over administration of Arunanchal and Ladakh to MEA baubus like it it was before..

    Core of your theories aim at one thing only ... prorata

  4. Thats a nice round up of the history, but what are India's options? The Chinese media is projecting it as a proof of India's weakness in letting them camp inside, Indian media is baying for blood, the twitterati believe all can be solved by a trigger happy prime minister. It is unlikely that diplomacy will work, kurshid can definitely not be seen making concessions at this point with all watching. So does that leave us, with a potential war and the devastation it leaves behind, especially for the families of armymen?

  5. Gurmeet Kanwal4 May 2013 at 03:04

    Good, balanced piece.

  6. Satish Vaidya4 May 2013 at 04:48

    Last Sunday's Asian Age features an interview with Gen Raj Kadyan, who said at least three times that the present incursion was a local 'tactical issue' and up to the local commander to evict. What does he expect to be done? Battle Drill is clear that when an opposition is beyond their capability the next level takes it on. Indian and Pakistani DGMOs have a hot-line to address issues appropriately.

  7. Are we prepared for a showdowm with the Chinese?The answer is a big no.Numerically at least the Chinese have a clear advantage in manpower and aircraft.The Chinese are not going to wait for us to become stronger.

  8. The ineptness of the Indian Polity to understand, leave alone work on strategic issues shall cost the nation dearly. While India could have permanently stationed mountain strike corps in Ladakh the many problems plaguing the Indian Armed Forces do not inspire much confidence in their capabilities (not resolve)to sustain a military brinksmanship with a country like China. Had the governments after Kargil, decided to give a major push on all around developments of the Armed Forces like arming each division with a compliment of Attack Helicopters (at least 20 per division), APCs, Reserve TA Mountain Brigades Rotating Men on quarterly basis, Modern Artillery, along with a Strategic Bomber Command (with Dedicated Bombers Like TU 160, SU 44 to defeat the advantage of quick mobilization of the Chinese by Road by turning the Highway in Aksai Chin as Road to Hell.It would have given the country and its political leadership some strategic depth.Unfortunately all this will only be limited to realms of TV panel discussions and Blog discussions.

  9. A really informative, insightful and unbiased gem of an article. My respects! Do keep them coming.

  10. Thanks Sir.its a really awsome & Informative article presenting de facto situation & ground reality.Seriously,Army also has limited options.Its a do or Let Go Situation.Whether Army & over Govt. resolves with peaceful means or Military option.If not Then Whether India will loose strategic area to PLA time will say that ?

  11. Ranjit Nambiar4 May 2013 at 13:21

    Nice balanced commentary.

    Why don't we send a batallion to encircle these chaps and sit tight and starve them? Then it will be China's move to escalate, if they so wish?

  12. Wait, watch and be prepared for any worst eventuality.

  13. if they want to take Arunachal Pradesh.....the next 5 years are the best time they will ever get. We should have given more attention to building and maintaining proper infrastructure all along the chinese and myanmarese border.

  14. How fair it is for the chinese to demand that India dismantles its infrastructure along the LAC while they keep and maintain the existing ones and build more.....we did not start the infrastructure build up, they did it, we watched for many decades before finally awakening to this terribly lopsided position, as has been pointed out by Ajaiji time and again....ours was purely a response, albeit a much diluted one, to their our PM needs to build up a hawkish attitude on the lines of his Japanese counterpart when in comes to dealing with this common aggressor.....something that will deter, at least, any future repeat of the present problem.

  15. Would Indian planners in their scenarios not have anticipated such a calibrated response from the Chinese to our logistical expansions? As you have pointed out this is our third such logistical buildup, surely this was to be expected in some form?

    It seems unlikely that the Chinese would pull back - making a counter claim forces them to stay put, especially if we do not decide to play ball. Either that or lose face in a withdrawal, unless the real objective was something else all along.

  16. excellent article sir ..... could have briefly included india's options as well

  17. this is brink-man-ship;and the chinese are past masters at this game.indian diplomacy needs to give the chinese the devil's alternative...this can be done.the indian politocos need to develope a stomach for this though.

    1. Nice comment completly agree, we are not as weak as a lot of people think, even force magazine has a defeatist attitude (we don't have this or that..china will rout us rubbish) once they cross we should raise the stakes bring in the air force - the mountains work ttwo ways, also get the Navy to head for the M straits...China knows it weaknes aswell.

  18. Indian armed forces are not acting in a responsible manner. It is supposed to protect the nation from external aggression. It appears that they are not brave enough to face the situation by pushing back the Chinese intruders with force.
    While India is spending huge amounts of money for the armed forces for defence of the country, but they are not performing. Why should the responsibility of maning the LAC with China is outsourced to such organisations as ITBP, BSF etc. IA and IAF must man the LAC all through the year.
    During beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani army, the media coverage informed that most of the places along the border is manned by semi-military organisations like BSF. It was also seen that so many mountain heights are in the control of Pakistani army. What then Indian Armed forces are doing except for procuring costly imported equipments without using them ever.
    A total change is required in India's defence planning and polcy.

  19. Root of this crisis is... India’s border build-up, surge in military deployment and infrastructure?? Shukla G... What chinese did before India started military deployment and improving infrastructure? Stop blaming your own nation like this. What india did is in response of chinese military build up and infrastructure along indo-china border. So root of the current crisis is chinese proactive military build up. Shame on you again for blaming india blindly

  20. This article makes no reference to 1967 Nathu La clashes

  21. No mention of the IAF and its use along the borders.
    Why is it that when any conflict is contemplated it is always the Indian army are there no other armed services in India?
    The army should only be required when ground has to be taken. Otherwise it can sit back and relax at the borders and air power should do the heavy lifting.

    Let the pla bring in millions of troops to the border, they can be dealt with at the front by air power.
    They were called "rhubarb sorties" in ww2.

    Himalayas cut both ways. Let them come make sure army only deals with these people when they are way extended into lower ground why bother exhausting yourself rushing to heights to meet them. All heights should be dealt with by the air force.

    The IAF has advantages of airfields at sea level. plaaf has to use high altitude airfields or pilots that have flown for hours using air to air before joining battle.

    For Petes sake buy more aeroplanes. This squabbling over an order for paltry 126.. the order should be for 1260.

    As for the IAF not crossing the border during Kargil makes one despair.

  22. Thank you BroadSword for an incisive look into the latest imbroglio.

    It would interest a lot of us to know that the Chinese have constructed a huge 1:500 scaled terrain model of the general area of Aksai Chin.  The model provides an exact terrain replica to drill Chinese commanders, military formations & staff on the nuances of operations in the area that it represents - Aksai Chin.  While on one hand it may connote an area for terrain familiarisation (Pre-Induction Training) for PLA inducting to the Aksai Chin for a rotation; on the other hand it is more likely to be a full-fledged rehearsal model for reserve formation earmarked to be inducted at short notice for possible offensive operations on the LAC by PLA.

     The following links also point to Web pages that describe the Chinese efforts :-

    The terrain model -,105.950732&z=17

    Actual ground that the terrain model represents -,79.277344&z=8

  23. good article with clear facts.

  24. A dragon... instills fear... by breathing fire... take the fire... out of equation... have to define... fire... carefully... thoughtfully... larger picture in mind... fire which... comes from within... is actually can... engulf... whole... that fire... wield it... manipulate at will... dragon... purring kitten...

  25. Dear Sir

    The Chinese armoured divisions CANNOT come to DBO they are good for southern Ladakh only where there are plains

    If China wants to conquer Sub sector North then sitting in the DEPSANG plain is NOT going to help them

    DBO and SSN can only be conquered by Infantry men

    This intrusion was a stupid Chinese idea

    And now they want concessions in Chumar

  26. "Deputy Defence Minister, Major General MS Himmatsinghji" ?? Never heard of a serving Army officer holding this post.

    India and China are both nuclear powers. As such, they are not allowed to fight each other. Both governments have since settled the issue peacefully by restoring status quo ante. The actual agreement was at a flag meeting between local military commanders.

    This incident again highlights the need to demarcate the border.

  27. BRIG APJIT ANAND7 May 2013 at 08:16

    Playing an arm-chair strategist is easy but doing it very difficult! I had the prvilige of operating in this wilderness in 1962-63 and walked from DBO DOWN TO FUKCHE . as part of 114 (I) Bde.We suffered then-as we suffer -now-because NO NATIONAL AIM has been clearly defined.We then poodle-faked by following a " Forward Policy " as we now talk of " Encirclement"! Tell the GOI to define their National and STRATEGIC AIMS and then do the Force Planning before we can talk about countering the threat.

  28. A very well written article, nicely sums up the ground situation.

    May I make a request - can you share captions for the pictures?


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