Military option in Ladakh entails hard choices for both India and China - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 26 August 2020

Military option in Ladakh entails hard choices for both India and China


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 27th Aug 20


Earlier this week, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat became the first senior military commander to state that, if dialogue does not persuade Beijing to withdraw its troops from Indian territory in Ladakh, a military option remained on the table.


Both the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have indicated this before. Yet, Rawat’s blunt statement constitutes a clear military warning that India was ready for armed conflict if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did not withdraw to the positions of April 2020.


If the Indian military were left with no choice but to make good Rawat’s threat, it would have three broad options. Either, as the army appears to be preparing for at present, Indian units would occupy blocking positions opposite the Chinese (with an agreed “buffer zone” separating troops in some areas) and wait out the intruders through a winter deployment. The Indian Army’s second option would be to capture un-held, or lightly held, Chinese territory that could be exchanged at the negotiating table for Indian territory occupied by the Chinese. The third, and most provocative, course of action would be to frontally attack PLA positions on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and physically evict the intruders.


The Indian military knows that the inaction of the preceding three months has given the PLA the time needed to build strong defences, bring forward supporting weaponry such as artillery guns and tanks, stockpile ammunition and ready reinforcements and reserves for the eventuality of all-out fighting. In a similar situation in 1999, in Kargil, when Pakistani soldiers occupied Indian territory, India attacked without undue delay. In Ladakh, however, the government’s denials of any loss of territory has prevented resolute decision-making.


Indian military planners also know that in Kargil, Pakistan had to distance itself from the intruders, who had violated the Shimla Agreement and a mutually agreed Line of Control (LoC). In Ladakh, however, Beijing is operating in a grey zone and a frontier that has never been delineated. It has claimed full ownership of the territory and would treat Indian attacks as acts of war. It can be expected to react with sharply escalated violence, occupy additional areas on the Indian side of the LAC and, possibly, induce Pakistan to heat up the LoC and the insurgency in Kashmir. That is reason to rule out the frontal attack option.

In case China chooses further aggression, army planners are examining the army’s deployment deficiencies and how to compensate for them. A key weakness stems from India’s deployment philosophy since 1986, which is based on blocking large-scale Chinese invasions into Central and Southern Ladakh by occupying dominating defensive positions on the Ladakh and Kailash Ranges. Two brigades occupy strong positions here, while a third brigade defends the Daulat Beg Oldi sector.


However, the area ahead of this defensive line, up to the LAC (which varies between 10-60 kilometres), is lightly held. This is mostly the responsibility of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which sends out patrols from its forward bases to the LAC to assert Indian ownership. 


The army has observed that this forward zone is vulnerable to Chinese encroachment. Another three army brigades – about 15,000 soldiers – would be needed to add steel to the forward zone.


Furthermore, India’s deployment needs an offensive component to deter the PLA. While troops from three-four Indian divisions have already beefed up Indian defences in Ladakh, another three armoured brigades are quickly needed to counter the PLA build-up of about 35,000 troops on the LAC and to create a real threat of an Indian offensive into the Aksai Chin against the strategic Tibet-Xinjiang G-219 highway – a major PLA sensitivity.


The tactic of forcing a Chinese withdrawal from one LAC sector by creating an intrusion into another sector was effectively demonstrated in the summer of 2013 when Indian troops forced the pull-back of a Chinese intrusion in Depsang (coincidentally at the same point as the current intrusion) by an Indian counter-intrusion in the Chumar sector. This makes the second option potentially attractive.

Central to achieving this are Special Forces, para-commandoes and high-altitude scouts – shock troops that undertake special operations on the Chinese flanks or in their rear, while regular infantry mans the defensive line. India has five battalions of Ladakh Scouts – locally recruited soldiers who have repeatedly demonstrated their extreme abilities in high-altitude warfare. 


New Delhi would also weigh the employment of seven battalions of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), paratroopers recruited from the Tibetan refugee community in India. Trained and equipped for operations behind Chinese lines, these troops, once inside Tibet, would live off the land, dependent for food and shelter on a restive Tibetan populace that is intensely hostile to the Chinese. Any stirring up of the Kashmir insurgency by China, or by Pakistan at its behest, would see the SFF being launched into action immediately.


For both India and China, the most likely option -- and the most challenging -- appears to be a freezing of the status quo, with troops from both sides remaining deployed through the winter on a hostile LAC, very different from what is conceived in the Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993 and the Confidence Building Measures of 1996. This would be to China’s advantage, since it can commit many more troops and border guards to an active LAC than India can, which already has six-seven divisions manning a hyper-active LoC with Pakistan. 


Besides that, much of India’s theatre and central reserve would be sucked into this deployment, creating the requirement for even more personnel in a military that is already grappling with need to cut down on manpower costs.


An active LAC would also add to the already heavy load on the army’s logistics establishment, which is hard pressed every year to complete “winter stocking”, or the air-dropping of food, ammunition and supplies to forward posts before they get cut off by weather and snowfall. The additional troops deployed in Ladakh since May have already increased demands; a full-scale winter deployment would add to that.


On the Chinese side, in contrast, the network of roads and tracks creates far less demand for air supply and replenishment. Even so, the Chinese have less experience in manning high-altitude pickets than the Indian Army and would go through a potentially painful learning curve, with costs in men and materials.


  1. Brilliant article.We expect that the Indian Army exercise the second option soon.

  2. Post balakot a MIG 21 WAS AT THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME to save the day for India.

    Yet when IAF DEMANDED A AWACS DRDO said we can doit. Bow we are scrambling to buy new ones as China Pak have a competitive advantage

    In construction China beats India hands down. They are a tiger economy because of their organisational skills.
    The ability to air lift prefabricated huts to mountain heights is a doddle.
    Electric cables are been speedily laid connecting to the grid in Tibet. Satellite images confirm cables and overhead wires being laid.
    Chinese forward areas like Gulwan, Depang plains and Hot springs, Kutnak Fort and encampments at PangongTso, will soon have high speed fibre optic internet and electricity installed .
    Prefabricated housing have been brought in, even on the mountain heights via heavy lift helicopters. This will make the PLA soldiers more comfortable in these remote areas, with heating, television, video conference with families and with entertainment like Youku Tuduo and bilibili the Chinese equivalent Netflix.
    The secondary beneficiaries of this investment the PLA is making in for its regular troops, are the lightly armed Border Defence Regiments, who monitor Tibets border with Ladakh who have been stationed in these mountain outposts for years without these facilities.
    The Chinese are thinking years into the future and are building permanent infrastructure
    The priority for our Army is to contract with Large civil contractors to build accommodation for our troops in Ladakh
    The government needs a separate budget for this, a task force of senior bureaucrats
    Indian army engineers are quite capable, But should be deployed primary for building field accommodation in war situations
    But the scale of the requirements is so huge that the government needs to bring in the rest of the economy.
    Gen Rawat must ensure that hardship is minimised for our troops in winter

  4. Please consider this as a question from a layperson. I am not a serving/retired defence personnel and I am not aware of the nature of terrain and geography so please excuse me in case this sounds downright illogical. Here's my question:

    Is it possible to play the long game and to make it very painful for the Chinese to actually hold ground? I am talking about planting IEDs in their patroling area, ambushes, Galwan style attacks on them, etc. It doesn't look like the Chinese want to wage to full-fledged war either. They may also retaliate causing casualties on our end. But this way we can make it very costly for them to force them to be more amenable to at least some sort of withdrawal. The fact that they didn't have the courage to reveal their casualties indicates that they were not expecting body bags and don't like the idea of taking any casualties. It may suggest that they haven't really prepared their population for taking even a small number of casualties. This could actually be their weakness. Your thought please!

  5. # the rashtrapati is the commander in chief. the next below are the army commanders [foc-in-c, aoc-in-c]. neither the coas nor the cds have been vested with any responsibility [ipso facto powers] of command of fighting formations. this is in the context of "Earlier this week, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat became the first senior military commander to state that, if dialogue does not persuade Beijing to withdraw its troops from Indian territory in Ladakh, a military option remained on the table." and is among the reasons the COAS does not record any annual, or other performance appraisal for any of the army commanders. army commanders report directly to the cabinet committee for security, and the COAS is not a member of the committee, at best is only an invitee. bipin babu's audience is neither beijing nor the military in our country. he is merely preaching the sermon to the choir of bhakts. in narendrabhai [and amitbhai, as well as in jhandewalan, and nagpur] we have the advantage of a very safe pair of hands. besides as jhandewalan, and nagpur have it, there are historical wrongs that are to be corrected. an analogy - in 1973, faced with the toll that the egyptian army took, it became clear to tel aviv that neither the egyptians, [nor jordan or syria] were pushovers; the jewish state was the priority, not hostilities with egypt. and baghdad, and teheran were the real enemy. similarly for us the nation is more important than a strip of frozen wasteland in an empty desert. the idea of the nation as seen by the mahasabha has been the leitmotif since the first indian elections in 1937 and the rout of jinnah's muslim league in UP as well as in muslim majority provinces, punjab, and bengal. we are a federation of states, not a confederacy. and anyway, analysts, policy makers cannot be unaware of the professionalism of our military, and that it is not weapons systems, materiel that have ever decided the outcome on any battlefield, theatre of war, but systems, drills, manoeuvre, flexibility, and intrepidity, indomitability. event-management skills have little to do with securing the objective.

  6. Any assault on Indian territory is same as assault on India! In such case, what restricts India to not retaliate anywhere in Chinese controlled territory. What we need to do is define our escalation ladder. First, disengage from notion of One-China policy. Is they don't fathom the repercussion of this, then next target offshore naval bases. I would choose the South China Sea artificial islands as the target #1. Secondary target would be any of their off-shore bases (Hambantota, Djibouti). Third blockade of all Chinese shipping entering Indian ocean. If China still refuses to back-off then ask Taiwan if they want to be recognized as a separate nation or a successor state to mainland China, and recognize it as such. Finally, if Xi has gone mad, then find means to topple Xi. That would certainly put an end to this situation.

  7. 2013 incidents of Depsang-factually you are wrong and ill informed.It was other way round.In 2012 PLA demolished Indian 6 Bunkers and OP Post at Chumar which they have been objecting and demanded that India dismantle those These were again reconstructed by IA and ITBP.2013 PLA intruded in Depsang and as QPQ PLA withdrew and structure at Chumar was again dismantled by Indian troops.The story of 2012 was put under the carpet by UPA for long time as media was requested not publish these.However India Today did a write up subsequently.In fact PLA came in two hepters demolished and went away.Notwithstanding your political inclination, please don;t twist the fact or you may not be aware of facts in that case my apology

  8. India should be thankful and pray that China does not go any further. As the old saying goes:”barking dog never bites!” At this point, looking at the situation in Ladakh, India is in a terrible predicament – it has no ability to attack China - NONE, nor can it afford to deploy tens of thousands of troops in Ladakh, especially during winter months (it simply does not have the infrastructure in place to support them all – they are just now talking about buying winter fittings for the 30+ thousand troops and they will be lucky to have them in two years...). No wonder India is practically begging China to leave, so that Modi can still look strong domestically.

  9. Sir, the line of argument pursued here is excellent although not everyone agree to it. I myself feel that earlier there used three domains of war:- land, air, sea. But now PLA has introduced three new domain:- outer space, electromagnetic spectrum, cyberspace. In these three new domains PLA is a master which concerns USA too. Coming to Indian diaspora, if PLA decides to engage in limited conventional war then cyber attacks, jamming of radars, etc take place in a minute. It will cripple our communication which is already vulnerable because of lockdown in valley.

  10. Military action, as one should understand should not be restricted to action by the Indian Army in the area of Sikkim or Ladhak. The navy can play a major role and compel China to return to the position as was in April 2020.

  11. The military option in Ladakh poses formidable challenges for both India and China. Escalation requires careful consideration of consequences, emphasizing the need for diplomatic resolutions and mutual understanding. Please read this blog for information Jammu Kashmir Tour Package


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