Army’s pivot to the north - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 7 January 2021

Army’s pivot to the north

The diversion of an Indian strike corps to the border with China is a powerful strategic signal


By Ajai Shukla


Not since the bleak year-end of 1962, when China had just finished drubbing India, has New Delhi contemplated a new year studded with such daunting security challenges. Besides having to deal with an emboldened Pakistan, the Kashmiri separatist insurgency has drawn in a new generation of local youth. The economic crash caused by the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to limit defence budgetary allocations for years to come and will complicate even routine military functioning. Finally, there is the extended face-off in Eastern Ladakh, where China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last May and occupied swathes of territory that have long been under India’s control. Our counter build-up with some two Indian Army divisions (36,000 soldiers) has imposed major financial and personnel costs.


Yet, change is in the air. Last month, without fanfare, Army Headquarters (AHQ) issued written orders for a change in operational role for one of its mechanised strike corps. While the Ambala-based 2 Corps and Bhopal-based 21 Corps would retain their role as tank-heavy forces, equipped and trained to advance deep into Pakistan in wartime, the third strike corps – the Mathura-based 1 Corps – was to become a mountain strike corps that would strike into Chinese territory from Ladakh. The two infantry divisions in 1 Corps will soon begin changing their training patterns and operational plans to conform to their new role. Meanwhile 1 Corps’ third division – the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division, which is not suited for mountain warfare – will become a reserve force, with which AHQ could exploit an advantage or restore an adverse situation.


At the tactical level, switching 1 Corps constitutes a belated recognition of the fact, long ignored by the Indian Army, that its defences in Ladakh are worryingly thin and need urgent reinforcement. In Ladakh, the almost 800-kilometre-long LAC is defended by a single infantry division, its resources stretched to breaking point. In Sikkim and Arunachal, each Indian division on the LAC defends a mere fraction of that frontage. Furthermore, each of the three eastern sector corps have a full division in reserve, ready to react to any breaches. In Ladakh, the thinly held LAC, the large gaps between Indian posts and the absence of any reserves at the corps level created a vulnerability that was waiting to be exploited.


Making this vulnerability a matter of deep concern was China’s sensitivity to the growing deployment of Indian troops in Northern Ladakh, especially near the Karakoram Pass and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). Furthermore, India’s infrastructure building drive, particularly the road from Darbuk, along the Shyok River, to DBO, was seen by the PLA as a threat to China’s interests in the Shaksgam Valley (ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963) and the Karakoram Highway that runs from Xinjiang to Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass, forming the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For this reason the PLA has – while expressing its readiness to discuss disengagement at all other points – stubbornly refused to even discuss withdrawal from the DBO area, particularly its ingress into the Depsang Plain.


While India’s nuclear deterrent makes a full-scale Chinese attack on India impossible, Beijing has long viewed Ladakh as an inviting target for the “limited sectoral war” that PLA doctrine prescribes. India’s remote Union Territory is not just lightly defended, but also gets cut off from the rest of India during winter. By the time the roads open again in spring, the army’s logistic stockpiles fall to almost zero.


When the PLA crossed the LAC last May, in large numbers and on multiple fronts, it forced India’s Northern Command to throw in all the reserves available. The Northern Command’s reserve division, as well as AHQ’s, were quickly deployed, blocking further PLA ingress. The conflict has expanded over the year, and Indian troops have occupied the Kailash Range, south of the Pangong Lake. This commitment of troops has left both Northern Command and AHQ unbalanced – stretched to the limit and with no further reserves at hand. It has become obvious to army planners that at least two reserve divisions were needed in Ladakh to restore a modicum of operational balance.


Meanwhile, on the India-Pakistan border in the plains sector, the three strike corps were creating little deterrence. Over the preceding three decades, it has become apparent that the threat of strike corps offensives has failed to restrain Pakistan from its proxy war in Kashmir. The prospect of full-scale war with Pakistan is increasingly difficult to contemplate given Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, including the highly destabilizing Nasr tactical nuclear weapons. This galvanized the thinking that there was a need for the Indian army to rebalance its defensive posture from the west to the north.


This rebalance also goes some way towards giving credence to New Delhi’s oft-repeated assertion that China, not Pakistan, is its primary military threat. This claim has been hard to sustain, given that until last month more than two-thirds of the Indian Army was deployed against Pakistan. Of 14 army corps, just four-and-a-half faced China, while more than twice that number was ranged against Pakistan. Of the army’s 38 divisions, just 12 divisions faced China, while 25 divisions were deployed on the India-Pakistan border and one division was a reserve under AHQ. Even after the reassignment, 14 divisions will face China, 22 will face Pakistan and two will be AHQ reserves. 


Even so, shifting an Indian strike corps from the Pakistan border to the border with China constitutes a powerful strategic signal that will resonate in Beijing, as well as other capitals. It will equally resonate in Rawalpindi, given that Pakistani generals have always cited the Indian Army’s deployment bias against Pakistan as proof of New Delhi’s malintent. While the shift of 1 Corps to Ladakh should provide some strategic reassurance to the Pakistan Army, the dynamics of political control in that country can be expected to block any positive acknowledgement from the corps commanders in Rawalpindi.


A major offset that would accrue from the diversion of 1 Corps to a mountain strike corps role in Ladakh is that, for the first time, there will be clarity on the role of 17 Corps. This was raised almost a decade ago as the first mountain strike corps for the north-eastern border with China but, given troop and funding shortfalls, it was charged with a role in both the eastern and western sectors. Now, with 1 Corps responsible for a strike role in Ladakh, 17 Corps will be free to focus on striking key Chinese vulnerabilities in the eastern sector, such as the Chumbi Valley opposite Sikkim. Meanwhile, 1 Corps can focus on creating deterrence in Ladakh, where – from Depsang to Demchok – there have been clear Chinese targets to strike, but not enough troops to do this.


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  2. "While the shift of 1 Corps to Ladakh should provide some strategic reassurance to the Pakistan Army, the dynamics of political control in that country can be expected to block any positive acknowledgement from the corps commanders in Rawalpindi."

    Why should Pakistan provide any positive acknowledgement? This was was not done to cosy up to Pakistan. It was done because India has bitten off more than it can chew and is now panicking. RSS occupied India has nothing but hate for Pakistan. That hate is not conditioned on anything Pakistan is doing, has done or will do, it's based on Pakistan's mere existence.

    Enjoy your predicament.

    1. Where is the predicament ? It is to our credit that we, as a nation have shed the hesitation of ignoring the deeds of renegade China and are standing up to the international bully. As goes Pakistan , it is irrelevant to us. At best you people can send jehadis as you have no capability to wage a conventional war. BTW , did someone just say Bangladesh.

    2. What predicament?
      We have already restored and controlled the damage that China had done by taking counter measures.

      Economy is going to recover. Civil strife will not go forever. Terrorism in Kashmir is decreasing.

      We are learning to deal with China.

      Yes, it's not going to be easy. But it never was meant to be. We will fail, we will learn and we will get stronger.

      After all, what doesn't kills you makes you stronger. China failed to kill, just like we failed to kill Pakistan. We will emerge stronger.

    3. Yes you have controlled the damage by burying ur 20 dead soldiers.

    4. To rextonverse: The predicament I'm referring to is not the China/LAC confrontation. I'm referring to the takeover of India by the RSS and their infiltration into almost all civil institutions. No military will be able to defeat India, it is the RSS that will destroy India. Many intelligent Indians recognise this but unfortunately, the point of no return is steadily approaching. Pakistan had its moment in the 1980's when radicalisation took hold. It took 20/30 years to realise (many of us realised it immediately) and will take the same amount of time to reverse but we have started that journey out of the abyss. India is basking in ultra nationalism at the moment but the penny will eventually drop. Good luck.

  3. Excellent article Sir.
    Will disagree with just one thing that you said- 33 Armd Div, in other words Mech Forces not suited for operations in Eastern Ladakh.

    1. I see your point, but 33 Armored division is need in the plains. To our three armored divs, Pakistan has six: two armored (1 and 6), two it calls "mechanized"(25 and 26), and two are badly disguised as Corps Reserve XXX and IV corps because Pakistan does not want to aggravate India by boasting it has six armored divisions.

  4. Shukla article will help Chinese intelligence more than 99 % indian reader and government officials who have very litle inclination towards country's defence.

    1. Vikral,

      The Chinese will learn nothing from Ajai's article. This move was no secret in India. In any case its hard to keep macro-scale secrets from anyone these days due to satellites, signal intercept, and other means. In any case before these new tools both India and Pakistan fairly much knew what was going on thanks to old fashioned spying. Western countries publish details down to battalion level. when I was in India in the 1980s, I learned 1st hand that just about every serious military attache knew the details of the Indian Army that mattered. Only the Indian public was kept in the dark.

  5. "...Of 14 army corps, just four-and-a-half faced China, while more than twice that number was ranged against Pakistan..."

    The track record of the 9 corps against a smaller, weaker (than China) Pakistan is not any inspiring. Witness the continued bleeding we have seen the past several decades.
    So, how are we to be any reassured the smaller number of corps against a larger, stronger (than Pakistan, arguably India) China is going to be any different?
    As much as I'd like to trust that the steps and initiatives discussed by Mr Shukla would make a difference I am not reassured any at all. Add to that the dismay that the Indian defense services was caught asleep and fooled by a "training games that quickly morphed into a land grab", as transpired 2020.
    Show me the times when we prevail overwhelmingly against a larger force (e.g., Japan vs Russia 1905) or devastate a smaller enemy (e.g., numerous to cite), then I'm ready to believe the Indian forces are worthy of my attention.

  6. Is the 17th Strike Corps not deployed in the Ladakh region at present? How does having formations like strike corps affect the ability of the other corps and divisions to take the offensive in combat? How prepared are they for such an eventuality? Is the 17 Strike Corps not built up to it's optimal strength because we did not expect a confrontation with the PLA? Will the 17 Strike Corps be deployed hereafter in the North East? Are we building up this strike corps, or is this not possible now? Do we need another strike corps for our western frontier? Is it possible to deploy strike corps on both fronts at the same time?


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