The challenge: Handling a high-tech Chinese military - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.
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Thursday, 3 November 2022

The challenge: Handling a high-tech Chinese military

Unanswered questions remain over India's readiness for such a contingency

 

Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 4th Nov 22

 

Inaugurating a new production line last Sunday in Vadodara, Gujarat, where Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) will build C-295 transport aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in technology partnership with Airbus Defence and Space, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked up his vision of “atmanirbharta.” India, he declared, would soon be a huge manufacturer of transport aircraft, having shed the “makeshift approach” of the previous government where the manufacturing sector barely survived through subsidies. 

 

Yet there remain serious questions over the Indian military’s capabilities, and whether it could prevail in the two-front war that analysts anticipate, with China fighting its version of an “informatised war”, in which killer robots, driven and enhanced by artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing quickly put paid to an Indian Army that is driven in a more conventional manner. Many believe that such a war is unlikely, as China would not want to be seen as needing Pakistani help in slapping down a smaller and weaker India. Even so, an opportunistic Pakistani military might not spurn the opportunity to jump into the fray. Unanswered questions remain, therefore, over whether India has equipped and readied itself for such a contingency, or whether our military would go into battle in 2022-23 using tactics and equipment very similar to those it used in the 1999 Kargil conflict. What exactly has changed; and what badly needs to?

 

First, a key development that has transformed the modern battlefield — as observed in glimpses in Azerbaijan-Armenia and also in Ukraine — is the new threat to ground forces posed by remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), or weaponised drones, that are driven by ultra-modern technologies. These constitute a potent threat to Indian forces, including those in depth. Armed drones, freed to operate by the early destruction of the enemy’s air defence weapon systems, can vault over the enemy’s forward defences to strike its reserve echelons, tactical infrastructure such as headquarters and communication nodes, logistics units such as ammunition dumps and geographical bottlenecks that force troops to concentrate, presenting lucrative targets. While Pakistan enjoys rough parity with India in legacy weapon systems, it is beginning to enjoy superiority in drone warfare, thanks to the RPVs supplied by China, including the Wing Loong and RPVs obtained from Iran and Turkey.

 

India does not yet have a doctrine to counter these new threats, or a strategy to underpin a response framework. Even as China perfects its strategy and implements for fifth-generation warfare, our acquisition of drones and counter-drone systems continues to founder on slipshod procurement policies. A key reason for not having a tactical, and operational doctrine for drones is the lamentable absence of a National Security Strategy (NSS), which is essential for formulating strategic, operational and tactical concepts that, in turn, would shape the development of the force. Without a technically proficient national security advisor (NSA), who can direct the making of apex-level policy, the military will not even know what war to prepare for. 

 

It is evident that the current NSA does not accord a high priority to formulating a NSS, having pushed the responsibility on to the chief of defence staff (CDS), the department of military affairs (DMA) and various scientific establishments such as the Defence R&D Organisation. This is undesirable, since the CDS, from the time this post was conceived in 1999, was pointed towards tri-service force structuring, procurement, integration, and re-organisation of the existing single-service theatres into integrated tri-service commands.

 

Another critical Indian weakness lies in what has been dubbed “Grey Zone warfare”: Which involves information, disinformation, cyber-attacks, gathering electronic, signals and satellite intelligence and altering historical records, as it did in Tawang, Doklam and Ladakh to find a Jus ad Bellum (rationale for a war). Chinese special forces could also snap undersea internet cables, leaving India isolated and unable to communicate securely with its allies.

 

China’s (and to a growing extent, Pakistan’s) domination of India's military in wartime is not just in high-tech fields such as Artificial Intelligence. It is also evident in conventional fields, such as long-range fires to support ground operations. In this, Indian forces that need fire to support ground operations have few choices besides Pinaka rockets and BrahMos cruise missiles. Meanwhile, Pakistan has acquired, or developed the Hatf series of missiles, and a cruise missile that can deliver a nuclear payload. India’s ballistic missiles would constitute a form of deterrence, if only China were to leave the command and control systems functional. 

 

The government, instead of making up these deficiencies, dismisses the military’s concerns. In the combined commanders’ conference, held in 2015 on INS Vikramaditya, Mr Modi collectively asked the commanders present what they considered India’s premier military threat. When the generals, air marshals and admirals said they considered China to be India’s most likely threat, Mr Modi would have done well to introduce the generals, admirals and air marshals to some of the tenets of informatised warfare. Instead, he sagely stated: “You may believe that but, from my perspective, I believe that China is not a military threat at all to India.”  

 

Less than two years later, Indian troops were in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Chinese troops in Doklam, Sikkim. Five years later, the PM found himself dealing with large-scale Chinese troop incursions in Eastern Ladakh, the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and the loss of significant Indian territory in the Depsang sector at the northern tip of Ladakh.

 

Alongside these disadvantages, one significant, and oft-overlooked military advantage that India has against China is the resilience and fighting quality of our combat forces. The difficulties that soldiers face in high mountain terrain severely test even the most rugged of them. In contrast, the average Chinese soldier is a lone male child, pampered by an adoring family and ill-prepared for the hazards and discomforts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

 

In the confrontation in Doklam, Sikkim, where Indian and Chinese soldiers were lined up eyeball-to-eyeball, senior Indian commanders recount that they could sense the uncertainty in the Chinese line. While Indian soldiers had to be restrained — verbally as well as physically — from pushing the Chinese troops back, our chief interpreter heard the Chinese officers to the rear of their line threatening to open fire on any of their soldiers who wavered or withdrew from the line.

 

This man-to-man advantage that Indian jawans on the LAC enjoy over the relatively comfort-loving Chinese soldiers would be eroded once the ranks of hardened jawans, enrolled on long-service tenures, are diluted by significant numbers of so-called Agniveers — soldiers enrolled on short-service tenures of four years. Of these, only 20 per cent (25,000 soldiers from each year’s batch of 125,000) will be retained in service for long-service tenures. There is apprehension amongst the generals that, as the percentage of Agniveers rises, the hard edge of the army will soften.

 

The only redeeming factor is that, in any war with China, India would not be alone. With its growing relations with Indo-Pacific democracies such as Japan, Australia, the UK and the US, New Delhi would react to the inevitable reverses by quickly aligning and combining forces with the AUKUS and Quadrilateral groupings. China would find its forces being split in two directions — the land border with India and the South China Sea maritime theatre. Handling the diplomatic and strategic levers in this conundrum would be a major challenge for New Delhi.


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