Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd)
There is plenty mention in media about Indian Army planning to move one of its Strike Corps up north to face China. Army has not commented on the issue. One journalist writes this is a powerful signal to Beijing though there is much difference between a plan, its execution and the manner it is executed – all of which is controlled by the government, not the Army. The dual tasking of a Strike Corps from the west to our northern borders is not new but are we talking of this Strike Corps moving “permanently” to the north less its Armoured Division? According to media, this is an interim arrangement till the proposal for deploying Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) is approved by the government. According to media, the Army Chief is waiting for the approval. But why is the government sitting on the case?
Ironically, for strategic security formulations, Indian governments prefer to keep the military at arm’s length, which has been more than evident from knee-jerk actions like: why are protective patrols (PPs) along the LAC (proposed by China Study Group and approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security decades ago) “short” of the LAC in Ladakh – are we a scared nation; 14 Corps only came up as a result of the Kargil Conflict; the Infantry Division responsible for Eastern Ladakh had a frontage of 800 km and even provided manpower for the Northern Glacier on Saltoro Range – yet repeated demands by the Army for an additional Division in Eastern Ladakh were ignored; raising of the Mountain Strike Corps (17 Corps) was halted midway – not balancing security with economic development, and; Army Chief, now Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), talked of two-front China-Pakistan threat being real in 2016 but later pitched to reduce Army strength by 100,000 – on signal from the bureaucracy?
Fact remains that successive governments have failed to read the China threat despite numerous signals, even after the Shyam Saran report to the Prime Minister in 2013 brought out that China had sliced off 645 sq km of our territory (in addition to Aksai Chin and Shaksgam) and former ambassador P Stopdan said that of this 645 sq km, 400 sq km is in Ladakh. Recall the way Defence Minister George Fernandes was scoffed at when he said that China is our number one enemy, not Pakistan. It is naïve to think China has run out of gas in its designs on India. The signals from Xi Jinping are strongly to the contrary. China may advance its earlier deadline to integrate Taiwan by 2025. It certainly, would not lax its efforts to subjugate India in the manner it wants and Xi may show his next hand shortly.
Clearly we need a long term holistic review, roadmap and its systematic implementation. Not only should we be prepared for a two-front threat but also Chinese threat though Nepal and our eastern flank once the China-Myanmar-Economic Corridor is established and PLA sets foot in Myanmar. China can later even pose future threat through Bhutan as also Bangladesh if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) returns to power. We cannot afford to start reacting once such threat develops, as has happened in Eastern Ladakh. Besides, all the glib talk about replacing manpower with artificial intelligence and drones etc must acknowledge what the present state is and what will come incrementally in next 3-5-10 years. Currently, we are in the mode of only ‘plugging’ gaps in our defence.
Some have rightly pointed out that the primary task of the Mountain Strike Corps is “proactive.” But then, why was the existing Mountain Strike Corps (even though not fully raised) employed proactively in the current standoff to exert pressure on China in areas other than Ladakh? No doubt we have occupied the Kailash Range and heights around Chushul but these are in our own territory while ‘proactive’ action is meant to be in enemy territory. That is why China is more than happy consolidating intrusions in Ladakh including one of 20 km deep inside Depsang.
Many say that before going proactive we must build our comprehensive national power, without thought to when we will catch up with China and what China will do in the interim. Should we sing till then “we will not even give an inch of territory” while hundreds of square kilometers are lost? Can’t we understand that China is a bully and we will remain on the receiving end if we continue to cringe?
Getting back to relocation of the Mathura-based Strike Corps to the LAC, its new location naturally would be with reference to offensive plans in conjunction the existing Mountain Strike Corps. Hopefully, this move is not purely for ‘defensive’ purposes. If its move is permanent, South Western Command becomes largely redundant with little teeth. On the other hand, if it continues to be dual tasked for the western sector also, do we expect a contingency where China will not activate the front if we are fighting Pakistan – certainly not? So will we need more formations for the strategic cross-border areas presently in the cross-hairs of South Western Command or are we simply dividing the western front between the balances two Strike Corps?
The relief programme for infantry between operational deployment and peace tenure has already gone for six in number with overall mobilisation in face of the Chinese aggression. This will be aggravated further with another Strike Corps moving to the LAC. But this is a national emergency and therefore unavoidable even if we continue with the façade of nothing lost. But a long-term strategy needs to be put in place. It is important for readers to understand that all of what is discussed above is not aimed at the Army at all. The Army is and has been clear all along what is required to be done. This is meant for the ‘Doctors Know All’ who sit above them and abhor military advice.
Finally, it is quite possible that this news of a Strike Corps moving to the Tibet border injected in media is related to establishment of Theatre Commands which has been in the air and mentioned periodically by the blue-eyed journalists. But it would be a serious folly to go for new Theatre Commands in a hurry which will become fait accompli. We already have the example of establishment of the Directorate of Military Affairs (DMA) headed by the CDS in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) so cleverly done that it sealed the need for reorganising the MoD forever; DMA crammed with bureaucrats, all power and finances (capital acquisitions, canteen stores department, military farms, acquisition of land, purchasing food for military, border roads etc) under the Defence Secretary, and; defence production outside the purview of CDS, who is not even advisor to the Prime Minister.
Under the circumstances, it is well on the cards that the Theatre Commands will be established in a manner the Doctors Know All work out with the DMA acting the post office. In this context, an excellent suggestion has been given by the former Naval Chief and Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee Admiral Arun Prakash that government should appoint a Parliamentary Committee with Military Advisors to examine and recommend the Theatre Commands India needs. Whether the coterie around the Prime Minister will heed the Admiral’s advice is a matter of conjecture. It is also high time that the Doctors Know All apply them to deal with China in all encompassing manner – not conventionally alone.
–The author is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda