By Lt Gen P R Shankar (Retd)
Galwan is a turning point in our history. It was India’s ‘Casabianca’ moment when our boys stood on the burning deck to turn tables. It was that moment in time when India and the world realized that the Chinese can be overcome. It was the Nth coming of the Indian Armed Forces from behind. It ensured that India regained its strategic confidence. Many articles have appeared to commemorate the incident. However, a strange dichotomy has emerged. Most analysts say that India is in a state of asymmetry with PLA which has hung a Damocles sword over Ladakh to tie us down to our Northern Borders at the expense of our maritime interests in the IOR. One detects ‘Strategic Hesitancy’ due to a gross overestimation of Chinese capabilities despite Galwan and its aftermath. We need to understand the strategic gains of Galwan and their implications.
Fact 1. In March 2020, the Belfer Centre analysis stated “China is regularly operating with a permanent Indian conventional force advantage along its border areas…it would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theatre Command… By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position”. This forecast has been borne out on ground. My own view is that China does not have an ‘Akshay Patra’ from where it can draw forces without consequences – long and short term. The PLA does not have numerical superiority over Indian Army along the LAC if numbers are crunched. Further, the recruitment standards of PLA have been lowered as per South China Morning Post and many other inputs. The quality of PLA is suspect.
Fact 2. PLA Air Force (PLAAF) suffers from a numerical disparity in comparison to the IAF along the LAC. India has a stronger air position, with a large number of airfields. Even if some airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations. The same is not true for PLAAF. IAF has a clear edge for the present. The PLAAF is trying to neutralise this edge by building up air infrastructure at a frenetic pace.
Fact 3. Any terrain allows deployment up to a level only. Beyond that, pumping in more forces results in diminishing returns. It is a matter of space, logistics, effectiveness, survivability, mobility and recuperability. In high altitudes, these factors get compounded. From a defensive perspective, India has adequate forces to thwart China. In my considered opinion, China does not have enough forces to wage a decisive war in its favour against India.
Fact 4. China is transforming PLA from a conventional land based force to a multidimensional force with a global foot print. Increasing force levels along the LAC is at expense of the larger role. The assessment to be done is whether a hand brake has been already put on this process post Galwan.
Fact 5. Comprehensive national power is a fictional metric coined by the Chinese to create a halo. It has no value on the battle field. Otherwise Taliban should not have kept USA on the run for so long. India needs to fight asymmetrically to defeat PLA. While India has the tools to do so in Tibet, PLA does not have it. There are no morals in not using the asymmetric option against an untrustworthy enemy.
Fact 6. Conventional ‘big’ battles between nuclear nations is fertile imagination. Most of the conventional weapons are now consigned to deterrence only. However we need to be prepared to defend our territorial integrity conventionally if push comes to the shove. The trend will be localised battles of high pressure and intensity.
Pre-Galwan Opinion: As per the Belfer Center Report, ‘India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks. India appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged in Indian debates, providing the country an opportunity for leadership in international efforts toward nuclear transparency and restraint. Indian strategists have not focused on this opportunity, in part because they draw pessimistic conclusions regarding China’. How true!
Corroboration: Overall all these facts and opinion have been borne out in the past one year on ground in Eastern Ladakh. However things are changing.
The PLA executed a premeditated and calibrated operation to ensure that the focus of Indian action remains on the LAC instead of expanding to POK and Aksai Chin. This was in response to abrogation of Article 370 and its political postulations. To that extent, China has achieved its aim as I have enunciated in my article ‘Aim Revisited’@ https://www.gunnersshot.com/2021/06/please-read-in-conjunction-with-these.html . However when viewed in the larger context, PLA did not achieve objectives to cripple India like cutting off the DSDBO road or inflicting a military defeat on the Indian Army or coercing India into alignment with China or preventing India from doing what it wants. In fact the opposite has happened. PLA had to retreat humiliatingly after destroying their own defences and obliterating the Chinese flag. To that extent China stands defeated. However there are larger issues which have exposed the severe limitations of the PLA and China. We need to exploit them. Unfortunately at a military level, these have not come out clearly. At the political level it has not been realised as to how to drive home the advantage which Galwan gave us. I will leave the bureaucratic level out, whose (in)action has contributed more to the detriment of national interests, objectives and strategy.
Planned Offensive vs Speed of Reaction
The PLA incursions were meticulously planned with two divisions at a time and place of China’s choice. News of rehearsals on walk-through GIS models had also been publicised. It was probably appreciated that India will not be able to react in time and space to even pose a challenge to PLA. Hence two divisions would be able to militarily coerce India to achieve multiple political aims and objects. The execution failed due to gross under-assessment of Indian capabilities. All these were probably based on PLA norms. These norms indicate PLAs lack of military grasp. Its incapability to exploit the advantage and initiative when the window of opportunity opened is well established now. However the more important issue is the Indian reaction. We could build up an equivalent amount of forces to mirror PLA deployment in a matter of 2-3 weeks and stymie the offensive in super high altitudes. In the battlefield equations of time and space, capability to build up forces in such quick time frames indicates India’s latent offensive capability. Anyone noticed that? India’s military capability to launch an offensive into Tibet at a time and place of its choosing by beating the PLA in time is now established. The edge which IAF brings to the table enhances Indian offensive potential. India will win the ‘Race to the Swift’ unless PLA commits additional forces in Tibet on a permanent basis. It seems to be doing that now! Anyone with fundamental common sense will discern as to who is tying down whom. Further, it tells us that we need to get into a preventive counterattacking mode rather than being permanently defensive.
Outmanoeuvre in High Altitude
Occupation of Kailash Range and heights above Finger 4 in the face of PLA led to China being outmanoeuvred. More importantly, there was no counter manoeuvre by the PLA due to its limited capability in high altitude. The limitations of a political Army when set against a professional Army have been exposed. Significantly, the capability of PLA will not get better since it has already degraded its intake standards of height, eyesight and even hearing. Overall it leaves PLA as a vulnerable force in the mountains at super high altitudes. This will be exploited by all forces opposing China anywhere. It has taught everyone that PLA can be arm twisted into retreat.
There are reports in the media that PLA is turning over both the divisions from Eastern Ladakh. It begs a question. Why are they doing so? It takes more than a year for troops to get used to the environment and be fit for fighting. Just when those two divisions were getting fit to fight they are being turned over. PLA will now have two new divisions which are not fully fit for high altitude warfare. There are two explanations. First. The two divisions are beat-up and fatigued in near combat. Poor show then. Second. PLA troops do not identify with Tibet as their home land worth defending by sacrificing their life. After all, China as it exists today is an unnatural country which has never existed earlier in history. It has a spatial divide, an ethnic/racial divide and an economic divide between its Han dominated core in the East and the non-Han West. Despite all the talk of change of demography , Hans have not settled in Tibet in droves. Both these issues need monitoring to assess PLA’s ability and commitment to fight a last man last round battle in high altitudes.
Rebalancing a strike corps deployed against Pakistan to face the PLA has a tremendous strategic dividend for India. The rebalancing exercise does not detract our capability against Pakistan or in the IOR. On the other hand dual tasking significantly enhances our defensive and offensive options and capabilities along the LAC. PLA has now been forced to react to this. It will have to deploy additional forces in Tibet which is its secondary theatre and it will be at the cost of its larger geopolitical priorities. It has come to light that PLA is busy building infrastructure to house troops permanently along the LAC. PLA has been forced to commit itself much more to the LAC than hitherto fore and it no more takes Indian Army for granted
The Geostrategic Fallout
Galwan inspired many countries to face up and counter China which were hesitant to do so till then. Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Japan and Vietnam took up issues more forcefully with China after Galwan. These countries will be thankful that India has tied down China in remote Tibet. It takes Chinese focus away from them. Unfortunately, this fact has not been played up by either our diplomacy or strategic community to build or form a coalition of nations which are militarily affected by China and have a dialogue with them for joint action. Galwan also forced convergence of all democratic nations to form an unitary view about China. QUAD would not have come about without this action. NATO would not have declared China as a systemic global security challenge. The geostrategic fallout has been huge.
We have turned ‘Defeat into Victory’ but are we capitalising on it? We have exposed the limitations of PLA. The Chinese seem to have learned from their shortcomings. They are increasing the depth of the battlefield and building a firm base. I do not see a plan to overcome our short comings. We remain in awe of Chinese! We are not able to tell the world as to how to deal with China! There is a need for political and strategic introspection. Galwan has also brought out that while we are fully prepared and capable of taking on the PLA in close battles, we are unprepared for the deep battle. We need to be able to deter the Chinese from any further adventurism by Re-tooling for War In Super High Altitudes. We should enforce ‘Standoff’. Standoff can be imposed by improving Battlefield Transparency, Reach, and Survivability of existing forces. Let me put it across simply, the table which I outlined in my earlier article can be implemented incrementally, with indigenous technology as an evolutionary process. It needs unified thinking and clarity of mind. More than great financial investment, it needs commitment and dedication. That is sorely lacking. Strengthening the LAC is not at the cost of our maritime aspirations as being perceived by many. The challenge before the CDS is to increase joint ‘force’ and ‘operational’ capability. Theatre commands are contentious and emotive issues. Let them evolve. Increasing indigenisation rather than importing Russian tanks and Israeli guns should be the greater priority. We have a task cut out ahead.
PS : – The Belfer Centre Report is accessible @ https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/strategic-postures-china-and-india-visual-guide
-The writer was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda