Constant vigil: Monitoring Chinese activities along borders

To be able to keep a sharp eye on every Chinese maneuver not just along the Line of Actual Control from Arunachal Pradesh to Aksai Chin but also along the Karakoram Highway where Chinese troops have been deployed under guise of engineers and technicians, India will have to use every means of detection, surveillance and reconnaissance it can muster.

This is because we appear to become aware of Chinese activities long after they have become fait accompli. To begin with the Aksai Chin road connecting the Tibetan plateau with Chinese Xianjiang (Sinkiang) province was not discovered till the argument over the delineation of the border become irredeemable.

Our protests against the construction of the Karakoram Highway through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were too feeble to register, and the acknowledgement of Chinese military personnel in PoK came only after American reports indicated that there were about 9,000 of them (our own assessment, as announced by former Chief of Army Staff Generral VK Singh later was 4000).

Satellite reconnaissance

The best way to keep an eye peeled for Chinese/Pakistani mischief in the high Himalayas would be through a satellite surveillance network with better than the one-meter resolution that is currently available in the satellites that ISRO has placed in orbit for remote sensing and surveillance.

That there is a flaw in ISRO’s network become obvious when the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh met with an air crash with could not be located from space not that of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YSR Reddy. Perhaps it may be because debris that has broken into many pieces would be difficult to interpret in blurred images of the crash site. Nonetheless, a one-meter resolution would indicate that there is debris lying about and could be interpreted to mean that a crash site had been discovered. Confirmation could be obtained by other means like helicopter reconnaissance or rescue parties.

In the kind of mountainous terrain that Chinese troops are deployed this will not be possible and so it would be better that India acquires sharper cameras for its satellites and reconnaissance aircraft be they fixed wing or rotary.

Apart from this factor, the repeatability of a satellite over flight once every 24 hours could gibe someone who is bent on hiding his activities to take countermeasures like camouflage materials or obliteration of footprints on the snow as was done by General Pervez Musharraf during his Kargil Misadventure in 1999.

There is, thus, a need for constant vigil of activities on the Karakoram Highway from Shaksgham in the north that was ceded to China by Pakistan in the 1960s down to the point where the highway crosses over into Pakistani territory north of Islamabad. In short the whole of the PoK needs to be kept under surveillance.

The logic for this kind of surveillance goes beyond the purely geographic compulsions. India needs to assert, with great conviction, that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India.

Airborne surveillance of activities in PoK will create a compendium of evidence of Pakistan and Chinese activities in the illegally occupied territory. Both are in illegal occupation and their connivance in expanding that illegality to give China access to the Arabian Sea cannot be acceptable to India.       

Apart from improving the satellite imagery of developments in PoK, the Government of India can resort to a hourly reconnaissance in areas where Pakistanis and Chinese are in close proximity in that area to know what they are up to.

This can be done by visitation by high altitude long endurance (HALE) and even medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones with surveillance cameras that have a high degree of resolution. India is operating the Isreali Heron unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) of the kind that the US is using (Predator) extremely effective against the Islamist terrorists operating out of Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Pak-Afghanistan border.

The Defence Research and Development Organization has created the Nishant UAV at its Aeronautical Development Establishment. It is intended for intelligence gathering over enemy territory and also for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment, electronic intelligence and signal intelligence gathering.

However, Nishant has an endurance of just 4-and-a-half hours. Nishant has completed development phase and user trials and is being inducted into the armed forces.

Well before the Nishant joined the armed forces the Israeli Heron had been purchased. It has a range of 350 km and can fly at up to a height of nearly 32,000 ft which is well outside the range of most shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Its most admirable quality is that it can stay aloft for more than 48 hours relaying information about enemy deployment and electronically transmitted conversations and a wide bandwidth of signals communications. This information being updated over two days and nights at a stretch would give an absolutely clear picture of developments on the ground.

India has been working on UAVs since the 1980s and has only just been able to create viable vehicles. Three derivatives of the Rustom (named after late Professor Rustom Damania of the National Aerospace Laboratories)-Rustom-1 medium service ceiling of 26,000 ft attitude and long endurance (it has been flight tested in 2009), Rustom-high altitude (35,000 ft) long endurance scheduled to be flight tested in February 2014, and the Rustom-2 will be an armed variant for ground attack roles.

Using unmanned technology

Separately work is also underway on AURA unmanned combat vehicle that is being touted to match the capabilities of the US Predator. It is being jointly designed and developed by the Aeronautical development agency and the Dehradun -based Defence Electronic Application Laboratory (DEAL). It will have stealth characteristics and will cruise at medium altitude. It will be capable of carrying two or more guided strike weapons with on-board sensors for targeting and weapon guidance. These are indicators of future self-reliance but as usual indigenous efforts have been taken over by foreign imports and at the moment the dependence in on the Heron for intelligence gathering over land. The other Israeli product the Searcher is being used by the Indian Navy for maritime reconnaissance.

To be able to keep track of developments along the Karakoram Highway the Heron, given its range of 350 km can be deployed from bases near Baramulla and Kargil to cover the whole of the segment from Aksai Chin to the point the Karakoram Highway meets the Pakistan national highway network north of Islamabad.

Currently, with the Karakoram Highway blocked at Attabad north of Gilgit by a landslide that has created a 25 km long lake that had drowned several bridges and a large segment of the Highway in 2010, work is underway to blast away the landslide to reduce the height of the blocked water which at one time was 100 meters deep. Two blasting operations have reduced the height of the water behind the landslide to half. Since the landslide, Pakistani and Chinese goods are being ferried over the blocked water by rafts and small boats.

Drones like the Heron can monitor development on a day-to-day basis, identifying the Chinese personnel working to modernize the Karakoram Highway which was completed more than three decades ago. It is intended to double the width of the carriageway to speed up transportation of goods that are intended to traverse Pakistani territory from its ports on the Arabian Sea coast from the recently acquired Gwadar to the commercial hub in Karachi which was destroyed by the Indian Navy in 1971.

Real time information and intelligence gathered through UAVs will need to be available to the Indian armed forces to enable them to repeat that dramatic moment in Indo-Pak relations anywhere along the nexus that connects China to Pakistan.