Collusive intent: Defending Ladakh

There are signs and signals galore that China wants to accelerate its passage across the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea.

The increasing frequency of intrusions across the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh sector of north-eastern Jammu and Kashmir and the arrival of about 9000 Chinese troops disguised as laborers in the contiguous Gilgit sector of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir drive a point in the direction.

Further, the trenchant insistence that all developmental work on the Indian side be stopped and the first joint military exercises with Pakistan in the deserts of Sindh and the proposal that China and India organize joint naval patrols in the Indian Ocean suggest that Beijing feels that faster access to sources of energy is a strategic requirement for sustaining its growth.

In parallel, there is the feeling that with America in decline, China must move swiftly to fill the emerging vacuum symptomised by reported friction between Washington and Saudi Arabia and the delivery of a modern set of nuclear capable surface- to-surface missiles to Riyadh that would give the fountainhead of Wahabi Islamic fundamentalism the ability to reach any part of the Indian Ocean littoral.

Troop deployment

Conversely, India appears diffident by comparison. After the provocation at the beginning of the year when Chinese troops on motorbikes stopped Indian workers from constructing a road to connect two villages in the far-flung Demchok sector and a passenger shed for travelers, the Indian Army sent a letter to the State government that no construction should be undertaken within 50 km from the LAC without prior permission of the Ministry of Defence.

There has been no protest over the presence of Chinese “laborers” in PoK, nor about the failure to inform India about the joint military exercises not far from the border with Rajasthan.

All this was happening when Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar arrived and New Delhi appeared hypnotized as by the unblinking stare of the python.

The Defence Ministry’s reported instruction not to construct anything close to the LAC is strange because there have been repeated announcements that the Nyoma advanced landing ground (ALG) would be upgraded to a full-fledged airbase for operations against China.

An airfield without a network of roads for periphery defence would be a sitting duck for Chinese troops who travel around on motorcycles to drive in and shoot up the place. The airfield is within the Nyoma subdivision where the work on the road was stopped.

Clearly, there were no Indian troops present to protect the workers and assert Indian control over the territory which puts it in the same genre as the Kargil fiasco which was taken by Pakistan in the absence of Indian troops.

Indian deployment appears to be minimal in this sector and that itself could encourage the Chinese to launch a reconnaissance in strength and sweep into the strategic Leh town in much the manner in which they arrived at the threshold of Tejpur town in 1962.

In many ways this route would be more strategically important than is the current Karakoram Highway which is prone to disruption by landslides and “quake” lakes –huge bodies of water blocked by the natural dams caused by the landslides.

One such dam is threatening to sweep away a large chunk of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that lies south of the landslide.

If the Chinese launch an attack through the Ladakh corridor where they are nibbling territory “by the inch” in the absence of Indian troops in sufficient strength, between them the Pakistanis and Chinese would have the whole of Jammu and Kashmir in a tight pincer.

Much as China has upped the ante in Arunachal Pradesh by laying claim to the whole of the State and not just the Tawang tract its high-value strategic interest lies in the road, rail and pipeline linkages that Jammu and Kashmir provides it with Pakistan and thence to the north Arabian Sea.

It cuts travel time and the transportation of fuel in the pipelines can be at lakhs of barrels per day. It would, thus, be prudent on India’s part to upgrade its dissuasive capabilities at short notice in Ladakh and the contiguous Himachal and UP borders with China’s Xingjiang and Tibet Autonomous Regions.

New Divisions

The two additional Divisions created for the defence of Arunachal Pradesh is the way to go for the Ladakh sector as well.

In fact, military analysts have called for an increase of at least seven additional Divisions to raise the numbers to 18 Divisions to provide sufficient face-to-face deployment to act as a deterrent to Chinese misadventure as happened at Nathu La in 1967 where the eyeball-to-eyeball positioning helped India provide an impromptu lesson to Chinese comeuppance.

Any hopes of being able to transfer troops and heavy artillery from one mountain sector to the other as India did during the Kargil invasion need to be shelved because too long a delay in evicting the intruders could result in another suppurating wound.

India will need to be able to stop the invader in his tracks before he reaches the Indian claim line or at the claim line itself. This will not be too difficult either with long-range artillery or tanks and infantry combat vehicles as was done in 1962.

If Nyoma advanced landing strip is to be activated it should be expected that the first retaliatory strike could be delivered by aircraft dispensing precision guided munitions on Chinese troop and armor concentrations that should be expected given the flat tableland that is the Tibetan landscape.

During the Kargil crisis it took Indian troops nearly two months to evict the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry from the heights in the Kargil-Dras salient they had occupied using airpower and ground-based artillery that included the redoubtable Bofors 155 howitzer, the 105 mm Indian Field Gun, the 214 mm Pinaka multibarrel rocket launcher and large-calibre mortars to soften up the intruders before the Indian infantry took them on in hand-to-hand combat.

Learning from the Kargil perfidy India must develop a dedicated force for the Ladakh, Himachal, UP border or what is called the “Sugar Sector” given the peculiarity of the landscape and Chinese preponderance of manpower and the ability to bring at short notice 40 Divisions to bear all along the Line of Control from Arunachal Pradesh to Aksai Chin which lies opposite the Sugar Sector.  

India has to demonstrate that it can stop any attempt at nibbling at its territory with the intention of creating a fait accompli because the stakes are extremely high – either India retains its relevance in the region or goes under in the combined hostility of China and Pakistan.

Given their all-weather collusive intent it should be expected that there could be some element of combined operations against India in which case even as it has to protect itself all along the 3400 km Line of Actual Control but also hold the line in Jammu and Kashmir and the international border on the west.

Instead of waiting for the road network to fructify India must begin a parallel program of manpower development and air-deliver them to the Himalayan frontier to dig in and confront any attempt at nibbling territory.

Since it is known that 40 Divisions are intended for the anti-India campaign a ratio of manpower that will make it difficult for the Chinese to operate with impunity must be put in place soon.