Infrastructure along LAC

There has been talk of improvement of infrastructure-helipads, airstrips for heavy-lift aircraft, roads, bridges and everything else that allows for easy passage and maintenance of a large body of fighting men all along the Line of Actual Control opposite that of the Chinese positions-since the middle of the last decade.

The Government of India at that point of time abandoned its policy of deliberate benign neglect of the landscape adjoining the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim in the eastern sector. This deliberate policy had been in existence since the Chinese invasion of 1962 and was intended to ensure that the Chinese would not have as easy an access to Indian rearguard positions which they would have had if India had created better infrastructure.

The abandonment of the policy of “benign neglect” by India came in the wake of nearly 600 intrusions by Chinese troops within the course of one year all along the Line of Actual Control. It was also noticed that many of these major incursions and violations of the Line of Actual Control occurred in close proximity to visits by Indian political and military figures. The intention clearly was to show India as being unable to defend itself and portray it as a “paper tiger” in the eyes of India’s neighbors beginning from south Asia where Pakistan benefits from such a Chinese posture right down to south-east Asia where Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Borneo are also embroiled in a maritime boundary dispute with China.

To name but a few of such occasions the Depsang valley penetration which lasted for three weeks came when External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid was to visit China. The most recent – the intrusion into the Indian-held portion of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh was reported in June when Vice President Hamid Ansari was making the first visit by an Indian Vice President since K RNarayanan went there in 1994. The latest such event is the one that occurred in Demchok segment of Ladakh sector when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was holding talks with the Heads of State and Government of China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil during the BRICS summit in Brazil.

Two truckloads of Chinese troops entered the area and withdrew only after a show of banners as stipulated in the confidence building measures adopted by the two countries.   The politico-military implications of the Chinese moves are becoming more obvious by the day. The attempt to dominate its neighbors is moving apace. India being the largest is being quietly needled in a manner that anything it does to defend itself could be presented as a “provocation” by China to justify a military attack.

Countering intrusions

Among the first acts that India must do to secure the Line of Actual Control is to set up a series of helipads within easy reach of its perception of the LAC. The locations should allow easy access to the forward echelons of the Indian security forces deployed in that sector. This, by itself, would be a major improvement in the basic infrastructure required to give vital support by way of resupply of weapons and ammunition, food, medical aid and medical evacuation.

While it will not be a facility that can match what the Chinese have created on their side of the Line of Actual Control, it will enable the Indian commanders to maintain troops further forward than they do currently. The absence of Indian troops on the Line of Actual Control time and again allows the Chinese to walk in unchallenged as they have done in the nearly 13-km deep penetration in the Depsang Valley last year.

It is in this context that it is being suggested that an important component of India’s attempt to improve the infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control must begin with helipads to give access to every segment of it to ensure constant presence that will deny the Chinese any opportunity to make the kind of deep penetration.

Besides, helicopter-led “air bridges” for the delivery of supplies to forward-based troops are more accurate in their delivery than are parachute delivered supplies (including live goats for fresh meat)- the latter tends to go astray and ends up on the craggy mountain sides. Troops have to spend time chasing paradropped material over difficult terrain. Sometimes the load is lost in the mountains. Being well behind the LAC it cannot be construed to be a deliberate provocation. Accept for additional helicopters this arrangement brings about an immediate improvement in India’s ability to insert and maintain troops all along the Line of Actual Control and thereby deny China any politico-military advantage it hopes to garner through its constant intrusions.

Since the program to create adequate infrastructure in the Himalayan region “right up to the Line Actual Control” has been delayed by difficulties in rock cutting and bridge-laying as well as environmental clearances there should be a rethink within the Indian Army and the Ministry of Defence as to what kind of weaponry will be required to be able to stop the Chinese in their tracks across wide “killing fields” on the other side of the Himalayas and what kind of weapons will do the job.

Required weaponry

Many of the Defence acquisition programs are mired in corruption charges against many of the most famous, prestigious and capable names in the international arms bazaar. The bans imposed by the government of India for winning the contracts through middlemen and agents will tend to make it difficult for India to find sellers whose goods conform to the qualitative staff requirements (QSRs) laid down by the Indian Armed Forces.

The Ministry of Defence is aware of the dangers ahead of being bereft of the required weaponry when needed (as during Kargil when the government had to run around the globe looking for whatever was available for use in the mountains). It should in a more widespread manner take over the projects and start indigenous production as soon as possible.

One such weapon is the Indianised version of the Bofors 155mm howitzer. The Ministry of Defence has successfully replicated the weapon based on drawings delivered by the Swedish company along with the first lot of howitzers delivered to India in the 80s. It is now for the Ministry of Defence to ensure that tested and cleared product is delivered to the Army in the Himalayas. One factor stares India in the face that even if we have weapons like the Bofors in our arsenal without the infrastructure we may not be able to take such weapons close enough to the Line of Actual Control to be able to create the “killing fields” that will stop the Chinese in their tracks. India has been able to take the 155mm howitzers up to Sikkim because there is a road available. It may not be possible to take this weapon up to the LAC or place it in a position where it can dominate the battlefield.  

The Ministry of Defence has been looking for “air mobile artillery” but the QSR prescribes an ultralight howitzer capable of being air-lifted by a Chinook helicopter  which is capable of lifting the howitzer up to a height of  18,500 ft either in the hold or under-slung.  There are two things wrong with this situation. For one, the weapon is to be acquired through the Foreign Military Sales window of the US which does not allow for transfer of technology for production under license. And, secondly, in a reasonably mobile battle once the enemy has been largely neutralized, the helicopter will have to return to lift the howitzers (a battery of six) to a new location-all time-consuming and complicated maneuvers.

STRATEGIC AFFAIRS had brought  to the notice of the Ministry of Defence an integrated “air mobile artillery” system in which the weapon, a 105 mm field gun (of the kind manufactured by the Indian Ordnance Factory) is fired from a flying aircraft with greater accuracy than a ground based howitzer. It was suggested that the Il-76 transport aircraft currently in service with the Indian Air Force be converted to take the 105 mm light field gun.

To ensure density of firepower, six aircraft could operate in unison (as in a ground based battery) firing at ground targets with great accuracy even while staying out of reach of ground fire. Such an aircraft will give great flexibility of operations. It will fly over the highest mountain with a service ceiling of 42,000 ft and appear on the other side of the Himalayas and be able to cover battlefields from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Ladakh in the west. With a range of 4,300 km with a 50 tonne load of guns and ammunition the Il-76 could shoot its way to Lhasa, Chengdu and other Chinese military districts and not be confined only to the close proximity of the Himalayas.

With an integral twin 23 mm cannon at the base of the tail and capability of carrying a 500 kg bomb on each wing these could complement the firepower of the 105mm light field gun which has a range of 17 km. In many ways this is a more potent ”air mobile artillery” platform than the Chinook helicopter.

In the Ministry of Defence nobody wants to innovate if they can buy weapons platforms from abroad. “Indigenisation” has become a vile word.