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R Prasannan
R Prasannan

BORDER ROW

Post Doklam, India wary of a winter offensive

Indian-Army A convoy of Indian Army trucks near Gangtok, on way to the India-China border | Arvind Jain

The Doklam bomb has been defused, but the armed forces aren't relieved. The standoff, during which there were several tense moments, has now forced them to review their border posture against China, as well as against Pakistan. Apparently, it is not a very happy picture.

Though Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat talked about a two-front war,realisation is dawning that the capability for even a single-front war is becoming extremely limited.

All along the Doklam crisis, the army brass was confident that the Chinese wouldn't be able to launch an offensive at or around Doklam or, for that matter, anywhere in the eastern sector. And Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese have always coveted, is a fortress. As Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma, who had commanded a corps in the east, pointed out at a seminar in the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), the 80km long Tawang border has six tiers of defence. Only a fool of a Chinese general would even dream of breaking through them.

But the worry is about the western sector, as THE WEEK has reported several times. The assessment in the army headquarters now is that, while India is not capable of conducting an operation in winter in Ladakh, the Chinese can. “We need to prepare for winter war in Ladakh,” pointed out Lt Gen D.S. Hooda, former northern army commander.

Though an all-out war is generally ruled out, there are real concerns about China's increasing capability to launch a limited offensive in winter. The 800-odd kilometres on the Ladakh front is looked after by just one division of the Army, and it does not even have enough surveillance drones.

If the Chinese choose to deliver a limited strike in Ladakh, drawing out the sole Indian division there, it would also tempt Pakistan to strike around the same area. As Lt Gen Philip Campose, former vice chief, pointed out at the CLAWS seminar, “if China gets involved, so will Pakistan”.

The defensive line against Pakistan in northern Kashmir, too, is not a pretty picture. THE WEEK learns that the line of control is defended to a depth of just two or three kilometres, and there are hardly any reserves. The comforting thought is that Pakistan Army is also stretched thin along the line of control.

In terms of numbers, it would look as if the Indian Army has made Kashmir into a fortress, but bulk of the troops are Rashtriya Rifles battalions, trained and employed in counter-insurgency operations. All of a sudden, they cannot be asked to fight a conventional field battle against an enemy coming in with artillery.

Any operation in Ladakh or the rest of Kashmir would require the services of special forces, but there are hardly any available along the China front in Ladakh. A few battalions have been kept earmarked for cross-LoC strikes against Pakistan. There has been a proposal to train the Ladakh Scouts as special force battalions. But that is a long way off. And the government is yet to take even an in-principle decision on the proposal to set up a separate special forces command.

There are other strategic concerns, too. The building of the China-Pakistan economic corridor through Pakistan's northern areas would further limit India's operational latitude against Pakistan. Any surgical or conventional strike by Indian forces in Pakistan-held Gilgit-Baltistan could damage assets being built as part of the economic corridor. Any damage done to the economic assets on the corridor could be construed as an attack on Chinese assets, and could draw China into the conflict. Thus, the corridor is becoming a new strategic redline in the India-Pakistan military scenario.

Till now, India has been maintaining a conventional edge over Pakistan, but there is concern whether even this edge is being lost. The artillery remains a collection of 1980s vintage Bofors guns and lesser pieces; there just aren't enough attack or multi-purpose helicopters even for a limited ground action in Kashmir.

The only department in which India counts itself on having the upper hand is armour, which would come into play in the plains and deserts. But as Gen Campose pointed out, “Pakistan armour inventory has increased by about 1,500 pieces [tanks] in the last one and half years. They have got new Chinese tanks, 400 American APCs and about 600 Italian APCs. They have raised seven new armoured brigades, and another four infantry brigades have been converted into mechanised infantry”, which move in armoured fighting vehicles.

In short, militarily, India appears to be losing the combat edge even against Pakistan. And strategically, a situation is evolving wherein an operation—offensive or defensive—again China would draw Pakistan into it, and vice versa.

Was that what Gen Bipin Rawat meant when he talked of a two-front war?

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