The India-China face-off along the border with Tibet has spotlighted three organisations that we as a country need to completely revamp—and rapidly. These three critical organisations are the Indo-Tibetan Border Force (ITBP), the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and the Border Roads Organization (BRO).
Let us talk about the ITBP. Initially set up as a specialized force for the India-Tibet border, it has, like all other central paramilitary forces, ballooned in size. However, its quality and professionalism are at best questionable today. It is quite clear that the ITBP has been found wanting in its response to the threats and the thrusts by the Chinese Border Defence Regiments, that have been the main protagonists of the current stand-off. Ideally, the ITBP should have forcefully dealt with this, and allowed the Indian Army to have been the mailed iron-fist a few miles behind the LAC, as the Chinese PLA is. Instead, the Indian Army today is reduced to the ridiculous spectacle of trying to shore up the LAC with lathis and clubs, while other Indian Army formations lie a few miles behind to reinforce the disposition on the LAC. This duality within the same organization needs to be totally obviated and is the raison d'être for specialized border management forces such as the ITBP. We have now seen repeated demonstrations of such mishaps in Ladakh, not to mention at the Arunachal borders.
This is not an unfixable problem. The manpower of the Army and the ITBP comes from the same stock. What needs to change is the leadership. The last two months demonstrated that we no longer have the luxury of treating the India-Tibet border like a job for the police. It is now amply clear that this is a militarised border with an adversary that not only has an infrastructure advantage but also has the integration and command and control flowing seamlessly within the PLA, for both the regular Chinese army formations and their Border Defence Regiments. It is high time we fix this issue on our side. The nitty-gritty of how the transformation of the ITBP happens is a subject for another article, but let us start by recognizing the problem first—the ITBP’s command and control needs to be integrated with the Army’s.
The second problem that needs to be fixed, and this arguably is the most complicated of all, is the well-established and pathetic situation of how the Indian armed forces always find themselves short of quality indigenous equipment in an active combat situation. The Ladakh crisis is déjà vu all over again from the Kargil crisis when the then Indian Army chief commented that we would fight with whatever we have. Today, with at least a two-front scenario, it is nobody’s case that the battle has to be fought primarily with indigenous weapons. It is equally nobody’s case that we do not have the quantity and the quality that we require of our key weapon systems, ranging from basic ones like small arms to medium technology items like 155mm howitzers.
A large part of the blame for this tragic shortcoming has to fall on the Ordnance Factory Board. Not only has it not been able to provide contemporary equipment, it has also opposed the [entry of the] Indian private sector. Can we just imagine how much more confident and aggressive our posture would have been if we had 400 additional indigenously manufactured 155mm howitzers or one hundred more Pinaka rocket launchers? Our nation, in its typical lackadaisical style, meanders along on key decisions. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will start to change now, and allow the Indian private sector to participate in the nation’s defence rather than subject it to a perverse OFB monopoly.
The third aspect we need to deal with is ironically a well-performing one—it is because of its robust performance in the last few years that the Chinese are so spooked. I talk, of course, of the Border Roads Organization (BRO), and its stellar performance; especially under its current DG, who I happen to know well.
The remit for the BRO is now extensive and spans not just the entire Tibet border but also substantial parts of the Pakistan border. To those unaware, the BRO is also responsible for building and maintaining the national highways in states such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and of course J&K. The BRO has responded well to the impending crisis and has raised multiple new formations in the last few years including specialized bridge-building units.
Now, given the increased mobility of India’s strike formations such as the Mountain Strike Corps, which need to have the flexibility to operate across multiple axes into Tibet, it would be pertinent to have the BRO involved deeper with state and central PWDs to ensure uniform codes in road and bridge classification. It is not sufficient to just build border roads, but the roads in the hinterlands too must also enable rapid movement of heavy military formations. The BRO, under the aegis of the NHAI, should harness the extensive road construction experience built up in the country over the last decade towards not just bridging but bettering the infrastructure gap with China.
Finally, the current government is to be rightly credited with having done the most towards implementing the Kargil Review Committee report including the formation of the office of the CDS. It is therefore hoped that the current dispensation, in the spirit of critical analysis and hard-but-necessary decision making, takes the dragon by its horn and tames it, permanently.
The above ideas and thoughts have been mulled over for a fair number of years. The difference now is that with the clear and present danger from China, we no longer have the luxury of kicking decision making down the road.
Lt Gen Utpal Bhattacharyya (retired) served in the Indian Army for 40 years and has extensive experience in regions bordering China
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK