The Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) clashed violently across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for the first time on 16/17 June 2020 with fatal casualties after New Delhi and Beijing signed the Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1996 with each other. In a sense, this opens a new chapter of India-China military diplomacy which till recently ensured the absence of hostility across the LAC ever since the two sides clashed with arms at Nathu La in 1967.
Invariably any failure of diplomacy implies the possibility of armed conflict or war between two hostile neighbours which makes it relevant to examine how the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA is poised for war against each other on the Tibetan Plateau also known as the ‘Roof of the World’.
For any army in mountain warfare that involves high altitudes, the dice is loaded in favour of the defensive forces. The offensive forces require a force potential ratio of a minimum nine times that of the defensive one. In simple terms to attack a company’s strength of soldiers around 120 men, the offensive forces would require nine companies or 1000 soldiers.
The Indian military organisational structure and ethos is better suited towards such mountain warfare as evident from its military engagements over the Siachen Glacier and Kargil against Pakistan as also in a perpetual state of alertness to counter infiltration by terrorists in Jammu & Kashmir. The Chinese PLA is aware of the combat capabilities of the Indian army and constantly seeks to match them.
War is as much physical action as it is a mental assault on an adversary.
Both military rivals can undertake maneuver, bypass, multi-directional attacks, deception, feints, dummy attacks, and counter-attacks. Here the intangibles count. The one better trained, with better leadership, more initiative at junior levels, directive style of command, ability to fight in small teams without detailed orders makes all the difference.
Moreover, the Indian Army’s extensive involvement in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations in Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern states over decades provides its soldiers ‘live’ situation training to constantly hone their combat capabilities.
Also, the acute shortage of junior officers in fighting units has actually been a blessing in disguise as it has allowed the junior commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers to take the initiative and shoulder greater responsibility in peacetime.
The Chinese PLA has steadily undertaken the construction of infrastructure in Tibet which facilitates military movement over the Plateau. There are four main highways from the mainland into China. The Eastern Highway from Chengdu-Nigiti (Linzi) – Lhasa 2,413km (1,715 upto Nigiti). Central Highway from Golmo-Lhasa 2,122 km is the main lifeline running alongside the railway line. Western Highway from Kashgar-Lhasa 3,105 km running through Aksai Chin.
Today in the Tibetan Autonomous Region the total length of road network is 51,000 km. There are presently five airfields on the Plateau and one a little off to the East towards Chengdu. A railway line of nearly 1,150 km from Golmo (in the north in Qinghai) to Lhasa was completed in July 2006. Its highest elevation is across the Tanggu La (Pass) at 5072 mtrs (16,640 feet). It has been further extended 253 km south to Shigatse (Xigaze) on the banks of Tsang Po (Brahmaputra River).
There are plans to further extend it another 700 km from Shigatse up to the Nepal border.
When China invaded Tibet in 1950-51, there were no roads from mainland China into Tibet which could sustain the large military forces that fought their way into Tibet. As a measure of goodwill, late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru extended all logistic assistance to provide the PLA troops with food and victuals in Tibet. The Chinese merchant marine ships transported rice and food items from China to Kolkata where it was unloaded and transported across Nathu La, in Sikkim, to be delivered at Yatung in Tibet.
Then-Prime Minister Nehru monitored the entire supply chain to ensure there was no pilferage enroute.
Ironically, while India was so naïve, it unknowingly fed the same PLA troops who constructed roads and tracks on the Tibetan Plateau which China used a decade later to wage war against India.
Recently China manufactured a light tank, ZQT 15 and tested it extensively in Tibet. It has also inducted the CZ-10 medium attack helicopter for operations in the mountains. It has also inducted the Y-20 heavy-lift transport aircraft which will facilitate troop mobilization in Tibet.
The Chinese PLA has a variety of guns and rockets to support combat operations in Tibet and with live-fire exercises every summer. Chinese Special Forces or ‘Fist’ units too have carried out extensive training and exercises in high altitude areas and operate upto 5000 meters above sea level. Surprise and deception are built into their planning down to the lowest level.
The Chinese PLA parade on its 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on 01 October 2019 showcased an immaculate formation of soldiers who marched with a drive past of tanks and missiles and other equipment to wage war. This display of military might should be interpreted as soldiers who are extremely dependent on detailed orders and who operate under rigid control. Such training is an anathema to fight future small team hybrid wars with mission-type orders. Chinese bluster often numbs the untrained mind.
Another advantage is that the Indian Army rotates troops to different areas for two-year tenures which enables soldiers to adapt to new terrains and situations easily.
The Chinese follow a different system where troops of a theatre command stationed in one garrison throughout which makes them less flexible to adapt to the dynamic situations which arise in war. Also, China’s “One Child” policy adversely affects the quality of PLA personnel, as parents tend to pamper these young men who are single children unsuited to soldiering – synonymous with hardship. This makes a massive difference in the man behind the weapon.
(Bajwa is a former Director-General Infantry and Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, now Editor, Indian Defence Review; Chengappa is a former Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Christ Deemed to be University, Bangalore.)