India’s Cabinet Committee on Security has agreed to proceed with the creation of a new mountain strike corps of nearly 40,000 troops to be deployed along the disputed China border region by the end of 2016. The decision to set up the new corps has been long debated by India’s security planners and final approval came in the wake of the three-week long Depsung Valley confrontations with Chinese forces earlier this year. Over the last two decades, India has gradually increased its military presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in response to aggressive Chinese patrolling in the disputed region.
The 4,100 km long LAC between the two countries is geographically divided into three sectors. The western sector in Ladakh, the central sector along the Uttarakhand-Tibet border, and the eastern sector in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims 90,000 square kilometers of Indian-administered territory. Earlier in 2009, the Indian Army deployed two similar mountain divisions in the Arunachal Pradesh region to boost its defenses in the eastern sector. The new mountain strike corps, however, is expected to take the fight into Tibet and capture the Chinese territory there, should the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invade Indian territory.
India’s overall land warfare strategy vis-à-vis China is determined by its deterrence posture, layered at both conventional and nuclear levels. Maintaining credible nuclear and conventional capabilities is therefore essential, not only for deterring the Chinese military threat but also for improving India’s overall bargaining position in border settlement talks with China. The massive conventional force modernization that the PLA has undertaken together with a double-digit increase in its defense budget has intensified the existing conventional asymmetry between India and China. The decision to raise a new mountain strike corps has thus come in the wake of a growing realization in New Delhi of its steadily declining conventional deterrence. More importantly, three important strategic prerequisites explain India’s decision to raise the new corps.
First, at the nuclear level, India’s no first use (NFU) policy significantly undermines the primary function of the country’s credible minimum deterrence posture, which is to prevent the outbreak of war itself. India seeks to deter its nuclear neighbors through a doctrine of credible minimum deterrence, premised on the assured retaliation strategy and towards that end seeks to acquire a reliable second-strike capability. In recent years, India has tested and deployed several long-range land- and sea-based missiles to acquire a credible second-strike capability. Still, the NFU policy removes the threat of nuclear escalation in the event of conventional outbreak, leaving the nuclear doctrine bereft of any ability to deter Chinese forces from undertaking limited conventional attacks. The policy not only delinks nuclear weapons from conventional conflict but also places the burden of deterrence largely on conventional forces. A formidable conventional capability requires significant troop reinforcements.
Second, the possibility of a limited conventional conflict in India-China deterrence requires that Indian forces maintain optimum military preparedness to deal with contingencies in all the three sectors. The growing number of incidents of aggressive patrolling by Chinese forces raises the serious specter of a limited war waged for territorial gains using coordinated land and air attacks. To deal with that scenario, India’s conventional defenses are premised on a denial strategy that seeks to prevent the PLA from launching a quick, low-cost conventional strike on multiple fronts. The massive asymmetry of force in terms of troops and weaponry on the Indian side, however, renders Indian defenses ineffective at preventing the PLA from advancing rapidly into Indian territory. The denial strategy thus calls for India to rapidly ramp up of both firepower and boots on ground.
Third, China’s extensive modernization of border infrastructure presents a particularly worrisome scenario for the Indian Army. A widespread road and railway network enables the rapid deployment and re-deployment of troops and logistics for PLA. The modernization of airstrips in the Himalayan region permits China to deploy air power more swiftly against India. Bolstered by its growing presence in the region, China has markedly increased troop movements along the LAC. India’s conventional deterrence, on the other hand, presents minimal risks to Chinese forces who might be contemplating limited operations. The new mountain strike corps is thus expected to achieve the dual objective of boosting both defense and offense, the latter by opening a new front in Tibet, potentially capturing a vulnerable chunk of Chinese territory and exploiting Chinese weaknesses in that region in the event of any conflict.
Clearly, the signs of change are very much evident in India’s outlook towards its conventional deterrence. Though the Depsung confrontation has clearly acted as a precipitating event, the decision to set up a new mountain strike corps also reflects increasing awareness among military planners of the need to diversify India’s military options in the disputed border region. Although tensions on the border were defused after both sides withdrew their forces to their original positions, the situation on ground remains tense, with further eruptions of aggressive patrolling and encroachment incidents from both sides. The lack of tangible progress in negotiations on the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement has further pressed New Delhi to weigh all its military and diplomatic options. With a strong conventional deterrent, India can effectively leverage its position in the border dispute settlement talks. India is therefore likely to push for rapid troop deployment and border infrastructure development programs along the Line of Actual Control in the near future.
Kapil Patil is a Research Assistant at the Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi. The views expressed are his alone.