In late May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to commemorate three years of his administration by opening the country’s longest ever bridge over the Lohit river, Called the Bhupen Hazarika Setu (BP), the bridge will significantly cut down travel time to the easternmost parts of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), an Indian state that has been publicly claimed in its entirety by Beijing since 2006 as “Southern Tibet.” The high-profile opening was also intended to convey a message to the Chinese that India was moving forward with its current strategy of developing infrastructure in regions bordering Chinese-controlled territory in order to facilitate the defense of every inch of territory it considers its own. Overall, at a time of heightened India-China tensions and fears about Sino-Pak military collusion potentially culminating in a two-front situation, India is now working to upgrade its military posture vis-a-vis China from one of dissuasion to one of deterrence.
A conventional deterrence posture toward China requires the creation of appropriate last mile connectivity to facilitate axes of advance for counterstrike forces in addition to being able to reinforce “in sector” defensive formations. After years of deliberately keeping its frontier with China devoid of much infrastructure under the premise that the absence of such connectivity would lead to invading forces getting bogged down, India is now scrambling to match China’s extensive infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
China’s Military Build-up
That infrastructure now allows People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) units to mount patrols right into Indian territory along the 4,057 kilometer long Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC currently represents the de facto border between India and China and is divided into three sectors: the western, middle, and eastern. In the absence of timely Indian Army (IA) patrols to counter such intrusions, there would be concession of small bits of territory to China over time. In some places, particularly lacking in connectivity, Chinese-built helipads and short tracks inside Indian territory have been discovered by Indian forces in the past.
The Chinese can now also build up forces along the LAC at various points much more quickly than before and in more significant numbers if so desired. In any case, the Chinese have built motorable tactical roads to all 31 passes that are of military significance along the LAC. Various border “laterals” of low classification also exist just south of subsidiary axes to the main tactical roads and can be used for switching forces between sectors. Clearly, the IA no longer has the luxury of hanging back as the Chinese move in at a time or place of their choosing. While current defensive formations ensure that the Chinese cannot advance deep into Indian territory or, as IA insiders put it, “capture targets of value,” the need of the hour from the Indian perspective is to extend road infrastructure right up to various points along the LAC.
Post re-organization, the total area of responsibility (AOR) under the former Lanzhou and Chengdu military regions in China has been merged by the PLA into the newly created Western Theater Command, which now controls the 76th and 77th “Combined Corps-Level” group armies (GAs) that are not merely integrated arms units of PLAGF but will also progressively include inter-service elements from the PLA Air Fore (PLAAF) and the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) in furtherance of the integrated joint operations that are supposed to be a key facilitator of China’s doctrine of “winning local wars under conditions of informatization.” In addition to the 76th and 77th GAs, the Xinjiang Military Division (MD) and Tibet Military Division (MD), which are also part of the Western Theater Command have some additional eight infantry divisions/brigades and two special operations brigades at their disposal.
Indian military sources believe that the 77th and the 76th could concentrate the equivalent of up to seven division-sized formations (indicative figures, since the PLAGF is currently reorganizing itself into a brigade-based structure) in TAR within a week’s time with one “rapid reaction division” being inducted into Lhasa in as little as 24-36 hours. Using the 1,142 km long Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the three main highways that converge on Lhasa, as well as aviation infrastructure, the PLAGF could also bring 12 divisions into TAR in around a month’s time. For a much larger campaign that would see multiple fronts opened against India on the LAC, the PLAGF could mobilize up to 32 divisions in a single campaigning season and these could be sustained in TAR for a month (although it is debatable whether the PLAGF would really want to send deploy so many troops in TAR).
China can now not only mobilize such forces against India in a relatively short period of time but can also sustain them for relatively long periods of time. The significant number of camps that have come up in TAR simply plug into existing civilian water and power utility infrastructure. Incidentally, the Chinese have built hyperbaric chambers with storehouses in some of these camps to facilitate the rapid acclimatization of some troops inducted from lower altitudes in the event of a contingency. Apart from specialized storage (many underground), massive dual-use logistics centers, such as the one at Nagqu, have been constructed which also host command and control facilities.
Indeed, with its hub based around Lhasa-Nagqu, an optical fiber cable network radiates to Ngari in the West and Nyingchi in the east while also connecting with successive higher headquarters all the way up to Beijing. Together with the optical fiber cable mesh, 58 VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite stations have been built to provide the backbone for a C4ISR network necessary to prosecute a “local war under conditions of informatization.”
As far as airpower is concerned, besides the six fully operational dual-use airbases facing India at Lhasa Gonggar, Nyingchi, Qamdo, Hoping, Ngari Gunsa, and Shigatse, PLAAF has built another nine for its use in TAR. TAR also has some 27 additional airstrips that the PLAAF can utilize. Unlike in the past, the PLAAF now operates year-round from TAR, with reportedly some 24 combat aircraft, a mix of J-10s and J-11s, being based there on a near-permanent basis with other frontline combat aircraft being deployed to airfields in the region as detachments for durations of up to three months. Several airfields dedicated to helicopter and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations are also being constructed in TAR. In May 2017, the PLAAF took the lid off a base in TAR that hosts a GJ-1 armed UAV unit.
The PLAAF can also look forward to integrated joint operations with PLARF, which controls China’s missiles, in TAR. Opposite India, the PLARF currently deploys various versions of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) family, DF-15 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) variants, and possibly the new DF-16 SRBM as well. The PLARF is likely to use conventionally armed missiles in the opening stages of any conflict to attack Indian Air Force (IAF) airbases in addition to other targets, thereby making it a key enabler of air operations for the PLAAF.
Overall, China’s ability to mobilize troops into TAR in addition to growing PLAAF activities backed by the PLARF has given it the confidence to engage in a game of brinkmanship along the LAC with numerous intrusions, despite the fact that the Tibet Military Division has only three regular and one special operations brigade permanently stationed there. And in May 2016, China raised the status of Tibet Military Command (TMC), by putting it directly under the jurisdiction of the PLAGF.
Despite the muscle flexing, the PLAGF is going to find it rather difficult to conquer any target of value along the LAC. Take Tawang, for instance. An entire IA mountain division, the 5th under IV Corps, has its headquarters in neighboring West Kameng district. Indian forces deployed in Tawang have the best firepower the IA has at its disposal and have essentially fortified Tawang. An advanced landing ground has also been approved for construction in Tawang, with surveys underway for a high-altitude rail link.
In addition to the 5th Division, India has eight more mountain divisions along with one dual-tasked formation under the III, IV, and XXXIII Corps of its Eastern Command, which are all defensively oriented against the Chinese. To support these formations, the IA has also built numerous logistics nodes, troop habitats and underground storage facilities. In recent times, India is also desperately trying to complete the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) Project, which envisages the construction of 73 strategic roads along the LAC of which 27 roads are currently operational. Each of these roads will be capable of conveying 155 mm howitzers and multi-barrel rocket launchers such as the 300 mm Smerch and the 220 mm Pinaka.
India is also progressively improving its aviation facilities in India’s northeast with composite aviation bases and dedicated UAV bases such as the one at Lilabari, Assam. Numerous other forward area refueling and arming points as well as forward operating bases are meant for helicopter aviation, including the soon to be acquired AH-64E Apaches as well as the indigenous Rudra armed helicopter, which is being deployed to the NE.
Even as India hastens military infrastructure in the northeast, the critical Depsang Plains at the northernmost part of the LAC in Eastern Ladakh has emerged as a flashpoint since it abuts the Siachen Glacier. In 2013, the area witnessed a major incursion by the PLAGF that led to a standoff, which was defused only after the IA managed to deploy sizable forces with the help of the IAF. Nevertheless, the area continued to be perceived by the PLAGF as vulnerable given its road network and its deployment of armor in the vicinity. However, India has reinforced this area, which falls under the area of responsibility of the IA’s XIV Corps, with a brigade in addition to deployment of T-72 tanks. Importantly, India is in the process of deploying an entire armored brigade in Eastern Ladakh, with two T-72 regiments already operational. Incidentally, the armored brigade in Eastern Ladakh could also be used to spearhead an attack toward the Western Highway passing through Aksai Chin via the Chushul-Demchok axis and this has the Chinese worried.
Perhaps the PLA is now thinking that the least disputed middle sector of the LAC is the one to eye, given that they have vastly superior accessibility to all five passes of military significance in this sector. Of late, Chinese helicopters have been violating Indian airspace this area and the PLAAF has flown its synthetic radar aperture equipped Tu-154s over this sector recently. Preemptive occupation of some features here would be difficult for the Indians to dislodge later. However, the Chinese would in turn find it rather difficult to sustain their ingressing forces in this sector since the passes remain closed for six to eight months in a year. As such, the lines of communication for Chinese forces would be rather vulnerable to interdiction by the IAF, which has several major airbases in the vicinity.
In fact, the IAF, with 31 airfields (nine in the western and 22 in the eastern sector) located much closer to the LAC, has an edge over the PLAAF in any air war over Tibet. IAF aircraft, with their bases in the plains, will be able to take off without any payload penalties and will require considerably less fuel to reach their targets. Even with extra lengthened runways, PLAAF aircraft flying out of TAR airfields, whose average elevation is 4,000 meters, will continue to suffer from payload restrictions. And the PLAAF currently does not have enough refueling capability to really sustain aircraft that can fly in from distant airbases located at lower altitudes. Moreover, most PLAAF airbases in TAR do not have hardened shelters and have only poor support facilities. PLAAF aircraft could well be caught out in the open during early stages of any conflict by the IAF, which has already deployed frontline aircraft like the Su-30 MKI to airbases near TAR. The IAF also intends to base a squadron each of Rafales at Hashimara and Ambala, both located very close to the LAC. The IAF has also activated seven advanced landing grounds (ALGs) in Arunachal Pradesh in recent times (besides three in Ladakh), whose efficacy was demonstrated with operations such as the landing of a Su-30 MKI in Pasighat ALG in August 2016 and then a C-17 in Menchuka ALG two months later.
To mitigate the threat posed by a PLARF missile attack, the IAF is introducing proper “rehabilitation” capabilities in its LAC facing airbases to ensure that it stays in the game. India is also deploying the Brahmos Block III cruise missile with steep dive capability in the northeast as a “symmetric counter” to the PLARF.
Indeed, rather than opt for a major campaign that isn’t going to end quickly, given that there would be no element of surprise, the PLAGF could use its ability to mobilize modest-sized forces much more quickly to make a grab at tactical features and a pass or two at certain places along the LAC where such opportunities exist. In the process, the PLAGF could create more encroachment possibilities for itself while possibly foreclosing axes that might be used by counter-attacking Indian forces. China would try to gain the initiative by striking first, very much in consonance with its philosophy of “active defense,” and then offer a negotiated settlement to India.
It is precisely to cater to this kind of a scenario that the IA has created the Mountain Strike Corps (XVII Corps) under its Eastern Command, which is designed to launch a quick counter-offensive to make a similar quid-pro-quo shallow grab of territory inside TAR to strengthen India’s hand in the ensuing negotiations. XVII Corps could also be launched in a “stabilization” role in the event of the Chinese opening a major front along the LAC at, say, the Doka La Pass in the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction, which lies near the all-important Siliguri Corridor that is India’s link to its northeast (the site of a current stand-off).
The first division of the MSC, the 59th, headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal, is set to be operationalized this year and is meant for the eastern sector of the LAC. The MSC’s second division, the 72nd, headquartered at Pathankot in Punjab, is currently being raised and is expected to be operational by 2020. The location of the 72nd Division indicates that it is a dual-tasked formation whose area of responsibility lies in the western sector of the LAC but could be used to reinforce Indian formations in the east once its task in the west is done.
However, if the MSC has to create tactical surprise, some of its elements must acquire serious air mobility (at least a brigade) in order to be deposited close to possible axes of advance in a much shorter timeframe. The number of such axes of advance must also be increased especially in the eastern sector, which will be the center of gravity for any Indian war effort against China. In the years ahead, India will seek to further extend its border roads network under a “General Staff Long-Term Perspective Plans” project, introduce hover barges in order to optimally use the Brahmaputra for riverine movement, and build strategic mountain railways. All this will be in aid of moving division sized forces (including dual-tasked formations) to their frontline stations in a very short period of time besides allowing for rapid switching of brigade and battalion sized forces between sectors.
Meanwhile, China is also busy extending the line from Lhasa to Nyngchi and then all the way to Dali in Yunnan province. Once the connection to Dali is ready, the PLAGF will be able to bring in sizeable forces even more quickly to the southeastern TAR opposite Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese are extending a rail link to Yatong in the Chumbi Valley right next to the Doka La pass, which heads into Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau. While this is intended to reduce their vulnerability in the Chumbi Valley, since Indian forces sit atop its eastern shoulders, it also means that this area will emerge as more of a flashpoint in the near future, with the current standoff being only the beginning. Last year, Unit 77656 which sits at Khamba Dzong at the gates of the Chumbi Valley was honored as a “model plateau battalion” by President Xi Jinping and China has been trying to acquire the Doklam Plateau from Bhutan by offering greater amounts of territory in exchange elsewhere.
Clearly for the foreseeable future, the India-China border dispute will be contingent on the balance of “mutually assured construction” as each side tries to gain a tactical advantage.
Saurav Jha is a commentator on energy and security issues. He is currently writing a book on the India-China military balance. Follow him on twitter @SJha1618