Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

4 Lessons for India From China’s October 2019 Military Parade

China’s October 1, 2019, demonstration of military might bears lessons for New Delhi.

By Suyash Desai for
4 Lessons for India From China’s October 2019 Military Parade
Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

With the People’s Republic of China (PRC) marking its 70th founding anniversary on October 1, the grand military parade at Tiananmen Square was the highlight of the celebrations. It showcased China’s newer arms, ammunition, and technology. Over 15,000 personnel, 160 aircraft, and 580 pieces of military equipment participated in the military parade, including sophisticated weaponry such as hypersonic missiles, intercontinental-range land and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, stealth combat and high-speed reconnaissance drones, and fifth-generation fighter jets.

China intended to address both domestic and international audiences through this parade. At home, the leadership hoped that the parade would stir up feelings of nationalism. Internationally, the display of force was intended as a warning to the United States and China’s neighbors. Further, the parade reflected the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) progress toward becoming a “world-class military” by 2050.

Although policymakers and military leaders across the world were keeping a close eye on China’s military display, perhaps those in India should have been paying the most attention. The parade was not directed at India, but New Delhi can learn a lot from China’s use of military modernization and its ongoing defense reforms. Here are four key lessons New Delhi can take from China’s 2019 military parade.

Improve Electronic and Cyber Warfare Capabilities

The PLA Strategic Support Force’s (SSF) contingent made its debut appearance at the military parade. Created in 2016, the SSF is responsible for China’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities; it was formed to create synergies between these disparate warfare capabilities and execute specific types of strategic missions in the future. For India, which is a late starter in cyber and electronic warfare, the SSF’s debut in the parade should be a wake-up call to work on its information warfare capabilities with greater urgency. Not only does India lack doctrinal clarity with regard to these types of warfare (the National Security Strategy due later this year is supposed to address this), the lack of integrated theater commands and the fragmented command structure make the deployment of information warfare in service-specific missions difficult.

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India’s announcement earlier this year about its new triservice Defense Cyber Agency (DCA) indicate that India is taking steps to integrate its electronic and cyber capabilities at an operational level. However, the Army Training Command, which is responsible for formulating the triservice doctrine, suffers from inadequate interactions with the technical entities responsible for collecting military intelligence, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Corps of Signals, the Defense Information Assurance and Research Agency (DIARA), and the National Technical Reconnaissance Organization (NTRO). Unlike in China, India’s civilian sector plays a minor role in enriching the country’s cyber and electronic warfare technologies. As the nature of warfare evolves and these technologies become the bedrock of future wars, India needs to be prepared to fight in this new style.

Strategically Modernize for Conventional Deterrence

The parade was the first time that China displayed to the world the DF-17, a hypersonic glide vehicle; the Dongfeng-41 (DF-41), a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile; and the JL-2, an intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missile. Enhancing China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities against the United States, these missiles as well as the Jin- and Shang-class submarines clearly indicate that China has modernized its armed forces with the strategic objective of deterring U.S. involvement in the western Pacific.

Pursuing strategic and targeted modernization is an important lesson India can take from China. India enjoys the upper hand against Pakistan in long wars due to the size of its armed forces, but the air skirmish between the two countries in February this year highlighted India’s vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are due to India’s aging military hardware, outdated equipment, and poor infrastructure. India can only deter Pakistan from engaging in short-term conventional skirmishes by targeted weapons acquisition and deployment. India should aim to acquire and manufacture specialized conventional weapons that enhance its conventional deterrence against Pakistan. This includes long-range ultra-light howitzers, multi-role fighter aircraft, heavy scout vehicles, better quality long-ranged snipers, light tanks and armored vehicles, and heavy-lift helicopters.

Additionally, if India is committed to its role of serving as a “net security provider” for the Indo-Pacific Region, it needs to continue to strategically modernize its navy in order to deter Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Although India has made some progress on acquiring the tools of sea denial, such as submarines, surface-to-surface missiles, minesweepers, and maritime patrol aircraft, much of this progress has been inconsistent. Despite the Indian government recently buying 10 new Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft from the United States, only two of the navy’s Scorpene-class attack submarines have been commissioned (Project-75 has undergone extensive delays), and the navy has been forced to rely on temporary clip-on minesweeping systems since its project to build new Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMVs) though indigenous construction was cancelled last year. If India is serious about its desire to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region, it needs to focus on strategically and efficiently modernizing its navy.

Strategic Acquisition and Use of UAVs

China displayed three types of unmanned vehicles at the military parade: the Gongji-11, a stealth attack drone; the DR-8, a high-speed reconnaissance drone; and the HSU-001, an unmanned underwater vehicle. Beijing has deployed a network of air- and land-based drones to watch over the South China Sea’s contested islands and reefs, as well as land-based drones for land boundary surveillance.

Taking a cue from China, India needs to invest in a much bigger fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be able to adequately surveil its land and coastal boundaries. Despite its 15,200 km land boundary, 7,516.6 km coastline, and 3 million sq km exclusive economic zone, India only has a fleet of 100 drones. UAVs are useful tools for surveillance since they are cheaper and less detectable than manned platforms, and they can operate at altitudes and in environments unsuited to manned systems. Considering the history of Pakistan’s infiltration in Kargil and increasing Chinese incursions in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s need for effective and affordable surveillance is clear. There has been some recognition of this recently, with India adding 54 Israeli HAROP attack drones to its fleet. However, if India is going to continue to use UAVs for surveillance, then it will be necessary to update its operational doctrines to reflect this change. Starting with the upcoming national security strategy, India needs to determine how drone warfare and reconnaissance fits within it overarching military doctrine, in what theaters the usage of drones would be the most effective, what types of drones are necessary to meet operational goals, and how it should go about acquiring (foreign bought versus indigenously built) drones that it will need for the future. India should learn from China’s example and be more strategic about its use and acquisition of UAVs.

Focus on the Indigenization of the Defense Industry

According to the Global Times, all weapons displayed at China’s military parade were indigenously made. Domestically produced arms are one of the cornerstones of the PLA’s modernization drive and this is reflected by the fact that six of the world’s top 15 defense firms are Chinese. In comparison, India’s track record for defense indigenization is poor. India relies heavily on defense imports, despite repeated recommendations of defense indigenization by several high-level committees. In order to increase self-reliance and reduce imports, India needs to step up its indigenous defense development by incentivizing the private sector to develop and manufacture weapon systems. A key strategy of China’s modernization has been the use of its civilian sectors for enhancing its defense capabilities, and India needs to similarly stimulate such an interaction between its private industry and its defense industry.

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China’s journey toward developing a “world-class military” was inspired by the United States’ military technology and capabilities, and Beijing spent decades learning from the U.S. model. In that vein, China’s military modernization should inspire and perhaps push India to strive for the same by learning the right lessons from China’s recent military display.

Author is a Research Analyst working on China at The Takshashila Institution. He writes a weekly newsletter on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army called The Takshashila PLA Insight.