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India’s Strategic Imperative: Internal Military Balancing Against China

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India’s Strategic Imperative: Internal Military Balancing Against China

Even as India’s defense ties with the U.S. attracts increasing attention, New Delhi’s first goal remains internal self-strengthening. 

India’s Strategic Imperative: Internal Military Balancing Against China
Credit: Indian Ministry of Defense

India and China have locked horns in recent times. Recent clashes at the border have added to India’s insecurity against the looming Chinese threat. In managing Beijing’s revisionism, India’s approach rhymes with its Cold War strategy: a squeamish reluctance to rely on external powers to manage the threat unless it becomes an existential challenge. India believes that entanglements in alliances would only limit its great power ambition. This reasoning drove India to relinquish the external balancing act while relying on internal efforts to build capacities with active support from like-minded nations. 

As India’s relative capabilities vis-à-vis others in the international system improve, it remains cautious in seeking alliances to tackle China. Rising powers are always “allergic” to maintaining alliances. Partnerships envisioning certain preferences for the global distribution of capabilities come with costs to secondary partners as they have to adhere to the strategic template outlined by the stronger ally. Avoiding such a step of strategic entanglement, Indian efforts are primed to focus on acquiring military arms and building indigenous capacities. Even as India’s relationship with Western countries, especially the United States, has warmed recently, with significant military dividends, India remains reluctant to embrace a formal alliance. Instead, India’s effort to push for internal self-strengthening mechanisms to checkmate China’s growing invincibility has gained momentum. 

The recent deal to transfer advanced technology of fighter jet engines from the United States remains the highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit. There are real dividends from such technology transfers. Not only will it advance the U.S. long-term goal of weaning India away from Russia, but India’s own indigenous intent for defense production also gets a boost. 

Recent Indian efforts to launch Pralay and other indigenous missile capabilities point to New Delhi’s efforts to rectify the growing imbalance that consolidated post-1990s when Beijing eclipsed India’s economic growth. The entanglement of conventional and nuclear delivery systems bequeaths intentional ambiguity that obscures the distinction in missile strikes. Such efforts signify India’s tendency to bridge the power deficit with China and pursue self-help mechanisms to tackle Chinese aggression, focusing on acquiring foreign armament that buttresses India’s internal strength. 

As China’s economic growth surged, fueling defense modernization and ever-more technologically sophisticated machinery, Indian defense planners grew worried. Citing concerns about the growing capacity deficit, in 2012, a high-level committee – officially known as the Naresh Chandra Committee – advised the Indian government to respond to China’s “containment” strategy and to remain cautious about the neighbor’s “military modernization.” Following the concerns raised in the report, India proceeded with a course correction. 

Moving away from “deterrence by denial” to “deterrence by punishment,” as Yogesh Joshi and Anit Mukherjee argued, India’s stance has significantly shifted toward offensive operational preparedness. New Delhi plans to deny Chinese transgressions in the disputed hinterlands. It also aims to initiate offensive actions and inflict damage by compounding missile strikes on the Chinese side to dissuade Beijing from aggression. For this purpose, Indian policymakers are prioritizing platforms that enhance India’s firepower, airlift capabilities, and offensive gestures in the region. This complemented Indian efforts to ramp up its C4ISR capabilities to counter Chinese network-centric warfare. 

In particular, the Himalayan strategy is based on a tit-for-tat response to Chinese attacks, emphasizing the need for acquiring “airborne assault” capabilities. To enhance the firepower in the mountainous terrain, India has signed a deal to induct 145 M-777-155mm ultra-light Howitzers – “an ideal weapon” to augment firepower support while also being versatile enough to be airlifted by Chinooks from one sub-theater to another. To complement this, the Indian Army positioned the Smerch and 2 Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launch regiments and the BrahMos cruise missile system, armed with “steep-dive capability,” to target and block significant Chinese mobilization, thus providing lethal combat capabilities. 

Compounding the Indian Army’s efforts, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has deployed Su-30MKI “deep penetration aircraft” to offset the restricted operational field of MiG-21s, enabling air-borne operations covering the entire Tibetan plateau. Apart from this, the acquisition of 28 Rafale EH fighter aircraft along with AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters entails concentrating heavy firepower in different pockets, supporting the Indian Army, and “creat[ing] kill zones” in “pre-determined ingress routes in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.” These fighter aircraft, especially Su-30MKIs, dovetailed with modified BrahMos missiles, can be used to bust Chinese infrastructure routes and their communication networks to oppress real-time information flows. But the challenge of low serviceability among Su-30MKIs has worried the Indian planners, with one analyst stating “only 106 of the 193 [of these] …. would be available in war,” while the remaining 83 will be “grounded.”

Notwithstanding these newly minted firepower capabilities, India has also focused on “strategic airlift” mechanisms for rapid troop deployment and massive artillery on the frontlines to dissuade Chinese assertiveness. To fulfill its operational needs, the IAF acquired 11 heavy C-17A Globemaster III and has a fleet of more than 17 C-130J-30 Hercules, with the ambition to increase the fleet size in the coming decades. These bulky military transport aircraft sustain the rapid deployment of troops, facilitating artillery mobilization from one location to ingress sites to preclude Chinese surprise attacks. Further, India has overhauled the construction of 14 Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs), which became defunct after 1962, to facilitate the transport and deployment of troops in front locations; one successful stint being the landing of the massive C-130J Super-Hercules aircraft in Ladakh in 2013.

India has also acquired Green Pine Radars and three 76TD PHALCON AWACS to improve the IAF’s surveillance and detection capabilities. To bolster the ISR capabilities, the IAF is also considering fitting Israeli-made pods in the aircraft to enhance “situation awareness.” It may be useful if the Chinese military instrumentalizes a “terrain-hugging” cruise missile to target India’s shelters and transportation links. Although radar capabilities are limited by laws of physics, India’s acquisition of the S-400 with its advanced surveillance system could be a “game changer” in detecting and neutralizing these deadly missiles. Not only will the S-400 defend and protect Indian personnel and gear, but it will also free up a shrinking stock of “multirole fighters to focus on air-to-ground missions rather than defensive counter-air.” 

Further, India also maintains a modest repertoire of ISR technologies – “from high-altitude and micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to radar-carrying aerostats and high-resolution earth observation and radar imaging satellites” – to trace early mobilization of Chinese troops and Chinese road developments. 

Given India’s push for the acquisition of expensive and sophisticated weaponry, the Indian Defense Ministry, in recent times, has accelerated the process of constructing “hardened ammunition storage depots” and shelters for aircraft along the LAC. In addition, the government has rekindled its focus on building “sprawling” networks of tunnels and roads closer to LAC to facilitate the mobilization. India has also raised the ante for acquiring “human intelligence” by relying on skillful Sikkim and Arunachal scouts – local hillmen – to gather and collect vital information in forward-deployed areas. 

The high-altitude geographical location of the disputed Sino-Indian is a concern for military planners. Vehicles positioned at this altitude create “operational fragilities” for combustible engines. Maintenance costs go up as lubricants solidify, creating operational difficulties. Despite these, the Indian military strides to offset these vulnerabilities and recently operationalized its indigenously built HAL light-utility chopper to function at over 20,000 feet.

Furthermore, these oxygen-depressed regions affect firepower capability, as aircraft run on minimum payload capacity and lower fuel levels to manage the conditions. To offset these effects, the IAF longed for “multi-year airfield” and ALG programs to support fighter aircraft operations. Modernization of the Airfield Infrastructure Program was tailored to overcome these impending geographical constraints and ensure “sustenance” in these desolate places. India has also constructed the Bogibeel road and a rail bridge through the Brahmaputra River to better its accessibility across northern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

India’s overall efforts to balance the Chinese aggression in disputed areas are in full swing. Although external ties are improving, India’s reliance on internal balancing to secure its strategic needs is the most optimal strategy to self-strengthen while aspiring to add relative capabilities to its existing heft to become a great power. Indeed, Indian efforts point in that direction, but with a key to improve its relations with the other great powers to support its end. India’s ambition will be better served if it pursues its internal balancing efforts without turning its back on its associate partners who share a similar, if not identical, view of the international world order.