Indian army’s disadvantage at Line of Actual Control

Indian army’s disadvantage at Line of Actual Control
Troops from the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army are again in a tense standoff at the south bank of Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake, in eastern Ladakh. Some reports in the Indian media indicate that both sides ingressed across the Line of Actual Control on the intervening night of August 29/30.

While PLA troops are said to have captured two hilltops on the Indian side, identified as Helmet Top and Black Top, a unit of India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF) is reported to have captured a hill feature on the Chinese side.

In other words, while the Chinese can monitor movement of Indian troops, the Indians, according to at least two reports, can monitor PLA movement in the Pangong Tso area.

Ajai Shukla, a defence correspondent and a former colonel, had this to write about PLA’s control of the two hill features: “Chinese soldiers can observe and track Indian movements across the Pangong lake and as far away as India’s tactically vital Chushul garrison.”

However, in the same article Shukla mentions a counteroffensive by IA’s SFF unit, a paratroop outfit recruited from the Tibetan community in India. Apparently, there was a clash and at least one SFF officer was killed and two injured. There are no reports of casualties in PLA’s capture of the hill features on the Indian side of LAC. Shukla’s sources say the SFF unit inflicted casualties on PLA troops. This indicates that the feature attacked and captured by SFF elements had PLA presence there.

None of this is independently verifiable. Much of what reaches the outside world is, ironically, based on Indian reports. Beijing has chosen to remain quiet about military and tactical developments in the theatre since tension began in the area in the first week of May. Shukla’s reports have, however, been credited for their candour and objectivity since the LAC in this sector became hard, hot and tense.

What does one make of the current round, based on what has come out?

First, by all accounts the PLA dominates the theatre physically and psychologically. It has ingressed in the theatre at multiple points and is now close to its 1959 claim line. At most nodal points in the theatre it has captured territory and enjoys superior strategic orientation (SSO), to use an army term.

Second, the PLA has an excellent network of lines of communication from the rear to its forward positions. Its strategy of nibbling at and slicing territory west of India’s perceived idea of the LAC means that PLA troops operate on interior lines of operation. To further ensure this, they build the infrastructure — fortifications etc — even as they move westward.

Third, flowing from the second point, this means that the strategy is built on a slow leapfrog rather than a heroic, deep thrust that could make the line(s) of communication vulnerable and force PLA to operate on vulnerable exterior lines. In other words, the fighting and support elements at no point in time and space are stretched and distanced from friendly forces.

Four, the movement along several points in the theatre is devised to ensure two important elements: tactical feasibility for troops both for offensive and defensive operations in that area and ensuring theatre-wide complementarities.

Five, since PLA already has a psychological edge over IA, and since it has moved to physically dominate important nodal points, IA has been forced into reactive mode. What are our options is likely the most important question in the ops rooms of the northern command as well as the corps responsible for the area.

Six, the IA knows that PLA has so far not used the more deadly arrows in its quiver. For now it has relied on basic infantry-based approach. In some areas, if the IA could overcome its psychological disadvantage and decide on horizontal escalation, it could do so. In fact, if the report about the SFF operation is correct, it seems that it might have decided to do that. But here it confronts the dilemma: if such attempts fail, the psychological effect will worsen for IA troops; if they succeed, the PLA will, without doubt, retaliate. That could happen at IA’s points of ingress or PLA could press its own advantage in the western theatre — even exploit its advantage elsewhere at the LAC.

Seven, either way the PLA’s SSO will force the IA to pour more fighting troops and support elements into the theatre and all along the LAC. That means cost in men and material both in terms of capital expenditure as well as operational expenditure. Additionally, the LAC will no more be a policing venture but a hard, military one. Permanent deployments, rotations, arms and ammunition, POL, infrastructure and equipment maintenance, replenishments, logistics et cetera. All the PLA would need do is to slice territory where and when it suits it, probe when it just wants to keep the IA on edge, all the time enjoying its own superior orientation and the military habitat.

Nine, eastern Ladakh, in the larger strategic scheme, is not a tier-one issue for China. Beijing’s bigger problem is an aggressive United States. Its moves in Ladakh are more about keeping India under pressure since India’s August 5 decision to change the status of occupied Kashmir, including Ladakh. Put another way, Beijing’s strategy is to space out its pricks and probes but ensure that the situation does not get out of hand. It’s a strategy of slow attrition. It is not without reason that China continues to talk at the military and diplomatic levels. That India does too is a clear signal to Beijing that New Delhi is not looking for a fight but a face-saver.

The situation, as it stands, appears to show Beijing choreographing the show while India is left in the unenviable position of reacting to episodic imperatives.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.