India does not have a National Security Strategy (NSS). HQ Integrated Defence Staff invited the National Security Advisor (NSA) few years back to put across how military can help draft the NSS. The Deputy NSA came instead but cut short the presentation midway saying forget all this; tell me about Nepal – the royal massacre had just happened. He was told that a comprehensive assessment was sent to NSA three months back how events will shape in Nepal in five phases. He said he had not seen the paper. Few years later, HQ IDS again invited the NSA for the same presentation. This time the NSA came but lost his temper within 10 minutes saying: “Who has asked you to work on this? We already have a NSS”; this despite government admitting in Parliament there is no NSS but few relevant orders exist in different ministries.
Last year media reported the present NSA is tasked to define the NSS, which apparently is still in the making. How our intelligence agencies are tasked in absence of NSS remains a mystery. But more galling is void of a Strategic Defence Review (SDR) without which numerous aberrations are noticeable with respect to the current standoff in Eastern Ladakh. These are discussed in succeeding paragraphs.
Media recently quoted the China Study Group (CSG) stating they have been closely monitoring China for years – so how come China sprang this surprise in Ladakh? A foreign scholar has detailed satellite imagery of world's largest sand-scale landform in the Ningxia region (China) representing Eastern Ladakh built in 2004 in order to train PLA for operations in Ladakh. Why was our intelligence and CSG unaware of this? Our intelligence at all levels was complete failure despite PLA having built a road 4 km short of Galwan. Some say Chinese aggression was because of India developing border infrastructure to capture Aksai Chin but given the military asymmetry China unlikely sees such threat in the foreseeable future.
Without the SDR and belief there would be no conflict, we went for a truncated Mountain Strike Corps and arbitrarily decided on downsizing Army by 100,000 without examining LAC deployments. For example, the Division in Eastern Ladakh has frontage of over 800 km and had little surveillance means. Successive defence budgets negative in actual terms have adversely affected military modernization, including foreclosing some operational information systems under development by army to fight network-centric war.
Terming intrusions under “their perception of LAC” doesn’t alter the ground truth. Belief that PLA will have to withdraw in winter due to logistics problems too is faulty. Earlier PLA infrastructure were at elevation of 4,000m but now their new encampments are at 6,000m, new support bases at 5,500m and new heliports at 4,500m. It is also opined that PLA will ‘have’ to de-escalate but de-escalation apparently has already reached a dead-end. PLA withdrawing to April 2020 locations is out of the question. They will unlikely withdraw intrusions, especially in Depsang and Pangong Tso areas.
It is also believed that Beijing cannot afford conflict due to adverse world opinion but China never expected garlands even when triggering Wuhan Virus. China may consider this the best opportunity against India battling the pandemic, floods, emergency purchases, winter logistics nightmare, virulent domestic politics and part focus on periodic elections. Some say ball is in China’s court, which it is ‘not’ unless India accepts fait accompli. China continues to claim entire Galwan Valley and PLA intrusions include a deep one in Depsang, besides a mechanized division and other forces on Chinese side of LAC opposite Demchok and Depsang. Ball in India’s court does not preclude further offensive by PLA at opportune time. That is why Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has asked the military to be prepared for two-front war.
The SDR in the Indian context implies defining the threat (short, medium and long-term) much more in detail than the NSS, recommend the size and shape of the military required to build hard power for defending the nation and threat in being enabling unhindered growth of India as a rising power, taking into account multi-domain scenarios through the spectrum of conflict; which would also indicate technologies India must acquire. SDR should also cover worst case scenarios. Periodic review of the SDR is essential because of fast paced situational dynamics. For example, post calling off the Doklam Standoff, China has located a brigade plus force in close proximity. With new illegal claim over Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan, China may be planning operations in Bhutan to force another standoff with India.
The SDR and periodic reviews would take time but in the current India-China standoff notably China maintains India is the aggressor while talking of de-escalation but continues with intrusions at least at Pangong Tso and Depsang while also claiming entire Galwan Valley. China would be unimpressed with military demonstrations shown to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at Stakna near Leh, being on stronger ground. Recent statement by China’s foreign ministry that India should maintain its independent foreign policy is noteworthy, which followed External Affairs Minister Jaishankar saying that non-alignment was thing of the past. China could well initiate conflict with India before, during or after winter ‘without’ activating South China Sea. China could activate fronts through Bhutan, Ladakh and northeast with Pakistan activated through POK. What support would India get from US or Quad in such scenario beyond posturing?
In a closed door international seminar in a foreign country eight years back, some speakers opined China could use tactical nukes to force India submit vital territory. In the current scenario, it could even be tactical bio-bomb.
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If we are not prepared for worst case, this could be a surprise. PLA has equipped soldiers with waterproof cold clothing to wade waters of Galwan River; they could be equipped for CBRN operations too. We have nukes including nuclear tipped BrahMos but hopefully these scenarios have been debated already and responses decided least we scramble the National Command Authority after getting hit and then start debating escalation. If the oil wells fire in Assam is an indication we could be fighting three-front war, which with China will involve high level of cyber-cum-electromagnetic attacks and vertical envelopment.