The Indian military was ready for a two-front war, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said at the India-US Strategic Partnership Forum on September 4. Though no context could justify this assertion which bordered on the bombastic, the immediate provocation was the Indian Army’s initiative in Ladakh.
On the night of August 29-30, the army pre-empted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in occupying some heights along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) south of Pangong Tso. As a consequence of Gen. Rawat’s claim, many analysts started writing that India should evict the PLA from all occupied territories in Ladakh by a limited war.
How will a limited war by India fare? It would end quickly with considerable loss of men and war matériel to the Indian military, without meeting the war objectives of compelling the PLA to vacate the occupied areas. True, the dependable and courageous Indian soldier will not fail the country; the Concept of Operations (COP) or war fighting doctrines and training (both are the responsibility of the military leadership) would.
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The Indian military’s COP, which recognise three physical war domains or battlefields—land, air and sea—are structured around its manpower, with the army in the lead. This COP is meant to fight the Pakistan military, which has a similar doctrine. The military did not bother about the LAC since Ladakh was the preserve of diplomacy.
The PLA, on the other hand, has three physical—land, air and sea—and three virtual war domains of cyber, space and electromagnetic spectrum, for combat. Having kept its sights high after it was shell-shocked by the spectacular display of US-led forces in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, the PLA quickly realised that since it could not match the US military’s technological superiority, the way forward to meet the US challenge someday was by destroying its advantage. Since the US military’s superiority lay in its network centricity (ability to integrate all sensors, shooters and command post in real time for quick decision making leading to destruction of targets), the PLA devised what came to be known as ‘systems destruction warfare’. It is the capability to cripple US battle network’s command, control, communication, computers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems—to deny or delay information to the enemy, which is crucial for timely decision making in war. This was sought to be done by both non-kinetic and kinetic means, namely, by focussing on cyber, space and electronic warfare, and missile (ballistic and cruise) capabilities. By early 2000, the PLA’s capabilities meant to incapacitate the enemy, suddenly and totally, by denying him information, instead of fighting him directly, had caught the US military’s attention, who called it ‘assassin’s mace’.
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Under its 2015 military reforms, the PLA consolidated its ‘systems destruction’ strategy under two organisations which report directly to the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military policy-making body headed by Xi Jinping. These are the Strategic Support Force (SSF) comprising cyber, space, electronic and psychological capabilities, and the Rocket Force (RF) which has under it all ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles. According to the recently released Pentagon annual report (2020) to the US Congress, the PLA has a lead over US military in its land-based missiles and advanced air defence systems. It also has formidable offensive cyber, electronic and space capabilities which are being improved by Artificial Intelligence. The report adds, “the PLA’s robust ground-based conventional missile force compliment the growing size and capabilities of its air and sea-based precision strike capabilities.”
Once the first shot is fired from the Indian side, the PLA through three simultaneous actions could achieve cyber, air, electromagnetic (by electronic warfare) and space dominance within days. First, there could be massive cyber offensive culminating in cyberwar involving the whole-of-nation beyond the designated battlespace. Since Chinese companies are embedded in India’s telecommunications, power, information and communications and defence grids, it is anyone’s guess what a cyberwar (the world has never seen this) in virtual battlespace would do. Moreover, India’s space satellites would be hit by cyber malware, PLA’s sub-orbital kill satellites and anti-satellite capabilities. There would be panic, fear, and frenzy in commercial and financial sectors, with the government at its wit’s end. Second, The RF would hit command centres, various field headquarters and airfields to name a few critical information nodes. The overall PLA objective would be to deny information to Indian military for timely decision making. This would result in the PLA getting ahead on the decision-making loop, allowing it faster responses.
And third, PLA’s robust Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) would ensure that combat aircraft of the IAF which manage to take-off despite airfields being hit by its precision missiles would find it impossible to enter Chinese airspace. In 2019, during exercises in the Western Theatre Command facing India, PLA Air Force had exercised its Y-9 (also called GX-11) communications jamming/ electronic countermeasures aircraft capable of disrupting enemy’s battlespace awareness at long ranges. Interestingly, the PLAAF will use RF capabilities to supplement its own capabilities in early stages of war.
Importantly, the PLA had, in the aftermath of the 2017 Doklam stand-off, made Tibet Autonomous Region its operational base, with proper habitat, ecosystem and training of nearly 2,00,000 troops, including with the SSF and RF. The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force that rushed into the theatre in May are way behind the PLA in these critical, morale-raising aspects.
Given the PLA’s non-contact war capabilities, with minimal casualties and time, it could defeat the Indian military, which is a middle rank power, with Second World War COP and mechanised war capabilities, most of which is imported. Except for combat engines, the PLA has automated indigenous capabilities to produce all platforms, rocket engines and ammunition.
Three more issues should be put into perspective. One, bean counting of assets for adversaries with starkly different COPs is meaningless, since they will not fight attrition battles to each other’s strengths. The PLA would clearly prefer to fight in uncontested, virtual war domains. Two, since the military should consider a worst-case scenario in war planning, it is almost certain that the Pakistan military, if not opening a second war front, would, through heightened Line of Control operations, ensure Indian military assets on its front are unable to be transferred to boost capabilities on LAC. Moreover, Kashmir would be on boil, with minimal help coming from the people of the Valley. The Indian Army’s internal lines of communications would be insecure and both its and the Indian Air Force’s bases would need impregnable security perimeters during the war with the PLA.
And three, militaries never plan for limited wars; they plan for achievable military objectives (which are not possible by negotiations) with clear-headed strategic and military appreciation, which includes knowing the enemy, its capabilities and COP. India seems to have done none of it. It should be clear that the better side (PLA in this case) would determine the time, space and duration of war depending upon its military objectives. India, if it starts the war, would not be able to control the escalation ladder to determine whether it would a limited or full-scale war.
(Views expressed are personal)
The writer is editor, FORCE magazine and co-author of Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power