Defence Preparedness & India’s Response in Ladakh: Reflections

 By Brig. Pradeep Sharma (Retd).
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Introduction

Security and protection of National Interest rest squarely on the heads and shoulders of the Governments regardless of which political party forms the government, perhaps it is for this reason alone that the Constitution of India talks about the Defence Secretary is responsible for the Defence of India, political parties are not the constant whereas the Defence secretary does provide continuity in the thought process.

What remains questionable is the ‘Nature of Appointing the Defence Secretary and his Qualification/Doman Expertise in the field ‘. Further, the short-sighted approach linked to the ‘Five Year’ term of each Government leaves much to be desired in the absence of a long term vision document. Another major weakness is the absence of or lack of Defence Forces presence in decision making and strategising. These are an indication of the ‘Gap’ in the formulation of a National Strategy for ensuring the sanctity of our borders and protection of National Interests from external aggression.

The current situation along the LAC with China is clearly reflective of a lack of clarity in the National Vision for the security of our territory as well as National Interests. Diverse statements by Politicians, Defence Commentators, Experts and External Affairs Ministry are evidence, the manner in which defence procurements are being pursued tells us of another story. I intend commenting upon just two issues; a pragmatic balance between costs and equipment.

Stand-Off

News reports in the print media suggest that the deployment of Light Armour by China has prompted India to start looking for Light Tanks to counter the Chinese Type ZTPQ tanks. FormerDGMF is quoted in a newspaper ”After China moved Type 15 ZTPQ light tanks among other equipment to the areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), to support its aggressive posture, it “is a wake-up call for upgrading deterrence in these areas where medium category tanks are difficult to deploy,” The importance of light tank as a ‘mobile protected firepower’ for the Indian Army for multi-spectrum, multi-front applications cannot be ignored by the professionals. He also mentions, “It is time to review our one size fits all strategy. The need of the hour is to have a mix of light and medium tanks to be effectively meet the emerging threats and fight the next war differently.” “Thus, the immediate need is to dynamically reorient, reshape, restructure and rebalance forces and have a focused, time-sensitive capability development towards Northern borders,”[1].

India is seriously thinking of procuring Russian made air-transportable Spurt SDM1 light tank as reported. The deployment of light tanks both at high terrains of Himalaya in Northern and Eastern sectors could be used in both offensive and defensive operations. “The light tank encompasses rapidly closing with and destroy enemy forces thereby preserves freedom of manoeuvre for infantry formations in all weather and visibility conditions,”[2]  IAF airlifts dozens of tanks to Ladakh to beef up firepower, the first time since 1962 that tanks and mechanised elements urgently airlifted to Ladakh.

 A Case for Aggressive Defensive Approach

While there can be no denying that the employment of Armour in High Altitudes does give us advantages, the cost-effectiveness and ROI requires a rethink. Are there better methods and technology for similar tasks? The costs, efficacy, degradation in performance due to altitude and rarefied atmosphere need to be considered and evaluated against Anti Tank Guided Missiles(ATGMs) with Infantry, supported by Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) guided by UAVs and other aerial platforms which can be accurately employed from standoff distances using the barren terrain as killing grounds for enemy armour attempting any ingress into our territory. The skies of course need to be dominated by the IAF.

The cost of one tank would be much higher compared to equipment like ATGMs, their life span and operational efficiency are both much reduced in a rarefied atmosphere, every two to three years this equipment requires an upgrade due to engine wear alone. For example, a Maruti Gipsy lasts for one lakh kilometres in the plains, however, in supper high altitudes the performance is degraded after ten to fifteen thousand kilometres and the vehicle is sent down to other formations/units operating at lower altitudes. Compare this with Anti-Tank Guided Missiles ( Vehicle-mounted or /and man-portable), the cost of transportation, maintenance and life are far lower and longer, the range of ATGMs out guns a tank, it is more flexible and nimble, consider an increase in density of such weapons combined with anti-tank obstacles where required and to my mind, we would have a potent defence.

The limited opportunity offered by the terrain in the mountains may in fact be gainfully used to destroy enemy Armour by augmenting the Anti-tank weapons with Infantry Battalions, supported by UAVs for surveillance, target acquisition and guiding PGMs at reasonable depths.

One must acquire and use technology for maintaining surveillance in our areas of interest as well as areas of Influence. Targets for interdiction along lines of maintenance are a must. The key to a good defence is effective surveillance based upon which aerial platforms, ground forces for holding relevant features deny, hold/stop and destroy enemy forces and upset his efforts and reserves to respond ground-based situations.

A balanced and well thought out plan based on these is required for any permanent /long term plans. Close coordination amongst all forces deployed along the LAC includes a unified command and control which facilitates not only intelligence but also ensures proper defensive planning, coordination, and responses at various levels. A situation like the one that developed at Galwan does not leave much time for last-minute detailing.

As a Nation, India needs to (if not already done) re-examine and work out threat perceptions, prioritise these and deploy equipment as well as force levels which are capable of acting as a deterrence as well as stopping any adventurism, allowing for a riposte to either dislodge the enemy or compel the enemy to withdraw.

A stalemate is more than likely if such a riposte is delayed beyond a set timeline as the enemy forces would dig in and stabilise. A framework which may be cost-effective may just be expected to be based on the following: –

  1. At the strategic levels, it needs to be Satellite Surveillance which looks deep into areas of interest, serving as an early warning to allow for sufficient time to own forces for deploying/activation.
  2. Aerial Surveillance to ensure that there exist no gaps in the Area of Interest and Area of Influence, which needs to be within strike capability of various weapon systems or forces.
  3. Ground holding insufficient strength at vulnerable locations to prevent ingress. Integrated with these forces, Anti Tank Obstacles, Remotely delivered mines, UAVs capable of Tactical Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Target Designation.
  4. Suitably positioned forces, fully acclimatised and ready to respond either for a riposte or eviction. These may be combat groups where terrain permits such forces to operate, Infantry Units equipped with additional Surveillance as well as Anti Tank Missiles, supported by PGMs with multiple use ammunition.
  5. Multi-Terrain Vehicles may also be added to the inventory for speedy movement of troops, ammunition, casualty evacuation as well as other roles.

The deployment of heavy equipment like Tanks may be reconsidered keeping in mind the limited employment opportunities, cost of deployment, maintenance, degradation in operational mobility. A combination of suitable technology as suggested may just be the right answer. With Defence Manufacturing being opened and encouraged by the Government, private defence equipment manufacturers, we need to ensure that the right mix of weapons, equipment and technology is readily available on each front.

Conclusion

The battlefield needs to be looked at from the eyes of a hawk, the fists of a boxer, the legs of a sprinter, the feet of a footballer and nerves of a supercomputer. All sensory organs, act as early warning systems, the brain being the control centre, the nerves as the chain of command, abdomen as the logistics support and legs for mobility.

Just as there is ‘One Brain’ acting as the control centre for different organs, no organ indulges in ‘turf war’ even though they have different roles and responsibilities the Defence of a Country needs also to rid itself of ‘turf war’ if we have to win battles and wars. To that extent, the need for a unified system of sharing information/intelligence and quick responses is a must.

Politics over National Security needs to take a backbench and advice from military minds, strategic think tanks need to be given due importance.  Placing all the border guarding elements under the MoD would ensure synergy and appropriate responses, the economy of effort would provide us with a more cogent system and balanced expenditure of funds and could therefore be given a serious thought.

Perhaps more close attention to this all-important aspect of proper planning, procurement and preparation would have been more cost-effective rather than ‘panic buying’ and our responses would have ensured that the Chinese suffered in their attempts to intrude into our territory in the manner they have.

End-Notes

[1] Ladakh Standoff India Thinking Procuring Light Tanks, available at https://www.thestatesman.com/cities/kolkata/ladakh-stand-off-india-thinking-procuring-light-tanks-1502915740.html

[2] Ibid