In a candid statement on the floor of the Indian Parliament on 15 and 17 Sep 2020, the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated that there is no common delineation or perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between China and India. China was also unwilling to pursue LAC clarification exercise over many decades. A Five-Point Consensus arrived at in Moscow on 10 Sep 2020, between Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, agreed on continuation of dialogue, quick disengagement, maintaining proper distance, abiding by all the existing agreements and protocols and on conclusion of new Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).
Consequently, Border Personnel Meeting was held in Ladakh between Corps Commanders on 21 September 2020. The Joint Press release mentioned earnest implementation of Consensus, strengthening communication on the ground, avoiding misunderstandings and misjudgements, stop sending more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground, and avoid taking any actions that may complicate the situation. Indeed, the statement is generic and attempts to freeze situation on the ground to avoid any incident. It is likely that the negotiators would revert to their respective Principals to obtain further directions.
This brings to fore the existential situation and need to envision ahead. As is evident at Pangong Tso North Bank PLA is industriously creating infrastructure. At Depsang Plateau, PLA already has bases/ garrisons like at TWT, Tianshuihai, Qizil Jirga, Samzungling and Sumdo, which only require expansion. The heights astride Spanggur Gap (Chushul Sector) occupied by Indian Army, both sides are face-to-face, in a situation on a short fuse, wrought with the likelihood of skirmish. This latter situation is of gravest concern in China, cumulated with clear advantages that Indian Army units have in super high altitude. It is also likely that to sustain the forces, habitat and other infrastructure would be under creation along the 100km Rutog-Moldo Road.
Actions speak louder than words. It is apparent that PLA has little intention of vacating the transgressed areas at this juncture or any reversal to April 2020 state. The discussions at Chushul-Moldo would largely relate to de-escalation, disengagement and arriving at fresh CBMs. De-escalation, implies demobilisation or deinduction of additional forces currently located herein, to respective Cantonments/ Bases. This is important as it would obviate the threat of conventional war (limited or all-out). The disengagement on the LAC is essential to preclude a fire-fight or scuffle between troops in contact. However, the eroded trust necessitates verifiable mechanisms to assure that the disengaged area is not surreptitiously occupied by the adversary. Again, subsequently, domination to respective LACs based upon older CBMs, is weighed down by the likelihood of repeat of scuffles, brawls and firing (Indian Army troops have an amended rules of engagement.). It is clear that the LAC is a flawed concept, and without initiation of demarcation/ delineation, the situation has the potential of rapidly degenerating. This is a proverbial CATCH 22 situation.
The Indian Army has been feverishly preparing defences and building up operational logistics for the forthcoming winter. The situation is being dubbed in a futuristic scenario as LOC-isation of LAC in an obvious reference to the proximate occupation of defences on the LAC, akin to what exists against Pakistan in J&K. The implications of this are appreciated in three-pointers:
- The LOC has sectors in high altitude, and in certain sub-sectors in super high altitude. Along the LOC there is precipitation, the existence of tree-line, snow fall and large retention of snow, reasonable roads-tracks infrastructure and comparatively healthy environment. Au contraire the LAC in Eastern Ladakh is a largely rain-shadow region, with steep barren ridges, deep valleys/ gorges, and snowfall that is minimal and retain minimally. There are serious infrastructural and access issues to Ladakh in winter months. The entire LAC in Eastern Ladakh requires at least a second stage acclimatisation. While areas closer to LOC are largely inhabited, LAC has populated villages far and few in-between.
- Approximate 900km LOC-AGPL had connotations of ‘holders-keepers’ and with infiltration of terrorists, had necessitated holding of defences closest to LOC, which is prone to ceasefire violations and artillery firing. The units and formations on LOC are settled in a well planned defensive-offensive systemic. The LAC has been undemarcated and undelineated, and largely dominated by patrolling. The PLA serial actions of May 2020, and its intransigence in not returning to previous positions, are an attitudinal change, which demand posture transformation for the Indian Army units.
- Logistically, LOC and LAC are different as chalk and cheese. In Eastern Ladakh, the terrain and climatic challenges have effect on health, even after acclimatisation. Winter stocking, especially fuel for warming and cooking purposes, is imperative. An immense anxiety can be of potable water. However, the air-bridge established between mainland and Leh, and Leh to forward areas will greatly facilitate logistics round the year. In the current imbroglio, with defences on high ridges and passes and much higher numbers of units, the operational logistics will be an immense exercise.
That brings to fore the question of LOC-isation of LAC as a manner of operational deployment. There is understandably an apprehension of PLA having not finished its agenda and yet having aggressive designs up its sleeve. That could come about in Eastern Ladakh, or in another sector of the Northern Borders, before onset or during winter, or immediately thereafter. The omnipotent question is the posture that Indian Armed forces need to adopt or the likely winter strategy. The issue is examined in seven pathways:
· First. Much has been stated about internal squabbles in China and the PLA overreach. The media, print, audio/visual and social, in gung-ho about PLA troops lack of experience in warfare per se, in ‘roughing’ in the super high altitude, the conscripted character of troops (PLA has conscripts –yiwubing and volunteers –zhiyuanbing) and the vagaries of one-child familial structure. This implies that PLA soldiers who have absolutely no fighting spirit. Examining realistically, it is difficult to outguess the Chinese, strategically and tactically. Herein, it is important to quote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “…there is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” Indeed, in matters of warfare, as soldiers we need not overestimate the PLA, yet we must not underestimate the opponent either!
· The MEA Spokesperson on 24 Sep had stated that “…disengagement is a complex process that requires redeployment of troops by each side towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC. This will require mutually agreed reciprocal actions.” As mentioned earlier, there is a rightful trust deficit existing. While attacking and capturing mutually defended localities held by Indian Army units will be no mean feat, occupying vacant or vacated passes and ridge lines will be exactly what will suit PLA’s cunningness and guile. There is hence prudence mandatory in ‘redeployment of troops to their regular posts’ without strong verifiable systems. After the experience of Kargil 1999, capturing PLA occupied areas by deliberate operations is plannable. However that decision will fall into political realm and the risk of escalation may become a dampener. Hence complete redeployment, even to obviate skirmish, will be detrimental, as it may be taken advantage off by the PLA.
- Eastern Ladakh defences, as mentioned above, are largely above 16000feet. Though Indian Army is holding partial defences on the LOC, and wholly on AGPL in comparable heights, for Eastern Ladakh it will be a first. The units hence will be pushed to establish new defended line in Sub Sector North, in the Cheng-Chenmo Valley (Hot Springs – Gogra), North of Pangong Tso and on the Kailash Range. Similar concerns will also be in the Central Sector and Arunachal Pradesh (less West Kameng District). The time-tested teaching of troops to capture (or occupy herein) and troops to hold, mindful of appreciated threat per locality and availability/ time-distance matrix of employment of reserves, needs to be practised. This may facilitate some redeployment, and make the localities more winter-manageable.
- The doctrine of preferring readjustment and reinforcement in mountains must give way to deliberate offensive planning, even in super high altitude. The occupation of Kailash Range on 29/30 August 2020 can be construed as the rightful measure vis-a-vis capture of transgressed areas. The extent of commensurate occupied areas (which both India and China claim as their own), is manifold larger. This entails adequacy of reserves, that are trained and positioned to turn the adversary’s plans and hence are proactive enough as credible deterrence. Loss of territory will be unacceptable to the adversary, and to recapture it will be Herculean! As a corollary, a forceful offensive territorial response to even non-kinetic or non-contact typology of warfare will prove internally disturbing to China.
- The prowess of sons-of-the-soil that hail from the high altitudes regions and their force-multiplier effect, like the Ladakh, Dogra, Garhwal, Kumaon, Sikkim, Arunachal Scouts and the Special Frontier Force will be most pronounced. Asymmetric warfare capabilities will be the best to challenge force asymmetry and cause major upheaval to any offensive–defensive designs of the adversary. It will be advantageous to re-examine the Scouts’ per se, create a separate identity, expand the LSRC into a Scouts Centre of Excellence, and enlarge the force by additional conversions of infantry units from Scouts’ parent Regiments.
- The management of satisfactoriness of peace tenures for large numbers of all arms units inducted along the Northern Borders (especially those not based upon Corps Roster postings, like infantry, artillery, engineers), will be severely hampered. Long haul, as has been stated, mandates these staff duty considerations, as in the long run there are social requirements too! However, it must be stated that units and troops are generally more contented to serve in difficult areas and on operational tasking.
- There will also be immense logistics concerns for the enhanced deployment in Ladakh, along the Northern Borders. While super high altitude areas of Saltoro and along the LOC have settled down to a systemic, managing logistics in newer deployments in Eastern Ladakh, including fuel and water will be stretching. It is all the more reason to appraise the optimal ‘troops to hold’, and create a right turnover system.
In sum, LOC-isation of LAC is easier said than done! Appreciating historical references, Indian Army tends to occupy areas that have had contestation in perpetuity. With deliberate consideration of the appreciated enemy threat and the terrain, and despite the erosion of trust, LOC-isation of LAC in its fullest measure may not be required and may turn counter-productive. While units on the ground will opine a threat pattern, and with bravado, zeal and enthusiasm and Regimental spirit, may even be resolute on status quo of current deployment, the situation demands a pragmatic appreciation and reassessment, well prior to the onset of winter. Being hardy, tough, experienced in high altitude warfare is correct, but being practical and realistic is as important. LOC-isation should remain what it is, a coinage!
 Sanbeer Singh Ranhotra, Chinese army is full of wimps, sissies & little emperors. We are not saying this. This is what China thinks, TFI Post, 29 May 2020, accessed at https://tfipost.com/2020/05/chinese-army-is-full-of-wimps-sissies-little-emperors-we-are-not-saying-this-this-is-what-china-thinks/