India tethered to same old defence asymmetry
One of the first priorities of the NDA Government on coming to power was to address the task of speedily narrowing down the asymmetrical gap in India’s defence vis-à-vis China along the entire Himalayan border. In fact, this should have begun in right earnest more than half a century ago, immediately after India’s disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. But, for reasons best known to them, successive Central governments chose not to give adequate attention to this vital task. Despite the trauma, India went into hibernation, as it were. It meant a growing asymmetry between China’s offensive capability and India’s defensive capability. This has gone on for over half a century, widening the asymmetry.
Recently, Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, who is from Arunachal, announced that six thousand kms of border roads along the Chinese border will be built in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. To speed up the work, no environment clearance will be necessary. In Arunachal, the 2000 km border road will run along the McMahon line and connect Mago-Thingbu in Tawang district to Vijaynagar in Changlang district. Also, villagers will be encouraged to settle in those pockets near the border which are still uninhabited.
Immediately, China reacted angrily. It held out a not-so-veiled threat to India that the entire Sino-Indian boundary is disputed and warned it not to ‘further complicate the border dispute’ by building roads near the border.
Beijing did not care to explain if the border is ‘disputed’ then how it was building a wide network of roads and railways right up to the Indian border and continuously strengthening its logistical support bases in Tibet.
The Chinese have built as many as six high altitude airports and airbases in Tibet: Dangxiong airbase, Shigatse airbase (altitudes not known), Lhasa Gonggar airport (altitude 11,713 feet), Nyingchi airport (9,675 ft.), Ngari Gunsa airport (14,022 ft.) and Qamdo Bangda airport. At an altitude of 14,219 ft., it is the highest in the world. Its runway is 13,794 ft. long.
India woke up to the danger in 2009 when it based its first squadrons of Russian Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter aircraft with a range of five thousand kms at Tezpur and Chabua in Assam. Now a squadron is based at Panagarh in West Bengal also. In 2012, the Agni V missile with a five thousand km range was first test fired. It can reach the northernmost part of China. Now the IAF is acquiring six US-made C-130-J Super Hercules transport aircraft for quick dispatch of men and materiel to the North east in emergency situations. These and six mid-air refueling tanker aircraft (in the process of acquisition) will also be based at Panagarh.
But the IAF desperately needs to replenish its aging fleet of aircraft. Its fleet strength has gone down from 40 to 34 squadrons. Immediately it needs at least 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). After a long process of trial, the French Rafale was selected in 2012. But till September this year India was still ‘close to finalizing’ the $20 billion deal. It is yet to be clinched with the manufacturers, the Dassault Aviation.
To turn to the ground situation. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, China’s Lanzhou Military Region opposite Ladakh has 2.2 lakh PLA troops while the Chengdu Military Region opposite Arunachal Pradesh has 1.8 lakh troops. The road and railway network now enables China to dispatch several divisions of troops to the border in a short time.
Indian response to this threat has been slow. In 2009, the UPA Government decided to raise two mountain divisions and an independent armoured strike brigade to counter the Chinese threat. The two divisions, each with 15,000 soldiers have since been raised and are based at Missamari and Lekhapani in Assam. The armoured strike brigade is specially trained for operations in Tibet. Last year, the UPA Government cleared the raising of a 40,000 strong mountain strike corps in seven years’ time. It will also be based at Panagarh.
China is building two railway lines from Shigatse in Tibet to Yatung, close to the Sikkim and Bhutan border and another to Nyingchi, near the Arunachal border. Both the lines will be fully operational in six years’ time. It is in response to this that New Delhi decided to undertake the border road building project with urgency.
After the Chinese threat the principal secretary to the prime minister called a meeting of the top officials of the ministries of defence, rail and road, the head of the Border Roads Organization (BRO), the National Security Adviser and others concerned. This shows the gravity of the situation.
When all the above projects- road- building and augmenting the strength of the army and the air force- are completed, India’s ability to defend its northern borders will be increased considerably but the defence asymmetry between India and China will continue, underlining the need of never slackening the pace of our defence preparations.