Security strategy needs more edge
The nature of India's security concerns is undergoing a rapid change. China's rise as a strong military and economic power, eager to spread its influence in countries of Asia and Africa, its implacable hostility to India, Pakistan's apparent desire to veer away from the United States and gravitate towards China and Russia's growing proximity to China. All these developments have changed the security perspective for India, demanding urgent attention and countervailing measures.
It is inexplicable why, after the 1962 Chinese aggression and India's humiliating military defeat, successive governments in New Delhi did not think it necessary to strengthen our northern defences along the Himalayas on an urgent basis. However, the Chinese logistic build-up in Tibet continued apace. In 2006, the first railway line linking Lhasa with the Chinese mainland was opened. The line was built on Tibetan highlands which passed through terrains at as high an altitude as 16,400 feet. Now China is building a second railway line which will connect Lhasa to Chengdu in south-west China. A Xinhua report claimed that once this is completed, it will take just fifteen hours for trains to reach Lhasa from Chengdu.
Besides, thousands of kilometres of all-weather roads and airfields at high altitudes have been built, and railway lines are being extended to Shigatse opposite Sikkim and Nyingchi, just 20 km from the Arunachal Pradesh border. The threat to India's north-east was increasing all the time, but New Delhi seemed to downplay the danger. It is only recently that building of roads along the entire Arunachal border has been taken up on an urgent basis and high-altitude advanced landing grounds (ALGs) are coming up one after the other which will be capable of handling heavy aircraft. In all, eight ALGs will be built at an estimated cost of over Rs. 1000 crore.
Now a new dimension is being added to India's threat perception in the north-west, in Pak-Occupied Kashmir to be precise. The highly ambitious 46-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will pass through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Pakistan is reportedly mulling the idea of declaring this region as its fifth province.
Indecision or inordinately tardy decision has plagued India's defence establishment. During the second UPA regime, it was decided to raise a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) to counter China's growing military threat in the north-east. It was to have two infantry divisions, three independent armoured brigades, three artillery brigades and one brigade each of engineering, air defence and aviation. It was to be raised at the cost of 64,000 crores and based at Panagarh in West Bengal. In a bid to ferry troops and materiel to the borders in an emergency, several large transport aircraft were acquired from the USA.
But when the NDA came to power in 2014, it developed cold feet to the project because of the high cost involved. There was a talk of reducing its strength. However, work already undertaken, continued. A recent report said the second division with a force of 15,000 was being raised and it was expected to be operational in two to three years.
Significantly, an important development is going on in Nepal. Nepal and China are in talks to build a 550 km long railway line that will connect Kathmandu to western Tibet. The estimated cost of the project will be $8 billion. It is expected to be completed in about eight years. Nepal is a land-locked country which is solely dependent on India for all its essential supplies. Every time road traffic between the two nations is blocked due to disturbances on any side of the border, Nepal is caught in the grip of a crisis. Rail connexion with China will open up an alternate route for Nepal and its dependence on India will be reduced considerably. The strategic implication of this project for India is that China will be able to send troops right up to Kathmandu in case of a conflict with India.
India is weaker than China militarily. Senior defence officials have admitted that there is a shortage of arms and ammunition also. The army is trying to make up for these deficiencies urgently and acquiring new military hardware. On the air front, IAF's fleet has been depleted from the authorised 42 fighter squadrons to just 32. Chief Air Marshal B. S. Dhanoa recently said that if India has to fight a two-front war with Pakistan and China, India's position will be like that of a cricket team having to play with seven players instead of eleven.
In the circumstances, Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat's recent statement that the army is ready to fight a war on 'two and a half fronts' (China, Pakistan and terrorism) came as a mild surprise to those familiar with the ground situation.
As for the acquisition of new aircraft for the IAF, the French Rafale is out, and the US F-16 is in. The government has dropped the idea of buying 126 Rafale fighter planes from France after prolonged negotiations over the years. Now a new agreement has been signed with the Lockheed Martin of the US to make F-16 fighter planes in India in collaboration with the Tata Advanced Systems. The announcement has come on the eve of Prime Minister Modi's US visit. The ageing fleet of Russian aircraft of the Soviet era needs to be phased out, and new ones with more 'teeth' will have to be added to the fleet.
Given the Chine navy's (PLAN) rapid expansion, the Indian Navy is implementing its ambitious project of raising the fleet strength from the present 137 to 200 ships including six nuclear submarines by 2027. India is, at last, making up for its previous underestimation of the threat from China. But it will take some more time.
(Views expressed are personal.)