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Prudent conflicts

Prudent conflicts

Chinese soldiering traditions date back to the Shang dynasty (1600 BC), with seminal strategists like Wu Qi and Sun Tzu propounding classic military treaties and instincts for the modern day 'Terracotta' warriors of the PLA (People's Liberation Army). Across the Tibetan Plateau and the natural barriers of the Himalayan ranges, lies an even more ancient civilisation with its own profundities on war and martial traditions that the British Raj amalgamated and chiselled into a fine institution, Indian Defence Forces, the most combat-exposed outfit in the world today. Genealogically, as the two nations emerged from the bondages of foreign invasions – a certain heterogeneity of masses, absolutist power and ideology, along with expansionist tendencies ensured that the independent People's Republic of China became a much larger entity as compared to the vivisected nations of British India, including India.

The two geographically-contiguous but historically-distanced civilisations morphed into modern states with competing ambitions and opposite systems – a totalitarian construct of efficiency got pitted against the surety of democracy. Unsettled borders and geostrategic impulses led to a war in 1962, and frequent border 'skirmishes' and standoffs, like the one in Doklam. In 1962, India was to pay a price for the institutionalised 'secondment' of its Armed forces and its security imperatives, especially when the PLA sensibilities were the centrifugal forces of Chinese governance. Professional forewarnings by India's serving DGMO and the-then, recently retired Chief, General KS Timmayya, "I cannot, even as a soldier, envisage India taking on China in an open conflict on its own," were rubbished and replaced by a puerile 'forward posture'. The expected consequences followed in 1962, but the invaluable lessons learnt for posterity and the security dimensions have since never been the same. Quick confirmation of the change was indirectly showcased in the 1965 war, but very directly confirmed in the 'limited' war against the Chinese in 1967 (Nathu La and Cho La).
Today, it is the era of 'limited-sector' conflicts - no two nations in the 21st Century has been committed to a full-fledged war (even civil wars like Syria or Yemen pits the government in 'limited-sectors' only). The military outcome of 'limited-sector' conflicts is not necessarily dependent on the 'paper-strength' of the opposing armies – but on the holistic quantum and most importantly, the quality, of the deployed military where withal. Modern 'limited-sector' conflicts like the Kurd-Turk, Russia-Ukraine, Af-Pak or even China-South Sea flare-up, have demonstrated various impactors that have swung the outcome, one way versus the other, defying conventional norms of numeric superiority or 'paper-strength'. Hence, the fact that the Chinese are ostensibly building indigenous aircraft carriers, stealth bombers or ICBMs has little consequences in 'limited-sector' conflicts, where the outcome imperatives boil down to the simple fighting-abilities and efficacy of an evenly-matched number of infantry soldiers and equipment.
The 'paper-strength' theory held good for the Russians in annexing Crimea and Ukraine but failed to show the same 'stomach' on taking on the Turks, when the Turks knowingly shot down a Russian fighter plane. Unlike the Indian realm, the inviolable sense of national retribution amongst the Russians was simply missing – it is usually lacklustre in nations with a totalitarian dispensation as the public passions simply do not rile emotionally in the national narrative. Secondly, the 'purpose' defining a soldier's conduct is a key determinant in battle – the Houthi rebels in Yemen are numerically, technologically and materially outnumbered in the face of a combined onslaught from various Arab armies, yet, they defy convention by simply fighting with a higher order of commitment that owes its spirit to a more compelling 'purpose' – usually, conscript armies that do not repose their loyalty to a sovereign, will invariably lack the raw guts involved in a free-for-all, like the soldier-to-soldier snake pit on Kargil heights. Thirdly, it is not the ideologically-charged soldier that display higher efficacy, but the professionally organised, who is soaked in the tactics and strategies of modern conflict – in the cauldron of the Middle East, it is not the religiously inspired soldier of the 'Free Syrian Army', but the battle-hardened, organised and moderate Kurd who is proving to be more effective against the ISIS. Crucially, nothing substitutes cold combat-experiences – here, the Indian soldier has perversely benefited from unending exposure to wars, skirmishes and insurgencies that make him the most combat-invested soldier in the world. Lastly, equipment matters – it took exactly 100 hours for the Iraqi Forces in the first Gulf war to capitulate, over 100,000 Iraqis soldiers were killed against 383 of the US, the fifth largest army in the world was made to rub its nose in the sand, owing to questionable weaponry (besides training) that proved to be a dud on battle-ground.
Now, in the Indo-Chinese context the nuclear power status with mutual 'second strike' capability, has further ensured that all future conflicts will invariably take the shape of 'restricted conflicts', saber-rattling and national hysteria, notwithstanding. So, a question arises on who wins the hypothetical 'limited-sector' conflicts, beyond the prism of jingoism and political bravado?
Fundamentally, the PLA soldier is severely under-exposed to combat, he is sworn to defend the Communist Party and not to the concept of a nation – hence, an inexperienced soldier with a questionable 'purpose'. Additionally, a PLA soldier undergoes ideological indoctrinations and distractions to keep him under 'check', led by an officer-staff who also holds simultaneous party membership! Whereas, the Indian soldier is confined exclusively to professional training or combat experiences, led by an office-cadre that has repeatedly led from the front with the highest "officer-to-soldier" casualty ratio of all armed forces in the world. In terms of equipment, the Indian wherewithal with all its inadequacies has been exposed to real-time battles and is not borne of reverse-engineering projects that remain suspect to actual performance, when and where it matters. The Indian soldier emotionally reposes his naam, namak and nishan (name, fidelity and existence) to 'India' and not to the fickleness of a political party, adding bite and heart to his performance. From his soul, head and heart, the Indian soldier is a better fighting-machine than a PLA soldier, as shown in 1967 and even in 1962, when certain debilitating factors existed, which simply don't exist today, especially when there is a man-to-man parity in 'limited sectors'.
However, it is true that the Chinese could 'out-logistic' opposing armies with strategic sweeps like CPEC, railroad and highways up to the border et al – but as 'Kargil', the most brilliant infantry assault in modern history testified – where everything else was of an equal order, it was the size and quality of the 'heart and head' in a Indian soldier that mattered and not the sham commitment, political sloganeering ("one Pakistani soldier equal to ten Indian soldiers") or regressive religiosity that impacted the final result. Even though, it would be fair to say that the Pakistani soldier who has repeatedly lost to the Indian soldier, in all 'limited-sectors' conflicts, is perhaps of a higher order fighting-machine than a "terracotta" Chinese PLA soldier.
(The author is Former Lt. Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

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