The dragon dares

SP's MAI - - MILITARY EXPERT OPINION -

[ By Air Mar­shal (Retd) Anil Cho­pra

O] n the night of April 15, pla­toon strength (around 50 soldiers) of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) car­ry­ing small arms in­truded nearly 19 km into the In­dian ter­ri­tory near Bur­the, very close to the strate­gic Karako­ram Pass, in DBO (Daulat Beg Oldi) sec­tor. They es­tab­lished a tented post within 900 feet of In­dian po­si­tions and cre­ated a con­di­tion for a face-off with In­dian troops and also sym­bol­i­cally claimed sovereignty. This place is not too far from the In­dian ad­vanced land­ing ground (ALG) which has been the life­line of the area for decades. The type of ac­com­mo­da­tion ap­pears to be for long haul and amounts to re­draw­ing the line of ac­tual con­trol (LAC), tan­ta­mount to claim­ing over 700 sq km of In­dian ter­ri­tory. The in­cur­sion was first con­firmed on April 16 through an aerial sur­vey. Very sig­nif­i­cantly, the Chi­nese had used air ef­fort to carry out and sup­port the de­ploy­ment. The govern­ment ini­tially kept the af­fair low-key but Indo-Ti­betan Bor­der Po­lice (ITBP) and Army po­si­tions were strength­ened by mov­ing troops and lo­gis­tics by air. Un­like in most cases, the trans­gres­sion has not been re­moved even af­ter three weeks of protests/con­sul­ta­tions at var­i­ous lev­els of the govern­ment in­clud­ing three flag meet­ings. The Joint Sec­re­tary level mech­a­nism set up in 2012 was ac­ti­vated.

The his­toric bound­ary dis­pute with China in Ladakh, Cen­tral sec­tor and Arunachal Pradesh is well known. In 1950, the PLA an­nexed Ti­bet and later they ex­tended their in­flu­ence by build­ing a road through Ak­sai Chin and plac­ing bor­der posts. They for­mally laid claim on Arunachal Pradesh and Ak­sai Chin. As part of well-doc­u­mented so-called In­dia’s For­ward Pol­icy, in 1959 In­dia started send­ing bor­der pa­trols into dis­puted ar­eas. This soon be­came a reg­u­lar two-sided af­fair. The ac­tiv­ity has been spo­radic ever since. Nor­mally the Chi­nese would make short in­cur­sions, leave be­hind some tell­tale marks like empty cold drink cans and mark­ings on prom­i­nent rocks to re­mind their In­dian coun­ter­parts that they have claim to the area. There has been a pat­tern in th­ese Chi­nese ac­tiv­i­ties; change of lead­er­ship in China, visit of a se­nior leader to In­dia, vis­its of ma­jor In­dian del­e­ga­tions to China are oc­ca­sions to cre­ate in­ci­dents to put the In­di­ans on a back­foot and start the ne­go­ti­a­tions from a po­si­tion of ad­van­tage. Chi­nese pre­mier Li Ke­qiang is ex­pected in In­dia in May 2013. An­a­lysts are draw­ing com­par­isons with Sum­dorong Chu in­ci­dent of 1986-87 when a mil­i­tary stand-off was in­volved. Among the first state­ments of the new Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping on tak­ing over was his con­cern about the com­plex Sino-In­dian bor­der. There are on aver­age around 400 in­cur­sions in a year and there have been around 100 till now in 2013.

In the 1962 Sino-In­dian con­flict, the In­dian Air Force (IAF) was re­stricted to air lo­gis­tics and re­con­nais­sance roles. Hav­ing flown ex­ten­sively over this in­hos­pitable re­gion of north­ern Ladakh, let me an­a­lyse some air as­pects and see how the two sides are placed. For­mer In­dian Army Chief Gen­eral Ma­lik said in a TV pro­gramme that the Chi­nese army is in a dom­i­nant po­si­tion in DBO sec­tor. Air as­sets wise the two sides are evenly placed. China op­er­a­tionalised the Gar Gunsa air­port on In­dus River just 80 km from our bor­der in July 2010. This civil-cum­mil­i­tary air­field at 4,700 me­tres al­ti­tude has al­ready been used for mili- tary op­er­a­tions. Not too far from the area are ma­jor air­bases of Kash­gar and Khotan in Xin­jiang. All th­ese air­fields are reg­u­larly ac­ti­vated dur­ing ex­er­cises. Stor­age ar­eas, air­craft hangars and other sup­port fa­cil­i­ties are clearly vis­i­ble on Google maps. Chi­nese have a well de­vel­oped high­way cut­ting through Ak­sai Chin, con­nect­ing to Pak­istan on their even­tual way to Gwadar port in Baluchis­tan. In­dia’s ma­jor air­fields Leh and Thoise were cre­ated to sup­port lo­gis­tics for the army, and air op­er­a­tions of the IAF in Ladakh. To in­crease our air sup­port ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the re­gion, an old ALG at Ny­oma was op­er­a­tionalised in 2009. This is now the clos­est land­ing strip to Gar Gunsa. Smaller strips at Fukche (4,300 me­tres) near Dem­chok (now un­der Chi­nese con­trol) and Chushul (4,500 me­tres) on the banks of Lake Pan­gong Tso are within line of sight of Chi­nese po­si­tions. DBO ALG is at 5,320 me­tres. At such al­ti­tudes there are se­ri­ous re­stric­tions on load car­riage and take-off and land­ing per­for­mance for both sides. Un­for­tu­nately, in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment on In­dian side is pro­ceed­ing slowly. IAF’s IL-76s and AN-32s fly round the year to build up sup­plies in the re­gion. The he­li­copter fleet has been the ul­ti­mate life­line and pro­vid­ing the last mile con­nec­tiv­ity. The Mi17s and heavy lift Mi-26 have been the main work horses. The Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Limited (HAL)-built Chee­tah, Chee­tal and ALH of IAF and In­dian Army have been sup­port­ing the very high al­ti­tude posts.

China which is deeply oc­cu­pied with events in North Korea, Sea of Ja­pan, South China Sea and Tai­wan should nor­mally not have opened an­other con­fronta­tion­ist front. Is In­dia fully seized of the sit­u­a­tion? Are the In­dian mil­i­tary and for­eign ser­vice mu­tu­ally co­or­di­nated? Is China tak­ing ad­van­tage of In­dia’s timid­ity? Is this a sig­nal for us to strengthen our armed forces? The forth­com­ing ex­changes of im­por­tant vis­its are un­der cloud. While the two coun­tries work closely to re­solve is­sues diplo­mat­i­cally, mil­i­tary has no choice but to strengthen its ground po­si­tion.

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