The Evolving Threat from PLA along Indo-Tibetan Border: Implications
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

Early this month the Research and Analysis Wing in its threat assessment conveyed to the government that "there was a possibility of a skirmish or an incident triggered by China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). ...Beijing was contemplating such an action to divert attention from its own domestic trouble." The above RAW report is not much different from its assessment of September 2009 when it ruled out any ‘major military adventure’ (but was silent on the possibility of a minor or limited conflict) by China against India in immediate future as this could derail its own economy. The report of 2009 also detailed the efforts being made by China in India’s neighbourhood aimed at isolating India. However, dwelling on PLA’s activity on Indo-Tibetan border R & AW’s assessment of 2009 had emphasized that China’s ‘recent incursions into India were part of the well-planned design to keep India on the tenterhooks and force it to divert attention from its primary development objectives’. “As such we feel that the pinpricks of incursion would continue”. And incursions or in some quarters ‘transgressions’ by PLA across the Line of Actual continue till today with impunity. Any of these incursions could become a prelude for limited conflict with India whether intended (by China) or unintended.

Whatever be the basis or inputs for coming to R&AW’s conclusions it cannot be denied that there would continue to be a near term threat from China as long as the border dispute remains unsolved.

In last three years the PLA has created capacities in Tibetan plateau which have distinctly enhanced the quality of threat being posed by China’s military posture in Tibet. With ever increasing defence budgets, increase in frequency of PLA training exercises in Tibet since 2010, improvements in military infrastructure as well as improvements in the weapons and equipment for high altitude and mountain warfare, the operational readiness of PLA to undertake agile and well-coordinated joint operations has been tremendously enhanced.

PLA Trains for India-Specific Operations

In 2010 an exercise to transport ‘strategic logistic equipment’ from Qinghai plateau to Tibet plateau by rail was carried out; this equipment was meant for the Air Force and missile units; therefore it was deduced that these were the ballistic missiles and some other missiles. There were also reports that this was being done for the first time. It is believed that the exercise was designed to test whether the missiles could withstand pressure differences during the transportation and as well as at the destination due to rarified atmosphere of Tibet. In another military exercise of October 2010 PLA conducted (said to be for the first time) a live-fire joint training drill involving Air Force, armour, artillery and Electronic Warfare units on the Tibetan plateau. The aim of exercise was to test the endurance of the soldiers at an altitude of 4700 meters with its harsh climate and lack of oxygen.

The momentum for training the PLA for India-specific operations was continued in the next year when two joint exercises in Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions were conducted. One was held at Army Group level to practice a division size force in joint and integrated operations including Special Forces and another was conducted in October, 2011 to practice a live-fire drill comprising air force and armour and artillery units.

Further, in March this year a ground attack training drill with the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) J-10 fighters was conducted. The J-10 used Laser Guided Bombs to hit the pre-designated targets. In May, an engineering unit of the PLAAF announced it had “modified” aircraft to make them more suited to the harsh environment of the Tibetan plateau and pledged that it would improve aircraft maintenance work. This year was also for the first time that PLAAF positioned their fighter aircraft in Gongga airfield near Lhasa for the first time during the winter months. Activation of new surveillance and tracking radars in the Lanzhou Military Region which is responsible for looking after border with India in the western and central sectors was also resorted to for monitoring Indian activity during the PLA exercise conducted last month. In addition an exercise was carried out to practice anti-tank units in live fire practice with the aim to “test their precision strike capability”.

In fact 2012 has already become a year when maximum amount of training activity has been carried out by the Chengdu Military Region and the military formations under it. In addition to training events mentioned above a war game described as ‘command and confrontation’ drill of command-and-staff organs based on information systems was organized by Chengdu MR in June. Over 100 high-ranking officers from the leading organs and troop units above regiment level of the Chengdu were said to have attended the exercise and studied the ways of command and confrontation training of the command-and-staff organs under information-based conditions. Apparently, this was the highest level war-game that involved both the 13th and 14th Group Armies with possibly representation from Lanzhou MR. The battlefield situation and awareness picture was depicted on a large screen where the moves of Red and Blue forces were plotted and discussions carried out. No prizes for guessing as to who could have been painted as the adversary in this war-game.

The above training efforts indicate the direction and focus of PLA’s manoeuvers therefore R&AW’s assessment on likelihood of China-initiated conflict cannot be easily discounted. Another factor which lends a certain degree of validity is the furious pace at which China has created infrastructure facilities, both military and civilian, on Tibetan plateau.

Synthesis of Civilian and Military Infrastructure

While the current politico-military leadership of China has paid great attention to develop military and civilian infrastructure as part of Western Area Development plans the President in waiting Mr. Xi Jinping is also a great proponent of Mao’s strategic concept of the 'unity between soldiers and civilians'. Sometime back Mr. Xi had remarked that both the army and regional civilian authorities should assiduously pool resources in the preparation for military struggle (against China's enemies). Thus the civilian infrastructure created in the frontier provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang has been also designed to strengthen national defence capabilities. And looking at Xi Jinping’s proclivities a larger share of national resources is likely to be allotted for PLA in the coming years.

It is also well known that the robust and extensive rail and road network built on Tibet plateau is meant for economic exploitation of natural resources and for speedy induction and deployment of military forces for both internal and external contingencies. In its current Five Year Plan (2011-2015) for Tibet China would be extending rail line from Lhasa to Shigatse (opposite Sikkim) and to Nyingchi town (closer to Arunachal Pradesh border). Extension of rail to Kathmandu is also on the anvil. Further, PLA is developing Bayi base of PLA next to Nyingchi. Bayi would be a key central base for launching operations across border with Arunachal Pradesh. While the infrastructure development activities in and around Bayi (including an airport nearby) are being done under the garb of developing tourism infrastructure they would also benefit PLA’s operational plans tremendously.

Upgrading of airports, especially the lengthening of the runways to more than 4500 meters at Nyingchi, Ngar Gunsi in Gar County in Western Tibet opposite Ladakh in addition to Gongga airfield near Lhasa and at Chamdo, are specifically designed to cater for both defence and civil requirements.

Further, over the years there have been reports based on the inputs provided by the local Tibetans that PLA has developed underground missile and weapons storage sights where the tunnels and other underground infrastructure has been developed in secrecy largely using the Chinese workers. Large trucks and missile shaped objects have been seen entering the underground storage complexes especially at Bayi town near Nyingchi. These missile sights are expected to house DF-21 intermediate range missile which could cover most of the cities in India and short range missiles with range varying between 200 to 600 kilometers to hit targets closer to the possible areas of operations.

Alarmed with the accelerated development of infrastructure in Tibet the Indian Army had made a presentation in May 2011 to the Defence Minister, Defence Secretary and the NSA that PLA could move 34 Divisions to Tibet in a maximum threat scenario. The military brass was particularly concerned with the widening asymmetry between our infrastructure in the border areas and that of the Chinese.

In another development this year the repaving work on the Xinjiang section of the Xinjiang-Tibet National Road, (which was a graveled road) would be completed by August this year. This would enable switching of forces between Xinjiang and Tibet thus giving more flexibility in deployment of PLA.

Improving the Quality of PLA

For over a decade the PLA has been concentrating on giving a practical shape to its doctrine of fighting ‘Local Wars under the Conditions of Informalisation’. Towards realizing the objectives of this concept it has improved its C4ISR capabilities in Tibet tremendously. It has laid out a vast network of underground fiber optic communication lines which provide redundancy and secure means of communications and enhance its information warfare capabilities. Placing of several types of military satellites in space has enabled the PLA to provide force multiplication to its ground assets. For instance 58 Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite stations are part of the robust command and control structure in Tibet whereas Indian forces have limited capacities in this field. There are reports that PLAAF units and sub-units have been linked through satellite links.

Further, there is abroad-band connectivity and secure means of communications between successive higher HQs including Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Region back to Beijing.

Recent reports suggest that PLA has constructed fifth generation barracks for the troops in the high altitude areas of Lanzhou and Chengdu Military regions. PLA has also constructed hyperbaric chambers which would enable accelerated acclimatization of troops being inducted from lower altitudes. All these preparations point towards acquiring the capacities for a quick mobilization and induction of forces for a surprise strike.

India’s Response

As a result of mounting threat from China India had gone in for raising of two mountain divisions in the North-East besides deployment of additional fighter squadrons along with a fresh push for development of rail, road and military infrastructure in the border areas. Last year in August, as part of upgrading its defensive posture from dissuasion to deterrence the government had accepted a proposal for raising of a Mountain Strike Corps at Pannagarh in West Bengal, positioning of two armoured regiments at Nathu La in Sikkim and Fukche in Ladakh respectively, and deployment of an additional infantry brigade in Barahoti plains of Uttarakhand. The proposal had been approved by the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Committee on Security. But this month, in a classical example of politico-bureaucratic red-tapism the proposal has been sent to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) in order to bring the navy and air force on board and broad base military capability against China. Such a move would result in nothing but more delay as COSC is merely a talking shop where each service chief is supposed to defend its own turf. Evidently the government is not seized with urgency to mitigate the gap in military capabilities along the Indo-Tibetan borders that is becoming wider with the passage of time.

As far as border roads infrastructure is concerned elaborate plans in the shape of Long Term Perspective Plan I and II have been made. But as usual, the implementation of the plans has been very tardy. The slow pace of execution has been attributed to delay in obtaining clearances from multiple authorities, resistance shown by concerned state PWDs in handing over of roads and shortage of staff and restricted fund flows. The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence had carried out a detailed review of the BRO’s projects in March last year pointing out the inordinate delays and reasons for the same. However even after more than a year there has been hardly any reassessment of the BRO’s projects. Plans that should have been executed on war-footing lack suitable and robust oversight, monitoring and coordination mechanisms.

What Needs to be Done

While upgrading the dissuasive posture to a deterrence posture would take some time it is the filling in of gaps in our dissuasive forces that needs to be undertaken urgently. A number of measures to strengthen our defence preparedness have been suggested by the outgoing Army Chief and the current incumbent. Some of the priority actions that need to be taken are outlined below:-

  • The HUMINT cover along the borders needs to be augmented; the density of intelligence posts should also be increased.
  • The quality of the ELINT and COMINT capabilities along the borders needs to be improved and the depth and breadth of such a cover should be enhanced.
  • Similarly satellite cover for ISR and target acquisition needs to be supplemented on an urgent basis.
  • Above all basic wherewithal like ammunition deficiencies and improvement of ammunition dumps as brought out by the current and outgoing Army Chiefs, need to be made up speedily. There are large scale voids which has also been described as ‘critical hollowness’ in the army that includes tanks running out of ammunition, obsolete air defence systems and lack of essential weaponry, and lack of critical surveillance and night-fighting capabilities for infantry and special forces.
  • Acquisition of ground attack helicopters, speeding up the acquisition of artillery especially the ultra-light howitzers ex-USA that can be deployed in the mountains and are transportable by helicopters should be resorted to at the earliest. Acquisition of UAV’s and Drones would add to our surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strike capabilities.

The R & AW Report is a timely warning which needs to be taken seriously by our politico-bureaucratic combine otherwise we may be in for another Kargil like surprise. No opportunity should be given to China to teach us a lesson again. In fact we should be prepared to teach a lesson if any conflict is initiated by the PLA. And finally, one should remember the dictum that weakness invites aggression.

Published Date: 26th July 2012

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