Influences and Performance of Intelligence: Assessment of Intelligence Inputs in 2020 Ladakh Military Standoff
Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd.)

‘The further one looks back, the further he looks ahead’

Historically, military might alone served as the primary instrument of national power and for securing national interests. Later diplomacy, economic power, science and technology (S&T), internal & external policies, energy, environmental policies supplemented this single influencer. A combination of these now determine geopolitical standing of modern nation states.

The three domains of military, intelligence and modern technology interdependently coexist. The imperative to minimize attrition spurred military systems to collect more information about the adversary from longer distances before engaging and subduing him. Essentially military requirements – rather than S&T goals - led to developing and harnessing technology for more autonomy, lethality and remote operability. Technology also conferred unprecedented capabilities in acquiring real time Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the intelligence apparatus. Modern collection systems have gained such capabilities and often produce the reaction - ‘is it at all possible?’

The increasing complexity of global threat environment is partially offset by capabilities of modern systems to gather, transmit and process information. Properly used, these capabilities can reduce the fog and friction of decision making. Yet, the most visible part of intelligence work that gets highlighted is “failures”.

In the India-China context, the equation of mutual military, technology and intelligence capabilities is skewed in favour of the Chinese. When the areas of 2020 conflict remained the same in 1962, theoretically, it should have been easier to discern their unfolding, but it did not happen. Were enough indicators not available, or, were these misread, ignored?

This paper analyses some characteristics and intelligence functioning with respect to the 2020 Ladakh events and make some suggestions for the future.

Comparing Historical Similarities

In October 1962, the major thrust of PLA offensive was in the East inflicting losses on Indian forces in NEFA. In Ladakh, coordinated but ‘limited’ operations were launched to secure Aksai Chin and the Western Highway linking Kashgar to Lhasa. Pitched battles were fought at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Galwan, astride Pangong Tso banks, Kailash range, Chushul, Rezangla and Dungti – Demchok areas. China gained over 38000 sq km.

The 1962 war took India by total surprise at a time when politically, Mao faced criticism on the outcome of his Great Leap Forward policy and when world attention was focussed on Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, today, Xi is reported to be facing internal criticism for Corona, US - China Trade war and on the South China Sea developments.

The un-demarcated (therefore contested) LAC in Ladakh generally adheres to the territorial control established at the end of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The rugged inhospitable terrain of Ladakh inhibits conventional ground observation of depth areas. Adequate discussions over topography and infrastructure are available and hence excluded.

Prominent Flash Points in Ladakh

Galwan: Strategically, an advance into the Galwan River Valley provides PLA superior vantage points to monitor traffic on the recently completed strategic Darbuk–Shyok–DBO road (which had taken20 years in the making) and where additional Indian military bases have been constructed recently. The only violent clash in Ladakh occurred here on 15 June 2020 resulting in 20 Indian casualties and 50 Chinese casualties (never admitted by China). A December 2020 US report attributes prior planning of the incident by Chinese government.

Hot Springs: Before 2019, China had developed its infrastructure upto Gogra, 10 kilometres northwest of the forward positions in Hot Springs. In April 2019, they constructed a new road till Wenquan, roughly 7 kilometres north of the LAC. The nearest permanent Chinese position is now within 1.8 kms of the LAC.

Pangong Tso: On its northern side a number of spurs (‘Fingers’) project towards the over 100 kilometers long lake. India claims LAC runs beyond Finger 8. The Chinese claim that the LAC runs upto Finger 2 ignoring the fact that Indian permanent positions have existed in the area. In the past, both sides patrolled the disputed area alternatively without any confrontation except the 2017 clash at Finger 4. Recently, PLA constructed roads short on Finger 5, erected around 500 structures, fortified trenches and constructed a new boatshed over 20 kilometres further forward than its previous deployment.

Pre Crisis Situation

Since the 1962 war, barring an exceptional faceoff, both countries maintained a ‘hands off’ relation and developed many economic ties. Doklam, the site of 2017 skirmish was the exception. In 2020, China established three villages across the disputed Doklam area possibly to assert its territorial claims.

Some other significant developments are discussed below.


During the 1980s, China undertook many initiatives to grow into a global economic and industrial power. Xi Jinping started military reforms realigning PLA’s role to suit China’s global aspirations. Examples are –BRI, economic aid to African and Asian countries, numerous S&T advances, setting up bases abroad (Djibouti) and major upgrades to infrastructure in Tibet. Almost on an annual basis, Xi had been extolling PLA to be prepared for major offensive.

In 2008, China completed the Qinghai Tibet Railway (QTR). It undertook construction of a new rail link (Sichuan Tibet Railway or “STR”), running roughly along the Arunachal border. On completion, the STR will significantly improve capability of PLA to induct, maintain, employ or switch forces in Tibet. China is also improving its existing dual use airfields (civil-military) in Tibet. Hotan, Tianwendian and Ngari have emerged as important bases. Reports of PLA augmenting its forces in Tibet keep regularly coming in.


The comparative inadequacy of India’s border infrastructure is common knowledge. The DBO airstrip was reactivated in 2008. DBO is 8 km from Chinese border and 9 km away from Aksai Chin and can provide a launching pad for offensive across the Karakoram Pass into Xinjiang. Even today, India is developing roads and bridges over the local rivers and streams. Examples can be found in the 2017 Doklam confrontation and the recent objections on the strategic all weather Darbuk – Shyok–DBO road. Other instances of periodical testing of India’s resolve are the objections in 2018 on Raksha Mantri’s visits to forward areas of Arunachal and inauguration of the strategic Bogibeel Bridge by PM connecting Dibrugarh to Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh.

Analysing the 2020 Experience

As noted earlier, China has been objecting to India developing its comparatively inferior border infrastructure in Arunachal and Ladakh. Per se, this handicap suggests that India’s military posed no threat to China. It was believed that China would not conduct any violation of the India – Tibet border. Therefore, the reasons of Chinese action remain enigmatic (recently so stated by the Foreign Minister too).

The few theories advanced i.e. China wanting to divert world attention away following Corona outbreak, Check India’s emergence as a challenger in Asia, preventing India from joining new alliances in pursuit of its global ambitions; exploiting India’s preoccupation with its economic downturn following Corona outbreak – remain inconclusive.

Unanswered Questions

Why China behaved in a counter-instinctive manner and start a conflict when, internationally, it was relatively weak?

Where does this subjective Chinese irrationality come from?

Why did Indian intelligence analysts and military officials assume that they understood the logic which guided Chinese decisions?

Is it reasonable to expect intelligence operatives to perform superlatively when Indian authorities and military seem to have remained complacent about the emerging threat environment?

How did China’s actions in Ladakh constitute a surprise?

The answers would lie in analysing – ‘What did the intelligence agencies predict pre May 2020, why did they do so, what were the consequences of these predictions and finally were these accepted by those who matter’?

Viewed dispassionately, it may emerge that these do not remain questions about intelligence failure and what happened but rather, an unstated demand requiring prediction of how it would happen.

World over, analysts considered factors like economic impact of US China trade war on China’s geopolitical aspirations; widespread attribution of Corona outbreak to China; Happenings in Hong Kong; Taiwan and South China Sea (SCS) and discounted the probability of China launching offensive action anywhere.

Influences, Biases and Blind Spots

Total elimination of blind spots, biases, lethargy, overconfidence, irrational behaviour etc individually or in any combination is never possible.

India’s economic downturn in wake of Corona; complacency introduced by the time lapse since Doklam; the illusion of bonhomie like pre1962 ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ following the Wuhan and Mahaballipuram summits - possibly worked in tandem to divert India’s focus away from its borders and discount the possibility of a trans LAC initiative by PLA.

Two factors, namely, India’s non participation in the BRI (on grounds that it would enhance Pakistan gains from the CPEC and consolidate China’s overall influence in the region) and declaring Ladakh a centrally administered union territory, possibly resulted in China viewing these impacting their interests. No open source inputs are available to validate if these factors provoked the Chinese.

In all fairness, Indian officials would have considered possibility of a PLA incursion into Ladakh but were looking for the traditional (‘linear’) unfolding of events e.g. amassing troops for offensive, logistics build up, low level trans-border provocations preceding a major one. Further, they would have considered that any Chinese action would be based on an objective reading of politico-military factors. The presence of certain Chinese hawkish elements seeking opportunities for exploitation or deviation from ‘normal’ behaviour was overlooked. Further, it was believed that India has advantage in terms of combat experience in high altitudes.

Indian analysts and military officials alike, would have considered the possibility of China diverting troops inducted into Tibet for the 2020 ‘training’ for trans-border employment but discounted it due to lack of evidence suggesting forward build up and maintaining it on grounds of logistic difficulties.

Such presuppositions discounted the dynamics of Chinese calculations and ignored the advantages accruing there from.

Intelligence Failure?

Any security crisis brings forth the customary accusation of ‘failure of the intelligence agencies.’ The intelligence community is criticized for failing to predict the future events.

All intelligence consumers require their agencies to constantly monitor developments and produce assessments on which to take decisions. Often, ‘assessments’ are equated with ‘prediction about the future’. Herein lies the danger of “Mirror Imaging” – (wherein one’s own understanding of the situation is imposed on the adversary who is then expected to act on the pattern envisaged by the analyst or decision-maker). Obviously, this carries an intrinsic risk of failure and results in own side being surprised. When this happens, intelligence agencies or analysts are blamed for intelligence failures!! It also produced a warped logic of arbitrarily (and wrongly) concluding that the Chinese leadership would be less inclined to gamble and escalate hostilities to qualitatively new levels. The advantages gained by China from launching these very actions, was likely ignored.

Intelligence setups are expected to warn about any environmental changes, even when budgetary support is withheld. Naturally, their performance is impacted. (UAV purchases were only sanctioned in Nov-December 2020 when fighting was over!).

In peace time, Paramilitary forces are equipped and tasked to observe and report activities in areas immediately across the LAC. The continuous, diligent collection of tactical information should have generated few inputs which when shared with the military – (through the structurally circuitous channels) – would have helped build a more cogent picture.

Likewise ISR collection and transmission of information from remote, inaccessible areas during pre-hostilities and tactical battlefield scenarios, suffers from obvious constraints. The access, coverage and processing times can be drastically reduced by inducting and imaginatively using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Such shortcomings remain under the carpet. Though pointing towards Intelligence collection gaps, these are not intelligence failure. While few intelligence gaps carry the potential of snowballing into an intelligence failure but the converse is not true. An ‘Intelligence Gap’ is the mere overlooking of collection about an event that occurs later. It does not automatically qualify as an ‘Intelligence Failure’– (although this accusation is levied against all intelligence agencies, worldwide).

Most information related to infrastructure development and troop deployment in depth areas of Tibet came from technical surveillance including SIGINT and temporal satellite imageries. Hopefully, these sporadic and patchy inputs (even from open sources like Planet Labs and independent analysts), were duly observed and incorporated for monitoring emerging scenarios. A case in point is a Planet Labs image of 13 Dec 2020, showing the progress of the new heliport construction near Tianshuihai in Hotan, Aksai Chin. Thus, theoretically, it was possible to make informed judgements about the Chinese deployment at multiple hotspots.

Intelligence coverage focuses on the ‘most likely’, and the ‘most severe’ threat. In the process, few other categories of threats are glossed over. This can spring tactical surprises as the entire gamut of prevailing political, economic or geopolitical compulsions is seldom looked at, holistically.

Also, any negative fallout arising out of the decision-makers ignoring warnings from the intelligence apparatus, does not constitute an intelligence failure. The decision-makers failure is overlooked altogether - reinforcing the old adage “there always are operational successes and intelligence failures”.

Inter Agency Relations

Presently, multiple intelligence agencies collect and produce desired in/outputs. The Inter agency Information sharing is at best, incidental, selective, motive driven and delayed. Evidence is ‘distorted’ to find favour with decision makers. ‘Disclosure Failures’ amongst agencies commonly prevail. Aspects like Structured Sharing, Collaboration and Synchronisation remain absent.

The type of intelligence produced remains limited to agency’s charter & orientation. Coordination of these diverse inputs, at best, produces ‘Generalized intelligence.’ For example, civilian agencies cover the complexity of the environment in a broad objective manner. They produce ‘generalised’ assessments and avoid making categorical judgments. In contrast, military agencies, constantly convert inflowing information into snap and operational, actionable intelligence. The analysis and assessments produced by them differ substantially.

Recommendations - What Needs Changing

Few avenues are - (a) Exploiting Open Source Intelligence (OSI) (b) Improving ISR for inaccessible, remote areas (c) Reducing Inter agency Turf wars (d) Conducting focussed Intelligence Analysis and Assessment and (e) Consumer–Producer relationship.

A mistaken belief exists that raising demands for receiving OSI will reveal own interests. The fact that those studying emerging environments are already aware of these very developments is overlooked. The effort should be to forge an alliance with them, tap their databases or receive these through other indirect means.

Inter agency turf wars are natural outcome of creating these multiple agencies. The agency or analyst who first produces a new input rushes to the decision-makers. Organisational culture and the (mis)perception that this will improve their ratings in eyes of decision-makers are the causes. Sharing of inputs with the concerned agency (for whom it is critical) is ignored, and when done its value to the end user has considerably changed. The decision-makers and producers should realise the inherent dangers and eliminate this malady. Institutionalising a process to mandatorily share critical information with actual end user, in a compressed time frame may help. Besides periodical evaluation of this sharing be done and defaulters held accountable. Available networking and computerisation can serve to implement this change and eliminate related accusations.

Conventionally, all human analysts work in a single environment (say political, technology or military) to produce related Intelligence analysis and assessments. In the near future, increased multi source availability and situational fluidity will require analysts to handle large volumes of incoming data through many diverse channels. The time frames for processing, producing and sharing analysis will be further compressed. Analysts and their organisations need to now develop alertness, skills, agility and ability to perform. Using AI and Data mining tools and techniques will assist meeting this challenge.

Dynamic situations dictate that an ‘in depth’ analysis should be done prior to rejecting any new input or hypothesis. This would usher in more realistic scenarios. Consider the fallouts of straightforward accepting or discarding the two reports about China deploying its aircraft on Pakistan airfields - in Skardu (in July-August) and recently at Bholari (opposite Gujarat); or the possibility of China requiring Pakistan to infiltrate militants in Kashmir to put pressure on India during 2020 winters while maintaining status quo in Ladakh; China developing Aksai Chin heliports.

Developing an aggressive mindset to critically analyse such inputs would help second-guess potentially hostile intentions and realistically evaluate adversary’s machinations. Concurrently, it optimises resource employment, prevents exploitation of known Indian weaknesses and surprise attacks.

Ambiguity over future Chinese thinking has been increased by the inconclusiveness of many rounds of bilateral talks. Both sides have deployed more forces and dug in for long winters and more skirmishes are expected around May 2021.

To its credit, India has since reached out and is improving its relations with Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Myanmar (changes due to the latest coup are not considered here). This pragmatism may cause China to reconsider its stand and concurrently help counter growing Chinese influence in these geographies and neutralise the Pakistan factor.

Additional dividends can be reaped by - Creating redundancy and networks capable of processing and transmitting information in real time; Strengthening cyber and information warfare capabilities; Conducting enhanced Technical Surveillance; Enhancing access to OSI (Satellite Imagery), Communications interception, and training those who have to operate these systems. Another major change is to allow fair representation to military in national security decision making. (Two recent indicators are - recent directive for to military to create a 20 days reserves and the statement from Minister for External Affairs). Concurrently, decision-makers should realign their thinking, equip and align their intelligence apparatus for the future and positively structure the outcomes of any organizational and communication reforms. Else the whole exercise will prove futile.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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