Preparing for a two-front war

Shifting gears, the Indian military is transforming an exclusively defensive strategy into one with a significant offensive element

Ajai Shukla
For decades, the Indian military and its defence posture were structured to ensure "deterrence" against Pakistani adventurism on the western border, and "dissuasion" against China in the north and east. Put simply, that meant being able to wage, and quickly win, a punitive war against Pakistan; while also being able to hold off a Chinese attack for a short time. With China having rattled sabres on the Sino-Indian border (the Line of Actual Control, or LAC) to distract India during the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, New Delhi is clear that it must continue to defend the LAC, even through a war with Pakistan.

But what has been a relatively light presence on the China border is now being strengthened dramatically, as India's military prepares itself for what the Indian Army chief in 2009, General Deepak Kapoor, termed a two-front war. This apprehension was also voiced by his successor, General V K Singh. China's emergence as a global powerhouse that pursues its national interests and territorial claims unapologetically has forced New Delhi to rethink its basic security calculus. This could have enormous implications on Indian defence spending, procurement and the emerging defence industry in the country.

As the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China has modernised; created quality road and rail infrastructure in Tibet that permits rapid build-up and switching of forces between sectors; and conducted annual manoeuvres involving the rapid build-up in Tibet of divisions from other theatres, New Delhi too is shifting gears on the LAC. After years of deliberation and debate, the Indian military has added defensive muscle and is transforming an exclusively defensive strategy into one with a significant offensive element.

"China spends nearly one-fourth of its (estimated $120 billion annual defence budget) in the borders with India and is reflected in over 30 military exercises conducted in and around Tibet in the last two years," notes Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

India's counter to China's growing strength started with the raising of two mountain divisions (some 40,000 troops), during the 11th Defence Plan (2007-12), which have already beefed up defences on the McMahon Line, the border between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet.

Today four Indian corps defend the LAC - 14 Corps holds Ladakh; 33 Corps defends Sikkim; and 4 Corps and 3 Corps safeguard Arunachal Pradesh. The ten divisions under these corps have roughly 220,000 troops. But that may not be enough, says Professor Kondapalli. Across the LAC in the PLA's Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions, are 400,000 troops of the 13th, 14th, 21st and 47th Group Armies (the equivalent of corps).

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To partially even out this mismatch, India is raising a "mountain strike corps" during the 12th and 13th Defence Plans (2012-22). Analysts like Brigadier (Retired) Gurmeet Kanwal estimate that the strike corps will have 90,000 troops and raising it will cost Rs 64,000 crore over the next seven years. But more than the numbers, India's decision to raise a strike corps is a decision to raise the ante with China. It is a statement from New Delhi that any war that China initiates will not be fought just on Indian soil. The strike corps is tasked to launch attacks across the LAC, taking the war to China.

Along with this unprecedented army build-up, the Indian Air Force (IAF) too is turning its attention to the LAC. Sukhoi-30MKI squadrons have been located in Tezpur and Chhabua, in Assam. Jorhat, Guwahati, Mohanbari, Bagdogra and Hashimara air bases are being strengthened too. Eight old ALGs (Advanced Landing Grounds) have been refurbished so that they can support light aircraft and helicopters. The multi-billion dollar acquisitions of ten C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft, six C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft and the impending procurement of the CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopter will further strengthen capabilities on the LAC.

This remarkable force accretion, India's largest since the 1962 war with China, could have a potentially galvanising effect on the country's defence industrial base. The growth of local industry could be catalysed not just through direct procurement of arms and equipment, but also through industrial partnerships with global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who would be discharging offset liabilities arising from billions of dollars of procurement. Furthermore, there would be opportunities for Indian companies to participate in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of the equipment being procuring for India's on-going force expansion and modernisation.

Besides equipping tens of thousands of soldiers, the major new acquisitions that could arise include 400-450 ultra light howitzers (ULH) for seven new artillery brigades - one each for the four new mountain divisions, and three directly under the strike corps. Negotiations are already under way for 145 pieces of BAE Systems' M-777 155-millimetre, 39-calibre howitzers for up to $885 million. If the army is satisfied with this weapon, it could purchase as many as 900-950 more for the artillery regiments of 15 more mountain divisions. In that case, the MoD would press BAE Systems hard to shift production of the M-777 to India.

There is also a growing requirement for helicopters to airlift troops on "vertical envelopment" missions to capture heights in the enemy's rear and flanks. India is negotiating to buy 15 CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, an order that could well be expanded. The tried and tested Russian Mi-17 V5 helicopter that the IAF has already ordered in large numbers could potentially see additional demand.

India's expanded security perspective is also catalysing a major expansion of the Indian Navy. This is aimed at tightening Indian control over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), particularly the shipping lanes between the geo-strategically vital choke points at the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. A powerful navy would allow New Delhi to react to any PLA attack on the Himalayan border with a blockade on Chinese shipping, particularly its hydrocarbon supplies and manufacturing exports that transit through the IOR.

Unlike the IAF and the army, the navy has chosen to pursue the path of building capability rather than buying it. The success of its warship-building programme was evident in the successful start-up of the nuclear reactor of INS Arihant, the first indigenously-built nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). On August 12, the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was launched in Kochi. Of 47 navy vessels currently being constructed, 46 are being built in Indian shipyards.

This has created work not just for the four MoD-owned shipyards, but also for a crop of private shipyards. Also thriving are sub-contractors and ancillary suppliers that provide a host of systems and sub-systems for Indian warships.

But how green are these shoots for India's defence industry? Traditionally, the military's vast requirements have been met through import, not by supporting the development of Indian R&D facilities, vendors, sub-vendors and component manufacturers. Regrettably, the MoD has financed foreign manufacturers, especially Russian and Israeli, paying them to develop systems that even their own militaries did not want.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, three-quarters of the vaunted Soviet-era design bureaus folded up when 1,149 individual R&D projects were cancelled by the bankrupted state. In the early 1990s, Russia's military spending plummeted to one-thirtieth of the 1989 figure. Over a million Russian scientists were on the streets, and China was hiring them in large numbers to assist in developing its own defence industry. India, however, chose to put its money into resurrecting Russian capability. For over a decade, until rising oil prices in 2005 put money into Moscow's pockets again, India bankrolled Russia's military industry by buying T-90 tanks, Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, and Talwar-class frigates from Russian shipyards. India paid Russia to modernise MiG-21 fighters, and develop the Uran-E and Klub naval missiles.

Then Israel's defence industry was allowed to penetrate the Indian market, riding piggyback on the Russian military systems - tanks, fighters, air defence systems and earlier warships - that form the bulk of India's arsenal. Since the Israeli defence industry does not build major weapons platforms, it has penetrated the Indian market by improving the performance and extending the life of outdated Russian systems. Retrofitting and providing mid-life upgrades to old platforms is as lucrative, or more, than selling new ones. A MiG-21 fighter, bought for a few crore rupees, costs multiples of that to upgrade. French vendors are charging the IAF about Rs 220 crore to upgrade each Mirage-2000 fighter, significantly more than the purchase price. Israeli companies excel in developing upgrades and force multipliers; and New Delhi pays them to do that. Having developed that capability at India's cost, Israeli companies market it to other militaries that use similar platforms.

"There is no reason why Indian private companies cannot develop the systems and upgrades that the Israelis do. We are skilled software engineers. The MoD has a 'Make' category in its procurement procedure that allows it to pay Indian industry to develop and deliver those capabilities. But while MoD is willing to take risks in foreign design and development, it is not willing to support and finance its own industry in developing those capabilities," says the CEO of a prominent private sector defence company.

First Published: Sep 10 2013 | 8:50 PM IST

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