India holds a conventional advantage to ward off a 1962-type setback in the event of a full-scale escalation with China primarily because of its Beijing-centric deployments across air, land and high-altitude platforms, according to a US study.
The research paper, published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year, analysed comparative data of Indian and Chinese strategic assets.
The study, however, noted New Delhi’s conventional advantage remains “under-appreciated” in Indian discourse.
The publication introduced a new data compilation based on “published intelligence documents, private documents sourced from regional states, interviews with experts based in China, India, and the United States”.
It gave a comprehensive assessment of “the location and capabilities of Chinese and Indian strategic forces”. The two authors of the study are Dr Frank O’Donnell, who is a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program and Dr Alexander K Bollfrass, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
The research estimated that India’s total available army strike forces near China’s border areas to be around 225,000 personnel against an estimated 200,00-230,000 Chinese ground forces under the Western Theater Command, and Tibet and Xinjiang military districts.
But then the study found the Chinese numbers misleading.
“Even in a war with India, a significant proportion of these forces will be unavailable, reserved either for Russian taskings or for countering insurrection in Xinjiang and Tibet,” it says.
The authors observed that a majority of Chinese troops are located further from the Indian border, “posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defence mission”.
The Chinese Air Force (PLAAF), according to the authors, also suffers from a numerical disparity to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the border region.
China’s Western Theater Command controls all regional strike aircraft in this area, the proportion of which are needed to be reserved for “Russia-centric missions”, the study said.
China, it added, hosts a total of around 101 fourth-generation fighters in this theatre, which also include Russian defence, against around 122 Indian comparables solely directed at China.
China would likely be compelled to rely more upon its rear-area air bases, which will “exacerbate its limited fuel and payload problems”, the authors say.
Most PLAAF pilots are over-reliant upon ground control for tactical direction, which the study notes may turn out to be counterproductive.
According to the study, the Indian fighter pilots have a level of institutional experience in actual networked combat due to ongoing conflicts with Pakistan.
Although China has a superior missile force, it is unlikely to overcome the PLAAF disadvantage at once.
“If the PLAAF attacks just three airfields, it will require 660 ballistic missiles per day for attacking the runway and taxi track alone. China’s stock of 1,000-1,200 MRBMs/SRBMs (medium- and short-range ballistic missiles) will be over in less than two days when attacking just three airfields, with no other major target systems being addressed,” wrote the authors, quoting a former IAF official.
The authors believe that China may permanently station large forces nearer to the border but it will give time for a counter-build-up by India.
LAC Stand-Off An Intelligence Failure
Frank O’Donnell, the lead author, told India Today TV that their assessment of the disposition of major Chinese and Indian combat forces has not changed since the publication in March.
That said, he pointed out that such a large movement by the PLA would have been picked up by Indian and US intelligence much in advance.
“What has happened in this episode is that a large Chinese military exercise near the border areas was used as a feint, with Chinese forces then being diverted toward the positions they occupy today,” O’Donnell said.
He termed the current situation an outcome of “a significant intelligence failure” and suggested that “there should be a Kargil Review Committee-level public inquiry as to how this intelligence failure was permitted to occur and provide recommendations for preventing a recurrence”.
Asked about the possible solution to end the stand-off, O’Donnell suggested an aggressive diplomatic strategy, similar to that New Delhi executed following the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
“China is intensely sensitive to its global image and how it is portrayed. The 2008 Mumbai playbook of regular MEA briefings of scores of foreign ambassadors regarding the nature and extent of the Chinese LAC violation, and pressuring these governments to publicly criticize China for these actions and demand that it withdraw will raise the international costs to China’s reputation in continuing the occupation.”
In his opinion, Russia should be a particular target of Indian diplomacy with regard to China.
“To intercede with China as its closest partner to tell it to pull back, Russia is reportedly already very distressed with the Chinese actions,” O’Donnell added.
The final diplomatic option, in O’donnell’s view, is the cancellation of an invitation to China for next year’s BRICS summit, which India is hosting. “PM Modi can publicly state that at present he cannot see how he could invite China to attend if it is occupying Indian territory,” says O’Donnell.
He noted that the Doklam crisis ended soon before the scheduled commencement of the 2017 BRICS summit.