When I was in the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Lt Col Shankar Roy Choudhry (later a General and our COAS) taught us “Principles of War”, twirling his moustaches. The first and foremost principle he taught: ‘Selection and Maintenance of Aim’. He also introduced the Clausewitzan postulate—“War is continuation of politics by other means”. As I grew professionally, it dawned on me that ‘Selection and Maintenance of Aim’ also meant that war between nations must be prosecuted with a political aim, desired end state, conflict termination and exit strategy—all with fall back options. If you do not use this strategic toolkit, you lose.
In the current Sino-Indian context, what are the respective national aims? The Indian aim is straight forward. India aims to maintain its territorial integrity, altered at the LAC unilaterally by Chinese aggression. How about the Chinese aim? In the past four months many have speculated about it. No clear answers. Have they maintained it or has it changed? What is it now? What are the repercussions? It will tell us where we are heading.
In an inscrutable, complicated and ambitious country like China nothing is singular or definitive. Hence a broad range of likely interconnected aims need consideration.
Territorial Aim: Settlement of the LAC in own favor before Indian border infrastructure improves to a level beyond which China might not be able to force the issue on its terms. This aim is linked to abrogation of Article 370, threat posed by DSDBO road to CPEC, ‘Doklam revenge’, regional dominance and putting India in its place through a massive military embarrassment.
Dominance Aim: Demonstrate and assert that China is the most dominant power—virus or not. Regional and global messaging that India is no competitor or leader, breaking the Quad and targeting India’s growing links with the US, Australia and Taiwan are all connected.
Economic Aim: Prevent decoupling and economic relocation. India is the chosen target due to being at the forefront of decoupling and relocation drive, resistance to BRI, CPEC and RCEP, declaring intent for self-sufficiency and attracting investment. India as a competitor had to be destroyed.
Domestic Aim: The aim could have also been to cater for hyping nationalism or diversion from internal problems due to the then prevalent virus-related geopolitics.
Most Likely Aim: Analyse. The territorial aim is the most plausible. Others are inherent sub themes. However, to achieve this, the operation had to be on tight timelines. The shock of surprise had to be exploited to present a fait-accompli to India quickly. The US, after recovering from the initial shock of the Wuhan virus, would retaliate due to concurrent events in the South China Sea. China had to exit fast to avoid the current twofront situation.
I am now even more convinced that the Chinese targets were the DSDBO Road at the Galwan-Shyok Junction and the Gurudongmar Road, through Naku La. These incursions, if successful, would have enabled China to achieve its aim while presenting a nightmare scenario for India. Others at Depsang, Gogra, Pangong Tso and Demchok were supporting actions. However, Naku La was blocked by alert Indian action. The weight shifted to Eastern Ladakh. By early Jun, China was dictating terms. Indian response was hesitant and unsure. Chinese appeared ten-foot-tall and India was grasping at straws due to slick influence operations. The Galwan-Shyok junction, however, eluded China.
At this stage if China had stepped back, they would have achieved most of their fall back options and some territorial advantage. However they were myopic and changed track. China opted for tactical gains to maximise territorial grab despite agreeing to disengage at the Corps Commanders level meet. Then Galwan happened. It unshackled India. It broke Chinese invincibility, roused India, instilled belief in the Army and hardened the nation. After that the Chinese lost the plot. War entails conflict termination once political goals (even partly) are achieved, before the enemy recovers. Any idiot who reads history would tell you that India’s forte is counterattack—1947, 1965, 1971 and Kargil. True to form, given time, India has turned the tables. It is now fighting classic mountain warfare. Hold the tops— Finger 4 and South Pangong Tso heights. China is plain bound, and will hereafter be dominated. China is fighting with the hills while India has taken to the hills.
The Residual Chinese Aim
China might have started with an Aim but has not maintained it. Today its ‘Aim’ seems to be a ‘facesaving exit’. However, their concept of face saving involves—inflicting a blow on India, make India vacate the heights and retain its territorial gains. Does it have the capability to do so? I doubt. If things freeze as they are—it is advantage India. A headline in Newsweek says so: ‘The Chinese Army flops in India. What will Xi do next’? Status quo ante is passé. Holding the heights South of Pangong Tso up to Rezang La virtually closes most avenues to Leh while opening own offensive options. This ridge line should never be vacated. PLA can keep sitting on the Fingers and open up tourist activities there. Those in power will be historic villains if these ‘Strategic’ gains are given away just as those are, who gave Haji Pir back to Pakistan.
The PLA has a ‘Stability-Instability’ paradox’. The PLA might have great equipment, sophisticated infrastructure, and faster communications. Their Command and Control structure at Theatre level must be great. Very stable at the top. At the lower levels, lack of battle experience and operational adaptability is palpably apparent. The widely reported ‘peace disease and micro corruption’ have taken their toll. There is instability at the bottom evidenced at Galwan and the Karakoram Ridge Line. Why the PLA is less than the sum of its parts is a question which is propping up. The PLA has grown politically. It might not have grown militarily.
The video clip showing off PLA capabilities of air dropping, rocket and SP Artillery firing is impressive. Watch it again critically. Will it be effective? Tactically well dispersed and deployed Infantry and artillery in mountains as well as armour tucked into folds in defensive positions in high altitude plains will not be affected by rocket ammunition spraying all over. On the other hand, Chinese positions, concentrated in plains, near permanent bases/nontactical staging areas are sitting ducks for own direct firing weapons, artillery and Air Force. Their bases can be dislocated. Aim for that clinically.
Rockets firing is a dead give-away from 30-40 km away. A systematic appreciation of hides, routes and firing positions will enable their accurate location and decimation by IAF. The Rockets can shoot once only. The IAF should not allow them to scoot. Nothing lowers morale of Infantry than Guns being lost. It needs joint planning between Artillery and IAF. Need I say this at all? I am sure the commanders on ground will do better than my old age babbling! Oh BTW, I have always loved direct firing. Kargil proved its utility. A few guns on the South bank of Pangong Tso with latest direct firing night sights will provide adventure to tourists on the fingers. At the core. Our infantry is pure hardened ESR steel. PLA beware.
As per Clausewitz, “Strategy is about picking the right battles. Tactics are about successfully executing those battles.” The aimless grey zone strategy of ‘Belligerent War Avoidance’ has led Chinese to pick the wrong battle. Their tactics? Medieval at best. The fighting morale is apparently not high. War is a two sided blood sport. Not a unilateral firepower demonstration. Do the Chinese have the stomach for body bags? So far they have hidden them. In the ultimate analysis Morale determines outcomes. Indian battlefield morale is high.
The Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijan and that comic strip, the Global Times, have repeatedly spoken of winter. PLA might not be prepared for it. Appears to be a weakness. They have pumped in Motorised Divisions. Heavily mechanised formations even if reinforced will struggle in winter. Logistically and operationally. Their troops will not be that battle effective. On the other hand, we just need to remember that we initially occupied and held on to Siachen Glacier with normal boots and clothing. Arctic equipment started pouring in later. All our Infantry and Artillery units have had 2-3 tenures on the Glacier/ high altitudes over the past two decades. Also, they are battle hardened after fighting all kinds of ideologically committed insurgents and terrorists who would never give a quarter. This advantage must be driven home ruthlessly. We just need to consolidate and hold on now. Stave off any PLA attempt to retrieve their situation. Let things cool a bit. As winter sets, in give the Chinese another ‘gray zone knock’. That will bring them to senses. It is high time we also make the PLA look back. The Tibet card must be flashed brightly. It will add to their confusion and consternation.
Whatever China set out to do with India, the opposite has happened. China is now entangled in its secondary theatre when the primary one in South China Sea is frothing. Any major action on this front will have repercussions there. Already China is getting hyphenated with India. Internally there appears to be some political instability. The floods have created havoc. Food is short. Their NonHan rim lands are having unprecedented problems. The Tibet issue has flared up again. The economy is misfiring. Their diplomacy is failing. Any major offensive action by China is a high-risk gamble with unpredictable outcomes. If it goes wrong and the chances are high, the Leader for life will have to start looking for a new job or there will be a huge purge. Even if things go China’s way to some extent, it will not end. I am sure we will continue with grey zone operations and start an insurgency against Chinese illegal occupation of Tibet.
What Should We Do?
The Foreign ministers have met and issued their statements. The Chinese have already started twisting things even before the ink is dry. Untrustworthy they remain. We have an historic opportunity to get rid of the ghosts of 1962. Hold on to our positions. Do not let the Chinese go back. Xi’s face-saving is not India’s concern. Do not lose nerve. Comprehensive National Strength has no value in battle. Conserve strength. Fire for effect. Play the Gray Zone. With time India will grow stronger. Economies will recover. Morale once lost takes time to recover. Instigate Tibet and Xinjiang. Talk of an alliance with the US. Never trust the Chinese. Snakes and viruses are better. Have faith in the Indian armed forces. They will deliver the goods. They have never failed India after 1962. The world, except stupid Pakistanis is with us. If we show down the Chinese, they will flock to us. A stalemate is victory for India. Just achieve that. Anything more is gravy.
Battles are not linear. Vietnam defeated France, the US and China with almost nothing. Afghanistan defeated the UK, the USSR and the US with less than nothing. India is better trained, equipped and prepared than Vietnam or Afghanistan were ever were. PLA is not half of what the US, UK, USSR, France or the Old China was. So where is the doubt? I have never had one.
Our economy is down. The Chinese virus is devastating our people. We are not that well equipped due to our own inadequacies. We are fighting with our backs to the wall. We have a clear aim. That is a recipe for victory. We can pull this off and stop this juggernaut. If we do that and I do not see why not, we will see a different India emerge.
The past two weeks have indicated that wars can be won only by fighting. Enough of Sun Tzu. That is why I got back to Clausewitz.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernization and indigenisation of artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www. gunnersshot.com.