The price of inaction

The little Chinese misadventure is over but only because India agreed to raze the fortified observation post at Chumar well inside its territory. The restoration of status quo based on such surrender provides China with a ready excuse to march into Indian territory again, with an undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) legitimating armed intrusions. Peace bought by concessions cannot last.

Even so, the Indian Army is lucky because, like in 1962, it was being set up as scapegoat. Last week, a former “media adviser to the Prime Minister”, Sanjaya Baru, blamed the Army for “intelligence failure” resulting, he implied, in the Manmohan Singh government being caught unawares by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) advance 19 kms inside India. Every kilometre deep intrusion means potential loss on average of some 75 square kilometre of territory. The former Army Chief, Gen. Ved Malik, also on the same TV programme, was so flabbergasted by Mr Baru’s charge that he couldn’t collect his wits in time to explain that the management of the border with China is policed by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) under the supervision of the benighted home ministry. On another TV show, he had described this border management system as “laughable”. While the Army conducts its own field intelligence, it is the ITBP’s responsibility to keep the government apprised of developments on the border as well as the denizens of North Block in charge. How Sardar Patel, the first and last great home minister, who early apprehended the threat posed by the Chinese occupation of Tibet must be, proverbially speaking, turning in his grave!

Of course, the anomaly of why a paramilitary force is tasked with protection of a live border with China, when the Border Security Force on the side with Pakistan — an adversary of lesser consequence — is entirely under Army command, has to be explained by the Indian government, especially since there is evidence that this fundamentally flawed arrangement isn’t working. Such a system of border control is apparently in place because it fits in with the thinking of the China Study Group (CSG) and its Mandarin-speaking members, mostly former diplomats, who are convinced that the paramilitary forces headed by police officers, even though sub-professional and boasting of no fighting qualities worth the name, are controllable, take dictation better than the Army, and hence can be relied on in situations on the LAC, where inertness and lack of initiative are prized.

Between the CSG and the ministry for external affairs combine and its inapt tool, the ITBP, the country’s interests are in peril. The fear of escalation has become a psychosis, leading New Delhi to raise non-reaction to Chinese provocation to high principle. Situations are allowed to drift in the hope that by not responding and, therefore, not offering the Chinese “provocation” in return, Beijing will eventually pull out its troops. This is what happened in the Rokah Nullah area this time around — it was a bigger probing action than anything the PLA has mounted recently. More such incidents can be expected, any of which, in the face of predictably meagre response, may lead to permanent realignment of LAC and cutting off of access to the Siachen Glacier.

This leaves the Army up a creek because without accessible roads it is left with no sustainable proactive strategy at all in the face of the Chinese allowing themselves the leeway to intrude at will anywhere along the LAC. Remarkably, it is the Indian government itself that is the villain — delaying the building of an extensive network of metalled, all-weather roads up to the LAC, especially in the extended area designated “sub-sector North” radiating northwest-wards and northeast-wards from Daulat Beg Oldi that the Third Infantry Division of the Leh-based 14 Corps is responsible for. It is a sobering thought that where road connectivity is concerned the conditions have not much improved from 1958 when Jawaharlal Nehru’s “forward strategy” began to be implemented.

There may be no border roads but a number of advanced landing grounds have been spruced up in the last decade at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma in the Ladakh sector to operate frontline combat aircraft. This is all very well except that the availability of airborne ground attack capability in no way helps 14 Corps to respond fast and in kind to Chinese actions, which requires a quick marshalling of units whenever and wherever the LAC is breached. The Indian Air Force is unlikely, in any case, to be ordered into action short of a fairly major conflict as its use is inherently escalatory. In the event, air power cannot substitute or compensate for the lack of land power options, and can no more deter aggressive Chinese moves across the LAC than the appeasement-laced diplomatic fidgeting that passes for India’s China policy.

Even as the PLA is able to muster a rapidly deployable, airborne, Division-sized force at any point on the LAC within a couple of days, amassing a similar formation on the Indian side is beyond the Indian Army’s ken in the main because of the absence of motorable roads. The Indian government’s lack of will to put national security ahead of lesser concerns is incomprehensible. Letters from Army headquarters to the Prime Minister and other pooh-bahs in government pleading for roads and other infrastructure are routinely ignored. Such criminal negligence by the Indian government has led to border projects worth some Rs 30,000 crore hanging fire because of environmental clearances and land acquisition problems. That has allowed China to whittle away Indian territory. Such laxness and complacency on the part of the government can no longer be tolerated because it permits brazen land-grabs and aggressive acts by China.

It is imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh takes two immediate decisions — of handing over the charge of the China border to the Army and getting the Cabinet Committee on Security to override all objections from ministries and departments of government obstructing infrastructure development, and order construction of border roads on a war-footing.

[Published in the ‘Ásian Age’ May 9, 2013, at and in Deccan Chronicle at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian para-military forces, Indian Politics, Pakistan, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The price of inaction

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Academic dross masquerading as strategic insight! Utter falsehoods and misrepresentation of facts, old habits die hard….?

    Fallacy 1- “the Border Security Force on the side with Pakistan — an adversary of lesser consequence — is entirely under Army command”, a statement utterly inconsistent with the facts. Border management on all fronts, howsoever “laughable” in certain quarters, is entirely with the PMFs/ CAPOs under the MHA, in peace time. During war and only then does the command move over to the Army, which is true for both, the borders with China and Pakistan, regardless of the adversarial potential of either. Even a cursory research on the role of BSF and other central forces will make this evident.

    Fallacy 2- “While the Army conducts its own field intelligence, it is the ITBP’s responsibility to keep the government apprised of developments on the border as well as the denizens of North Block in charge”, averring as if, the Army has no role to play on the borders. I presume, the Army which conducts its own field intelligence, by your own admission, also reports about developments on the borders to the MoD, which is very much a part of the same GOI. Rather than the GOI being blinded by the reports of an inept ITBP, as alleged, it has ensured multiplicity of inputs thus achieving corroboration and redundancy.

    Fallacy 3- “advanced landing grounds have been spruced up in the last decade at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma in the Ladakh sector to operate frontline combat aircraft,” so laughable, wonder where you dreamt that one up from? If you had been following the activation of the advanced landing grounds over the decade, the reports very clearly indicate that they have been used for AN- 32 aircrafts, which is a transport aircraft and not a frontline combat aircraft. While they may be possibly used, when required, by any aircraft, I do not think that AN- 32 qualifies as a ground attack aircraft, as you seem to suggest these landing grounds will be used by.

    fallacy 4- “availability of airborne ground attack capability in no way helps 14 Corps to respond fast and in kind to Chinese actions, which requires a quick marshalling of units whenever and wherever the LAC is breached”. I presume the previous para clarifies the absurdity of your arguement. The fact that road infrastructure is poor and takes a long time to be built in the mountains explains the need for transport aircraft to operate from the advanced landing grounds, in order to enhance the speed with which ground troops can be moved. Thus the development of these landing grounds while road infrastructure catches up!

    Elementary …….!!! Wonder, if the misrepresentation of facts is due to genuine inability to comprehend or a deliberate desire to misguide gullible followers?

    • Mr Anuj,

      In all your pointing out of fallacies (in your view) you are missing out the point about road infrastructure. In spite of lessons from ’62 if we still haven’t built adequate roads and other infrastructure to be able to control the territory we claim then who is at fault here? I still hear statements from people perhaps jokingly perhaps half serious that “if we make better roads in the China border region then it will only make it easy for the Chinese to enter our territory in event of war”. This reflects our state of preparedness.
      Also the fact that someone in the government himself is talking about intelligence failure shows that the arrangement in China border is not working. Do you have any suggestions for fixing this? If you do not agree with Bharat what is your solution?

      • RK Anuj says:

        You may care to read a little more than @BK to understand the plethora of solutions that have been considered and are currently under implementation.

  2. On combat aircraft out of ALGs, you may care to hear IAF brass on it. And try not to be snotty — An-32s on ground attack mssions! The paramil arrangement was worked out with Pakistan in the 1949 Karachi Agreement. Routine patrolling, and other duties, BSF, of course, carries them out with plans for all border BSF activity vetted by sector army commander Not sure there’s a parallel ag with China.

    Most of your response, as usual, is venting, yea, yea, yea…

    • RK Anuj says:

      Your ability to misrepresent facts and then argue the case, eh! When you mention the advanced landing grounds and combat aircraft in the same breath with no mention of the transport aircraft that are meant to use them, you obviously turn the argument on its head. The ALGs are meant for these aircrafts, for transporting and sustaining ground troops in quick time; when the Air Force brass talks about combat aircraft also being able to use the same, it’s an additional advantage that the ALGs provide. Your entire argument is based on the premise that the GOI has not bothered to enhance the ability to deploy ground troops quickly, which falls flat on its face when you consider the facts, as reported by all known sources( or is the GOI powerful enough to manage them all) that these ALGs are being used by AN32 aircraft!!!! When you omit a fact and present only half a side of the story, you evidently draw incorrect conclusions. None in the Brass can be so naive, as you try desperately to project them. So snotty though it may seem, obviously, as it contradicts your considered wisdom, it is a statement of fact.

      When you talk about the BSF patrolling activity being vetted by Army sector commanders, post the Karachi Agreement, you obviously refer to the LOC, which is entirely under army control for reasons that even a lay student of Indo- Pak history understands. The LOC is only a fraction of the national borders between India/ Pakistan- China. Elsewhere, the arrangements are presumably similar, regardless of the adversary. So, your argument that the GOI is deliberately being soft on the Chinese front holds little water, the nature of bilateral agreements regarding the LOC being very different from all other sectors. Nowhere other than the Indo- Pak LOC, which is only a fraction of the entire Indo- Pak border, is the army responsible for border management and this is no different from most borders anywhere in the world. Oh, by the way, if you care to peruse the Karachi Agreement, it has nothing to do with any paramil arrangements worked out between India and Pakistan, as you again state in your defence. LOL, a lie to defend a lie!!!!

      If you can refute any of my statements with anything more than claims to be esoterically enabled, as is your wont, when you drop names like Shyam Saran or the Air brass, inappropriately, I will accept that I have only been venting yea, yea, yea!!! But until then, well?

  3. An-32s in and out of ALGs in the Ladakh sector to supply troops, yes. But to deploy troops en masse? It will take for ever, and isn’t much of an option in crisis such as the recent one. So, let’s atleast be realistic about what these ALGs can do in a conflict situation. Even combat aircraft out of these forward satellite bases is a truncated option in war because of the high-altitude imposing take-off weight restrictions, etc. But that’s a separate issue. My whole case is precisely that deployment by air is NOT a substitute for border roads, and roads have not been built 50 yrs on.

    The Karachi Ag was for normalization of border (requiring the pullback by army), etc, which reqd the placement of paramils on the intl border south of Gurdaspur. Even here the army is very much in the loop. On LOC army is fully in control, which is not the case on LAC. If LOC, like LAC, is disputed border, shouldn’t army be in charge of the China front as well? But apparently such obvious logic escapes you. Hyper-ventilation — lies! fallacies! — apparently is your forte but sounds silly.

    • RK Anuj says:

      Thankfully, you finally acknowledge the utility of the ALGs to move troops quickly and sustain them through transport aircraft. The rest of your argument is based on the strength you consider adequate to deal with incidents of the DBO kind. If that strength is rationally proportional, it takes not too long to react to 30-40 men worth of intrusion as in the recent incident, the AN 32’s capability not being inconsiderable even at high altitudes, being one of the finest performers at those heights. But if you wish to react to that with a division, well, it may take much longer!! Point is, the need for rapid build up has been acknowledged and hence these ALGs have been developed in the last decade, while road construction is also underway. When you fail to acknowledge this basic fact, you obviously conceal the truth in order to further your argument, which is over a decade old, as anyone following the developments from the comfort of his arm chair can easily discern.

      As for the Karachi Agreement, I earnestly request that you take the time to peruse it again. It has NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, to do with placement of paramil on the intl border south of Gurdaspur, dealing as it does, to the CFL well north in the state of J& K. If and when this basic fact of history is acknowledged, the rest of your argument becomes irrelevant. If facts sound silly, well, the truth often is!!

      • One AN-32 can carry only 40 men on board. By your logic if air transport/air drop was all that was needed then we would not have lost Skardu which was under siege for 6 months in 1948. Why was battle of Jozi la so important for saving Ladakh we already had Leh airport in our control? We would also not have lost territory in the ’62 war. If one could control territory with aircrafts and air transport alone then why did ISAF forces feel crippled in Afghanistan without friendly and reliable supply routes via Pakistan. Every novice knows that wars are fought on supply lines. What makes Pakistan and people like Hamid Gul( laypeople are lucky to have a talkative ex ISI chief like him) gloat at their ability to keep United States tied down? USA has all the air bases in Afghanistan and all kinds of aircrafts man has ever produced.

        If road construction in China border is underway that is good. But this incident should highlight the urgent need for infrastructure. Ladakh is what makes India India. It is shameful that many villages in Ladakh still don’t have schools even today and foreign NGOs are building those for them. (
        Small children of Zanskar have to travel on foot to Leh every school season for education under the most difficult conditions. Recently the state government of J&K was pulled up by the center for slow progress on rural roads development effort. While the state parties in J&K are busy creating permanent divisions between the people of J&K based on communal lines development of the region seems to be a low priority.( It is not about tactical deployments and military movement alone it is about the people of the region. You neglect the people and you loose goodwill in two of the most important districts of India as far as national security goes Leh and Kargil.

        Here is what needs to be done in Ladakh as per Mr P. Stobdan.

      • Sorry, messed up on the Karachi Ag aspect. But this mention was no part of my main article. Nor does it materially change the argument against the strange arrangement on the two disputed borders, with the China border being favoured by ITBP or about GOI being wilfully and criminally negligent in not building roads for 50 odd years, that troop augmentation by An-32s-option does nothing to correct.

  4. RK Anuj says:

    @primeargument – The AN 32 would actually carry less than your figure at those altitudes. But if you correctly understand the context in my previous post, you wouldn’t even begin to start comparing it to the battle of ZojiLa or Skardu or to the predicament of the ISAF. My post is clear as mud, ALGs are only an emergency alternative of some scale, while road construction is in progress, details of which are easily available. The rest of your contention regarding the imperatives of development and a people centric approach is indisputable.
    @Bharat Karnad- Thanks for acknowledging the folly. In the same vein, probably you are better placed to educate your followers regarding the enormous infrastructure development now underway in your focus areas. The criminal folly was true in the 20th century, but the last decade has been different, as you are well aware, but refuse to acknowledge. The pace may not be to every one’s liking, but the intent is very clearly evident from the GOI and our armed forces. The troubles on the LoC with Pakistan, a sworn, intransigent adversary, with the history of last twenty five years of insurgency, terrorism, earlier wars and acrimony especially in J&K, have no rational parallels with the border disputes with China and hence equating the two is not really prudent by any stretch of imagination. The arrangements are, to my understanding, very similar on all the other fronts against Pakistan or China, except of course the LoC which has very different circumstances. More, next time.

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