Queasy half-steps in facing up to China

XVII Mountain Strike Corps: Latest News & Videos, Photos about XVII Mountain  Strike Corps | The Economic Times
[Troops of 59th Division of the XVII Mountain Offensive Corps on patrol]

News reports reveal that I Corps, one of the three strike corps, has been redeployed to the eastern Ladakh sector to conform with COAS General MM Naravane’s public declaration that “China is the primary front”. I should feel elated that my nearly 30-year long advocacy of converting the bulk of the three Strike Corps (I, II and XXI) into Mountain Offensive Strike Corps (MOSC) is beginning to be heeded.

As Adviser, Defence Expenditure, to the (Tenth) Finance Commission (1992-1995) chaired by former Defence Minister, the late K.C. Pant, I had proposed, in a classified report, that the three strike corps be reconfigured, in the main, into a single “composite corps” of armoured, mechanized, mobile air defence and self-propelled artillery units with several independent armoured brigades as army reserve, which’d be more than adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The usable war materiel and manpower resources thus freed up, it was suggested, be shifted to raising three MOSCs for the overlong, thinly-manned, China front. I had pitched this as both an economy and force optimization measure, enabling the otherwise defensively arrayed Indian Army to, for the first time, actually take the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Tibetan Plateau. It is a theme I have been plugging away in my books and other writings ever since.

As presently constituted, the three strike corps are way in excess of need because, realistically, they can only be fielded and then only for shallow, meaningless, penetration in the desert sector because the west Punjab plains in Pakistan are too built-up and criss-crossed with irrigation canals and ditch-cum-bund defences — tank traps — to permit Indian armoured and mechanized formations easy or rapid ingress. The only justification for even two strike corps is if their exclusive focus is on ‘Sialkot grab’-kind of operations that I originally envisaged (in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security) and which the armoured forces have reportedly adopted — whether as principal objective or not, is unclear.

Obviously, the troops from the Mathura-based I Corps presently pulling duty in counter-insurgency Rashtriya Rifles units in J&K — as the first scheduled for conversion — have come in handy speedily to increase the force strength in eastern Ladakh. They haven’t arrived in theatre from the plains, so acclimating to a higher altitude is a bit less onerous. Behind this move possibly is the concern to forestall PLA’s offensive action, if not in the dead of winter, then as soon as the snow melts starting in April. Transporting the jawans from their J&K sites is the easy part; they’d still have to go through, albeit shortened, acclimatization procedures to be able to handle operational tasks. The time it takes to acclimate the average soldier from the plains, in a phased manner, to fight at high altitudes is some three months without the use of thermal chambers, etc.

I Corps undergoing conversion to an MOSC for permanent deployment in Ladakh will permit the newly raised XVII MOSC based in Panagarh to become a fixture on the Sikkim-Arunchal front. [So why were the Corps HQrs located in Panagarh? Perhaps because the considerate army brass decided the senior staff of that MOSC needed to be near the comforts of Kolkatta than far away in the desolate expanse of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal the formation is meant offensively to defend!] While this is better than not having a second MOSC at all, it still leaves the Central Sector with high passes and more difficult mountainous terrain bereft of meaningful forces to counter the PLA should it choose to make a breach there. A Third MOSC will not only fill this gap but also provide offensive-ready forces to back up I Corps in Ladakh and XVII Corps in the east. Considering how quickly China is enveloping Nepal with Chinese railways prospectively connecting Kathmandu to the Lhasa-Qinghai mainline, with a feeder track already extended to Xigatse on the border, this may in any case be the prudent thing for the army to do.

The Central sector is largely manned by the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Hardy in many respects and originally trained as Special Forces by the US Army Ranger teams in the wake of the 1962 War, the nature of the ITBP led by Indian Police Service officers, has over the years been blunted. It is treated by the Home Ministry as yet another paramilitary — a’la Central Reserve Police Force, and assigned jobs like quelling the Naxal rebels in the “red corridor”. In the event, the ITBP simply lacks the military grit and resilence and, even more the fighting motivation of, say, the frontline Special Frontier Force filled with Tibetans from the exile community, who preempted the PLA from occupying the Chushul heights in the Kailash Range last summer, by getting there first and thereafter held off the Chinese from dislodging them.

I Corps as MOSC is a good development. Hopefully, Naravane will formally begin the process of rationalizing the existing, entirely skewed and inappropriate Pakistan-front heavy force structure in right earnest. A third MOSC is desperately needed. Going in for an entirely new raising, however, is a prohibitively expensive course of action. Far more economical would be to, say, convert XXI Corps as well.

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.
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19 Responses to Queasy half-steps in facing up to China

  1. Amit says:

    India always moves slowly – that’s why the Chinese intrusions are a blessing in disguise as it has led to rapid change in Indian security forces. I’ve been following your comments for a couple of years now and could not agree more with many of your points.

    After watching your YouTube video from a few weeks back, I feel like India should also demonstrate its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities more against China.

    Maybe bring down a J20 or take their grid down or something. They should be made to guess who did it just like they did to us when a Su-30 was brought down in Arunachal a few years back. This will showcase Indian CW/EW capabilities to the Indian public as well as keep our foes guessing. We should step up hybrid warfare acts against China since we cannot compete with them in the near future in heavy investment military build up.

    Additionally, we should make other countries seriously occupy China’s attention. So use Taiwan and the US in the South China Sea for this.

    Of course start a hybrid war in Tibet and Xinjiang. Plausibly deny it, but make China pay for its perfidy. At the same time use Chinese investments on Indian terms to grow India stronger economically. Use them and abuse them at the same time. This is the language China will understand.

  2. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    What about the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains? The PLA has blocked the Indian patrolling units from reaching Indian areas northwestwards to the Karakorum Pass. This area amounting to some 900+ sq kms has been lost by India to the Chinese.

    Indian political establishment should show courage and try to get the aforesaid region back.

    I don’t think Chinese will make any further intrusions into the Indian territory.

    The ball is in India’s court to initiate an aggressive move to claim back its territory otherwise, the present stand-off will persist for a very long time.

    • Jacky says:

      You are very right. China has never been interested in invading the territory of any country, including India. The best way to resolve disputes is to communicate and negotiate. Those who first use force may not be able to solve problems effectively. But often let oneself fall into a passive awkward situation.

  3. Sankar says:

    I could not follow much of the article here. For instance, “usable war materiel” – what does one include in this context? On the ground in Punjab or south, the war will be fought with heavy tanks, artillery guns, etc., which could not be deployed on the mountains, with the exception of perhaps Depsang plain. I doubt the Indian Army will ever mount an armored foray to recover Aksai Chin – it neither has made planning for its nor has that capability in the near future. Also, there have been reports that China would strike at Arunachal back through the route in Myanmar which the Indian Army has kept unguarded.

    As an aside, could the writer please comment on this article by Claude Arpi:
    “Beware, India! China’s Most Strategic Road”

    • Claude Arpi is an enormously well-informed analyst of Tibetan affairs. His revelation of the constrution of G216 on a northern alignment relative to G219 is not surprising. The Chinese have always been concerned about a single interdictable southern lifeline connecting the mainland to Xinjiang.

      The useable war material refers to the hardware not appropriate in the mountains, even though the Indian army has positioned T-72s in the northern Sikkim Plain and in Depsang. My argument has been that the Indian military cannot merely have only an exclusively defensive capability and for true deterrent and dissuasive capability it is necessary for the country to have credible offensive assets, such as MOSCs.

      • Sankar says:

        Thanks for the clarification, but I am not clear about “northern Sikkim Plain” – Nath La is on the mountain pass, and beyond it lies the Chumbi Valley in Chinese control. Indian Army sits on top of the Chinese position, so where is this plateau where the Army can go for armoured and tank attack on PLA? Also, to my understanding of your and others’ columns in the context, the Indian Army has no post on the Depsang plain or have withdrawn the patrols from there. So how could T-72 be deployed on Depsang? Interestingly, Lt Gen Panag has given an address along the lines of your advice to the Government which I did not understand fully. Due to evolving military technology, force restructuring is inevitable for all armies from time to time, but can the Indian army absorb swiftly such technological change?

  4. andy says:

    So ultimately some good sense has dawned or been hammered into the Indian army by the happenings on the Indo Tibet border. These days,at long last, everyone you hear says that China is the real threat to Indian security. But if you look at how the army is structured you would think that its Pakistan. Of the 38 infantry divisions some 25 are arrayed against the pesky western neighbour and only 12 against the Chinese(1 is army HQ reserve)which ostensibly is the bigger threat due to its comprehensive national power combined with malevolent intent. The whole of east ladakh border with China has only 1 division to cover some 800
    plus kms of the border in the most inhospitable terrain,which is a sorry state of affairs

    This conversion of the corp to a mountain strike role is not a moment too soon. There’s some buzz about an additional division for the central sector as also for the 17 corp in Panagarh,. Although where these will be diverted from remains unclear. So totally 16 divisions are planned for the Tibet border,with 5 in the strike role. At least a semblance of conventional deterrence has been set up as a result.

    The strike corps based in depth areas Panagarh, is a worry since the mobilisation is so ponderous,eg operation Parakram ,that not only is the enemy on guard but the other nations or institutions step in to defuse the situation. Given the lack of access/infrastructure to the Tibet border, strike corp mobilisation will be even more torturous. Here the heavy lift capacity of the IAF will be handy,as proven in Ladakh. But without Leh airport this capacity could not have been utilised, so there’s a desperate need of proper airfields,not advanced landing grounds,for this heavylift capacity to have a telling effect.

  5. Bhishma says:

    I do hope your advice on the force rationalisation between the Pakistani, East Turkestani and Tibetan sectors is taken up. We clearly have too many troops and resources facing just the Pakistani sector.

    Overall China is winning by these land based pinpricks it keeps giving India by itself and its proxies. As we keep focusing on the land borders and don’t grow our maritime potential. India should rule the waves. That really should be our priority.

    With the force rationalisation you recommend we wouldn’t need to increase our land forces… Just rationalise them across our western and northern borders. Will the GOI do anything remotely close to it? I dont know. I hope to see India as the maritime hegemon of the Indian Ocean and expanding its foothold in the SCS and the Mediterranean in my lifetime… I’m 40 now.

    Well here’s wishing.

  6. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Respected Mr. Karnad & fellow readers,

    Please check out the following;


    The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has snubbed the Indian invitation of being the Chief Guest during the 26th January, 2021 Republic Day Parade.

    This is an excellent opportunity for Modi. He should invite Dalai Lama as the Chief Guest for the aforesaid event.

    Dalai Lama is anyways based in India. The Tibetan government-in-exile is being run from Dharamshala in India.

    By doing this, India would be able to send a very strong message to the Chinese.

    • Sankar says:

      Well, Dalai Lama has been relegated to the status “persona non grata” in India under Hindu Modi Raj’s foreign policy – what can one say? This was not so under MMS!
      Thanks for taking up the case.

  7. Gaurav Tyagi says:


    I compiled the following from the comments section of the aforesaid news article;

    While the government is busy collecting funds from the public for “Bhavya Ram Mandir” China has made a statement. What a big failure of the Indian Intelligence.

    The Chinese didn’t built these houses overnight. What were our security forces doing?

    “Modi hai to mumkin hai”. Modi and Amit Shah are busy in West Bengal poll strategy, please do not disturb.

    No surgical strike ? Oh Modi must be searching for radar proof clouds.

  8. Kunal Singh says:


    China is opening new front in Northeast. What about Indian counter-occupation strategy. Is anyone even thinking about that.
    Karnad Sir

  9. Shaurya says:

    Bharat: Congratulations that your long standing argument for reorientation/conversion of strike corps is coming to bear. I know of many who pooh, poohed your ideas. Keep at it. As, Ajay Shukla said, if there was no Bharat Karnad, India would have to invent one. I say, India needs at least one soul to speak for her non-compromised national interests.

  10. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    A few connections of mine in the Congress Party sounded me about becoming their Overseas (China) Cell President, since I am settled in China.

    This is what I said to them;

    “Kindly convince your party high command to nominate Mr. Bharat Karnad to Rajya Sabha. He will make sure that Modi government acts tough on India’s strategic policies since, Mr. Karnad is a no-nonsense kind of man”

    Mr. Karnad, you are an ace. I would be highly honored, if you can spare some valuable time from your busy schedule to meet me over a few drinks/dinner, the next time, I visit India from China.

    No flights currently between these two loving neighbors. Corona virus plus the border dispute 🤪

  11. Satyam Dutta says:

    Sir, offense is the best defense..sir you had also advocated our Tejas fighter..hoping to read a writeup from your side regarding the recent Tejas large order

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