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.