The memory of the war between an Indian Army left to fend for itself by the then Jawaharlal Nehru dispensation and a dogged People’s Liberation Army of China under Mao Zedong in 1962, where the former expectedly lost in the Himalayan region, troubles the collective memory of Indians. They worry about the possibility of another war with the same enemy that has not ceased to be expansionist. This is perhaps because a repeat of Chinese aggression in 1967, where the enemy ended up with a bloody nose, is not played up in media or books of history in this country. The troubling memory of ’62 revisited the democracy when 20 soldiers were killed in the night of 15 June, with the unarmed Indian Army personnel ambushed by the PLA that is not revealing its own toll. However, two think-tanks in the US believe China has more reasons to worry than India in the changed circumstances. While even 58 years ago China lost about 700 troops and India lost approximately double that, the conventional wisdom of a superior China has been challenged by the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston (“Harvard school” hereafter) and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington.
The Harvard school and CNAS hold India is better off in high-altitude mountainous environments, such as the one the 2020 face-off is witnessing. While the fresh tensions are not expected to explode into a nuclear war, the two American institutions have considered the fact China has approximately 320 nuclear warheads and India has 150 (estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIRPI). Nevertheless, in an unlikely nuclear war, hundreds of atomic bombs are not required to devastate the target, thus ruling out the Chinese edge in this domain, which it increased by 40 warheads last year when India raised the number by 10, according to SIRPI.
The Harvard school and CNAS note that both countries have a triad of delivery systems — missiles, bombers and submarines — and ascribe to a “no first use” policy. This, they say, sidelines the first factor.
Indian Air Force better than PLAAF, says Harvard Kennedy School of Govt
Then the Harvard school notes India’s 270 fighters, 68 ground-attack aircraft and a string of small air bases near the Chinese border, which authors Frank O’Donnell and Alexander Bollfrass believe would come in handy for the democracy. The communist country has 157 fighters and a small fleet of ground-attack drones in the region, the Belfer study observes.
What puts China at a disadvantage is the fact that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has eight bases in the region, mostly civilian, and they have awkward elevations. “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel,” the study says.
The PLAAF not having enough aerial tankers to get the job done would mean that aerial refuelling, which could give the Chinese planes more payload and combat time, would happen in fits and starts, the Harvard school opines.
The institution says that the Indian Air Force (IAF)‘s Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi Su-30 jets are superior to China’s J-10, J-11 and Su-27 fighters. The Indian Mirage 2000 and Su-30 jets, Harvard school notes, are all-weather, multi-role aircraft, which only the Chinese J-10 can match. CNAS had noted in an October 2019 report that India had constructed bases in the region with China in mind. “To weather a potential PLA attack, India has placed greater emphasis on infrastructure hardening; base resiliency; redundant command, control, and communications systems; and improved air defence,” the report had said.
The Belfer study at the Harvard school suggested that China was too occupied tackling the perceived threats from the US on its eastern and southern flanks and, therefore, strengthened its bases there. This, the centre says, left the Himalayas neglected and at least four PLA airbases vulnerable. “Indian destruction or temporary incapacitation of some of the four above airbases would further exacerbate these PLAAF operational inflexibilities and weaknesses,” the Harvard school says.
China inexperienced, lost not only to Russia but also to Vietnam
Also in terms of experience, “recent conflicts with Pakistan give the current IAF a level of institutional experience in actual networked combat,” the Harvard school says, adding that the Chinese lack such experience. The PLAAF pilots may find conceiving a dynamic aerial battlefield difficult, according to the Belfer report. “Recent PLAAF exercises with unscripted scenarios have found that pilots are excessively reliant upon ground control for tactical direction,” it says. “This suggests that PLAAF combat proficiency may be significantly weaker than often estimated.”
As for the main force that occupies territories, India is hardened on the ground too, fighting in terrains like that of Kashmir and in skirmishes along its border with Pakistan, CNAS notes. “India is by far the more experienced and battle-hardened party, having fought a series of limited and low-intensity conflicts in its recent past,” the CNAS says. “The PLA, on the other hand, has not experienced the crucible of combat since its conflict with Vietnam in 1979,” it notes.
Even when faced with a less formidable opponent, notes the Harvard school and CNAS, China lost the month-long border war it had initiated in response to the military intervention in Cambodia by Vietnam that had a smaller but more experienced army, seasoned by the fight against the US forces.
Where China scores as much as India, the Harvard school and CNAS say, is in the numbers of ground troops. Belfer reckons there are about 2,25,000 Indian ground forces in the region while the estimate for the Chinese strength ranges from 2,00,000 to 2,30,000. But then, the Harvard school points out, China has to contend with a possible insurrection in Xinjiang or Tibet and also Russia with which it has lost a seven-month-long battle in 1969 — barely two years after being pushed back while trying to intrude into India again through Nathu La and Cho La where they were pushed back by 3 km, losing 350 soldiers.
The Harvard school has observed that the Chinese positions along the Russian border are intact and moving them to the Indian front in the event of large-scale hostilities presents a logistical problem. This is because, if or as they try to do so, Indian airstrikes could target high-speed rail lines on the Tibetan plateau or chokepoints in the mountainous terrain closer to the border. “By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position,” the report says.
The disadvantage of India here, the CNAS says, is that its forces operate in rough terrain in steep valleys. Indian jawans cannot be easily moved to plug the breaches a Chinese incursion might make. When they try to move, Chinese artillery and missile attacks on the Tibetan plateau on choke points below in the mountains can as effectively stop their advances.
But the Harvard school doubts China has enough missiles to take out all the targets it would need to hit in India in the event of a large-scale conflict. It cites a former IAF officer’s estimates, by which China would need 220 ballistic missiles to knock out one Indian airfield for a day. China has only 1,000 to 1,200 missiles available for the task, which cannot be exhausted in one operation.
PLA supported by better technology, larger budget
If the analysis so far suggests that the conventional wisdom about the outcome of a potential India-China conflict is all wrong, the communist country does have an advantage in technology and new weapons. It has a much larger defence budget than India and it rapidly modernises military. And it has the money to sustain this momentum. “China’s economy is five times the size of India’s and Beijing’s defence spending far outstrips New Delhi’s defence budget by a factor of four to one,” said international adviser at the National Center for Dialogue and Progress in Afghanistan Nishank Motwani, adding, “The power differential between China and India is in Beijing’s favor and this asymmetry is only widening.”
Then, to keep its enemies from adventurism, Chinese state media flexes muscles by publishing articles and broadcasting videos its new weaponry deployed in Tibet for exercises. These weapons include the Type 15 light tank and the new 155-mm vehicle-mounted howitzer, both introduced to the people of China at last year’s National Day military parade in Beijing. “The weapons were specifically designed with advantages for plateau regions and can play important roles in safeguarding border areas,” military experts told the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece Global Times. “These kinds of drills demonstrated the PLA’s capability to win a regional, high-elevation conflict in its early stages by decisively eradicating the hostile headquarters and commanders, a PLA veteran who was once deployed in Tibet and asked not to be named told the Global Times,” the mouthpiece read.
How India can counter Chinese edge in technology
India’s way to negate this Chinese edge is ever-strengthening defence relations with countries wary of an imperial Beijing’s rise — like the US. Washington called India a “major defence partner” while increasing training facilities for Indian troops that are already world class but for the lack of adequate technological support. In the event of a large-scale Himalayan conflict, US intelligence and surveillance could help India get a clearer picture of the battlefield, says the Harvard school, using an example like what might happen if China were to move troops from its interiors to the front lines in the mountains. “Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilize its own additional forces from its interior,” it says.
India participates in joint military drills with countries like the US, Japan, France and Australia. “Western troops participating in such war games and exercises regularly have expressed a grudging admiration for their Indian counterparts’ tactical creativity and a high degree of adaptability,” the CNAS report says. “China’s joint training endeavours, on the other hand, thus far have remained relatively rudimentary in scope — with the notable exception of its increasingly advanced military exercises with Pakistan and Russia.”