Managing the LAC: Rules are Handrails, and Not Handcuffs!
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Dragon is awake, and is vigourously seeking to establish Pax Sinica! Of the two milestones of the 100th anniversaries of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 2021 and 2049 respectively, the first will be a big event in the tenure of the current President Xi Jinping. During the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, the Congress had emphatically laid down for China, to be ‘…a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence’ by the middle of the twenty-first century. It was decried that the 26, July 2021 centenary of the CCP is all about celebrating the success of the Party in transforming China and rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation. The last also included “recovery of sovereignty over Chinese territories lost through the imposition of unequal treaties by hostile foreign power”, reiterating that by 2021 the “China Dream” would be achieved.

All efforts to be recognised as a great power have been seemingly jinxed by the coronavirus outbreak that emanated from Wuhan. This frustration might be showing, as evident in the belligerence against the peripheral nations! China cannot allow this, and will assiduously assert in all manners. This is apparent in the altercations and assertiveness in Eastern Ladakh in May and June 2020, along Galwan and Cheng Chemo Rivers and Pangong Tso. It is hence necessary to prognosticate on the border management posture and for conventional operations in the long term.

The foundation of the management of Eastern Ladakh was laid down in the Protocols and the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the four formal agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013. The 1993 Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Stability predetermined that there would be no use of force or a threat to use force and respect and obey the actual control line. The 1996 Agreement laid down CBMs and was like a no-war pact dictating no use of military capability against the other side, especially within two kilometres of LAC. The 2005 Protocol included that if the border personnel of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation due to differences on the alignment of the Line of Actual Control or any other reason, they shall exercise self-restraint, and on coming face to face, shall not use force or threaten to use force, cease their activities in the area, not advance any further, and simultaneously return to their bases. The India-China Border Agreement of 2013 emphasised that neither side shall use military capability against the other side, and that their respective military strengths shall not be used to threaten or attack the other side. With the experience of face offs over the years, a caveat was added that the two sides shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side where there is no understanding of the LAC.

It has become apparent that LAC was incurably faulty concept. This was largely because the LAC was without any formal delineation and demarcation, an issue studiously and deliberately procrastinated by the Chinese. The last eight years had clearly revealed that the Chinese have deliberately ensured that the ill-defined nature of the LAC was retained as leverage on India, to undertake premeditated aggression at regular intervals with well planned psychological campaign. The gross violations of protocols, had happened in Raki Nalla, Chumar, Pangong Tso, Demchok and Doklam, when the Chinese troops refuse to move back, and the face offs were prolonged. There were sporadic incidences of scuffles and fisticuffs. It must be categorically stated that suitable Indian Army drills were followed; weapons were always carried by the troops, albeit exercising restraints, in safer mode.

The issues have come to a head on the brawls on Pangong Tso and the face-offs in Galwan River Valley in May 2020. At Pangong Tso the PLA troops yet remain firmed in Indian Territory, on the Galwan River Valley there ensued major fracas on 15 June 2020, in with primitive weapons used by PLA caused twenty casualties of Indian troops and indeterminable ones, but obviously large numbers, on the PLA.

It is time to reassess the gamut of border (LAC) management posture (BMP), taking a step forward from current disengagement and de-escalation, which is under discussion between the commanders of the two armies in Eastern Ladakh. There are three facets to this. One is the domination of the LAC by the Army patrols and deployment as per dicta laid by the Government. Two, are the Rules of Engagement (and disengagement) on coming in contact with PLA. The entire LAC in Eastern Ladakh must be considered as a contentious zone, prone to engagement. Such situations can occur for patrols which are out for longer durations, away from their bases and where coming in for assistance for a blocked patrol will become difficult or time consuming. Such a patrol has to fend for itself in the interim. And three, is the BMP of the most intractable areas - Demchok, Depsang/ DBO, Galwan Valley, Cheng Chenmo Valley and Pangong Tso, where issues have reached a crescendo.

Contextually, Indian commanders and troops on ground will hereinafter be having total absence of trust about the PLA. This will manifest itself in three pointers. Firstly, simply stating, in areas where differences exist on the alignment of the LAC, Indian patrols have a right to touch-base at the terminal points laid down. Any deliberate attempts to deny this by the PLA, taking advantage of better communication structure on their side, is not acceptable, and will have to be contested. This is the basic of BMP, and either China agrees to commence delineation/demarcation, or there would be continual engagements that could well become physical. Secondly, it must be recognised that soldiers have a right to defend themselves and their unit against imminent threats, as the right to individual and unit self-defence, which allows soldiers to protect themselves against immediate threats, regardless of other limitations on use of force. Indian soldier is hardy and strong, and will not resort to pettiness of using medieval weapons that the Chinese have used, for that is not his wont. He is trained to tactically handle a situation and use firearms as necessary. In the next situation that happens to be akin to Galwan Valley/ Pangong Tso, sub-units will be prophylactically positioned, and will undertake tactical operations. Thirdly, with the devious and scheming nature of PLA, it is well-nigh feasible that they could surreptitiously occupy contentious areas that are intermittently patrolled by us. This will create a difficult situation, consequently. The changed circumstances dictate that the Army will have to occupy certain permanent positions, identical to Line of Control (LoC), to preclude such an eventuality.

In appreciation of the open-ended nature of Chinese threat, the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for BPM must be amended in favour of the Indian Army soldiers and commanders, to undertake protective deployment as tactically considered necessary, and to use firearms, to protect himself and the unit. Although, it is being argued that ‘military must not be given freedom, as it amounts to abdication of political responsibility and opens the doors to future crises of conflict’, this cannot be at the cost of losing precious soldiers lives and own territory, by a deceitful and untrustworthy enemy. The Nation cannot allow her soldiers to go on BMP, with hands shackled by diplomatic protocols and CBMS, while the adversary has disdain for them, and operates ad lib! If need be, the CBMs can be renegotiated, or enforced diplomatically, if PLA is willing to follow diplomatic niceties! New ROE must be promulgated soonest, even unilaterally, to suggest a message to the opposing bully. The ROE must be pragmatic, firm and forward looking, with explanatory contingencies. A case in point is the handling of a face-off of transgressing PLA troops mounted on horses!

Clearly, India does not want war; the nation is steadily and with single minded devotion on the path for socio-economic development of her peoples, with long term goals. However, there are ominous clouds on the horizon, and the Indian Armed Forces needs to prepare for the long haul. This perspective is examined and analysed in four distinct considerations.

First, contextually, inspite of all friendly mechanisms with other nations, China is a neighbour with contested borders and, hence, any future estrangement with China will inevitably be for India to handle independently. Indeed with China projecting itself as being ‘Responsible (sic) Great Power’, it will force early cessation of hostilities. This argues for a high grade tactical readiness. Indian Armed Forces have to be mindful of our stringently belligerent and opportunistic western adversary, who may also pitch in support.

Secondly, appreciably the Government and the armed forces are already charged with the future, should be preparing for a technological war. The inevitability and importance of a technological conflict exclusively or hybridised, utilising the lately configured Strategic Support and the Rocket Forces, is undeniable. This requires separate analysis, concerted planning and preparations, which must be underway.

Thirdly, in conventional war, if it happens, in Eastern Ladakh, the terrain and harsh climatic conditions obtaining are grossly inhospitable, forcing movement in set axes, narrow valleys, very high mountain passes and defiles, will take immense toll on men, material and logistics. In no way, it can be stated that operations for the Chinese will be proverbial cakewalk! The PLA will be strained to create substantial force asymmetry, especially at the point of application where it seeks a favourable decision, including all measures of guile and deception. And yet will fall well short of forces against formidable defences, despite best use of technology and precision targeted fire support. It must be stated without undue bravado or boast, that Indian Armed Forces are masters of defence and offense in Super High Altitude Areas, and are battle-hardened and inoculated. As history loudly proclaims (Pirkanthi 1948, Hajipir 1965, Kargil heights 1999, Walong and Rezangla 1962), this is Indian turf. The joint war fighting conceptual precepts must, however, remove the force asymmetry from contention.

Fourthly, war fighting must have two significant elements pre-planned. One, an offensive content is mandatory, which mandates availability of forces, and pre-selection of suitable viable objectives. Cessation of hostilities must exhibit a kind of consolidated balance. Two, the entire plan should be based on guile, cunningness and deception, like series of unimagined trip wires and traps, to pay back in the same coin and more.

To achieve this five pathways are proffered. First, is the optimal requirement to reconsider the area of responsibility of the only division responsible for Eastern Ladakh. The LAC in Eastern Ladakh alone is larger than the complete Line of Control opposite Pakistan, and about 65% of the complete LAC in North East, an impossibility to retain effective control by a single division. To state that during operations alternatives can be exercised, is doing injustice to a major sector that has significant peace time (BMP) and wartime commitments. Splitting the LAC in Eastern Ladakh into two formations is mandatory to manage the vast sector. Similarly, the focus of the Corps Headquarter, which stands severely divided against two major opponents and the management of the Siachen Glacier, should re-focus towards the larger and long term adversary. Additional Headquarters necessary can easily be found internally, without fresh raisings.

Second, there is need for specialisation, like creating a specialist alpine force (alpine word is only indicative of capability). Resources exist, based on the ‘sons of the soil’, the formidable Ladakh Scouts. This immense resource, raised for a purpose, has been frittered by allowing permanence in peace station or deployed on the glacier. It will be singularly advantageous to create such an exclusive alpine force based on Ladakh Scouts, located in Ladakh, by reconfiguring additional units of mountain troops, if necessary. Such a force will greatly lend to offsetting asymmetrical advantage, and be an effective deterrent even in BMP. Similarly in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and the Central Sector, infantry units of compatible regiments can be converted into alpine units, to an adequacy of requirement. It may also be necessary to rework the organisational structure of these units, tailored to task, than be modelled on an infantry unit.

Third, there is an immense siphon of the infantry units on the Siachen loop, which effects the focus of the units, as a tenure Eastern Ladakh is taken only as an in or out transit. It is time that this ad-hocism is obviated.

Fourth, is the issue of quality and quantity of mechanised forces equipment in the Eastern Ladakh. The PLA has already transited to and is training with light tanks for formations employable in the region. The narrowness of valleys, the steep gradient of ridges, paucity of spaces to deploy them, very limited width of corridors of their usage and the mechanical constraints themselves dictate against heavier tanks. What is imperative is high angle fire, multiple weapon systems (guns/cannon/ATGMs). On a tracked or wheeled configuration, a much lighter vehicle will provide mobility and agility operationally, in the terrain obtaining in the area. A BMP II or such ICV could well fit the requirement. This needs a pragmatic analysis, based on employment issues in sub-sectors Eastern Ladakh than based on turfs.

Fifth and most importantly the axial infrastructure is the bane of Ladakh. Hamstrung by being cut off for over six months a year is a singular disadvantage for logistical management and turnovers in the region. There also exist a few mandatory laterals which require specialist technology to complete. Warfare cannot remain hostage to dithering in obtaining international expertise, if need be, to expedite connectivity.

In sum, Indian destiny stands tied to Chinese behaviour on the Northern Borders. The armed forces are poised and ready to take on any onslaught, even on date. However, China’s rise and belligerence and stuck-up nature in progress of negotiations of LAC is a given; the grievous loss of lives in Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020 and the intransigence across the front, must be taken as an opportunity, to refashion BMP and war fighting, in perspective.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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