India: A Military Buildup on the Border With China

5 MINS READJul 22, 2013 | 10:20 GMT
India: A Military Buildup on the Border With China
Indian tanks during the Army Day parade in New Delhi in January.

Absent a comprehensive negotiated settlement, India and China will continue their efforts to bolster their strategic military positions on the border between them. Tensions on both sides of the Himalayan divide have been high in recent months, with India alleging that China has crossed the informal border, also know as the Line of Actual Control, multiple times.

The Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on July 17 approved the creation of a Mountain Strike Corps, which will strengthen the Indian strategic military position along the Line of Actual Control. The corps will consist of more than 40,000 troops and will be focused on the Indian northeast, where Arunachal Pradesh — most of which the Chinese claim as part of Tibet — is located. Furthermore, the Indians plan to continue augmenting their forces along the length of the Line of Actual Control with a number of other smaller formations.

The creation of the Mountain Strike Corps will bring the number of strike corps in the Indian army order of battle to four. The three other strike corps already in service are oriented toward Pakistan. However, considering the increasingly favorable conventional balance of power with Pakistan, alleged Chinese provocations along the border and an ever more worrisome Chinese military buildup in the Tibet Autonomous Region, India is steadily shifting more of its focus toward the contentious border.

A Burden or an Asset?

In addition to the strike corps, India also plans to raise two new armored brigades for the Line of Actual Control. The independent armored brigades will play a critical role in enabling the Indians, for the first time, to maintain considerable offensive capability in the border region. One armored brigade is to be deployed with the Ladakh-based 14th Corps to cover the flat approaches from Tibet toward Chushul, while the other will enhance the strike corps' offensive punch in northeastern India, where it will be based in the Siliguri corridor in Bengal. However, absent significant infrastructure that will allow for logistical support of the heavy brigades, the new forces will ultimately be more of a burden than an asset.

Establishing the necessary roads and airfields in such geographically challenging terrain to support the enhanced Indian force posture will be costly. The Indian government already plans to spend nearly $5 billion building the road network to and along the Line of Actual Control as well as the necessary airfields, advanced landing grounds and helipads in the border region. Coupled with the approximately $13.5 billion allocated for the strike corps and other independent brigades, the cost of bolstering forces along the border will be no small undertaking.

In light of the Indian military modernization drive that is underway and its associated costs, the slowing Indian economy that continues to face important challenges and the country's continued expansive subsidization programs, it is probable that funding and deployment of the proposed Indian formations to the Line of Actual Control will have to extend from the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) into the 13th Five Year Plan (2017-2022). In fact, several equipment tenders pivotal to the Indian deployment plans have already run into problems, such as delays in the purchase of 145 ultra-light M777 howitzers from BAE Systems.

Disparity Along the Border

Despite these significant constraints, New Delhi has already invested considerable resources in bolstering its position on the Line of Actual Control. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles have already been designated for the two armored brigades; military transport aircraft capable of using rudimentary runways for takeoff and landing have been purchased; the heavy-lift rotary helicopter force has been bolstered; and two additional mountain divisions (approximately 35,000 troops) with substantial helicopter assets have been raised in recent years for the border. Perhaps most important, air bases have already been established in Chabua and Tezpur, from which multirole, air superiority fighters have begun to operate.

Yet for all these moves, the Indians have only begun to close the gap with the Chinese on the Line of Actual Control. Even if India's plans for the border are completed on time and budget — a highly unlikely outcome given the domestic, geographic and economic constraints — the Chinese threat on the border would hardly be comprehensively contained. The Chinese have a substantial head start in the positioning of forces and the development of associated infrastructure and probably will not be idle while the Indians pursue their plans over the next decade.

According to Indian military assessments presented by Defense Minister A.K. Antony in 2011, China is already believed to have five large air bases (Gongar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping and Gar Gunsa) in the Tibet Autonomous Region bordering India and is upgrading several others. The Chinese have also invested heavily in rail and road networks; more than 58,000 kilometers (36,000 miles) of roads are available along the Indian border, and the rail network is being further extended to Xigaze and other locations across Tibet. With these new roads and rail networks, the Chinese can channel approximately 30,000 troops in around 20 days to the Line of Actual Control compared to the 90 days it previously would have taken them. In fact, the Chinese are now believed to be able to move more than 30 divisions to the border, including forces from the People's Liberation Army Air Force elite 15th Airborne Corps, outnumbering the Indian forces by at least a factor of three.

In the meantime, negotiations between the Indians and the Chinese may lead to a mechanism that improves security and alleviates the risk of miscalculation at the border. However, the lack of substantial progress after 16 rounds of discussions between special representatives suggests that a complete resolution to the dispute remains unlikely in the short term. Without a settlement, both sides will continue the military buildup on the border to both deter aggression and to improve their respective positions on the negotiating table.

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