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Aug 22, 2017 | 09:30 GMT

5 mins read

Sizing Up the Competition on the Doklam Plateau

A ceremony, complete with a Hindu priest, marks the commissioning of a new Indian fighter jet in Bangalore.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

High atop the Doklam Plateau, Indian and Chinese forces are still locked in a standoff. The dispute along the Line of Actual Control, the contested 4,057-kilometer (2,521-mile) border between China and India, began June 16. And in the time since, each side has vehemently denounced the other's presence, digging in for a prolonged fight. An military confrontation would have serious repercussions for India and China alike, but it can't be ruled out. This is the second installment in a three-part series evaluating the strategic position of both sides of the dispute.

In his seminal military treatise, The Art of War, Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing one's enemy. The notion still rings true more than two millenniums later. As Chinese and Indian forces square off in the unforgiving terrain of the Doklam Plateau, each side's understanding of the other will guide its strategy in the event of an armed confrontation. Both will have to account for their own strengths and weaknesses — as well as those of their enemy — as they prepare for their latest border dispute to escalate. 

A Higher Threat

In the event of a confrontation with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India's air power would offer it numerous advantages. Airstrikes on the region's narrow mountain passes could prove critical in thwarting the enemy's movements and constricting its supply lines. By the same token, air power can help overcome geographic distance by rapidly transporting and resupplying units. New Delhi has nearly 20 air bases within flight range of the LAC, and it has been forward positioning fighter detachments to these facilities. At the same time, Indian strategic transport aircraft are practicing landing operations to ensure that they could deliver critical supplies to various forward-built advanced landing grounds if necessary. Landing at these fields — such as the world's highest airstrip, located in Ladakh at 5,065 meters (16,617 feet) above sea level — can be a precarious endeavor given their elevation.

Beijing, with only five large air bases in the Tibet Autonomous Region, lacks New Delhi's ample air power in the area, though military forces could repurpose other nearby airfields should the need arise. Beyond the dearth of facilities, environmental factors would also hinder Chinese air operations. The higher elevation that affords China's military advantages in surveillance, observation and physiological acclimatization in the Tibetan Plateau is a handicap for the country's aircraft. The lower air density at such high altitudes hampers jet engines and limits the amount of weapons and fuel military aircraft can carry while still being able to take off. Meteorological conditions across the Tibetan Plateau, moreover, are unpredictable, making it difficult to plan high-intensity air campaigns.

Leveling the Playing Field

But what China lacks in air power it makes up for in other areas. The country's air defense systems, for example, outstrip those of India in their potency as well as their reliability. A report from India's comptroller and auditor general in July noted that the Akash, the latest air defense missile system New Delhi adopted for the LAC, suffered a 30 percent failure rate during testing and had yet to be fully installed. In addition, China boasts a larger, more modern arsenal of rocket and tube artillery — with greater range and mobility — than India does. (New Delhi's recent acquisition of M777 howitzers from the United States and K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers from South Korea will redress this shortcoming, at least in part.)

Strategic Posturing Along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)

Beijing also will rely on the more strategic systems of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force to try to counter New Delhi's air power, should conflict erupt along the LAC. By staging an early and sustained strike campaign on Indian air bases near the border, China could negate India's aerial advantage, much as its forces have trained to do in the Western Pacific against the United States, Taiwan or Japan. New Delhi, of course, wouldn't take such an attack sitting down. China could expect retaliatory strikes with Brahmos land-attack cruise missiles and Prithvi, Shaurya and Prahaar ballistic missiles. Beijing, however, has a much larger inventory of these types of missiles; many comparable Indian systems are reserved for strategic nuclear strikes. With that imbalance in mind, the Indian military is working to develop the Pralay ballistic missile, which it would field in the conventional role to go head-to-head against China's rocket force.

Apart from weaponry, China's command, control and communications systems would give it an edge over India along the LAC. Beijing has poured money into developing secure and capable communications networks such as the Advanced Info-Optical Network, a robust, multilayered system that uses extensive fiber-optic cabling and small aperture satellite stations. Furthermore, China's Western Theater Command is in charge of the country's operations in the Tibet Autonomous Region, an arrangement that limits confusion and encourages unity of effort. India, on the other hand, separates its command and control across the LAC into three components — the Northern, Central and Eastern commands — largely because its infrastructural deficiencies necessitate compartmentalized fighting in specific sectors.

As India and China vie to bolster their positions along the LAC, it's becoming increasingly clear that they are taking a long-term approach to the border dispute. New Delhi and Beijing doubtless will devote more resources and effort to protecting their respective advantages and to overcoming their shortcomings as tensions continue to mount along the LAC.

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