In January 2018, the Indian navy’s Mumbai-based western fleet is to start a series of annual theatre-level naval exercises. Manoeuvres lasting over a month where aircraft, surface warships and submarines, divided into red and blue forces, will simulate naval war games, refine tactics while bringing their platforms into a high state of operational readiness. Nothing unusual except that less than a month later these exercises will be replicated on the east coast, off Visakhapatnam, by the eastern fleet’s warships, aircraft and submarines operating from the mainland up to the Andaman & Nicobar islands and Malacca Straits. This is the first time in recent years the navy is activating both commands. Earlier, it combined both and exercised on one coast, once a year. From next year, naval officials say, simultaneous twin-front maritime war games will be the norm.
Naval officials call the theatre-level exercises a direct response to China’s ramped-up naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); 17 Chinese warships were deployed here this year, the largest in recent years. On August 1, China unveiled a $590 million (Rs 3,831 crore) base and dockyard in Djibouti near the Horn of Africa, which will house PLA troops and allow China to replenish ships and submarines. These events, seen together with China’s 2013 acquisition of Gwadar port, blur the distinctions between the navy’s Pakistan-focused western naval command and its China-focused eastern naval command.
China completed a seventh submarine deployment in the IOR this September in addition to completing the deployment of its 27th anti-piracy force this year. Analysts say an eighth submarine deployment, most likely of an SSN (nuclear-powered attack submarine), is due in early 2018. Through these deployments in India’s backyard, China has demonstrated its ability to project maritime power far from its shores. “India has never claimed the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s Ocean’, but China has claimed the bulk of South China Sea as ‘China’s Sea’, and now has a full-fledged military base in Djibouti and is significantly strengthening Pakistan’s navy with eight submarines,” says G Parthasarathy, former Indian high commissioner to Islamabad. A message that has not been lost on Indian naval planners. “If push comes to shove, we’ve got to be prepared,” a senior naval official says. These developments follow tectonic geopolitical moves in the two months since the Indian and Chinese militaries climbed down from a 71-day faceoff at Doklam, Bhutan, on August 28.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was anointed “core leader” on October 18, and outlined a 30-year vision for his military-mechanisation, information technology and strategic ability by 2020, modernisation by 2035 and a world-class one by 2050. The developments have enormous military consequences for India, which shares a 4,000 km unsettled border.
New Delhi shed its reticence and moved into a quadrilateral grouping with three other maritime democracies-the United States, Australia and Japan. On November 12, officials of the four ‘Quad’ nations met on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Manila and called for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’, a veiled reference to China, which claims all of the South China Sea. Analysts say Doklam confirmed for New Delhi the turbulent future of Sino-Indian relations. Chinese policy towards India over the last decade and New Delhi’s objections to the $1 trillion (Rs 65 lakh crore) Belt and Road Initiative are seen as major reasons for India shedding its reticence about the quadrilateral initiative.
Contingency preparations for a two-front war with China and Pakistan are no longer the figment of a military planner’s imagination. They have explicit government sanction because they are, as a top official explains, a credible worst case scenario. “The country’s defence preparedness should be adequate to meet the worst case scenario.”
The three services are validating new war plans and accelerating their short and medium term defence plans to enhance the ‘dissuasive’ posture against China, first enunciated in the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directives in 2010. The armed forces, particularly the army, have been directed to replenish critical ammunition deficiencies by 2018.
The looming Chinese threat was the point of discussion at the commanders’ conferences of the navy, army and air force held separately between September and October this year, where the services lay out their annual priorities. The navy rolled out its new Mission Based Deployments (MBD) for its warships; the army, a plan to speed up border road construction and link up mountain passes.
“The Indian military is gearing up to face the Chinese challenge in the coming years,” says Harsh V. Pant, head of the Observer Research Foundation’s Strategic Studies Programme. “More than its predecessors, the Modi government seems to have no hesitation in standing up to China, so the civilians and the military in India now seem to be on the same page. India’s role in the Quad will only be credible if its own posture towards regional security has some credibility.”
The IAF is addressing vulnerabilities, such as the lack of modern airfields from which to operate its fighter aircraft, and also reactivating disused airfields near the China borders to resupply troops posted along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Nyoma, an airfield in Ladakh, abandoned after the 1962 war, is likely to be reactivated as a forward airbase. Seven advance landing grounds in Arunachal Pradesh are being activated. The MoD will shortly award contracts worth nearly Rs 1,800 crore for upgrading 30 airfields of the IAF, Navy, Coast Guard and R&AW’s Aviation Research Centre under the Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI Phase 2). This follows the completion of the first batch of 30 airfields under the Rs 1,200 crore MAFI-1 last year. The MoD shaved two years off the contract time by giving the project a Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) clearance after bypassing the Request for Proposal (RFP) stage. The project is to be completed within the next three years, and officials familiar with the project call it more complicated than the first as it has 15 remote high-altitude airfields and remote marine airfields where access of men, construction material and equipment will be difficult.
The IAF’s entire airfield infrastructure is within the range of China’s highly potent Rocket Force comprising over 1,200 intermediate range ballistic missiles. This is the reason for the unusual military manoeuvres on October 24 of 20 IAF airplanes, including C-130J transports and Su-30MKI fighters, landing and taking off on the Agra expressway. The IAF has already identified 12 other highways in the country which could be used as emergency landing strips in case military airbases are knocked out in a surprise attack.
Last October, India signed an agreement with Russia to purchase five S-400 ‘Triumf’ long-range surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down cruise, ballistic missiles and aircraft 400 km away. “We need a combination of such long-range missiles, radars and surveillance systems that can monitor military activity far behind the borders,” says Air Marshal P.S. Ahluwalia, former western air commander.
In 1962, China swiftly built a road that brought in men and material, leading to the defeat of the Indian army in the northeast. In 2017, it is the absence of roads that is hampering the army’s offensive and defensive war plans. Only 22 of the 61 Indo-China Border Roads (ICBRs) of 3,409 km, costing Rs 4,644 crore and identified by the government in 2006 as priority projects and handed over to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), were completed as of 2016. The new target is for all 73 roads to be done by 2022. These will not only allow the speedy movement of troops and equipment in times of war but also facilitate peacetime patrolling.
The army commanders’ conference held in New Delhi between October 9 and 15 aimed for a concerted heft towards road-building activities in the northern and central sectors of the LAC facing China. The army has decided to connect the four Himalayan passes at Niti, Lipulekh, Thangla 1 and Tsangchokla by 2020 on priority. This is to allow lateral movement of troops and equipment between various sectors in wartime.
Naval officials say the Quad is making its presence felt most acutely in the maritime domain. The trilateral Malabar naval exercises, involving the US, Japan and India, in the Bay of Bengal this July were followed by a smaller one in October at Goa, involving Japanese and Indian naval anti-submarine warfare aircraft.
In June this year, it unveiled MBD, an ambitious plan to counter China’s maritime presence in the IOR. Unveiled soon after the naval commanders’ conference, in October, MBD will see an Indian warship or aircraft present at every point of the IOR-an area over five times India’s 2.3 million square kilometres.
Since June, warships have been continuously deployed in the Malacca Straits, Gulf of Aden, Persian Gulf and Northern Bay of Bengal, becoming the first responders in many crises, such as the flooding in Sri Lanka, cyclone Mora in Bangladesh and Myanmar, thus ensuring the navy remains a net provider of security and humanitarian assistance in the IOR. MBD efforts are synergised between the MoD, MEA and navy, with deployments to be extended in the coming months to the south of Sri Lanka and the southern IOR covering Mauritius, Seychelles and the East Coast of Africa. A senior naval official explains the MBD logic. “We want to be present near the chokepoints. We want to know who is entering and exiting.”
There is also a subtle signalling on China’s vulnerabilities. China consumes over 13 million barrels of oil each day, over half of which is imported from West Asia. While it is trying to cut back on this through the use of renewables and overland through Central Asia, the dependence will continue for some decades.
The tri-services’ ‘Mission China’, however, runs the risk of delays and falling short of its ambitious objectives. Chief among these concerns is the lack of Indian military reform. In the likely absence of a major uptick in defence spend, these reforms could deliver more bang for a shrinking budgetary buck. Key recommendations of the Lt General D.B. Shekatkar committee report, submitted in December 2016, for the post of a single-point military advisor, a chief of defence staff and theatre commands integrating the three services to fight wars jointly are yet to receive political clearance. There are shortfalls of military hardware, which will take years to replenish.
The IAF remains beguiled by its shrinking fighter squadrons. It has only 32 squadrons as against an authorisation of 42 because retiring aircraft are not being replaced swiftly. These will be addressed in the short term by the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters from France. The acquisition of 123 LCA Tejas and a yet-to-be-decided single-engine fighter under the MoD’s Strategic Partnership Policy are at least five years away.
Army officials, meanwhile, are sceptical of being able to complete all their mountain road projects within the revised deadline of 2022. This is because of the small construction window of less than six months a year in the mountains due to rain and snow and the enormous investments in machinery, helicopters and specialised tunnelling equipment these projects will entail. Clearly, when it comes to China, nothing short of work on a war footing will do.