How Will India Fare In The Event Of An Armed Conflict With China? Here’s What Two Studies Say

by M R Subramani - Jun 19, 2020 03:22 PM +05:30 IST
How Will India Fare In The Event Of An Armed Conflict With China? Here’s What Two Studies SayIndian Army Chief General M M Naravane with troops at Siachen glacier. (Pic Via Twitter)
  • As the world gets worried about a possible armed conflict between India and China, here is what two academic assessments say regarding where the two Asian countries stand militarily.

India has under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks, says a study done in March this year by a public policy school of Harvard University in the US.

“India appears to have cause for greater confidence in its military position against China than is typically acknowledged in Indian debates, providing the country an opportunity for leadership in international efforts towards nuclear transparency and restraint,” says the study by Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The study has been done by Frank O’Donnell, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College, and Dr Alexander K Bollfrass, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich.

Though discussions on Indian military position’s strength viewed that China holds a conventional and nuclear edge, O’Donnell and Bollfrass say that the assessment of the balance of forces “may be mistaken and a poor guide for Indian security and procurement policies”.

Ruling out the necessity for India to invest in new nuclear weapons, the study asks New Delhi “to improve the survivability of existing forces and fill the gap on global arms control leadership with an initiative on restraint and transparency”.

Stating that Indian strategists have not focussed on their advantages since they drew pessimistic conclusions, the study says that if the strength of conventional forces is taken into consideration India’s defence position is “more secure than is sometimes argued”.

Dwelling into Indian Army and Indian Air Force formations, the researchers say that though Chinese Air Force’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable with India’s Mirage 2000, India Sukhoi (Su-30MK) is superior to all Chinese fighters, including the additional J-11 and Su-27 model aircraft.

A problem that China faces is that it has to retain a portion of the 101 fourth-generation fighters for Russian centric missions in the Western Theatre Command. In contrast, India exclusively has 122 of comparable model aircraft solely directed at China.

The Chinese Air Force is also hampered by the higher altitude of its airbases such that the fighters would be forced only to carry half the payload and fuel. Inflight refuelling is another problem that could affect the Chinese.

Taking into consideration China’s vulnerable airbases and fields besides fuel and payload problems, O’Donnell and Bollfrass say that India has a “stronger regional air position”.

Stating that Chinese strategic planners had envisioned long-range missile strikes against India instead of air offensive, the study says that China would require “daunting number of missiles to incapacitate relevant Indian forces.”

In particular, it quoted a former IAF official as saying that China would require 220 air ballistic missiles to keep an airfield shut for 24 hours but this would not make any difference to the Indian Air Force since it has a large number of other airfields to operate from.

In particular, the researchers said that Indian Air Force’s superiority could result in China’s critical logistics routes, including air and military bases, being cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes.

The study says China is estimated to have 40,000 troops in Tibet, the closest to Indian borders, while more troops (70,000) are stationed at Xinjiang region. In the event of a stand-off, China would have to rely on mobilising troops from Xinjiang, while in comparison India forces are in position.

Any reinforcement by China would result in the United States alerting India enabling it to counter and mobilise additional forces.

India has bolstered its ammunition stocks after suffering from a shortage until 2016, the study said and pointed out at shortcomings of the Chinese Air Force in training and experience.

Another study on India’s military choices in an era of strategic competition with China by Center for New American Security on “Imbalance of Power” says "Delhi possesses a clear advantage in localized military strength, but China has made significant infrastructure improvements in Tibet to enhance PLA mobility to surge troops forward.”

The study says “India has not stood still amid growing military competition with China” and New Delhi has sought to provide its forces with greater mobility and operational awareness along the Himalayan frontier.

The study has been done by Daniel Kliman, senior fellow and director, Asia-Pacific Security Program, Iskander Rehman, adjunct senior fellow, Asia-Pacific Security programme, Kristine Lee, associate fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program, and Joshua Fitt, research assistant, Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security.

India has placed greater emphasis on infrastructure hardening, base resiliency, command, control, and communications systems, besides and improving its air defence, according to this study.

New Delhi has also shifted to a more punitive deterrence posture investing in long-range strike capabilities suitable to both land and maritime warfare and refined an operational concept for the Himalayan theatre that aims to take the battle into China’s territory.

In case of a Sino-Indian conflict, New Delhi will wear down the Chinese forces and disrupt the flow of its reinforcements across the Tibetan Plateau. On the other hand, it will avoid large mechanised ground incursions into China.

A significant finding in the study is that Indian forces are, by far, the more experienced and battle-hardened as they had to fight a slew of low-intensity conflicts in the recent past.

Pointing out at the 1999 Kargil conflict, the study says that Indian forces are also well equipped in cross-border artillery shelling, special operations forces raids, and aerial skirmishes — a feature of the India-Pakistan rivalry.

It says the PLA, on the other hand, has not experienced any combat since its conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Also, a few of the remaining veterans of the 1962 border war are now nearing retirement.

Indian troop engagements in increasingly sophisticated joint exercises with the world’s most advanced and combat-experienced militaries provide them with an additional advantage.

Barring its advance military exercise with Pakistan and Russia, China’s joint training engagements have till now remained relatively rudimentary, it says and complements the Belfer Center’s finding on India’s advantage in the Himalayan border with China.

“India possesses a clear advantage in localised military strength. This is the case both with regard to the sheer numbers of Indian ground forces stationed in proximity to the LAC and with regard to forward-deployed air assets,” the Center for New American Study added.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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