The LAC standoff between India and China rules out détente for the time being. Instead, it has spawned a propaganda battle about which of them has a superior military force. The Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School has come up with a study on comparative strength of both countries, pointing out to the strategic postures of each.
They dispute the generally accepted contention that China holds both the conventional and nuclear edges over India all along their land border.
There is no clear-cut answer, other than to point out that a stronger military strength does not necessarily mean a grand advantage because a country’s military stance depends not just on its battle preparedness but how many force multipliers it has on its side. India fares better.
Some may say such a comparison is without logic or even meaning when both sides are nuclear powers. True, but the nuclear button is more of a deterrent – the sane certainly assume so. However, considering the Chinese scoring in the propaganda game about their military superiority begs studying the Indian strength closely.
India and China have always squared off in the frozen mountain terrain of the Himalayan ranges. That is where all of their stand offs have been, including the latest one caused by China’s intrusion into the Galvan Valley.
Till two decades ago, India’s presence on its eastern border was way below Chinese standards. But over the years, the Indians have developed their infrastructure and communication facilities all along the thousands of kilometres of border with China. Border roads, military and air bases in remote areas dot the Indian side on the map. China holds the Indian construction of a strategic bridge in Galvan as the “provocation” for the current stand-off. That also exposes the Chinese concern, obliquely acknowledging India’s gaining strengths in the region.
The LAC is an un-demarcated line. However, the area has remained largely peaceful in spite of the dozens of skirmishes. The Chinese incursion this time appears to have a deeper motive. Analysts say China wants to keep India engaged at the border to keep its attention from Tibet. Others contend China wants to divert attention from its post-Covid internal problems.
Either way, a quick assessment of how they stand militarily can give an idea whether India is at any disadvantage that it has no option but to react to whatever China does at the LAC.
Nuclear weapons-wise, China, the report claims, has an estimated 104 missiles targeted at India, some of which capable of reaching deep into the mainland. China also has missiles which are road-mobile to improve target range.
India also has a set of missiles targeted at the whole of mainland China. Another set focuses on central targets. In addition, India has “an estimated two squadrons of Jaguar IS and one squadron of Mirage 2000H fighters, totalling around 51 aircraft, assessed to be tasked with nuclear missions”. These aircraft, the report says, “could most likely reach Tibetan airspace equipped with nuclear gravity bombs”.
Conventionally, the ground forces of both countries are evenly matched more or less. The report says: “The total available (Indian) Army strike forces near China’s border areas are assessed to be around 225,000 personnel….and (of them) 175,500 troops in the Eastern Command”.
In comparison, the report estimates “a total of 200,000-230,000 Chinese ground forces under the Western Theatre Command, and Tibet and Xinjiang Military Districts”. Don’t go by the numbers. China cannot use all these forces against India; a large section is meant for the Russian front and internal exigencies in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Does India have an edge, then? The report says: The majority of (Chinese) forces are located further from the Indian border, posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defence mission”. It explains: “In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theatre Command forces deeper in China’s interior. By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position.”
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has “around 157 fighters and a varied drone armoury…proportion of these are reserved for Russia-centric missions”. By comparison, the Indian Eastern Air Command can field around 101 fighters against China alone. It has an estimated 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across its three China-facing commands. It is also expanding its network of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs). These forces are all permanently close to China’s border, shortening their mobilization time.
China’s air weakness is that “the high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel”. The IAF forces can “launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities”.
The report points to more weaknesses. Many Chinese forward air bases are within close range of a “dedicated Indian offensive”. Some bases “reportedly have no hardened shelters or blast pens for their aircraft”. The report concludes: “In sum, India has a stronger regional air position, with “a large number of airfields in the east and west, so even if some airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations.”
The report suggests that India has superior personnel selection, training and recce procedures than China. Also, the Indian military is more battle hardened, having fought their latest war in Kargil in 1999 in which they gained the experience of mountain warfare.
The Belfer study clearly says the advantage weighs in India’s favour: “We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks. 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 toward nuclear transparency and restraint.”
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