India’s Military Build-up
India Tries to Catch up
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to China this weekend, he will be conscious of the fact that apart from the burgeoning trade deficit, the gap between India and China in military terms is also huge and therefore any talk about equivalence between these two large neighbours, is just that: talk.
A couple of decades of sheer neglect of the military as well as infrastructure development along the northern frontiers means that Indian military planners are now struggling to play catch up. Fortunately, after years of neglecting the defence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian army and the air force have recalibrated their strategy, giving a hard push to improving its war-fighting capabilities against its more powerful neighbour.
Across the 4,000-plus km of Himalayan frontier that stretches from Ladakh in the northwest to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, India is aggressively pushing development of its border areas. These areas are now buzzing with a military build-up reminiscent of a similar expansion in the wake of the 1962 debacle.
In Sikkim and in Arunachal Pradesh – like Ladakh – more troops are being deployed, equipped with armoured regiments and artillery support, more fighter aircraft like the Su-30s are being based closer to the frontier, and more roads are being built right up to the LAC, following the reversal of an earlier policy of not developing the border areas.
· At Muth near Nyoma in Ladakh, a new air force station to base fighter jets is coming up just 25 km from the LAC.
· For the first time since independence, a full-fledged armoured regiment is now based in Ladakh. It will soon be expanded into an armoured brigade.
· One more infantry brigade (3,000 plus troops) has moved closer to a crucial area where Chinese troops had intruded and stayed put for over three weeks in 2013.
· Work has been accelerated on at least 13 strategically important road projects in this region.
· Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are witnessing building of new roads, strategic railway lines and key location points for basing more military assets.
PLA’s Strategic Infrastructure
The belated border area development has come not a moment too soon although India is at least a decade behind China in building huge infrastructure in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Since the 1990s, China has built a network of roads, airports and railway tracks in the sparsely populated TAR which gives the PLA a distinct advantage when it comes to mobilising its forces if needed. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway that connects Lhasa to mainland China came to the Indian border at Xigatse (near Sikkim) last August.
By 2020, a rail link to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is also planned. According to an Indian assessment, there are 15 airfields in the TAR, 12 of them meant exclusively for military purposes. The Indian military on the other hand, is still dependent on old airstrips and a couple of airfields built in the 1960s.
A Watchful Dragon
India’s aggressive push along the LAC seems to have raised curiosity if not alarm in Beijing, at least sufficient for top-ranking Chinese generals and Communist Party functionaries to step up the frequency of their visits to cantonments bordering Ladakh and Sikkim.
Last year, The Hindu reported that a top ranking PLA general carried out a rare inspection visit to the disputed western sector of the LAC, including stops to inspect troops at two sites that have been at the center of recent differences over incursion incidents — near the Karakoram Pass and the contested Pangong Tso lake. Other newspaper reports in China have indicated that a senior Communist Party of China official spent an unusually long time in Western Tibet in areas bordering Ladakh and Sikkim.
Although a full-fledged war with China is unlikely in the coming years, India must continue to build a credible deterrence against the much larger – and stronger – adversary. That can happen if plans to build infrastructure and military strength get implemented in time. That’s India’s biggest challenge today.
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