In a recent article, former Army Chief General MM Naravane premises that India does not have ‘strategic depth’ against China, tacitly suggesting that if a country has neither strategic depth, nor a friendly neighbour, then it should “create this depth by occupying territories”.
He cites examples of how strategic depth is utilised militarily, but without mentioning the tremendous security costs that Pakistan is suffering on account of its involvement in Afghanistan, or Israel is incurring by occupying Palestine.
Surprisingly, in spite of India’s superior military capacity versus Pakistan, he accedes that the Indian Army may “trade space for time in the desert sector” to allow “the enemy offensive to run out of steam”; and accepts that such trading may not be possible on our eastern borders; and concludes, “India ….. [must] be forward deployed almost everywhere to thwart any pre-emptive surprise attacks, which … can only be done by having adequate boots on ground.”
Overall, this premise, pegged on archaic constructs, does not cognise some basic geographical facts, along with an evolved military and geopolitical realities.
Also, is it about “strategic depth”? Or justifying a larger standing army?
Military Operations and the Geographical Realities Surrounding Them
The Himalayas stretch for about 2,400 km from the Indus Gorge in the west to the Brahmaputra Gorge in the east and are about 500 km wide in Kashmir and 200 km in Arunachal Pradesh.
Comprising the Trans-Himalayas (also known as the Tibetan Himalayas), the Great Himalayas or Himadri, the Lesser Himalayas or Himachal, and the Shivaliks and Purvanchal Hills, they constitute a very formidable obstacle and influence military operations in more ways than one.
Logistics: Since the Second World War, warfare has become increasingly industrial, which means that the key to success is not brilliant operational plans, but logistics capability.
Ensuring logistics through a limited number of roads in the mountains is an onerous task. Much of China’s infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang is over water channels, ravines, bridges, tunnels, permafrost, under rocky overhangs, etc. – and therefore very vulnerable to serious disruption with air-delivered precision munitions. In turn, this will affect the movement of the PLA’s reserves and supplies towards the LAC.
India too will face similar dynamics as it tries to advance beyond the LAC. And one of the enduring lessons of the Golan Heights battle (1973 Yom Kippur War), on which the US finally based its Follow-On Forces Attack Doctrine, was that “starting ratios” in the opening phases seldom determine the final outcome of a battle – the key lies in preventing the follow-on echelons/reserves and logistics from “getting to the battle area”.
Land Operations: While there’s potential for skirmishes and limited land grabs, neither India nor China has the capability to conduct a full-scale, all-theatre war across the Himalayas, occupy large chunks of territories, and then sustain large forces over extended periods in occupied lands.
A look at the effort we had to put in at Kargil-Batalik-Drass in 1999, and that too against 20-50 Pakistanis on heights that were less in altitude and far more accessible, will place in perspective the effort required in the Himalayas.
Air Operations: These are expected to play a more important role than land forces, and will be instrumental in thwarting forward movement of reserves and logistics. China has about 47 military airfields directly opposite India within 1,200 km of the Indo-China border/LAC, with eleven located less than 500 km from the LAC.
Seven of these forward airfields (from East to West - Pangta, Yushu, Linzhi, Naqu, Lhasa/Gongka Dzong, Donshoon, Shigatse (Xigaze/Hoping) are opposite India’s Sikkim-Arunachal Pradesh, while four, located opposite Aksai Chin (i.e., Ngari Gunsa, Hotan, Yarkant and Kashgar) will serve for strikes into northern India. However, except for Hotan (altitude - 1424 m) and Kashgar (altitude -1380 m), all the other airfields are at altitudes between 4500 m and 2949 m.
The rarefied atmosphere at such high altitudes severely restricts the amount of load (armament, fuel) that an aircraft can take off with, which in turn limits range and lethality.
In contrast, most of India’s strike airfields are at far lower altitudes – but except for infrastructure, there are sparse strategic targets for the IAF in Tibet and Xinjiang as the major economic, industrial, and population hubs are located far away in China’s core.
Strategic Depth — the Russian Example
The suggestion, that India could “create this depth by occupying territories”, doesn’t cognize the international community.
Will it keep mum if India moves to occupy, say, Bhutan, or Nepal? Will the populace of those “territories” welcome that annexation? Can we rule out a protracted insurgency in those annexed parts, particularly one assisted by China?
The Han-isation of Tibet should be noteworthy in this context.
Even small-sized insurgencies require the deployment of massive military manpower – and we need to remember that the Rashtriya Rifles were raised in order to free the Army’s operational formations from counter-insurgency roles.
The history of Russia – repeated expansions followed by contractions – provides important lessons in this context. With an attack through the vast emptiness of Siberia being problematic, Russian history is replete with invasions that have come primarily from two directions, i.e., over the eastern steppes connecting Russia to Central Asia (Mongols), and over the North European Plain (Teutonic Knights, Napoleon, Nazis).
Thus, from the 15th century till the Warsaw Pact, Moscow had time and again moved west, east, and southwards to acquire strategic depth in order to stretch an advancing enemy in conjunction with an inhospitable climate.
But this acquisition had consequences.
The holding of such buffers required Russia to invest in a large military to hold the frontage. Also, most strategic buffers, usually inhabited by diverse ethnic groups, need to be tightly controlled – which in turn requires a huge internal security and intelligence network.
The costs of such control traditionally stretched Russian resources, finally leading to its contraction to the original borders. Overextending outwards also meant that Russia had to divert resources from its civilian economy to the military; besides, the best minds went to military and intelligence, even as the administrative and economic structures stagnated.
War — No More a Lucrative Venture
In the past, warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair - they brought great riches to the victor - land, slaves, foodgrains, bullion, etc. Many past great empires, from Assyria to Rome to the British Empire to the USA, were built through war. William the Conqueror gained the whole of England vis the Battle of Hastings (1066); in 1846-48, the US invaded Mexico, and for 13,000 dead, got California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma; the Spanish-American War got it Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Cuba (last three freed later).
Now, wars are not a lucrative venture.
Modern wars, industrial and ‘total’ in nature, require the destruction of industrial infrastructure and civilian workers. To be sustained, they need economic might and technological capability. They are also hybrid in nature and therefore, it’s difficult to decide what victory really looks like.
Besides, there can be no real winners in a war between contiguous, nearly-matched neighbours given the destruction that will happen in both. Thus, modern wars can be used to destroy entire countries, but not to build profitable empires.
Notably, the greatest victory in modern history, the USA’s/NATO’s win over the Soviet Union, was achieved without a major military confrontation. Iran-Iraq gained nothing from their 10-year bloodbath; the USA won the 2003 Iraq war in three days, but couldn’t win the peace, and left in 2010; it also left Afghanistan after the longest war in its history.
Israel, the most powerful military in the Middle East, stands militarily tied down with rag-tag Palestinian outfits. There are no riches to be acquired now as the main economic assets are technical, institutional knowledge, digital currency, etc. One cannot capture knowledge through war; e.g., how would a victorious army loot the riches of Silicon Valley? Even occupying land entails costs - how do you hold on to a hostile population with proliferated availability of weapons and dual-use technologies?
The history of Russia – repeated expansion and contractions, and the eventual evisceration of its economy – provides grim evidence of the perils of such quests for strategic depth.
It is for these reasons that in contemporary times, the concept of war has shifted from the capture of land and occupying territories, to the degradation and destruction of a country.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has slashed Ukraine’s GDP by 30%, undone its past 15 years of economic progress, and pushed approximately 1.7 million Ukrainians into poverty, with another 8.1 million Ukrainians as refugees in Europe.
Conservative estimates after a year of war put reconstruction costs at US $411bn – whereas pledges account for less than a third of that amount. Had Russia occupied large parts of Ukraine, it would have been fighting on two fronts – against the western-armed Ukrainian military externally and the west-supported ‘resistance’ fighters internally; the reconstruction too would have evolved to Russia.
By not occupying, but just destroying Ukraine, it has imposed costs of war even on the European Union and the USA.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)