Home >opinion >online views >Countering China: too little, too late

The much-awaited political approval to create a new army strike corps—the first in nearly 25 years—is being regarded as an appropriate and adequate measure to counter China’s growing military prowess, especially along the long disputed line of actual control (LAC) with India. Though of crucial military import, the first-ever dedicated mountain strike corps might achieve very little by itself and might have come too late.

While there is an impression that this pronouncement was in response to the Depsang Valley confrontation earlier this year, alas, no Indian government—especially this one—has ever made decisions with such alacrity. In reality, this new strike corps has been a long time coming. Its genesis dates back to a concept developed by late army chief K. Sunderji in the wake of another eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with China at Sumdorong Chu in 1987.

Sunderji promoted the idea of establishing RAMIDs—Reorganized Army Mountain Infantry Divisions—which would have helicopter-based mobility to counter China, particularly in the northeast. This was akin to his idea for RAPIDs—Reorganised Army Plains Infantry Divisions—which could also operate under nuclear conditions while confronting Pakistan. The army embraced the RAPID concept (today there are at least six such divisions) but the RAMID idea was implemented piecemeal.

The new strike corps is the logical but long overdue culmination of Sunderji’s initiative.

However, 2013 is not 1987 and a traditional army strike corps alone will not be effective in the nuclear battlefield scenario of the 21st century.

For that, there will have to be greater integration and coordination not only with the air force and navy but also with India’s nuclear forces. Indeed, the prospects of any future confrontation with China escalating to the nuclear level cannot be ruled out.

This is why the proposal was sent back to the services with instructions that they should draw up a common plan and ensure greater integration, which, sadly, still remains only on paper. While some reports suggest that there are plans to deploy ballistic and cruise missile in the region, these will have to be closely integrated with the operational plans of the new corps. Beyond this, the corps will also have to be integrated with India’s space assets, which are crucial in any modern battle.

In this sphere India is lagging behind. In 2012, according to the US department of defence annual report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013, China “launched six Beidou navigation satellites" and “completed the regional network as well as the in-orbit validation phase for the global network, expected to be completed by 2020. China launched 11 new remote sensing satellites in 2012, which can perform both civil and military applications". During the same period India launched a mere two satellites.

Unsurprisingly, the new corps might easily be dubbed the “Yankee corps" given that most of its crucial equipment—ultra-light howitzers, helicopters and special operations aircraft—are of American origin.

This underlines the inevitable premise that to counter China, India needs some US wherewithal.

Coincidentally, the US connection to Panagarh (the location of the new corps headquarters) dates back to World War II; from 1942-1945 the airport was used as a supply transport airfield by the United States Army Air Forces Tenth Air Force and as a repair and maintenance depot for B-24 Liberator bombers.

Finally, for the corps to be an effective deterrent against China, the LAC will have to be clearly demarcated and the border issue resolved. Without such clarity, the corps will remain a mere fly in the ointment.

W.P. S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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