As you enter the hallowed precincts of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington, Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most prestigious military institutions, the credo “Yuddham Pragya” greets you everywhere.
Before it got translated to its Sanskrit version, it existed as “Tam Marte Quam Minerva”, or “To War With Wisdom”. It essentially denotes two things to future senior leaders of the armed forces.
First, you need to be wise enough to understand the enormity of war; and second, war should be resorted to if only you have the wisdom to understand and prosecute it.
As the ongoing four-month standoff continues at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, with some dramatic changes in the last few days, people are increasingly worrying about the possibility of war.
While jingoism will rule the airwaves under such conditions and every Indian becomes an analyst, the term “war” adopts a romantic hue rather than a pragmatic one. It is the wisdom and not the romanticism which must prevail, as per the DSSC credo.
After suffering a perceived ignominy of surprise by PLA troops, under training in depth areas, who transgressed an appreciable distance and refused to vacate the Finger complex of northern Pangong Tso, the ongoing dynamics of buffer zones and uncertainty about transgressions in other areas like Depsang, the Indian Army smartly turned the tables on the PLA.
It opened an unexpected front and proactively beat the PLA to the occupation of dominating features on the Kailash Range, south of Pangong Tso, to secure a couple of advantages. First, this gives depth to the Chushul Bowl, currently the nerve centre of eastern Ladakh.
Second, it gives clear and uninterrupted domination over the Spanggur Gap, Spanggur Lake and the PLA’s Moldo garrison; the locations from which all PLA forces against Chushul will need to spring.
Third, it forces the PLA to focus on our current strength, with no immediate flanks for riposte. Reading this, the natural question a non-military mind should ask is why this action couldn’t have been executed in late May or June.
The decision not to do so probably had a basic military rationale. Since the LAC is perceptual, the Kailash Range features have remained unoccupied by both sides; a sudden occupation at that stage in a critical area like Chushul could have led to a response from the PLA while we were still imbalanced; remembering that in terms of mobilisation of additional troops the PLA had a fair headstart over us.
We are more balanced now and in position for a protracted fight should the PLA’s response be violent. In terms of a military response, it’s not just the first order of action by the adversary that needs to be assessed; that assessment has to go well beyond with imponderables increasing at every level and every order.
Judging by the emotive and passionate response from China in the political and military domains this time, the temptation to go overboard and attempt eviction to evacuate the Indian occupation would even then have been extremely high.
In May-June 2020 it would have triggered a situation of much higher intensity to which we would have had to respond yet from a position of weakness without adequate troops to maintain the necessary balance all along the front.
The operation of August 29-30 has been smart thinking, probably a result of some war gaming, but has also been risky as Chushul remained vulnerable.
It is equally important to assess why the PLA did not grab the opportunity to place troops at Rechin La or Helmet Top and dig in, in May or even June.
My reasoning only leads me to imagine that it was contempt and a PLA superiority complex which gave it the perception that the Indian side would never have the proactivity to occupy features at a location where it had felt deterred to do so all these years; opening another front by India probably made no sense to the PLA leadership.
Chushul is such a sensitive location on our side, it is surprising that the PLA probably got lulled. It attempted to do something on the basis of a late appreciation once Indian forces (including a lot of mechanised elements) were visible in the Chushul Bowl and its vicinity. We beat them to it with good early warning.
Prominent media persons are asking whether India is now in a position of advantage and whether counterattacks should be expected on the Kailash Range heights as appreciated by a former senior Indian Army commander.
Whatever be the surmise we arrive at, the belief that counterattacks should be expected is sound; this could happen without application of any reasoning; a PLA lower-level knee-jerk response could be expected to retrieve a situation usually associated with commanders in desperation.
Tactically, the heights once secured and in this case reinforced with mechanised elements (some of these heights are rolling “downs”), it will make it extremely difficult to evict our troops without the use of force multipliers; that means artillery, air, rockets and missiles.
All this means war, because India too has a lot of those ready for action. Does China wish to pursue this option? At present neither is its narrative carrying weight in the international community nor is there any guarantee that the PLA has the capability to worst the Indian Army in a short, sharp border war.
It’s a risk, and a serious one at that. Inability to achieve its objectives means a virtual loss for China and Xi Jinping cannot afford that, especially with the fifth plenary of the 19th Central Committee and Politburo due in October 2020. Conventional wisdom from the past points to October-November being the period for a war-like situation, the winter setting in thereafter.
As such there is a month or more available, for war avoidance by negotiators on both sides. The positive in all this is that engagement at the political, diplomatic and military levels has not broken down. Sharp words from the Chinese state-controlled media as part of its psychological and information warfare should not influence us.
To my mind, the stumbling block to “status quo ante” just got a little more complex with southern Pangong Tso getting added to the list.
Skirmishes could therefore well be on the cards though war is only a remote possibility, with elongation of the standoff a certainty. If and when that remote possibility happens at all, let our wisdom prevail in pursuing it....