Military steps up vigil on LoC as tensions simmer along LAC

Guarding LAC in Ladakh
Officials tracking recent military developments in the region discounted the likelihood of India being drawn into a war on two fronts, but asserted that the armed forces were ready to ward off all threats

At a time when India and China are locked in a standoff along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, the military is also keeping a strict vigil on the western front to deter Pakistan from fishing in troubled waters and prevent what could turn out to be a two-front conflict, officials and China watchers said on Wednesday.

Reports prepared by the parliamentary standing committee on defence over the last decade have delved into the threat China and Pakistan could pose together. Pakistan was likely to step up hostilities if China were to launch offensive operations against India, a senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officer told the committee in 2014. 

He, however, stressed that China might not pose a collusive threat if hostilities were to break out between India and Pakistan.

Officials tracking recent military developments in the region discounted the likelihood of India being drawn into a war on two fronts, but asserted that the armed forces were ready to ward off all threats.

“The possibility of a two-front war is unlikely. But we have to stay militarily prepared to tackle a combined threat from China and Pakistan,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Indian military describes a collusive threat from China and Pakistan as “Contingency-III” , a second official said, asking not to be identified. Contingency 1 and 2 refer to individual threats from the two countries.

“Three nuclear-armed countries may not go to war at the same time. But China and Pakistan have deep-rooted military links. No matter how remote the possibility of a two-front threat, the Indian armed forces must stay prepared for any eventuality,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), a former Northern Army commander.

The army has moved around 30,000 soldiers, several squadrons of frontline tanks, additional artillery pieces and fully-ready mechanised infantry squads to the Ladakh sector as part of its expanding efforts to strengthen its deployments in response to fortified Chinese military presence in the region, as reported by HT on Wednesday. 

Some of the assets have been drawn from formations in the western sector where favourable combat ratios exist to deal with Pakistan.

The armed forces have raised their guard and are prepared to respond to any provocation or threatening actions along India’s borders, a third official, who too did not want to be named, said.

“Recent encroachment by China in the Depsang plains and Galwan Valley have strengthened the possibility of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempting to cut through northern Ladakh and link up with the Pakistani forces in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in a war scenario,” strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney told HT.

Tensions along LAC have flared up after an ugly India-China skirmish in Galwan Valley on June 15, which killed 20 Indian Army soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA troops. According to India’s assessment, China’s casualties were twice the number on the Indian side.

In his deposition before the parliamentary standing committee two years ago, a senior army officer said the modernisation of both Chinese and Pakistani militaries was going on in full swing, and it was critical to stay prepared for a joint threat from the neighbours.

“China is competing to reach the levels of the United States. It is important that we remain deterrent as far as these are concerned. The possibility of a two-front war is a reality…It is important that we are conscious of the issue and pay attention to our modernisation and filling up our deficiencies,” he told the panel that tabled its report in Parliament in March 2018.

The panel said it was important to channelise sufficient budget to modernise the Indian military and fill capability caps to take on the two-front challenge, referring to the “deficiencies and obsolescence” of weapons, stores and ammunition in the Indian military arsenal.

Some of these gaps have been addressed, the third official said.

“Several capabilities have been added. New fighter jets are about to be inducted, attack and heavy-lift helicopters have joined service, we have new air defence systems and the army has got new artillery guns and several other weapons,” the third official said on Wednesday.

The military has been conducting exercises to deal with a two-front threat. Prominent among those drills was the Gaganshakti-2018 exercise that tested the Indian Air Force’s readiness and stamina for a two-front war. 

The largest-of-its-kind exercise saw IAF move its frontline assets from the western sector to the eastern front in less than 48 hours.

Another report dealing with the challenges of a two-front war was tabled in Parliament as recently as January 2019. “In order to meet the challenges of a two-front war, IAF has to be equipped with essential combat capabilities and modern ground facilities,” the report stressed.

IAF has increased its combat potential manifold during the last five to six years and it is capable for carrying out any task assigned to it in any sector, said a fourth official.

Things, however, didn’t look as good a few years ago when the IAF admitted that it would be difficult for it to tackle a combined threat from China and Pakistan.

In March 2016, then IAF vice-chief Air Marshal BS Dhanoa (later air chief) said the IAF did not have sufficient number of warplanes to fight a two-front war. “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario,” Dhanoa then said.