Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

Indian Army: Intelligence Blind

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General Manoj Pande, Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army in his customary media briefing ahead of the 75th Army Day outlined the significant challenge faced by the world’s second largest army that of assessing the enemy intent on the other side of the hill.

Thus, referring to the Northern borders with China, the Army Chief General Pande said, “In the northern borders the situation is stable and under control yet unpredictable. You are aware of the ongoing talks (both at military as well as diplomatic levels) wherein we’ve been able to resolve five out of seven issues that were there on the table.”

Clearly this was an admission of the military being blind on the intelligence front which is a failing that is not new to the Indian armed forces and is frequently made up by the blood and toil of soldiers on the ground and junior officers who demonstrate commitment and vigour to notch up many operational successes.

The saga of the Indian Army’s intelligence failures is long starting with the Pakistan Army supported raiders surreptitiously entering Kashmir in 1947 reaching the gates of Srinagar near Badgam when these were beaten back towards Muzaffarabad.

The momentous failure of 1962 War against China is shrouded in the mystery of the Henderson Brooks Report which has never been officially released yet excerpts from the same have been quoted from time to time.

In 1971, the success of Liberation War in Bangladesh may have been different had General later Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw not insisted on launching operations at a time of his choosing despite significant pressures from then Prime Minister Ms Indira Gandhi.

Thereafter from Kargil in 1999 to the large scale terrorist attacks in Uri and Pulwama military intelligence failures have continued which have been made up by unleashing operational capability be it Operation Vijay in 1999 to so called, “surgical strikes,” in 2016.

The story has been familiar in recent years with the Army failing to anticipate China’s intrusions across selected points on the Line of Actual Control. But for the saga of the Galwan incident of 15 June 2020 when skirmishing Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) clashed with casualties to both sides, these intrusions may not have gathered national attention.

However, by establishing a post on the high Kailash Range in the summer of 2020, the military partially made up for the losses. The Yangtse incident on December 09 this year is an indicator that lessons are being learnt fast and the military is now anticipating possible actions by the PLA.

Yet the surge of attacks in Rajauri sector in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2023 brings to light concerns that the rise in awareness of adversary intention remains a question mark. The killing of four soldiers in August 2022 should have been warning enough of infiltration of groups in this sector but the military perhaps believed that the counter infiltration grid was impermeable.

The Statement by the Army Chief that the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was “uncertain,” is another marker of the intelligence dilemma faced by the Army.

By making huge investments in drones and UAVs as reports indicate apart from other resources the Indian Army Forces hope to make up for the deficit.

However, this is not likely to lead to removal of, “uncertainty,” vis a vis China or Pakistan.

Understanding the Long Game

Developing intelligence of enemy, “Intent,” is a complex process the principal feature of

which is understanding the Long Game of the adversary.

China’s aggressive proclamations of regaining territorial sovereignty was evidently ignored at the national as well as military level, with belief in diplomacy at the high table.

While China has abandoned the agreements for peace and tranquility on the LAC made during a period when there was obviously a need felt in Beijing for keeping the ghosts of the past under cover, the present regime under President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping is no longer shackled by constraints of the past and is unwilling to, “bide the time and never take the initiative,” sayings of the Deng era.

Galwan is thus a symptom of the disease of a blinkers down approach, and here the Army alone cannot be faulted.

But where the blame directly rests on the military is in discontinuing vigil on the LAC which was the express charge of the Army and prevent intrusions regardless of ongoing diplomacy.

Why the commanders in the field were complacent will never be clear, yet the Army seems to have learnt the lessons well if Yangtse is any example.

Understanding China and Pakistan’s Long Game is therefore important, what that is will be a

subject of another discussion.

Character of Wars and Insurgencies Transforms

Yet another indicator of knowing the Intent of the enemy is to track the way he will fight in the light of his Long Game.

It is an oft known maxim that while nature of war is constant the character of wars and insurgencies changes based on application of violence by an adversary.

The next war will be different from the previous one and an agile aggressor as Pakistan will continue to strive to change the pattern of terrorism in J & K catching the security forces off guard.

For crystal gazing, investing in mastering the many techniques of futures assumes importance.

Year of the Rabbit– India and China in South Asia

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2023 is the Year of the Rabbit which is seen as the gentlest animal in the Chinese Zodiac. This comes after the Year of the Tiger – fast and furious. But the Rabbit is good at adapting and can move rapidly cutting through multiple furrows of uncertainty. A Rabbit can also protect itself and indicates strong confidence and strength with resoluteness towards goals despite the obstacles.

Applied to the India China dyad despite operating on different zodiac systems 2023 denotes to be a year of continued competition cum confrontation. The confrontation of the military kind is easy to guess which may occur on the Northern borders as the Yangtze clash on December 09 indicates. Competition could be in many spheres geographic and topical.

In 2022, China was engaged in internal political consolidation for President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Now that the same is out of the way after the 20th Congress has established primacy of the Xi regime so to say, the pathway to regional and global domination will be resumed rapidly and at a faster pace than before.

From the Indian perspective Chinese presence in South Asia – New Delhi’s regional sphere of influence – Neighbourhood First assumes significance for that would be an area of contestation not just competition.

Yet China seems to have started at an advantage in the beginning of the New Year 2023 with a communist left party led coalition assuming power in Nepal, Pakistan continuing to be the favourable “ally,” regionally and umpteen opportunities in other states through political, diplomatic and economic influence.

Most importantly several countries in South Asia will face parliamentary or presidential elections. From the military regime ruled Myanmar to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives polls are to be held this year which may provide Beijing an opportunity to swing the tide in its favour using tools fair and foul.

With success in Nepal under the belt the Chinese could perceive a higher level of confidence and advantage. That the Chinese political, diplomatic and development machinery is nimble is evident with a few projects declared for Nepal days after the CPN Maoist Centre Leader Prachanda or Pushpa Kamal Dahal was sworn in as the Prime Minister.

The aim is to give a fillip to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects which have been lying fallow for some time. An attempt could also be made to open up trade and transit including energy routes to the North with China through Tibet despite the harsh terrain and logistics challenges faced.

Afghanistan may be a challenge for China given despite almost 16 months of defacto authority of the Taliban in power in Kabul there has been a breakthrough in only one mining and energy project with China’s CAPEIC (Xinjiang Central Asia Oil and Gas Company) in the Amu Darya Basin in the North on January 05.

The highly ambitious extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and linking with the Belt and Road Initiative will remain poor for now.

Extra regional influence is also expected to grow as the first container ship of Chinese goods landed in the joint India Iran Chabahar port on December 31.

The port is operated by India Ports Global and has seen greater maritime traffic than neighouring Gwadar in Pakistan which despite being a CPEC project has not seen many ships unloading. Apart from lack of hinterland, there are law and order and terror challenges in this zone whereas Chabahar is secure.

How an increase in Chinese traffic at the port will be handled by India in conjunction with Iran remains to be seen?

To sum up China may have a comprehensive advantage over India in Pakistan, while the influence in countries as Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar may be overwhelmingly wider.

On the other hand a tough contest for influence can be envisaged in Bangladesh Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Having understood the Chinese game to some extent India may be better prepared to meet these challenges, yet there are hurdles that can be envisaged apart from constraint of resources in comparative terms to the focus on managing the Chinese military expansion on the Northern borders as well as the maritime sphere.

This may tie down the Indian leadership which will also be working towards general elections in the country which will be held in the first half of 2024.

Indeed, Beijing’s calculations may have factored in this important event and how it would shape the same is a subject for another day.

Yet there could be one critical uncertainty internally for China – the spread of COVID 19 – while numbers are unclear for now – the impact is likely to wear down the Party as well as the State authorities in Beijing.

China: Xi 3.0 – An Indian Viewpoint

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The third term for Xi Jinping with key loyalists elected to the Central Committee as well as the Central Military Commission facilitates fostering his agenda in the political, economic and from the Indian perspective importantly in the foreign policy and national security domains.

Here is an overview of the likely impact for India

Unprecedented Third Term

On Sunday October 23, the Communist Party of China (CPC) unveiled the top leadership with Xi Jinping elected as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee at the first plenum of the 20th CPC Central Committee following the Party’s twice-a-decade national congress.

Xi led Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi onto a red-carpeted stage at the Great Hall of the People noted Xinhua.

The unprecedented third term, established Xi as the second most powerful leader in China’s history after Mao Zedong assuming greater salience even than the legendary Deng Hsiao Ping the architect of China’s modernizations.

With Xi at the helm in China after 2012, the aggressive security policy in particular that has been adopted has led to confrontations on the India China border a part of which is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh.

Xi’s pursuit of the Chinese Dream also includes reclamation of what is perceived by China as sovereignty over territories which have been “lost,” when China was weak. Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh are the two major claimed areas which are a territorial part of India.

While under Xi’s tenure as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission amongst other hats that he wears, markers for modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been set for regional domination by 2027 and global primacy in 2050.

Reclamation of Claimed Sovereignty

A related issue to reclamation of sovereignty is violation of treaties with India which have maintained stability since the 1990’s and broken the status quo in 2020 by occupation of areas which were accepted as on the Indian side of the LAC.

The clash at Galwan in June 2020 may have been incidental and avoided but the fact that the PLA was prepared for the same ass evident from circumstances should act as a post event warning for India.

Some of the areas as the Kungrang Nallah which have been traditional grazing grounds for Yak and Sheep yielding Pashmina for the heardsmen in Ladakh for years have been converted into a buffer zone.

As the newly formed CMC now includes Xi loyalists with experience in the Western Theatre Command – the theatre that faces India, ‘sovereignty reclamation,’ could be a key agenda of the third tenure of the President and Chairman of the CMC thus creating challenges for India’s security.

CMC Packed with Loyalists

As Ananth Krishnan has highlighted in the Hindu, General He Weidong has been named as the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) replacing retiring Xu Qiliang. General Zhang Youxia continues as the first ranking — Vice Chairman and continues even though he is beyond the retirement age. General Xu Qiling is appointed as one of 205 members of the Party’s new Central Committee a prestigious post in the party hierarchy and is also head of the joint staff department of the CMC.

Krishnan highlights that the three generals who will remain key decision makers of the PLA have also served in the Western Theatre Command (WTC) and thus would be well versed with nuances of management of the LAC.

The CMC directly controls the operations on the LAC in the Xinjiang and Xijang border districts sidelining the WTC.

Supported by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on an extension and promoted to the Politburo the Wolf Warrior diplomacy of which he is the architect is expected to continue to keep Indian foreign policy establishment on their toes.

Xi National Security Agenda

Earlier in his Report to the Congress, General Security Xi had highlighted his national security agenda. Xi said that national security, “is the foundation of national rejuvenation, and social stability is the premise of national prosperity. We must unswervingly implement the overall national security concept, put the maintenance of national security throughout the entire process of Party and state work, and ensure national security and social stability”.

Important to highlight here is the efforts to link the process of the Party and state work in a unified manner to ensure national security and social stability. This has been the emphasis of Xi through his tenure for the past decade wherein party-government-military unity has been emphasized.

Xi Jinping started by stating that modernization of national security systems and capabilities is essential not only to safeguard national security but also social stability

Comprehensive Security

Xi Jinping embraced the concept of comprehensive security for the country with widened scope of national security stating that the whole purpose of security was ensure safety of the people. This could be achieved through political and economic security as the foundation implying stability of the party and the economy are the core principles/ This is guaranteed by ensuring military, scientific, cultural and social security, “and the promotion of international security as the basis to coordinate external security and internal security, homeland security and national security”.

He goes on to add the importance of “Traditional security and non-traditional security, self security and common security”. Coordination and consolidation of “national security and social stability,” was important to, “build a higher level of safe China, and ensure new security with a new security pattern. development pattern”. Thus adapting to a comprehensive security model is the panacea for China for the future

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

Five minutes into his speech submitting the Report to the Party, Xi went on to the People’s Liberation Army called for a “new situation for the modernization of national defense and the army.”

Relevant here is the fact that substantial reforms have been undertaken by the PLA as per directions of Xi Jinping since 2013 which include streamlining of the Central Military Commission, central institutions for higher direction of war and creating geographic theatres. Further refinement in these is desired essentially to increase the operational efficiency and achieve national security goals.

Xi Jinping then went on to outline the objective of building the PLA into a world class army where the Party has absolute control over the military.

Ideological reforms or loyalty was to go side by side with, “Modernization, the modernization of the military organization, the modernization of military personnel, and the modernization of weapons and equipment, improve the strategic capability of defending national sovereignty, security, and development interests, and effectively fulfill the mission and tasks of the people’s army in the new era”. Attracting talent to achieve these objectives was outlined.

Importantly Xi emphasized again the loyalty of the Army to the party to, “ensure that the barrel of the gun always obeys the party’s command”.

Organisational Reforms of PLA

On the organizational front he called for improvement and implementation of, “system and mechanism of the chairman responsibility system of the Military Commission,” implying possibly of greater role to be played by him in decision making as he is the chairman of the CMS. Discipline eradication of corruption were also emphasized. Given the removal of a number of senior commanders of the PLA for corruption, the campaign is expected continue, even though detractors claim that commanders who were not loyal to Xi were implicated and removed which is difficult to verify.

Operational Modernisation

In the final minute or so Xi Jinping talked about the operational facets of PLA modernization to include strengthening training and preparations, “improve the people’s army’s ability to win, innovate military strategic guidance, develop people’s war strategies and tactics, build a strong strategic deterrent force system, increase the proportion of combat forces in new areas and new qualities, and further promote actual combat military training”.

Towards this end, building of new domain forces with combat capabilities, UAV, networked information and joint command and control in the operational areas of “reconnaissance and early warning, joint strikes, battlefield support, and integrated logistics support,” a translation provided by Manoj Kewalramani at Tracking People’s Daily Substack states.

Technology and weapons, organization and composition of forces, training and law based governance of the military was emphasized.

A special emphasis was devoted to strategic planning with a view to, “consolidate and improve the integrated national strategic system and capabilities, strengthen the construction of national defense science, technology and industry capabilities”.

Mobilisation, reserves, caring for retired service personal and military government civilian unity was emphasized.

Conclusion

As Xi remarked at the closing of the 20th Congress, “We are fully confident and capable of creating new and even greater miracles on the new journey of the new era — miracles that will amaze the world.” “We must remain confident in our history, exhibit greater historical initiative, and have the courage to fight and the mettle to win,” he said to, “forge ahead, and unite and lead all Chinese people in striving to fulfill the goals and tasks set out at the 20th CPC National Congress”.

India must follow up on the tasks set by the 20th CPC National Congress in the foreign policy and security domain and be prepared to protect its national interests.

Views expressed are personal