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India militarily stronger than China, capable of winning war in Himalayas: Report

New Delhi: Amid increasing tension between India and China following clashes in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India Army Chief General MM Naravane’s visit to Ladakh holds a great significance. 

In case of a war between India and China, experts believe that the Indian Army is likely to give a befitting reply to the Chinese troops. A report by Howard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, published in March 2020, explains that Indian forces in the Himalayan range can defeat China’s army and may prove the assessment of experts wrong that India lags behind China in the military strength.

A comparison of the troops of China and India shows that China has deployed a total of 200,00-230,000 ground forces under the Western Theater Command, Tibet, and Xinjiang Military districts. This apparent numerical near-equivalence with that of Indian regional ground forces is misleading. Experts say that a significant proportion of these forces will be unavailable, as they reserved either for Russian taskings or for countering insurrection in Xinjiang and Tibet. 

The majority of forces are located further from the Indian border, posing a striking contrast with the majority of forward-deployed Indian forces with a single China defense mission.

The Indian Army divides its ground and air strike forces facing China into Northern, Central, and Eastern Commands. The Air Force is organized into Western, Central, and Eastern Air Commands. The total available Army strike forces near China’s border areas are assessed to be around 225,000 personnel. 

This incorporates the roughly 3,000 personnel attached to a T-72 tank brigade stationed in Ladakh and the estimated 1,000 personnel attached to a BrahMos cruise missile regiment in Arunachal Pradesh. For the Army, the total deployment near China’s border areas is divided as; about 34,000 troops in the Northern Command; 15,500 troops in the Central Command; and 175,500 troops in the Eastern Command

The report published on ‘Strategic posture of China and India’ states that the Western Air Force Command of the Chinese Air Force, PLA Air Force (PLAAF), which has operational control of fighter jets, close to the Indian border also suffers from a numerical disparity to the IAF. Unlike the tripartite organizational division of Chinese ground forces facing India, the Western Theater Command has assumed control of all regional strike aircraft. In total, this amounts to around 157 fighters and a varied drone armory.

The Indian Air Force has an estimated 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across its three China-facing commands. It is also expanding its network of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), which constitute small air bases in the forward locations to provide staging grounds and logistics hubs for aircraft strike missions.

In the Western Air Command, the IAF possesses around 75 fighters and 34 ground attack aircraft, besides 5 ALGs close to Chinese Tibetan areas. The Central Air Command features around 94 fighters, 34 ground attack aircraft, and one ALG. The Eastern Air Command hosts around 101 fighters and 9 ALGs. The Eastern Air Command, which is deployed only to deal with China, alone has 101 fighter aircraft.

A comparison of the Air force of both countries suggests that China’s J-10 fighter is technically comparable to India’s Mirage-2000, while Indian Su-30MKI is superior to all theater Chinese fighters, including the additional J-11 and Su-27 models. China hosts a total of around 101 4th-generation fighters in the theater, of which a proportion must be retained for Russian defense, while India has around 122 of its comparable models, solely directed at China. 

China, however, is ahead of India in terms of aerial drones. It has deployed over 50 drones against India which are capable of electronic surveillance ranging from reconnaissance to ground attack.

The most significant PLAAF forward air bases and airfields near Indian border areas—which will be pivotal in combat operations—are located at Hotan, Lhasa/Gonggar, Ngari-Gunsa, and Xigaze. Each hosts regular PLAAF detachments, and these are the nearest facilities to Indian targets in Kashmir, northern India, and northeast India. They are vulnerable to a dedicated Indian offensive. Ngari-Gunsa and Xigaze reportedly have no hardened shelters or blast pens for their aircraft, which sit in the open. Lhasa/Gonggar has recently developed hardened shelters able to protect up to 36 aircraft, while Hotan reportedly hosts “two aircraft shelters” of unknown capacity. 

According to the report, an Indian early initiative to destroy or incapacitate these four bases—and achieve air superiority over them—would compel China to rely more upon aircraft from its rear-area bases, exacerbating its limited fuel and payload problems. Moreover, China lacks the redundancy and related force survivability compared to India in their comparative numbers of regional airbases. 

The report sums up that India has a stronger regional air position, with “a large number of airfields in the east and west, so even if some airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations.”

To address its force shortfalls in the event of war, China could surge air and ground forces from its interior towards the border. However, experts suggest that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes—such as airbases and military road and rail links—could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced

The report further adds that 104 Chinese missiles could strike all or parts of India. These include about a dozen DF-31A and six to twelve DF-31 missiles capable of reaching all Indian mainland targets. Another dozen DF-21s hold New Delhi at risk, while the remaining missiles can target sections of India’s northeast and east coast. As China deploys more road-mobile missiles over time, it will become easier to move further missiles from China’s interior to new survivable positions within the range of India.

On the other hand, the bulk of India’s missile forces are located closer to Pakistan than China. Ten Agni-III launchers can reach the entire Chinese mainland. Another eight Agni-II launchers could reach central Chinese targets. An estimated two squadrons of Jaguar IS and one squadron of Mirage 2000H fighters, totaling around 51 aircraft, are assessed to be tasked with nuclear missions. These aircraft could most likely reach Tibetan airspace equipped with nuclear gravity bombs. 

India’s professed goal has always been to field a credible second-strike capability. This assured retaliation doctrine depends on the creation of sufficient doubt in the adversary’s calculus that a disarming the first strike would succeed, the report added.

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23rd June 2020