VSConcerns over airpower violations in Ladakh entered the military talks between India and China in early August 2022. Both sides have accused each other of breaching the 1996 agreement on confidence-building measures along the Line of Effective Control. The agreement stipulates that combat aircraft, which include fighters, bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, military training aircraft, armed helicopters and other armed aircraft, must not fly within 10 km of the LAKE. In order to control escalation, setting up a separate hotline or using existing ones will be explored as a way forward. However, expecting a hotline to keep up with the speed of fighter jets is an illusion. At best, it can serve as a mechanism for exchanging information after the incident.
From India’s perspective, China’s massive build-up of airpower capabilities in the Tibetan Plateau is a major concern. The construction of infrastructure and the deployment of military aircraft in large numbers have, materially, overcome the advantage that the Indian Air Force (IAF) could have enjoyed before.
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China is playing a mental game
China’s growing military confrontation with the United States and its allies in Taiwan, East Asia and the South China Sea should remind us that, in Beijing’s broader strategic approach, a large-scale military confrontation scale with India could distract it from its main area of strategic confrontation. . India’s strategic planners can take note of China’s growth in overall national power in absolute terms, but they must also recognize that power, especially military power, is a context-specific relational variable. The amount of power China can bring against India depends on how much it can spare, after satisfying its primary interests. On the other hand, mainly due to its aggressive stance and arrogance, the range of nations uniting against China is constantly growing. Therefore, China’s relative power with India is undermined.
China’s growing air power in Tibet is an ideal military tool to build an image of force that can be used for continued psychological dominance with minimal risk of provoking adverse reactions. Additionally, combat aircraft in particular are the most photogenic in terms of transmitting force and projecting a power image. It is ideal for intimidation and has been widely used by China against Taiwan.
Essentially, air power is more often part of a larger mind game.
The military effectiveness of air power also resides in the capacity for ideation in terms of advanced doctrine and knowledge acquired through experience. The IAF could probably be considered to have an advantage in this context, having had more combat experience and having operated with the air forces of technologically advanced nations. Moreover, given the altitudes achieved in Tibet, Chinese air power would be handicapped against Indian planes, which would operate from the plains. But in the psychological realm, China can leverage, through the information realm, the belief that India’s aviation industry and infrastructure are still trying to pull themselves together.
China’s willingness to discuss airpower violations should not only be seen as emanating from its ploy to freeze military confrontation on the northern borders. The biggest game is to keep India confined to the subcontinent. China is currently engaged in expanding the military threat to the northern borders. The permanent forward deployment of its land power coupled with an additional air power capability is the most visible manifestation of its political intentions.
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Political leadership must intensify
The challenge for India is to call China’s bluff in the Himalayas while accelerating the growth of its maritime capabilities. China’s growing confrontation in other areas offers openings for accelerating capacity building. China’s sporadic military pressure in the North is the operational design. Air and ground violations should be sanctioned with counter-violations or quid pro quos, as this is the language China understands best. Avoiding overreaction is also an Indian imperative, but this is easier said than done and calls for greater political-military interaction. Unfortunately, these interactions continue to lack continuity and depth. The major structural movements of the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS) and the theater command system, initiated to improve the two crucial areas of civil-military relations and the articulation between the armed forces, seem to have been confined to the background.
The main problem is not only to provide adequate resources for national defence, but also to ensure that the political leaders commit themselves and carry out the reforms which they have recognized are absolutely necessary. It must move away from slogans to focus on results. He must recognize that time may not be on India’s side. There is no shortage of initiatives underway, including in the defense manufacturing sector. But most of them remain paper tigers or progress is slow. Meanwhile, political patronage for reform shifted, in pursuit of greener pastures of publicity and electoral gains.
Slowing down much-needed reforms in the area of national defense should be politically and strategically unacceptable. Parliamentary oversight remains sterile and expectations of its effectiveness are hampered by domestic political dynamics. There is no doubt that the responsibility lies with various executive instruments. Political, bureaucratic and military leaders must lead, coordinate the whole government approach and set the tone. It is a necessity and not a choice that must animate the minds of those who hold the reins of power as we celebrate the 76th anniversary of India’s independence.
Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Prakash Menon (Retired) is Director of the Strategic Studies Program at Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, secretariat of the National Security Council. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)