This is how Indian defence can really deter China

Can India afford a million-man army? Apart from being a question to be answered by strategists, this question is an emotive one. This is because, as every Indian will aver, the most respected national institution is the Indian army. This question, however, arose during the Galwan episode, largely because the Chinese PLA, which constantly appears on our borders in overwhelming numbers, actually has only 9,75,000 officers and men. This is considerably fewer than the Indian army, which according to diverse sources, numbers between 12,50,000 and 14,00,000 officers and men.

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China is an aspiring world power that spends $252 billion on its defence budget, as compared to $72.9 billion that India spends. Both countries limit their budget to around 2 per cent of their GDP, which in China’s case is five times our size. They have downsized their army and built a navy, which is growing faster than the US navy. They are invulnerable on land, and their only strategic weakness is their reliance on the Indian Ocean SLOCs (sea lines of communications) for 70 per cent of their imported oil.

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The only guarantee of Chinese non-aggression and good behaviour is a well-crafted threat to their oil tankers and a complete naval mastery of the escalation that is bound to follow. The first step is to accept that we are an asymmetric power and leverage the RMA (Revolution in Military Affairs) so that numerical inferiority is of no consequence. We start by dividing the Indo-Pacific, including the South China seas and the Eastern Indian Ocean, into areas of maritime search responsibility between the QUAD. All nations operate on a common reporting communication net, centred either in Port Blair or Visakhapatnam. On being requested by India, the QUAD maritime search aircraft gain information dominance over the Indo-Pacific on all PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) movements taking place, aimed at transiting the Malacca Straits. The Indian navy apprehends all China-bound tankers and keeps them in a quarantine anchorage off the Nicobars, with a diplomatic declaration that India reserves the right to choose the time and place of retaliation, and alerts the QUAD.

The impounded tankers are unharmed and are merely bait for the PLAN to respond, by coming to engage the Indian navy. The movement of PLAN units is reported days in advance to the waiting Indian forces by QUAD resources. The PLAN units are funnelled through the geographically constrained straits into, what is, to borrow an army tactical expression, a killing ground. What would be greatly beneficial, and to make the operation tri-service, is to build up the Car Nicobar airfield into a full-fledged airbase and permanently station a squadron of suitable aircraft. If the air force can be coaxed into abandoning its territorial airspace defence mentality, and go expeditionary, we could negotiate with Oman for the use of the old RAF airbase at Masirah to dominate the Gulf of Hormuz and threaten the Chinese base at Djibouti.

All this makes an elegant strategic solution and a better alternative to reinforcing the unfavourable geography of the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. As the years pass, manpower is going to get increasingly expensive, and as it is, our strategic options are constrained because the army gets 61 per cent of the defence budget. Sadly, 81 per cent of the army budget goes into manpower and maintenance.

We can achieve better conventional deterrence against China by giving bigger roles to the navy and air force and downsizing the army by 2,00,000 men over five years through retirement and reduced recruitment. The reduction in manpower will save approximately Rs 30,000 crore, which can be equally divided between the three services. The army can replace its vintage T72 tanks or acquire three squadrons of gunships. The navy can easily acquire its cherished third aircraft carrier, and the air force its two new fully-equipped airbases abroad.

The Chinese are about to extend their geographical advantage by building a new high-speed rail from Chengdu, running close by and parallel to the Arunachal border, up to Lhasa. China cannot be countered by throwing expensive manpower at the problem, but only by shifting the battle space to advantageous geography, by a united navy and air force effort, while a technically advanced army holds the Himalayan border.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 24, 2021 under the title ‘Challenging China’. Menon, a former rear admiral, has authored four books on maritime and nuclear strategy.

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