Lt Gen Pradeep Bali (retd)
Ex-Commander, Sikkim-based 33 Corps
While technology-driven platforms and Net-centric attributes of an armed force come to the fore when studying its capabilities, it is the human resource which populates it that is the real barometer of its true potential. Given the recent incidents on the LAC with China, it is relevant to assess this resource of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vis-à-vis the Indian Army.
The debacle of 1962 has had a lasting impact on the Indian mind. Some figures, therefore, need to be considered. The contact battle at various locations lasted from October 20 to 24 in the first phase of operations and from November 17 to 20 in the second phase. The total force levels involved were approximately four divisions of the PLA against less than three divisions of the Indian Army. The air force was not used at all. The figures of total casualties suffered on either side have been gleaned from a Chinese, an Indian and a US source — A History of the Counter-attack War in Self-defence (Beijing,1994); History of the conflict with China, 1962 (India, 1992); The Chinese PLA at 75 (US, 2003). The broad figures in all three almost match. The Indian Army had about 3,000 killed/missing and 4,000 prisoners of war (PoW). The PLA had about 2,000 killed and wounded.
This defeat has been squarely attributed to the national political and higher military leadership. The reversals were mainly in Kameng where a study of individual battles points clearly to operational and tactical incompetence. Acts of outstanding individual gallantry and fierce sub-unit and unit level battles, especially in eastern NEFA and Ladakh, notwithstanding in Kameng, it almost became a rout where commanders and troops lost heart.
The next conflict between the two armies was two short, sharp engagements in September and October 1967 at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim. The Indian Army suffered about 80 casualties, while the PLA had over 300 dead. The military leadership at the tactical level was sound and resolute. Unfortunately, this incident is not as widely known as it would have helped in removing the scars of 1962 from the national psyche.
At Galwan, PLA soldiers, acting like a Shanghai street gang, and armed with spiked iron rods, attacked an unsuspecting, small verification party of the Indian Army. Recovering quickly from the surprise, the Indian troops inflicted a large number of casualties on the Chinese side. Only an authoritarian regime like the CCP could refuse to disclose the number of their fatalities.
There have been numerous standoffs between the PLA and the Indian Army, along the LAC in Arunachal, Sikkim and in east Ladakh, leading at times to scuffles, where the PLA came out worse off.
In June 2017, the Indian Army crossed over into the Doklam area of Bhutan, across the watershed in east Sikkim, to stop the PLA from constructing a road inside Bhutanese territory up to the Jampheri ridge, from where the terrain rolls down towards the sensitive Siliguri corridor. The standoff was resolved after 72 days, when the Chinese blinked and withdrew a short distance away, giving up the road construction project.
The PLA of today is very different from the hardy and rugged Red Army of Mao, which came across the Himalayas in 1962. That Army had soldiers who had fought in the civil war and the Korean War and was a highly motivated force fired up by nationalism and communism. Much has changed over six decades. The last war the PLA fought was against Vietnam in 1979, where it went to teach the Vietnamese a lesson but ended up learning some lessons itself.
Prosperity has come to China and with it a much better quality of life, especially for the Han Chinese. Starbucks and McDonald’s have reached Khamba Dzong, a small Tibetan town and now a PLA cantonment, 20-odd km from the Indian border on the Sikkim plateau. In 2012, training in recruit training schools of the PLA had to be delayed since recruit targets were under subscribed as a result of rejection during selection on medical grounds, due to overweight and poor eyesight. The PLA is a largely conscript force, most of its members serving for two years and coming from families subject to the one-child norm, but also who benefited from the post-1979 prosperity. The PLA rank and file is from small families living in relative prosperity, in an authoritarian state. Definitely not the best human resource for an army with unsettled borders.
The PLA’s recent reorganisation of its infantry and mountain divisions into mechanised brigades may be suited for the plains or expeditionary forces but the high-altitude borders with India along the LAC require deployment of adequate, well-trained and hardy foot infantry for prosecuting operations — offensive or defensive.
One may well ask that if the PLA soldier is not so motivated or hardy, then how did they initiate the Galwan valley gang-fight? The PLA troops were certain of taking the Indian soldiers by surprise with heavy numerical odds in their favour. They had not expected a quick and fierce Indian reaction and suffered heavy casualties.
The PLA is the party’s and not the nation’s army. The party exercises control through the institution of the political commissar in the Chinese Army. Though a uniformed officer, he is the party’s man, responsible for ideological indoctrination of the soldiers. In fact, he carries more clout than the officers directly in command of units. Thuggish behaviour such as at Galwan can partly be ascribed to such commissars. After the Galwan incident and happenings in China, political commissars will have a tough time keeping the PLA motivated and ideologically in line.
China is wont to boast of its technological prowess, military equipment, strategic support force and strategic rocket force. However, in the high mountains of the India-China border, it is primarily the foot infantry which will prevail in achieving military objectives. Pitched against the PLA is the Indian Army, with its very high level of unit cohesion, esprit de corps, a sense of izzat and a very hardy lot of motivated soldiers. The Chinese may well be found wanting in any conflict along these borders.