July 20, 2017

MEETING THE PLA CHALLENGE

http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/meeting-the-pla-challenge.html

Thursday, 20 July 2017 | Pravin Sawhney | in Oped

An all-out war with China is something India can only go for post re-establishment of its military power aligned with newest technology, the same as the adversary

China’s recent announcement of downsising its present 2.3 million (23 lakh) Army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to under one million (below 10 lakh) has been possible for two reasons: Massive technology infusion for military use, and changed war roles.

Instead of the tail (support elements), the teeth (combat force) of the PLA will be drastically reduced to provide resources for further acquisition of cutting edge technologies for modern warfare, and military reforms to boost China’s aggressive foreign policy. The PLA’s role of ground combat will be minimised, if not completely eliminated. This will ensure fewer losses of PLA lives.

Correspondingly, funds will be allocated to the  People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF),  People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (responsible for ballistic and cruise missiles, and armed aerial vehicles), and People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Forces (cyber, space, electromagnetic, technical assets and psychological warfare).

With the disclosed annual defence allocation of $151 billion (three times of India’s at $49 billion), the manpower ratio of PLA’s Army/Air Force/Navy was 4:2:1 in 2015. Under the first PLA, manpower cut announced by President Xi Jinping in 2015, the Army was to reduce its numbers by three lakh (primarily the tail elements) by 2020. Now, the new radical reduction will ensure that the PLA becomes under one million (10 lakh) by 2022, the year Xi demits office after his 10 years term. In comparison, India, with its frugal defence allocation has 1.3 million (13 lakh) Army, excluding the 80,000 strong Rashtriya Rifles.

The new technologies which will make the PLA capable of fighting modern war with minimal casualties are stand-off weapons, precision ammunition, anti-satellite capabilities, outer space capabilities, electromagnetic war capabilities, cyber war capabilities, accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles (capable of achieving 17,000 miles/hour speed), robotics, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and so on. Since no nation gives another these capabilities, whatever the trade-off, China, like other major powers, has built them since 1980 with huge investments in research and development and with complete involvement of its political leadership.

This is not all. China today has the largest warship-building capability in Asia. It builds tanks, guns, aircraft and all weapon platforms from design to final production. China has emerged as a major exporter of arms which it uses for two purposes: Political advantage, and for building inter-operability (ability to fight common war missions together) with friendly nations on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map which comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Today, the inter-operability between the PLA and the Pakistan military which started in 2011 surpasses that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation at the best of times. Its implication for India is that Pakistan will be able to fight a longer conventional war with support of non-contact war assets.

The PLA’s roles have evolved with the acquisition of technology. The new major PLA role — in addition to territorial defence and homeland security will be to ensure the safety of Chinese people, assets, and interests associated with the BRI across the Eurasian landmass and the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

Given this, the PLA is undergoing at least three major military reforms. One, the PLAN role has been redefined from coastal defence to outer seas. Recently, PLAN has built a logistics facility (precursor to military base) in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and hopes to have similar facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar, much to India’s discomfiture. While China claims its Djibouti facility is to assist anti-piracy, humanitarian relief and protection of sea-lanes, it is a cover to challenge the United States-led existing security architecture in the oceans.

Interestingly, the BRI’s MSR runs exactly along the existing sea lanes of communications in the two oceans. PLAN military bases in the traditional sense will perhaps wait until it has stabilised its operational moorings in the western Pacific.

Second, joint-ness for combat is the buzzword whereby all capabilities of land, air, sea, rockets and Special Forces, assisted by the SSF have been brought under a single commander. And third, while retaining the ‘no first use’ nuclear policy and by not entering into a nuclear arms race, it is refining its nuclear capabilities for strategic deterrence.

Given all this, the military challenge for India is mind-boggling — on the disputed land border and the Indian Ocean Region it faces the growing interoperability between the PLA and the Pakistan military. Given this, India will need to review its military thinking of fighting a two-front war before its clears the 13th consolidated defence Five Year Plan.

This is essential since the utilisation of massive funds will be predicated on an untenable military thinking. According to reports, in the 13th defence Plan, military has sought `26.84 lakh crore ($416 billion) for modernisation.

 Without exception, Generals/ Air Marshals/ Admirals have confessed in private to this writer that the ‘two front war’ thinking is suicidal, unachievable and one-upmanship race for funds. With two adversaries armed with tactical nuclear weapons and having attained interoperability, the pivot of the next war has decisively shifted to the mountains and high altitude terrain. Given this, let alone be the war winning service, the Army — considering it can do little more than tactical attacks and counter-attacks will not contribute much to victory in technology-heavy next war. This is good reason for massive manpower reduction of the 23-lakh Army — not from the tail but teeth too.

There will, however, be the need to strengthen the combat edge of the Indian Air Force built accurate Cruise Missiles and find an answer to the PLA’s doctrine of use of its Ballistic and Cruise Missiles. According to this, the PLA considers the role of Ballistic and Cruise Missile as complementary and not separate from the Air Force.

The other challenge will be from the sea which has been accentuated by increasing interoperability between the PLAN and the Pakistan Navy. This will affect both India’s sea based deterrence and the Indian Navy’s conventional war-fighting capability. The Navy will need to be strengthened with increased allocations. India will need to work intently with friendly powers to ensure security of the region; despite China’s protests, the Malabar exercise needs to become bigger in complexity and participation.

Therefore, the first step is for the political leadership to give achievable military objectives to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), comprising the three services’ Chiefs to replace the two-front war rhetoric. The next step would be for the Integrated Defence Headquarters to rationalise acquisitions based on the COSC joint assessment of the adversaries. This is the only way to meet the PLA challenge. 

(The writer is editor, FORCE newsmagazine

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