Thursday, August 2, 2012

PLA options in Sikkim-Tibet Region

My assessment of Chinese options in the Sikkim-Tibet(Chumbi Valley)-Western Bhutan Corridor.

While everyone seems to be harping on the Indian position and options vis-à-vis the Chinese, what no one comments on is the Chinese position and options in the area. Geography is a double edged sword and its effects Chinese as much as it does Indians. In my opinion, the Chinese are at a back foot when it comes to options across the Chumbi Valley area. And they might just have to go on offensive to pre-empt this area being pinched off from the Tibetan plateau. Here is my take on the situation.



(a) Geography - As always, first things first. Let us look at the geography. On the Chinese side, there are two roads which lead to the Chumbi Valley from Tibetan Plateau – one is S204 and another one which runs parallel to Tibet-Bhutan boundary – there seem to some radar + communication sites along this road. They both converge at the Chumbi Valley and from one road goes south (to the base of Nathu La on Tibet side) and another feeder road moves north along the Sikkim-Tibet border. The moment these two main roads leave the Tibetan Plateau, they move along narrow valleys with very high (and steep) surrounding mountain ridges. 

This is an important aspect – because what people describe as ‘wedge’ aimed at Siliguri corridor also resembles a funnel – with the broad base of the funnel towards Tibet and narrower part comprising of Chumbi Valley towards India. 


What this means is that while the ‘broad’ top area may allow you to park troops/assets in large numbers, the narrower bottom part can accommodate only that many troops. There is simply no real estate here – as the map shows, the PLA Garrison HQ in Chumbi Valley is placed in an area which is hardly 500 meters wide. This place will be a chock-a-block with men and material once the shooting match starts. And which will represent extremely vulnerable targets to IAF and Indian Artillery.

And it will have to content with the famous dictum of requiring 9:1 (minimum) ratio in terms of attackers to defender. But where will it park such a large force. 

Maps for reference:





(b)PLA Options – More than anything else, PLA will be forced from day one to draw IA in areas towards central part of Sikkim and North/North-Eastern part. They will simultaneously try to put pressure across Nathu La. As I explained earlier, Indian garrisons in central and north/north-east Sikkim (more in case of the latter) are likely to fight and operate as standalone sectors due to connectivity issue – which will come under intense pressure once the balloon goes up. 

While the western arm of North Sikkim Highway is much better protected (there being multiple north-south ridges between border and this road), PLA will try and isolate these areas by striking at (or trying to strike at) Cheungtong itself. They would want IA to be on defensive from word go. Their game plan could be to pinch the areas north of central Sikkim. With there being only two main roads in the area, if the PLA occupies the critical node(s), rest of the areas to north can be isolated. The IA garrison in North/North-East (and also south) would face PLA threat from rear itself.

However, this limited option in terms of number of roads available due to geography also means that should the PLA manage to secure the nodes, their movement in northern or southern directions will be through known areas – areas which can be defended. PLA will face the same issues which IA will if some day it decides to go west from Ladakh along the Indus or Shyok river. The defender can control the high ground, sabotage the road and bring every inch of the road under observation and fire. A road blockage here can hold up traffic and movement for days.

I personally don’t buy the argument of PLA threatening the Siliguri Corridor by moving down the Teesta river valley from Nathu La – IA has blocked that access, sure and proper. In my opinion, the real threat to Siliguri Corridor and adjoining areas comes from PLA deciding to enter India through Bhutan. If one observes Google Earth, one can see feeder roads leading from Tibet to Bhutan-Tibet border. PLA could come down western Bhutan using the existing road infra inside Bhutan, enter India and then turn west.

But – it all the above seems improbable to me because of that one single factor – where from will PLA sustain such an offensive? Where will it form the firm base for offensive formations? Where will the POL and ammunition and other logistic dumps be created? The entire PLA lines of communication will be exposed to IAF. And IA can threaten the flanks of these lines of communication and cut-off the forward elements from their rear base.

You can appreciate the placement of mountain divisions under 33 Corps in the sector in the above context.



3 comments:

P Banerjee said...

Dear Rohitji, Nice articles for a layman...one layman question though...While we are strengthening our defences in the NE, and justifiably so, there is also increasing instability in Af-Pak and Pakistan is seemingly unable to coltrol the various "non state actors" that operate from there. There is also increasing instability in Xinjiang and China has started to refer to this more often especially in the context of Pakistans' ability to control events there.However, if the instability in Xinjiang increases also resulting in greater restiveness in Tibet, and Pakistan is actually unable to control this, then the possibility exists that China, with the help of friendly elements in the Pak Govt may decide to enter Pakistan in full force to take control of events there. Pakistan may allow the same if it helps their country from disintegrating. In order to divert the attention of the various Jihadi elements there(and it can be surmised that Pakistan will become more Jihadised in the future), is is probable that China may open a direct front in the western sector, and in this case we would be facing the full brunt of the Chinese army with their MBT and artillery etc, in addition to what Pakistan already has. Also, China can also launch attacks in the NE of India since this would place Indian forces under a lot of pressure. It is also possible that our polity will become increasingly fragmented in the future with regional/sub regional parties ruling the roost. They would have stakes only in their respective states unlike national parties.

In such a scenario, with a full fledged Chinese-Pak attack in the west, and a Chinese attack in the NE, it is possible that we would loose significant amounts of territory. Although we have the nuclear option, given our political instability, whether we would be willing to use it, especially in the face of retaliatory threats directly to the cities under the control of regional parties , is also a question.While we may get help from foreign powers, they would surely extract their pound of flesh, and if one were more cynical, then perhaps they wouldn't mind a rising India getting stripped of territory.

What are your views on this whole scenario? is it possible and do we have the conventiol capabilities to counter such a threat?

Rohit Vats said...

Apologies for the late reply...was caught up with work.

Pakistan Army has always ruled Northern Areas with iron fist and has come down hard on any regional or sub-national aspirations. They have even used jihadi elements to 'manage' the situation in NA. So, in my opinion, Pakistan will not loose control of NA any time soon.

Coming to situation in NWFP and FATA, well, PA has done bare minimum to contain the so called 'threat'. To PA, these elements are not exactly threats - it is the situation in Afghanistan and PA being forced to 'act' by Uncle Sam, which has led to the fall out.

Once the end game in Afghanistan is reached and a situation favorable to PA obtained, these 'threats' will be allowed to focus their energies towards east against India and in Afghanistan.

As it is, I don't expect China to meddle in these areas - it would be a death trap. They can manage the situation through PA. As for Xinjiang, well,China is capable of drastic measures and I don't situation will reach a level where it has to enter into Pakistan.

I'm more concerned about China entering into Northern Areas and creating problems for IA in this sector.

Garg said...

I like your commentary very much. However there is a lot of truth in Mr Banerjee's thoughts. The problem with Pakistan is between its aspiration (to become driving force of Muslim world) and China's aspiration to become Asia's dominant power. India is trapped between powerful cross-currents. China attempts to contain India's military power through various conventional and unconventional means, which includes use of PA as proxy. However the same PA plays a double game due to its own aspirations.

The biggest event in recent history is ignored - the decline of economic power of USA. This event has massive significance for both India's economy and military balance in Asia.

The future few years are going to be turbulent for India. I think India's leadership knows this and is taking some steps to manage the situation. However weak central govt and inefficient bureaucracy play spoilsport.