The Ladakh crisis has triggered calls for resurrection of the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), whose raising had been put on hold in 2018, due to lack of finances. Freezing the raising, was no surprise as it was always gasping for financial support, starting from 2011, when the case was first forwarded for consideration of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The proposal was rightly justified as a major measure for countering the increased threat from China. It involved adding 90000 personnel and projected to cost approximately Rs 65000 crores. This figure did not consider the cost of infrastructure at that time and therefore underestimated the total costs. However, there was a need for reviewing the very idea of raising the MSC. The main issue that was contested was whether the final product, the MSC will serve its purpose of deterring China.
The MSC was to provide deterrence by creating the capability to launch a counter-offensive if China carried out a largescale invasion. This logic was potholed with operational irrationalities. Firstly, such rationale based on deterrence through attempted counterpunch required at least three Strike Corps across an approximately 3500 kms border. Perhaps, China could then be deterred. Secondly, with one Strike Corps, coupled with the distances, terrain and lack of infrastructure, there is very little possibility of application as an integral offensive formation. Thirdly, if only some major elements of the Strike Corps managed to launch a successful offensive across the Himalayas, it would be a logistic nightmare to maintain the force. Fourthly, if we do find a solution to the logistic problem, China’s interior line of communications on the Tibetan Plateau could facilitate a concentration of Chinese forces that could threaten the survival of the Indian forces. Fifthly, unless the elements of the MSC are prepositioned well forward and spread across the long border, they would not be able to quickly react speedily even to the most probable threat- Salami Slicing.
It was obvious that the Army planners were up the wrong deterrence tree. For the capability that was in dire need was the strengthening of the ability for a Quid Pro Quo, by speedily seizing defendable but unoccupied territories, a capability that exists and could certainly be strengthened further along with better Intelligence and Surveillance resources. A swiftly executed action during the early stages of the present crisis would have turned the tables on the Chinese and forced on them the highly complex decision to escalate. As long as the forward deployed Corps has sufficient offensive and defensive resources, the decision for Quid Pro Quo must be delegated to the Corps Commanders. A recently published book Watershed 1967 by Probal Dasgupta illustrates the prudence of such delegation.
Notice that there is no room for the MSC and even if some MSC elements are utilised, there is no role for the Corps Commander and his HQ. Any large offensive by the Chinese, is in fact unlikely, as it does not fit into China’s strategy of using the border as a political pressure point, coupled with the fact of both being nuclear powers. Even if it launches a big offensive, which pierces India’s forward defences, it would be vulnerable due to logistics difficulties imposed by terrain and such vulnerability could be exploited both by Air and land power. It should be obvious, that reallocation of the resources of MSC to strengthen the Forward Corps is the way forward.
Granting that these operational arguments could be countered, the issue to be examined was whether there was a better way to strengthen military capability on the Northern borders. So, in 2011, the case was returned to the Chiefs of Staff Committee for a holistic examination. It was no surprise that the Army had not kept the other two Services on the loop. It followed a pattern set earlier when the Army got CCS sanction for raising South West Command with the Chiefs of the sister services being informed through the morning newspapers. Fortunately, with the creation of the CDS and the Department of Military Affairs, planning will hopefully be joint from the initial stage itself.
Military planning has been blinded due to lack of long-term commitment of fiscal resources. The lack of a military strategy ignores the logic, that strategy is a bridge between means and political objectives. Worse, without integrated planning, the fifteen and the five-year plans are stitched without the thread of financial availability. The MSC was adding nearly the strength of the Navy to the Army. There was no consideration of long-term implications, due to year-on-year sustenance needs, and there were several. Firstly, it would entail a decrease in allocation to the IAF and Navy unless the political leadership gave assurance of increased budget availability. Secondly, in the long term, already unsustainable pension burden after OROP would leave very little for modernisation and even impact maintenance. Thirdly, it required a commitment for additional financial resources which could not be guaranteed by the political leadership and therefore the route taken to solve the problem was to stretch the raising to ten years (and the infrastructure to twenty years). That solution reached its point of no return when the raising had to be put on hold in 2018.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee after deliberating for nearly a year recommended the MSC. The delay was attributed to IAF and the Navy being unenthusiastic to support the proposal. However, the COAS, finally managed to get it through. Meanwhile, there was also narrative put out that the Manmohan Singh Government, was putting the national security at risk by delaying the raising of the MSC. The narrative found its mark in July 2013 during the Depsang crisis and Government quickly sanctioned the MSC. Fiscally, without assured budgetary support, it was doomed from the start.
The alternate to the MSC lies in rebalancing India’s military power from the West to the North and reallocation of MSC resources. It is paradoxical, that despite China being the larger threat, India’s military posture privileges the weaker adversary. The nuclear factor should have retired India’s operational plans for deep ground thrusts and instead morphed into the ability for speedy shallow thrusts. This change in operational concept would free resources for deployment to the North and facilitate the creation of offensive capabilities against China that could be based on brigade sized formations that can be airmobile. This coupled with Force Multipliers (FM) by way of accretion in artillery, missiles, armed helicopters, UAVs, Intelligence and Surveillance assets etc which could be far more affordable.
The invocation of the MSC demand in the midst of the present crisis and the inevitable budget squeeze, the end of which cannot be seen right now, as a military solution to the China’s threat, is an emotionally loaded one and could also become a handy tool to blame the previous and the present governments. The MSC was dead on arrival and even if resurrected, is likely to be an operational and financial albatross around India’s security neck.
Source: This article was first published on the website of Strategic Perspectives of the United Services Institution of India.