“It will take time for the Rafale aircraft to be integrated with other weapon systems.” The first batch of Rafale aircraft prepares to take off from the Dassault Aviation Facility, Merignac, in France, to India on July 27. The forward posture adopted by the IAF is key to India’s capability to bargain at the diplomatic table

by Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd)

Why would a nation heading towards world power status gamble men, money and reputation for a few square kilometres of inhospitable terrain? Surely, it would have envisioned, and planned, for an end state and a definition of what would constitute victory for it — especially when the world is grappling with a pandemic and any strong-arm tactics would be frowned upon by all. For a few square kilometres only? No. As a popular dialogue of a Hindi film goes, “Picture abhi baaki hai (the film isn’t over)”.

India’s Ambitions

Professor Lawrence Freedman wrote in Strategy: A History that over the years, “strategy became a commodity, a distinctive product concerning a complex situation.” The situation is indeed not simple on the India-China frontier, and if the Chinese strategists had read the yearly reports of India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), they would have realised that China is not the only country whose world view is expanding; India’s is too. The MoD’s 2002-03 annual report defined India’s area of strategic interest as being “…from the Persian Gulf in the west to the Straits of Malacca in the east and from the Central Asian Republics in the north to near the equator in the south...” This expanded over the years. The 2012-13 version said, “India’s size and strategic location... links its security environment with the extended neighbourhood particularly with neighbouring countries and the regions of West, Central Asia, South East Asia, East Asia and the Indian Ocean.” The 2018-19 version mentions that India has deepened its relations with a host of countries in almost all continents, and those in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region. It mentions Pakistan as a country of concern while for China the assessment is, “Relations with China moved towards greater stability in the overall context of Closer Development Partnership”. While Beijing misread New Delhi’s ambitions, India’s security planners too stumbled in their assessment of an expansive China, as seen in the logjam on our northern frontier.

As politicians prepare the public in India for a protracted face-off, the serious border flare-up is on the back-burner in the media and public consciousness. However, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) are preparing for the long haul. What could be China’s game plan and what does India’s air power get to the table to oppose it? It’s certainly much more than the soon-to-arrive Rafale.

Influence of Air Power

The world has acknowledged that China has arrived on the world stage economically, as also politically by using its economic heft. There is only one aspect left to seal its credentials as a world power: military prowess. Despite the propaganda blitz of its armament industry, there is still the belief that China’s equipment is suspect, its military inexperienced, and the Chinese soldier a poor fighter. So, while Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso and Y-Junction have their place in the tactical scheme of things, the bigger picture could be that China is building up to a ‘Gulf War++’ media spectacular to show that it has arrived as a military power not to be trifled with. To ascribe its belligerence to being spooked by India’s border infrastructure build-up or as a counter to the dilution of Article 370 is being impractical as Beijing is not naïve to believe that these can be reversed. And as it procrastinates vis-à-vis the agreed de-escalation protocols, one is reminded of a similar withdrawal at Galwan in July 1962, only for a full-scale assault to happen later in October that year. While India is stocking up for the winter for the additional troops who have been sent in, it is a fact that the post-November period is bad from the connectivity angle for the Army. On the other hand, for the Chinese, this is not the case due to their developed road infrastructure. Our guard needs to stay up, led by Indian air power which would be the counter to any attempted ‘Gulf War++’.

Airpower has a ‘virtual’ nature. Unlike Army formations whose ground positions can be marked on a map, its influence exists in multiple rings representing strike ranges, which encompass a considerable portion of the area of action. In any present-day war, dominance in air is a pre-requisite; the trick is in applying it in the strategic environment during the pre-shooting phase and tactically when the balloon goes up. What endears it to the government is its ability to give the politician the power to implement his ideas, at a place far removed in space and without serious constraint of time, through the deterrence that air power exudes. It is costly, but it is a price that the nation must be willing to pay to avoid the last-minute scramble for emergency purchases that we see during every emergency.

Politicians need to be reminded of what a French General, Le Compte de Guibert, said in the 18th Century: “To declaim against war... is to beat the air with vain sounds, for ambitious rulers will certainly not be restrained by such means. But what may result... is to extinguish little by little the military spirit... and some day to deliver up one’s own nation, softened and disarmed or... badly armed... to the yoke of warlike nations which may be less civilised but which have more judgment and prudence.” Does this apply to the neglect of successive governments towards equipping our armed forces such that the arrival of the Rafale is giving it the halo of a saviour?

Three Options

Sections of the media are going overboard, as if the Rafale would be a panacea to the intransigence of the Chinese. Far from it, since there will be a time period required for its integration with other weapon systems that constitute a war-fighting package. That said, it is also true that the IAF would fast-track it as it sports capabilities that India’s adversaries would have to use extra diligence to counter. The forward posture adopted by the IAF (even sans Rafale), which does not necessarily mean forward deployment, is key to India’s capability to bargain at the diplomatic table. We have three options: First, prevent war, if possible. This may require give and take and will entail political costs. We have ourselves to blame for having reduced our deterrence quotient and having failed to discern the adversary’s intentions in time — intelligence failure, in plain speak. Second, if pushed to the wall, fight hard to deny them their notion of victory for which they have gambled so much; rest assured, we will prevail. And last, if war is averted, use the time to build capability for it’s no longer a choice between guns and butter if we want to avoid these regular faits accomplis. The world, especially the neighbourhood, is watching how the elephant responds to the dragon in the coming months.

Postscript. Next time, to honour mutual protocols of not using weapons, the Chinese will not field nail-studded batons and baseball bats. Indian troops may be met with ‘non-lethal’ weapons like tasers, laser dazzlers and ultra-sonic guns. One hopes India’s planners are thinking ahead to avoid surprises and equipping our warriors suitably.