Between 1972 and 2009, India’s successive ruling political establishments had become complacent as far as China was concerned and the former’s Pakistan-centric attitude caused India to develop some sort of amnesia and a sense of smugness regarding the fact that China was, is and will continue to be India’s principal adversary in the years to come. But the country’s military leadership was all along aware of China’s hectic efforts to improve road, rail and oil pipeline infrastrucrure in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) throughout the 1990s as part of a well-crafted strategy to taking a pro-active stance against India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) whenever Beijing desired. Since Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh provides the shortest transportation route between India and Tibet, in 1980 the then Chief of the Army Staff, Gen K V Krishna Rao presented to the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, a strategic military infrastructure development plan—codenamed Operation Falcon—which was immediately approved by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and which Beijing took notice of. Operation Falcon called for converting the patchy forward presence of the Indian Army along the LAC into a heavy forward deployment in an arc-like disposition starting from Turtok and Shyok in Ladakh all the way to the India-Tibet-Myanmar tri-junction. Arunachal Pradesh, North Sikkim and the trans-Ladakh Range were to receive special attention. The deployment was to be undertaken over a 15-year period in which the Army’s forward build-ups would keep pace with infrastructure development along with viable lines of communications. The only political term of reference given by Mrs Indira Gandhi for Operation Falcon was to ensure that in a future war with China, Tawang must not fall again as it did in 1962. Regarding the operational stance, the Indian Army HQ and its Eastern Command HQ felt that the Army’s Divisional formations should be sited in a manner based on the lessons of the 1962 Sino-India war that were learnt at great costs. Instead of going through the sterile debate of holding the Se La and Bomdi La lines in strength, the whole mass of deployed formations was to be pushed forward, with Tawang being the centre-of-gravity for the Kameng District, and Walong for the Lohit District. It was this very stance that was adopted by Army HQ in 1986 during the Sumdorong Chu crisis, and till this day it remains the operational stance. Unfortunately, between 1988, on the eve of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing, and 2003, when the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Beijing and sought a resolution to the border issue through the appointment of special representatives, Operation Falcon was unceremoniously abandoned to appease China. Between 2003 and 2008, New Delhi dithered on providing the quantum of support to Operation Falcon without angering China. Ironically, as New Delhi remained comatose, Beijing made full use of these years to construct excellent border domination-specific military infrastructure all along the 4,056km-long disputed LAC. It was only in the wake of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai that New Delhi finally woke up to the PLA’s threat. The issue debated then was given China’s track record, what mischief will it make along the LAC in case of even a limited high-intensity war between India and Pakistan in future. It was then that the Indian Army HQ finally convinced the Govt of India that Chinese military support to Pakistan would no longer remain covert. Thus, in early 2009, for the very first time in independent India, the MoD issued a written directive to the three armed services HQs authorising them to acquire capabilities for waging a two-front war against China and Pakistan. What this implied was that full political support would be extended to the three armed services to enhance their requisite capabilities.
By 2005, after India had realised that China was 20 years ahead of her when it came to improving border transportation infrastructure, the Govt of India tasked the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to fast-track the construction of a large number of roads. It, however, took another three years for the BRO to make any headway since it was not too sure of what was required and how to go about mobilising such resources. Execution of works for building new arterial roads at the ground-level commenced only in 2008 after the Govt of India promised to allocate higher levels of funding (US$1.086 billion for this year and set to increase by 12% per annum over the next 10 years). Presently, the BRO is executing 17 projects which are divided into task-forces that are further sub-divided into Road Construction Companies (RCC), workshops, stores, and supply and transport convoys. Its manpower strength is 37,000 as against a sanctioned strength of 42,000. The BRO is presently upgrading all existing General Staff roads into National Highway Double Lane (NHDL) specifications, while all new roads (608km of them being along the LAC) are being built to NHDL or Enhanced Class 9 standard. Initially, a three-phase plan was envisaged, which included a short-term timeline by 2012, medium-term timeline by 2017 and long-term timeline by 2022. These timelines have since been consolidated into two phases so that they are in sync with the Army HQ-based Military Operations Directorate’s long-term perspective plans (LTPP). Accordingly, LTPP-1 will be completed by 2012, while LTPP-2 will reach fruition by 2022. LTPP-1 will take the roads from the hinterland to about 30km aerial distance (or 60km ground distance) to the LAC, while LTPP-2 would connect the passes while the laterals would come up to enable inter-valley connectivity—required for switching the deployed ground forces.
The BRO has been mandated to fast-track 73 select border roads along the LAC by moving 61 of its units to Jammu & Kashmir, seven units to Himachal Pradesh, 33 units to Uttarakhand, 46 units to Arunachal Pradesh, and 21 units to Sikkim. A majority of the arterial roads are expected to be completed by 2013, with work progressing well on 39 roads for which 25% of the BRO’s annual budget has been allocated. The major impediments, however, remain obtaining clearances from the Ministry of Environment & Forestry, and wildlife conservation authorities; and the task of stabilising the mountain slopes. Thus far, 63% of work on 27 roads in Arunachal Pradesh and 12 in Ladakh have been completed. To expedite construction activity, the BRO has begun inducting crawler rock drilling equipment, and constructing pre-engineered bridges and inter-locked pre-cast concrete block pavements.
In Jammu & Kashmir, the BRO’s Chief Engineer (CE) Project VIJAYAK has been tasked to construct and maintain roads along the Srinagar-Leh axis, Kargil sector and the alternate lateral road being built in the hinterland for better connectivity. This will allow CE Project HIMANK to accelerate construction activities in eastern Ladakh from Chushul to Daulat Beg Oldie (the areas lying north and north-east of Leh), with completion envisaged by 2022. Presently, a 364km-long motorable road is being built from Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie, with 174km of the road having been completed thus far. It is scheduled for completion by 2015. In Himachal Pradesh, CE DEEPAK, which was earlier responsible for Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand, is now being tasked to build the two arterial roads in this sector right up to the LAC by 2016. In Uttarakhand, CE Shivalik is hard at work to construct roads along all three valleys leading right up to the LAC. However, work activity has slowed down considerably due to the delayed clearances from the Union Ministry for Environment & Forestry and the completion date has now been targetted for 2022. In Sikkim, CE SWASTIK was reinvoked from suspended animation and is now constructing an alternate road to Gangtok and nmorthern Sikkim and also roads within northern Sikkim through both the Lachen and Lachung axis leading up to the LAC, primarily for facilitating the speedy deployment of armoured vehicles and field artillery assets to the Kerang plateau. Completion dates for these projects is 2015. To this end, all the bridges from Siliguri to Gangtok and thereafter from Gangtok to Chatten along the existing North Sikkim Highway were upgraded to Class 40 in 2008, along with temporary works to improve the turning radius. In LTPP-2, all bridges will be constructed to permanent specifications. In addition, all roads within Sikkim are being upgraded to NHDL specifications to enable smooth induction of Smerch-M and Pinaka MBRLs along with BrahMos TELs, with work being targetted for completion by 2016.
In Arunachal Pradesh, all roads are being upgraded to NHDL specifications to enable smooth induction of Smerch-M and Pinaka MBRLs along with BrahMos TELs. The bridges too are being upgraded to permanent Class 40 specifications. In addition, an alternate route to Tawang is under construction from Bhalukpong via Charduar. In the Subansari and Siyom valleys, the roadway has proceeded well past Along and should be completed by 2018, though bridge construction will be completed only by 2020. Along the Kibuthu axis, the bridge at Brahmakund was completed last year and another bridge is under construction at Digaru. Also, a rail bridge is being built at Dibrugarh across the Brahmaputra. Another bridge at Pasighat has already been completed. The National Highways 52 and 37 running along and north and south banks of the Brahmaputra are now being joined up at the extreme eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh in order to ensure additional flexibility in the switching of ground forces between the valleys and trans-Brahmaputra riverine movement. Project management of all such activities in Arunachal Pradesh is under CE VARTAK (taking charge of the western part), CE UDAYAK (central part) and CE ARUNANK (eastern part). The target is to connect all district HQs with NHDL-specification roads by 2016. A 1,554km-long trans-Arunachal Highway from Tawang to Tirap to connect all the valleys is also being implemented, as are a four-lane highway to link Itanagar with Guwahati, and 32km of railway line from Harmuti to Itanagar. The timeframe for all roads to reach the LAC is 2022. . The new roads leading to outposts such as Kibithu (7km from the LAC), Anini, Ziro, Tuting and Menchuka) have in recent years brought down the dependence on air logistics operations (conducted by the IAF’s Eastern Air Command) in the region. Currently, only around 14 out of the 100-odd designated Drop Zones (DZ) are operated. Air maintenance is undertaken with an elaborate network of ‘playing card’-sized DZs (some as small as 700 x 300 feet since there is just not enough space in the sloping higher mountain reaches), Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) and around 250 helipads (of the 700 available). This elaborate network of DZs (some like Tawang, Tato, Bhawani and Yapik in Arunachal Pradesh are close to the LAC), ALGs, and helipads are presently the lifelines of both military personnel and the civilian population living in Arunachal Pradesh.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian Army’s troops are conscious of the three tactical advantages of the opposing PLA’s Brigade-sized Border Guard Regiments. Firstly, the Chinese side has proper gravel roads right up to the LAC. The state of road connectivity on both sides of the LAC is graphically and starkly illustrated at the Bum La border meeting place. The PLA has deliberately avoided making ‘black-top’ roads since the gravel allows better water drainage during the monsoons, and it also puts pressure on India to not make any ‘black-top’ roads on her side. In any case, the PLA has the capability to easily construct a 45km-long ‘black-top’ road in 90 days. The PLA’s Construction Corps workforce is inclusive and highly disciplined. Secondly, the PLA has a psychological advantage over its Indian counterpart since it is under no pressure to maintain round-the-clock vigil. The PLA Border Guard’s force levels in forward positions are inversely proportional to those of Indian troops. For instance, in Tawang, the PLA’s 2 Border Guard Regiment, based about 40km away at Tsona Dzong is quite content with the usage of a wide variety of tactically networked remotely-controlled surveillance systems, something which the Indian Army presently lacks. Between its Regimental HQ and the defensive positions at specific and sensitive places, the Regiment has built barren flat ground patches to seve as heli-pads for ferrying in heliborne rapid-reaction forces whenever required. The Regimental HQ is also well-connected to Lhasa via an all-weather motorway as well as an oil pipeline.—Prasun K. Sengupta