Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :
Talks between the two senior most military commanders on either side of the LAC in Ladakh have ended. Each side has now assured the other of restraint and dialogue in resolving vexed issues of the boundary in future. Though a pullback of 1-2 kms by both sides has been witnessed, yet overall, the situation remains fluid. Much has been written about these intrusions. What the intent was is still a matter of speculation. Suffice to say that the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been aggravated and remedial measures now need to be put in place. A similar act of posturing by India elsewhere along the LAC would not be in the overall interest of peace and would only make matters worse. Standing firm along what is believed to be the alignment and ensuring an improved and effective border control, including use of better ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) is the answer for India.
The LAC is the line along which the perceived border between India and China lies; It runs along geographical features but is neither mutually defined, delineated nor demarcated, with each having their own alignment. The prime responsibility of any unit deployed along the LAC is to ensure its sanctity by guarding it to last man last round. Everything else comes after that.
While, the Line of Control (LC) with Pakistan is clearly defined and delineated, understood and accepted by both sides, the LAC with China has been constantly bogged with controversies and disputes. Latest reports suggest the existence of 23 areas along the LAC with China that are disputed and contested. It is these areas, including a new one along the Galwan Valley, that are witness to intrusions, discussions, which could spiral out of control into a skirmish if not handled carefully. Border agreements between India and China have been signed in 1993, 1995, 2005 and the latest in 2013, yet peace remains disturbed.
With infrastructure development on the Indian side matching that of the Chinese, intrusions and objections from the other side are going to increase. The present case and the one regarding Lipulekh are two examples. The Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh have come at a time when the world, including India, is battling the corona pandemic. The solution now lies in looking ahead to find ways to improve the procedures and practices and taking remedial measures to improve them, thereby ensuring a certain level of deterrence against such incidents.
The government’s policy of “one border one force,” tasks the ITBP to man the Chinese border. The ITBP is a professional force trained in mountain warfare, meant to guard the 3500 km long border with China with its 60 odd battalions. The composition of the ITBP is an all India mix, which has issues of turnover and knowledge of the area. Raising Home and Hearth (H&H) battalions comprising local youth, as is prevalent in J&K, would perhaps add more teeth. As required manpower exclusively from Ladakh may be a problem, independent companies comprising a mix of sons of the soil and other hill troops should be raised as special squads or scouts to man extremely sensitive areas where intrusions can take place. These could form part of the Army H&H battalions / ITBP / or even Territorial Army units/subunits.
Senior leadership is provided by its Sector and Force HQs headed by DIGs and IGs, respectively. Post the current standoff, the ITBP has created two commands, headed by an ADG ITBP, based at Chandigarh and Guwahati respectively, to coordinate the activities of the ITBP forces deployed along the LAC. Despite that, the Army is also tasked with its own patrols up to the LAC, thereby resulting in duplication of effort and issues related to command, control, and reporting. The ITBP functions under the MHA and has its own reporting channels, that go up the chain to Delhi, without any lateral feed to the Army formations in the area. This creates problems of synergy with the army and falls short in times of crisis in a No War No Peace scenario. Infrastructure development too is handled independent of the army’s plans though meshed into the overall operational plan.
An oft debated point is regarding placing all troops manning the border under operational control of the army. That would be an ideal situation, akin to the PLA, wherein their Border Defence Regiments fall under the command and control of the Western Theatre Command. If not feasible immediately, the creation of a Unified Force HQ headed by GOC 14 Corps akin to what exists in J&K and the Northeast is the necessity of the hour for better command, control, and coordination. If accepted, functional hurdles would get removed, operations would be more synergised. However, for active borders, like the LAC and LOC, effective management can be achieved by placing all resources deployed to guard it under the operational control Army, thereby avoiding duplication of effort leading to budgetary savings through economy of scales.
Resources for surveillance and reconnaissance are limited and confined to what the infantry battalions of the army possess. Enhancing capabilities and capacities of troops manning the border, thus needs a careful consideration. UAVs are one form of acquiring real time information about the area of interest integrating it with the C4ISR (Command, Control. Communications, Computers, ISR) capabilities. Besides the Israeli Heron and Searcher Mk II UAVs being the mainstays of the Indian Army, the DRDO is developing the Rustom Series UAV to improve surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting capabilities along the border. Amongst these the Rustom 1 appears ready to be launched, having carried out several field trials. With an operating ceiling of more than 20,000 feet, a range of 220 kilometres, endurance limit of ten hours, and a visual capability of up to 40 kilometres; if equipped with state-of-the-art payloads it would be an ideal force multiplier.
A need was felt during the Kargil Conflict for detailed information about enemy deployment from a global / regional navigation satellite system that was not readily available. To enhance its space based ISR capabilities, India has commissioned its own Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) or NavIC for short meaning Navigation with Indian Constellation, in May 2013. This combination of satellites covers the complete Indian landmass and areas beyond it providing real time information. The system has been in use since 2018 providing satellite imagery to agencies like NTRO and DIPAC. Sharing of the real time information and intelligence by DIPAC and NTRO, with the Command and Corps HQ and effective passage of such information to the local formations needs urgent attention.
New methods and techniques for dominating unmanned inhospitable terrain need to be explored and evolved, as the physical manning of every inch of India’s borders is near impossible. India needs to evolve new technologies to take care of the unmanned gaps in its C$ISR capabilities, using Artificial Intelligence (AI). In technical terms, AI is the ability of a computer to perform tasks akin to the intellectual level of human beings, co-opting all characteristics especially the ability to reason and act. Currently the AI technology has scope for employment in the defence services.
AI has been tried and tested by all major powers of the world. The US has been extensively involved in AI R&D especially in the field of drone systems. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan have seen extensive use of swarm drone warfare demonstrating effective accuracy and lethality. Russia and China are not far behind. Among the others, Israel has made advances in the field of AI, and not to be outdone, India too has been indulging in its share of AI research. The Centre for AI & Robotics (CAIR) is the lead agency for India’s defence services.
AI R&D in India must be designed to suit the environment prevailing along the borders. Robotic techniques to cater for inhospitable and inaccessible high-altitude terrain with freezing temperatures, as well as the scorching heat of desert landscape must all be configured in the Indian design. A beginning has been made in the Indian Army with the setting up of the Army Design Bureau (ADB), which was created in 2016. The aim of the ADB is to act as an interface between the army, academia, research organisations, DRDO, Defence PSUs and the industry. It needs to engage effectively with the private defence industry also for cutting edge technology in defence equipment and enhancing C4ISR and AI capabilities.
The Army needs to optimally harness the human potential that can be made available within its ranks to further the user interface for such programs. A number of Army officers graduate each year with B Tech and M Tech degrees from technical colleges within the country. Mandatory subjects on issues like AI need to be introduced in the syllabi of these courses so as to build a cadre of qualified individuals. Thereafter these officers should be merged with R&D experts to be used in this field.
For effective management of the border and enabling an effective deterrence against future stand-offs, there is a need for a coordinated, real-time C4ISR grid to be in place. Further, duplication in command and control channels need to be avoided and, preferably all troops deployed along the LAC be placed under the operational control of the Military Commander on ground. Till such time this happens, a Unified Command structure be put in place, akin to that in the NE.
Further, field commanders attempting to dominate areas using handheld surveillance equipment, which have restricted range and limitations, have obviously fallen short. Continuous use of a surveillance device sets in monotony and other human omissions. Keeping disputed areas under observation to enhance situational awareness is a key priority for commanders at tactical and operational levels. Ramping up C4ISR and AI capabilities of the military would be the key solution to this problem.
Lt Gen Shakti Gurung, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is the former Military Secretary of the Indian Army. During his 39 years of service he has extensive experience along the Western and Northern borders and counter terrorism / insurgency operations.
Article uploaded on 10-06-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.