India: XVII Mountain Corps

23 Jul, 2014    ·   4573

Amit R Saksena weighs in on the Indian Army’s first China-oriented offensive formation

Amit Saksena
Amit Saksena
Research Intern
On 1 January 2014, the flag of the newly sanctioned XVII Corps was hoisted at its interim headquarters in Ranchi, which kick-started the process of fielding a credible Indian deterrent force on the Northeastern front, from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir. In a largely Pakistan-centric architecture of troop distribution, this Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) is the first China-oriented offensive formation to be deployed by India. However, based on the Indian experience in weapon procurement, as well as the disjointed collaboration between auxiliary agencies, the viability of this endeavour is doubtful. The feasibility of playing catch-up, at the expense of modernisation and strategic development on other fronts, must be validated by the Government of India.

Fiscal Constraints
Monetary apprehension is a very strong factor against the operationalisation of this corps, and an analysis of the 2014-15 defense budget validate these concerns. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has reportedly commissioned a massive INR 64,000 crore over the next 7 financial years to float the MSC. This fund will cover all the major expenses of the project, from infrastructure to recruitment and logistical expenditure of the additional 80,000 troops that the Army intends to commit to this corps. With an alarmingly high revenue expenditure (almost 82 per cent) vis-à-vis its existing force of 12,00,000 troops, the addition of a further 80,000 troops will send the fiscal budget through the ceiling. Out of the INR 73,444 crore capital allocation for the three forces, 96 per cent has already been earmarked for installments on previous purchases, leaving a meager INR 2955 crore free for new acquisitions. Compared to the annualINR 8,000 crore needed to float the MSC, there is no overt indication of where the rest of the money is coming from.

Logistical Development and Topographical Constraints
Till very recently, one of the major stumbling blocks in military infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been the delay in environmental clearance. This project will require close collaboration between the Ministries of Finance and Environment, the Border Roads Organisation, and the Indian Army and Air Force (IAF). It should be noted that China presently fields five fully-operational airbases, an extensive rail network and over 58,000 km of roads in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). This allows Beijing to move over 30 divisions (each with over 15,000 soldiers) to the LAC, outnumbering Indian forces by at least 3:1.

In addition to the roads, the Army and the Air Force will require credible contractors to take on the task of building and developing military-centric installments in the region. High-altitude bases for light and stationary artillery, barracks for troops, ammunition, intelligence and logistics nodes, and training centres will have to be developed. The inhospitable weather conditions in which contractors may be unwilling to work can prove to be a serious roadblock. For instance, since 2009 the IAF has been trying to recruit contractors for upgrading the existing Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) along the Chinese border, with no success.

Empowering the Mountain Strike Corps
India, despite being the largest importer of defense equipment, does not have an ironed-out procurement policy. The military industrial complex in India fares worse than most other countries.

A Hasty Decision?
Many strategists and defense personnel have noted the impetuous nature of the decision to instate a MSC. If Chinese incursions have acted as a catalyst for raising this strike corps, then the government should have better evaluated other alternatives before making this decision. As articulated by Rear Adm (Retd) K Raja Menon, “A geographically limited one axis offensive will not destabilise the PLA, but a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group in the Indian Ocean can economically cripple mainland China.”

Another concern is the increasingly ‘infantry heavy’ nature of the Indian Army. Most major militaries of the world today are concentrating on modernisation efforts rather than adding extra boots on the ground. In the last three decades, the PLA has reduced and restructured its divisional formations to slash troop count by almost half. The Ministry of Defense’s ambitious Future-Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS) programme initiated in 2007 is past its 2013 deadline as the government continues to spend on projects such as the MSC.

Indeed, looking ahead, a conventional war between India and China in the future appears to be a unlikely prospect. China recently overtook the UAE as India’s largest economic partner, with bilateral trade reaching US$49.5 billion halfway through the 2013-14 fiscal year. Both India and China also have in place countless bilateral treaties, and are collaborators in many international forums on economic development and scientific research. A border dispute spawning into a war would be detrimental to both. In the same vein, the concept of a MSC against China is a necessary routine threat assessment exercise, and should go forward. What is paramount to this endeavour is a clear and transparent synergy of all the involved parties, and a well-structured, time-stamped blueprint for its successful implementation and operationalisation.