India fears that it is militarily inferior to China.
But are those fears overblown? A new study argues that if another Sino-Indian conflict erupts, India is much stronger than it appears.
“We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks,” write scholars Frank O’Donnell and Alex Bollfrass in a report for Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
That assessment comes even as China and India engage in yet another military faceoff along their disputed border, where China seized territory during a brief war in 1962. Indian planners fear that China has military superiority along the border.
“For example, one Indian expert has observed that ‘India’s ground force posture and strength is not really comparable to that of China in their border regions,’” the Belfer report notes. “China has better military infrastructure, capabilities, and logistics.’”
But this underestimates Indian strengths. For starters, China has a larger military, with about 2 million active-duty personnel versus 1.4 million for India. But the Belfer report estimates that China and India have roughly equivalent forces in the border region, with 200,000 to 230,000 troops apiece in the military commands responsible for the area. In the air, India actually has numerical superiority, with almost 350 Indian fighters and ground attack aircraft facing 157 Chinese fighters backed by about 50 armed drones, according to the study.
These numbers also mask more subtle Indian advantages. For example, some of those Chinese troops and aircraft in border commands will be tasked with keeping an eye on Russia, or keeping a lid on insurrection in Tibet and Xinjiang, the report argues. “In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it [China] would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theater Command forces deeper in China’s interior. By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position.”
“While an opportunistic Russian attack upon China in these areas is unlikely, a significant proportion of these Chinese forces will remain unavailable for India contingencies and still be directed to guard against this eventuality,” O’Donnell told Uncommon Defense.
Chinese airpower in the region operates from four major airbases, which can be neutralized by Indian bombardment. And while holding the high ground is normally a good thing, that’s not true for Chinese pilots operating from mountainous Tibet. “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refueling would be required for PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] forces to maximize their strike capacity,” the report says. “Against these underpowered fighters, IAF [Indian Air Force] forces will launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities.”
The Belfer study also points to a geographic reality: the Himalayas are a long way from the centers of Chinese power. “China could surge air and ground forces from its interior toward the border. However, what our analysis suggests is that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes—such as air bases and military road and rail links—could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced. Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilize its own additional forces from its interior.”
Then there is the nuclear balance between China and India. The Belfer study estimates that 104 nuclear-capable Chinese missiles are within range of all or parts of India, versus 18 Indian Agni II and III missiles that can reach all or parts of China. India has also three squadrons of nuclear-capable Mirage 2000H and Jaguar fighters that can reach China – assuming they can penetrate Chinese air defenses.
“China believes it has mutual nuclear deterrence against India, but Indian assumptions tend to be more pessimistic, and instead assume that effective nuclear deterrence will only be generated against China once India has fielded an Agni-V missile force, able to reach Beijing, Shanghai and other east coast targets, and a full nuclear-armed submarine fleet,” O’Donnell, co-author of “India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers,” told Uncommon Defense.
Yet in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, O’Donnell and Bollfrass argue that instead of developing new nuclear missiles and submarines, India would be better off improving the survivability of its existing nuclear platforms while advocating global nuclear arms control. This would also free up funding to beef up conventional forces.
What’s interesting is that the Belfer report isn’t the first American study to conclude that India has a fighting chance to defeat China. An analysis earlier this year by the Center for New American Security argued that India could use China’s own tactics from the Korean War to offset Chinese numerical superiority.
India’s military still has problems to overcome, including a corrupt and inefficient system for designing and procuring weapons. Nonetheless, All of which suggests that despite all the buzz over China’s impressive growth in high-tech military capabilities, Indian military power should not be underestimated.