Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane on Tuesday said that the Indian Army was prepared to hold ground in eastern Ladakh “for as long as it takes” to achieve national objectives in case the ongoing military and diplomatic talks with China to reduce tensions in the sensitive sector are “prolonged,” even as he described a joint threat from China and Pakistan as “very potent.”
He said India should not read too much into the recent withdrawal of Chinese troops from depth areas on the Tibetan plateau as there has been absolutely no reduction of troops by either side at friction points in the Ladakh sector where the border standoff between the two nuclear powers is in its ninth month.
Hindustan Times reported on Monday that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has moved back at least 10,000 soldiers from depth areas in the Ladakh theatre to rear positions but the PLA’s frontline deployments remain unchanged.
Speaking to reporters at his customary annual press conference ahead of Army Day on January 15, Naravane said he was hopeful that the ongoing dialogue with China would yield an “amicable solution” but stressed that the operational preparedness of the army was of high order and the force was ready to deal with any eventuality.
The two armies are due to hold the ninth round of talks between their senior commanders to resolve the lingering border dispute that has brought chill to ties between India and China.
“Eight rounds of talks have taken place between military commanders and each of these rounds has either been preceded or followed by diplomatic level engagement. We will ensure that through the medium of these talks we reach a solution which is acceptable and not detrimental to our interests. And if the talks get prolonged, so be it. We are prepared to hold our ground for as long as it takes to achieve our national goals and interests,” the army chief said.
The army chief’s remarks convey two important things, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd). “First, it is a declaration of resolve and intent to continue with a strong posture along the LAC till the time the matter is resolved to India’s satisfaction and that time is not of paramount importance. Secondly, it also shows that an early resolution appears unlikely, most probably due to the positions of both sides being quite different on the terms of disengagement and de-escalation,” Hooda said.
The army chief said India hoped to reach an agreement with China based on the principles of “mutual and equal security” that would result in disengagement of border troops at friction points and subsequent de-escalation of conflict in the Ladakh theatre.
The army chief also indicated that there had been no change in the ground situation in eastern Ladakh and the army had carried out a troop rebalance on the northern borders to deal with any challenge. There are plans to use elements of a strike formation in the plains to deal with the Chinese threat.
“On the situation at the northern borders, we are carrying out certain studies. We carry out a periodic review of our operational plans and our strategies to deal with various threats — both external (one front or two fronts) and internal. And based on these reviews, a certain amount of rebalancing does happen. And as the events in eastern Ladakh have shown, there was a requirement of carrying out a certain amount of rebalancing towards our northern borders and this is what we have now put into place,” the army chief said.
He said the army was focused not only on eastern Ladakh but along the border with China — stretching from Ladakh to Uttarakhand to Arunachal Pradesh.
“There is no eyeball-to-eyeball deployment in the central and eastern sectors but friction points are there. In these areas, China has built a lot of infrastructure on its sides including roads and barracks. We monitor all these developments and factor them in when we devise a new strategy,” he said.
The army chief did not view the recent withdrawal of Chinese troops from their depth areas as a significant development but pointed out that the PLA’s moves were being closely monitored. He said various Chinese army units and formations come to the Tibetan plateau for their summer training and go back when the winter sets in.
“We should not read too much into their presence of absence in these training areas. These areas are well in depth and are as much as 500 km to 1,500 km away from the border. All the same, we keep an eye on their deployments on the Tibetan plateau because these are the forces that could be mobilised and sent to the borders in 24 to 48 hours…However, what is more important is that in the border areas where there is eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, there has been no reduction of troops. That is where we have to be more concerned and careful,” the army chief said.
On the origin of the border row with China, Naravane said the army had full details of where the PLA was training in the Ladakh theatre last summer but the latter had the “first-mover advantage” that can never be predicted. He said the Indian Army exploited the same advantage last August when it moved swiftly and occupied strategic heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso.
“They (PLA) come for training every year and we had full details of the areas they were present in. We were regularly monitoring the situation. But suddenly they had the first-mover advantage. This first-mover advantage will always remain, like we had in the month of August. Even though we were in eyeball-to-eyeball contact, China had no clue that we would surprise them,” he said.
The Indian Army swiftly occupied a series of key heights to prevent the PLA from grabbing Indian territory on the southern bank in a stealthy midnight move on August 29.
The Indian Army now controls ridgeline positions on the southern bank of Pangong Tso that allow it to completely dominate the sector and keep an eye on Chinese military activity, with the positions scattered across Rezang La, Reqin pass, Gurung Hill and Magar heights.
The army chief said that there was no doubt that India faced a collusive threat from China and Pakistan.
“This is not just something that was part of some strategic paper or loud thought process. It is very much manifesting itself on the ground. There is indeed increased cooperation between China and Pakistan in both military and non-military fields. And a two-front threat is something that we have to be prepared for. And in dealing with such a threat, we have to see which threat is more serious, prioritise it and deal with it first,” he said.
The two countries together pose a very potent threat that cannot be wished away and the army keeps that element in mind during its strategic planning, he said.
The army chief said that the force was reducing its footprint in the North-east with the security situation there improving manifold in recent years. He said one brigade had been relieved of counter-insurgency duties and two more would follow suit. “We are drawing down in the North-east. It will help us focus more on our primary task, which is dealing with external threats,” he said.
On a recent controversial one-man study — published by a think tank — that said half of the army was under stress, Naravane said it was based on a highly inadequate sample size of just 400 people. “For 99% accuracy, the sample size should have been 19,000.”
On a lighter note, he said maybe there is stress in the army and “I am also stressed.” Stress is not always bad as it can also get work done, he said, adding that measures were in place to deal with the problem.
Army women to fly choppers soon
Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane on Tuesday said that the army would soon open the doors of its aviation wing to women officers.
“Last month, we moved a proposal to allow women officers in the flying branch of the Army Aviation Corps. Until now, women officers were only carrying out ground duties in army aviation,” the army chief said. The army’s aviation wing operates helicopters.
Naravane said that the first batch of women officers will commence training to become pilots in July 2021. They will join front-line flying duties on completion of training in July 2022. Women in the Indian Air Force and the navy carry out flying duties.
Courtesy – Hindustan Times