Mountain Corps Raises Questions About India’s Strategy

Rather than deterring Chinese aggression in the Himalayas, shouldn’t India focus on expanding its maritime capabilities?

A soldier stands in front of India's parliament building in New Delhi, November 19, 2009
A soldier stands in front of India’s parliament building in New Delhi, November 19, 2009 (PTI/Vijay Kumar Joshi)

India’s recent decision to raise a mountain strike corps along the border with China has raised arguments over the strategic orientation the country is supposed to have in years to come.

Although the operational details of the proposed mountain corps, which involves enhancing India’s third and fourth-generation warfare capabilities, are yet to be revealed, what’s clear is that the unit will contain up to 50,000 soldiers and be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal. This will mark a deviation from India’s existing continental offensive strategic orientation which is primarily focused on Pakistan. It will also mark a shift in orientation toward China from defensive to proactive.

The strike corps’ mission would be to occupy territory in China’s Tibet region in the event of a Chinese attack against India. This requires a paradigm shift in Indian strategic thinking which otherwise advocates the limited use of force for political purposes. This raises the question whether the proposed unit shouldn’t be considered an expeditionary one.

The decision to raise the strike corps has triggered a larger debate about India’s strategic priorities. Rear Admiral Raja Menon questioned the logic of mounting the unit in The Hindu newspaper last month when the greatest challenge posed by China is in the Indian Ocean region.

Even when it creates a new mountain combat unit, India will not be able to match China’s five air bases in the border area and its rail and road infrastructure there which allow it to move over thirty divisions, with over 15,000 soldiers each, to the Line of Actual Control — the de facto border between the two Asian powers — far outnumbering India’s forces.

Menon thinks it better to expand India’s maritime capabilities which would involve forming alliances and strategic partnerships with countries across South and East Asia as well as the United States in order to deny China access to resources in Africa or disrupt its sea lines of communications if there should ever be a war. Rather than pursuing an offensive continental strategy, India should pursue a defensive maritime strategy.

On the other hand, India is a continental as well as a maritime power. A territorial incursion, let alone the loss of territory, would be politically far more damaging to the government in New Delhi than faraway strategic gains and losses across the Indian Ocean region that seem of little benefit to the Indian voter.

India’s navy still receives the least funding of the three armed services. Especially the need of keeping a sizable land army under arms to respond to Pakistani aggression hampers the navy’s ability to develop a full fledged presence across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Indian maritime capabilities have improved in recent years to balance against China’s similarly expanding naval presence. It has reinforced both its Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam and its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But having to address its immediate, land based threats, it can ill afford to expand its maritime presence further — which would otherwise be more acceptable to neighboring powers.

Moreover, the continental orientation toward China raises questions about India’s existing continental strategy toward Pakistan. If the army is to devote more resources to responding to a potential Chinese incursion, the three strike corps currently based in central India to fight a land war with Pakistan might have to be reorganized — marking another paradigm shift.