It was decades ago when India and China went to war in 1962 over the same Himalayan region where at least 20 soldiers were killed on June 15 in a bloody confrontation between the two sides. One month of combat resulted in a Chinese military victory, with Beijing declaring a cease-fire after securing de facto control of Aksai Chin, an area claimed by both countries.
The battle claimed the lives of around 700 Chinese troops and double that on the Indian side. But the militaries that face off in the Himalayas in 2020 are far different from those that fought 58 years ago.
Conventional wisdom has it that China holds a significant military advantage over India, but recent studies from the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston and the Center for a New American Security in Washington suggest India maintains an edge in high-altitude mountainous environments, such as the one where the current face-off is taking place.
The fact that both China and India have become nuclear powers since their previous encounter cannot be ignored when assessing the balance of power. Beijing became a nuclear power in 1964 and India in 1974.
According to the figures released this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIRPI), China has approximately 320 nuclear warheads — more than double India’s 150. Both powers have seen their arsenals grow in the past year, Beijing’s by 40 warheads and New Delhi’s by 10, according to SIRPI.
However, both countries ascribe to a “no first use” policy, meaning they’ve pledged only to use nuclear arms in retaliation to a nuclear attack on their county.
When assessing Air force power of both the nations, India has about 270 fighters and 68 ground-attack aircraft it could bring to bear in combat with China, according to a study published in March by the Belfer Center.
India also maintains a string of small air bases near the Chinese border from which it can stage and supply those aircraft, the Belfer study, authored by Frank O’Donnell and Alexander Bollfrass claimed.
In contrast, China has 157 fighters and a small fleet of ground-attack drones in the region, the Belfer study said. “The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) uses eight bases in the region, but most of those are civilian airfields at problematic elevations”, the study suggests.
“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,” the study claims.
The study further claims that aerial refueling could give the Chinese planes more payload and combat time, but the PLAAF doesn’t have enough aerial tankers to get the job done.
The Belfor study also gives the Indian Air Force (IAF), with its Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi Su-30 jets, a qualitative edge in the region, where China fields J-10, J-11 and Su-27 fighters.
The Indian Mirage 2000 and Su-30 jets are all-weather, multi-role aircraft — while of the Chinese jets, only the J-10 has those abilities.
The Belfer study points out that China, facing perceived threats from the United States on its eastern and southern flanks, has strengthened its bases there to the neglect of the Himalayas, leaving at least four PLA airbases vulnerable.
“Indian destruction or temporary incapacitation of some of the four above air bases would further exacerbate these PLAAF operational inflexibilities and weaknesses,” it claims.
The Belfer report gives the edge to India’s air force in one other area — experience.
“Recent conflicts with Pakistan give the current IAF a level of institutional experience in actual networked combat,” it says.
Lacking such experience, Chinese pilots may have difficulty thinking for themselves in a dynamic aerial battlefield, according to the Belfer report.
While India has the experience in the air, an October 2019 Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report says it is also hardened on the ground, fighting in places like Kashmir and in skirmishes along its border with Pakistan.
“India is by far the more experienced and battle-hardened party, having fought a series of limited and low-intensity conflicts in its recent past,” the CNAS report says.
“The PLA, on the other hand, has not experienced the crucible of combat since its conflict with Vietnam in 1979,” it says.
Yet while there may be a big gap in experience in the Himalayas today, there is reportedly parity in the numbers of ground troops. Belfer estimates there are about 225,000 Indian ground forces in the region, as well as 200,000 to 230,000 Chinese.
The numbers, however, may be misleading. Counted among those PLA forces are units assigned to keep down any chance of insurrection in Xinjiang or Tibet, or deal with any potential conflict along China’s border with Russia.
Moving them to the Indian front in the event of large-scale hostilities presents a logistical problem, as Indian airstrikes could target high-speed rail lines on the Tibetan plateau or choke points in the mountainous terrain closer to the border.
“By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position,” the report says.
But the question is whether, in the event of large-scale conflict, China has enough missiles to take out all the targets it would need to hit in India.
The Belfer study cites estimates of a former Indian Air Force officer, who predicts China would need 220 ballistic missiles to knock out one Indian airfield for a day. With only 1,000 to 1,200 missiles available for the task, China would quickly run out of the means to shut down India’s airfields, it says.
While China may be largely on its own facing off against India in the Himalayas, New Delhi has been developing defense relationships with countries wary of Beijing as a rising military power.
New Delhi has grown closer to the United States military in recent years, with Washington calling India a “major defense partner” while increasing bi- and multilateral training.
In the event of a large-scale Himalayan conflict, US intelligence and surveillance could help India get a clearer picture of the battlefield.
The Belfer report uses the example of what might happen if China was to surge troops from its interior to the front lines in the mountains.
“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,” it says.