The ability to read and understand the adversary’s mind and message is a vital component of strategic decision-making. When decisions that could lead to military conflicts are made without such an ability, surprise and possible disaster are often the outcome.
The truth of this was illustrated during the Korean war of the late 1940s and the 1950s and the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
During the initial months of the Korean war, as the defeated North Korean Army was retreating towards the Yalu river marking North Korea’s border with China, there were repeated warnings from Beijing directly and indirectly that it would not be a silent spectator of the UN troops commanded by the US reaching the river that could pose a threat to China’s security and that the PLA might be forced to intervene to prevent such an eventuality.
Gen Douglas MacArthur of the US Army, who then commanded the Far East Command, was so confident of final and decisive victory over the North Korean Army and so dismissive of Beijing’s warnings and its ability to have them executed on the ground that he kept up the advance unmindful of the dangers of a Chinese intervention.
As the UN troops neared the Yalu river, the PLA intervened massively and with determination and threw the UN troops back with heavy casualties. Gen MacArthur had underestimated the strength and fighting capability of not only the PLA, but also the PLA (Air Force).
Fifty years later, a study of the lessons of the massive Chinese intervention carried out in the U.S. Army Centre of Military History by Richard W. Stewart came to the following conclusions regarding the Chinese intervention in the war:
“The period from early November 1950 to late January 1951 was in many ways the most heartbreaking of the Korean War. During the previous summer the North Korean attack had been a total surprise, and the disastrous retreat to the Pusan Perimeter was painful in the extreme. However, the series of defeats could be explained by the necessarily haphazard and slow reinforcement of the outnumbered U.S. and South Korean forces. Moreover, these defeats were followed by elation as the Inchon landings reversed the situation and the UN forces seemed on the verge not just of victory in South Korea but of total victory, including the liberation of North Korea and the reunification of the peninsula. All these dreams were swept away by the massive intervention of the Chinese Army in late November 1950. There would be no homecoming victory parade by Christmas.
“The initial warning attacks and diplomatic hints by the Chinese were ignored by the overconfident Far Eastern Command under General MacArthur. MacArthur’s failure to comprehend the reality of the situation led the entire United Nations army to near disaster at the Chongchon River and the Chosin Reservoir. Only the grit and determination of the individual American soldiers and marines as they fought the three major enemies of cold, fear, and isolation held the UN line together during the retreats from North Korea. Once tied together into a coherent defensive line, under new and dynamic leadership, these same soldiers and marines showed their determination to continue the fight. Hard battles lay ahead, but the period of headlong retreats from an attacking, unsuspected foe, was finally over.”
The mistakes committed by Gen MacArthur which led to the massive Chinese intervention could be summed up as follows: Over-confidence and over-estimation of the strength of his own forces, under-estimation of the strength and determination of the Chinese, an inability to read the Chinese mind, and treating lightly and dismissively Chinese warnings regarding the likely consequences of the UN forces reaching the Yalu river, thereby posing a threat to China.
Similar mistakes were committed--in a much larger measure-- by our political and military leadership before the Sino-Indian war of 1962 leading to the humiliating defeat of our Army at the hands of the PLA. There have been very few comprehensive studies available to the public in India on the reasons for our defeat. As we observe the 50th anniversary of the defeat, many articles have been appearing in the media, but they are largely a collection of wishful thinking, unverified assumptions, breast-beatings and claims unsupported by concrete facts. Such studies do not serve any purpose in enabling us to learn the right lessons so that such mistakes are not repeated.
One such unverifiable claim made recently is that if we had used our Air Force our Army might not have suffered a humiliating defeat. Such claims have not been supported by a factual analysis of the state of the Air Force of the two countries in 1962. Many of the analyses that have appeared recently have not brought out the fact that barring the military conflict with Pakistan in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947-48, our Armed Forces had not fought a major war since we became independent in 1947 .
As against this, the Chinese Armed Forces had fought a major war against the UN troops led by the US in Korea, almost giving a bloody nose to them. And their Air Force had played a very important and creditable role against the UN Air Force. No authentic assessment of the Chinese air power and capability as exhibited during the Korean war is available, but according to one Chinese claim they managed to shoot down 320 UN aircraft and lost 220 of their own. Their account of their losses indicate their already massive aircraft holdings in the 1950s, thanks to the assistance from the USSR. According to Western analysts as cited by GlobalSecurity.org, even in 1953, the PLA ( Air Force) had a total holding of 1500 combat aircraft of different types.
The 1962 war with India took place long after the Korean war was over. Even if there was no need for the Chinese to shift their Army units from the Korean border to the Indian border, they were in a position to shift a large number of their aircraft to Sichuan and Yunnan for possible use against India. Our Armed Forces with no experience of having fought a major war since 1947 were forced by our political leadership to confront the PLA whose self-confidence, experience and war-fighting capabilities had been enhanced by the experiences gained by it against the UN troops led by the US in Korea.
Our political leadership forced our armed forces to engage in a confrontation with the PLA thinking that the PLA of 1962 would be no different from the PLA of 1949 which had captured control of China from the KMT. Before we embarked on our so-called forward policy which led to a military confrontation, two intelligence assessments should have been made--firstly, an assessment of the Chinese strength and capabilities in Tibet and Xinjiang and secondly, an assessment of their military and air power, fighting capabilities and generalship as exhibited during the war in Korea.
Our Intelligence Bureau (IB) did the first assessment, however inadequate it might have been. It was not in a position to undertake the second since its area of focus was limited to the peripheral countries. Thus, we went to war with China in 1962 largely unaware of the advances made by the Chinese Armed Forces during the 1950s and of their professional qualities as exhibited in Korea.
Fifty years after the 1962 war, we still have limited mental horizons in matters strategic. Our horizons are largely limited by Pakistan, its ISI, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and its Amir Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed. There is a huge panoply of threats arising from China which have not received our attention. It is Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan all the time.
As an example of how our mental horizons in matters strategic continue to be limited, let me narrate the following: We had a military conflict with Pakistan in the Kargil heights in 1999. After the conflict, the government of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, set up a committee headed by the late K. Subrahmaniam to identify the inadequacies noticed in the conduct of the war and to recommend steps for removing them.
On the basis of its recommendations, a number of Task Forces were set up to examine weaknesses in our national security structure and recommend action for removing them. These Task Forces dealt with Defence Management, Intelligence Revamp, Border Management and Internal Security. Their reports were vetted by a Group of Ministers nominated by the Prime Minister and the national security architecture was modified.
Since the GOM and its Task Forces were the outcome of the Kargil war with Pakistan, their terms of reference mostly related to likely threats from Pakistan. Most of their recommendations were Pakistan-centric. So was the modified national security architecture that came into being. Some of their recommendations did collaterally strengthen our capabilities with regard to China, but the focus of their study was not China.
Ten years later, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh set up a blue ribbon Task Force on National Security chaired by Mr Naresh Chandra, former Cabinet Secretary. Since it was not the outcome of any war with Pakistan with restricted terms of reference, it was expected to cover a much larger strategic depth, with a greater focus on the examination of our capabilities vis-à-vis those of China.
The Hindu of October 9, 2012, has carried a moving tribute to Mr Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser under Mr Vajpayee, who passed away recently, by Mr Shivshankar Menon, the present NSA. He has said that when the national security structures built up under Mishra ‘were reviewed after 10 years by a Task Force, they actually suggested more of the same, rather than a radical restructuring.” He is referring to the Task Force chaired by Mr Naresh Chandra.
I interpret this as an implied criticism of the report of the Naresh Chandra Task Force submitted to the Prime Minister on May 24, 2012, which is presently under examination. The report went into greater details than the reports of the GOM regarding likely concerns arising from China, but these concerns have not been adequately reflected in suggesting a further modification and modernisation of our national security architecture.
Attention on Pakistan continues to be important. It continues to target our jugular vein. But in our preoccupation with Pakistan, we should not lose sight of the fact that an architecture created for dealing with Pakistan, will not be able to deal satisfactorily with China. To deal with China we need a different mindset, a different ability to read its mind and message, a different military and intelligence capability etc. The focus of the Task Force should have been on them.
Some other countries had in the past undertaken comprehensive studies of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 in order to see what lessons it has for them. A very useful study released in April 1984 was by Lt Commander James Barnard Calvin of the US Navy on behalf of the Marine Corps and Staff College of the US. His interesting conclusions are annexed. They are quite valid even today.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
Conclusions of a study on the Sino-Indian war of October 1962, made in 1984 by the US Marine corps and staff college
There may well have been room for compromise, but stubbornness and India's aggressive forward policy resulted in armed conflict. World leaders must heed other nations' stated vital strategic objectives.
Assumptions are dangerous. Nehru's assumption that China would not confront Indian troops and would passively retreat caused Nehru to pursue a very assertive forward policy of thrusting troops and border patrols into-and sometimes even beyond--disputed frontier areas. His assumptions and resulting policy eventually brought retaliation from China. Assumptions are still dangerous; hypotheses about one's enemy must be validated by accurate intelligence.
Ignoring the advice of senior, experienced army officers was disastrous for India. Many officers had warned Nehru that India was poorly prepared for war with China: they were relieved or replaced, their advice ignored. Leaders may believe what they want to believe, but foolishly discounting the counsel of experts may lead them to disaster.
Intelligence and appropriate interpretation of intelligence is vital; only valid information--not assumptions—is important to military planning. India seemed almost totally unaware that she was heavily outnumbered along the border and that China (unlike India) was well prepared logistically and well versed in alpine warfare tactics. Both sides used reconnaissance patrols, but battle results would indicate that China had good intelligence and used it to good advantage. One must "know your enemy."
Logistic readiness is vital to any military operation. India was very poorly prepared logistically, especially for cold weather and mountain operations. On several occasions, India ran out of ammunition or was otherwise unable to sustain herself. The Chinese had stockpiled supplies in Tibet, and had the manpower to keep the front well supplied. The Border War's mountain operations were relatively slow moving. Today, high mobility will make proper logistic support even more crucial.
Similarly, India was neither trained nor prepared for alpine warfare. Until Nehru's assertive forward policy was initiated, few Indian soldiers had operated in mountain areas. Altitudes above 14,000 feet can be frigid even in summer. In October and November, many Indian soldiers had only summer uniforms and jackets to warm them. Many Indians died not from combat, but from exposure. Today's military forces must be prepared for operations in any locale or climate, from hot arid deserts to frozen mountain slopes.
Generalship, leadership, command and control are always important. Even though defeated in Aksai Chin, the Indian forces in Western Command always deemed well organized and led. But in NEFA, there was often confusion; numerous command changes resulted in disorganization and poor combat readiness. Poor communications and control resulted in troop movements which were totally inappropriate, such as sending out Forces to positions which had already been overrun.
General Kaul often ignored or disputed the advice of his junior generals; further, he was often indecisive, changing orders minutes after they had been issued. Immediately after the ceasefire, General Kaul was relieved; days later, he would resign from the army.
Today's lethal firepower and high mobility make command, control and communications more vital than ever. Hopefully, future military and political leaders will study the causes and the lessons learned from this Border War. And hopefully, they will learn.
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