Friday, September 8, 2017

Israeli Airstrike on Syria – A Message to the Players in the Middle East

The Israeli Air Force carried out an air strike targeting a chemical weapons’ facility/research centre identified as the al-Talai facility and a military storage facility in Hama province in Syria.

Syria’s army command reported that the air strike came around 2.42 am (2342 GMT) from inside Lebanese airspace, near the western town of Masyaf which according to military analysts hosts a branch of the government agency responsible for developing and producing unconventional weapons and precision missiles. Two Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed in the attack.

According to certain reports, the attack was launched at 2:30 a.m. on targets located in central Syria, in the area of Hama, and also targeted several weapons convoys that were en route to Hezbollah strongholds in the area. 

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that a military storage camp next to the Masyaf research centre was used to store surface-to-surface rockets and that personnel from Iran and terrorists owing allegiance to the Hezbollah were spotted at that location in the past.

Even before the outbreak of the war in Syria, the al-Talai centre was on the Israeli radar. The director of the Israeli national security council’s counter terrorism bureau had called for its destruction in 2010 as it is reported to have provided weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, said Hezbollah had received rockets from the production facility in the past.

Israeli Defence Force (IDF), as is always the case, declined to comment on the strike.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation freely, confirmed that the Israelis carried out the strike. The United States had no involvement in it and was assessing the situation, the official said.

Israel and Russia maintain open communication lines and a "mechanism" to prevent their air forces from coming into conflict with one another. It was not clear whether Thursday's strike was coordinated with Moscow, and there was no immediate comment from the Russians.

The attack was a message to the major powers and all the other players in the Middle East that Israel would go to any extent if its security was undermined. According to Amos Harel the Attack may have been a signal to the United States and Russia that Israel wants its security interests taken into account.

In a meeting with Russian President Putin in August, Prime Minister Netanyahu had said that Israel was prepared to act alone to curb the growing Iranian foot print in Syria. Israel had opposed a cease fire in parts of Syria which was brokered by the United States and Russia on the grounds that the agreement did not do enough to keep Iran and its proxies away from Israel’s borders. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed recently that Iran is building sites in Syria and Lebanon for the manufacture of "precision-guided missiles" with the aim of deploying them against Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said “We will do everything to prevent the existence of a Shiite corridor from Iran to Damascus,” while declining to comment directly on the air strike in an interview on Israeli radio. He said Israel wasn't “looking for adventures, and we don't want to be dragged into this fight or another.” 

The September 7 air raid was seen as a message to both Russia and Iran that Israel can strike anywhere in Syria. It was also a rare instance of Israel striking a Syrian government facility rather than an arms shipment and reminiscent of an Israeli airstrike that destroyed a suspected, partially constructed nuclear reactor in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour exactly 10 years ago.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Will the Doklam Standoff Lead to Armed Conflict? - 2

Countering PLA Operations

Countering the Chinese presence along the de facto border are elements of the Northern, Western, Central and Eastern Commands of the Indian Army. Specifically, the Indian defense is centered around deployments made by the Leh-based XIV Corps, the Sukma-based XXXIII Corps, the Tezpur-based 4 Corps, the Dimapur-based III Corps and the Panagarh-based XVII Corps. The overall strength of the Indian Army here would be close to 2 lakh men and women. China's Western Theatre Command would have a similar number of soldiers though China doesn't deploy as many soldiers directly on the LAC but can, instead, use its superb road and rail network to surge troops to areas along the de facto border between the two countries. Despite the tension between the two countries, this has not happened.

According to NDTV China cannot make any significant inroads with the present number of soldiers it has deployed in the region and would need to bring in soldiers from elsewhere, a move that would give Indian military planners a clear indicator of a potential attack. At the same time, India would be hard-pressed to deploy more soldiers along the LAC should that be required since several formations are busy defending the border and the Line of Control with Pakistan in addition to fighting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and in parts of the Northeast.

The Indian Air Force has 22 airfields and is developing a network of smaller air landing grounds in the Eastern sector. The Chinese air force has 15 air bases and 27 smaller airstrips but operates at a significant disadvantage vis-à-vis the Indian Air Force. This is because all of Chinese bases in the region are located high in the Tibetan plateau which makes it impossible for the jets to take off with a full weapon load because of the rarified atmosphere. The Indian Air Force, on the other hand, does not face any such constraints. All its major bases in the region are located in the plains and IAF fighters can take off with a full fuel and weapons load, a significant operating advantage in the event of a conflict between the two countries. 

In the event of an armed conflict with China, apart from the conventional operations, Indian Special Operation Forces would have a major role to play. Success of SOF operations in this scenario will depend on the availability of timely and accurate intelligence. India’s space-based surveillance and high altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and aerostats may be useful but the difficult terrain imposes limitations. Thus human intelligence (HUMINT) would be critical in detecting Chinese operations, whether it is in the form of troop or hardware movement, incursions, illicit infrastructure development or subversion and sabotage. Indian intelligence agencies need to tap the resident populations of the border areas for valuable information on the enemy. Indian intelligence needs to focus on training its field officers and SOFs operatives in the language and culture of the people in order to glean information. India’s conventional deterrence would be reinforced if the tribal and local population is recruited into the armed forces like in the case of Ladakh Scouts or Sikkim Scouts who are adept at mountain warfare and who are physiologically acclimatized to high altitudes and have intrinsic knowledge of the terrain and conditions.

India has enough Special Forces components to not only foil PLA objectives in Arunachal, Sikkim, Ladakh or in Uttarakhand but may be able to carry out operations deep behind enemy lines, if the need arises.

The Special Services Bureau which metamorphosed into the Sahastra Seema Bal SSB was constituted in 1963, immediately after the 1962 war debacle, to act as a bulwark to keep the Chinese manoeuvres in the region at bay by recruiting local foot soldiers in large numbers.

Organised for winning over the border population in Arunachal Pradesh and Bangladesh, Nepal and even Jammu borders to serve as the eyes and ears of the security forces, the Bureau played a key role in gathering intelligence along the border and in neighbouring countries on Chinese designs. Being wary of Chinese designs, India decided to revive the earlier version of the SSB.

The Special Frontier Force (SFF) also known as Establishment 22 was set up on 14th November 1962 whose main goal was to conduct clandestine intelligence gathering and commando operations behind enemy lines in the event of another war with China. The force based in Chakrata was put under the direct supervision of the Intelligence Bureau and later the Research and Analysis Wing. The SFF has seen action in Siachen in 1985-86 (Operation Meghdoot); they participated in Operation Blue Star 1984 and during the Kargil conflict in 1999. Manoj Joshi says that India did create a true Special Forces set up which was intelligence led in the SFF, which was originally created for operations in Tibet, but it has now become obsolete and it is not clear what the mission of the force currently is.[1] It is truly difficult to ascertain the current status of the force. While it continues to exist, details of its organizational structure, equipment and operational mandate are shrouded in secrecy. It appears that there is no dilution in the operational mandate and if circumstances arise, New Delhi may not hesitate to revive the SFF.

On the Cyber Front

"A draft proposal for setting up a separate tri-command on cyberwarfare was prepared in consultations with the chiefs of the Indian Air Force, Indian Army Indian Navy after Chinese hackers broke into the computer systems of the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command in Visakhapatnam in 2012 where the homemade Arihant nuclear submarine was undergoing sea trials," according to a senior Navy official said.
In 2013, computer systems of the Defence Research and Development Organization were breached by Chinese hackers.

According to a defense analyst Surya Kiran Sharma, India is ill-prepared for a cyberwar.

"India released its National Cyber Policy in 2013, which had the ambitious aim of creating 500,000 cyber warriors," the defense analyst said. "However, no significant work has been done on the provisions of the cyber policy. India is inadequately prepared to counter cyberwarfare, as is evident from the numerous attacks on national websites." India’s cyber capabilities are at a stage of infancy. However a beginning has been made in this area.
Currently, all army units use the Bharat Operating System Solutions (BOSS) developed by the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) in Chennai. 

The operating system has replaced software that was developed abroad. BOSS is connected to a central hub and is monitored closely by senior officers in New Delhi alerts go out if a computer registers insertion of data-storage devices such as a thumb drive.
Army officials from the Corps of Signals - which is responsible for maintenance and looking after the entire gamut of military communications - are of the opinion that BOSS has become a decisive factor to effectively secure communication.

India is also coming up with a tri-service cyber agency which will deal with the matters of cyber security and have both offensive and defensive capabilities while dealing with issues in that domain.

Chinese views on Indian shortcomings 

Song Zhongping, a retired official of the PLA Rocket Force, added that "India's military has more experience in mountain combat, but it has at least three key weaknesses. 

First, its weapons are mostly imported, so how could it maintain supply after if it engages in total war with China? Second, its logistics are poor, because its plan to build 73 highways for military logistics by 2020 is only a third complete. And third, its weapons [from different countries] aren't compatible in one comprehensive combat system and its long-range missiles are not accurate at all," he said. While these weaknesses need to be addressed and remedial measures taken, Indian forces will not face a resource crunch in the event of a short duration conflict, a prolonged conflict is very unlikely.


To quote Kyle Mizokami, “A war between India and China would be nasty, brutal and short, with far-reaching consequences for the global economy. The balance of power and geographic constraints means a war would almost certainly fail to prove decisive. Both sides have almost certainly concluded this, which is why there hasn’t been a war for more than fifty years. We can only hope it stays that way.”


Will the Doklam Standoff Lead to Armed Conflict? - 1

Belligerent voices from Beijing

With the border dispute at Sikkim extending beyond a month, these are some of the statements emanating from the Chinese government and/or the Chinese media:

 China told foreign diplomats posted in Beijing that it’s “patience with India won't be indefinite”. China's version of the dispute is that India has "illegally transgressed" the border at Sikkim to stop a road from being built on a plateau in what it calls the Donglang region. India agrees with Bhutan's claim that the land belongs not to China, but to the small Himalayan kingdom. Before the confrontation escalated, India had also warned China that the road in what Bhutan and India call Dokalam was “a serious security concern” because it gave China access to the "Chicken's Neck", a narrow wedge of land, which links the seven northeastern states to the rest of India.

China is battle ready and not afraid to go to war with India, and will face "all-out confrontation" along the entire disputed border, a Chinese daily has warned.

Keeping up its sabre-rattling over the Doklam standoff, China's media said Beijing "doesn't fear going to war" and that any escalation would see India "face the consequence of an all-out confrontation".

A commentary in the hawkish Global Times, a tabloid under the People's Daily known for its hardline views, accused India of "repeatedly making provocations" since the 1962 war, the latest of which, according to writer Duo Mu, was the standoff near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction.

"China must be prepared for future conflicts and confrontation," the commentary said.

"China can take further countermeasures along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). If India stirs up conflicts in several spots, it must face the consequence of an all-out confrontation with China along the entire LAC."

India should not use "trespass" into the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector as a "policy tool" to achieve its "political targets", China said on Tuesday, asking New Delhi to immediately withdraw its troops to avoid any escalation.

China also carried out live fire drills in Tibet. There was another report on July 3 which talked about an armoured brigade drill at 5100 metres in Tibet to test "combat readiness". State media said the drills included "the quick delivery of troops and different military units working together on joint attacks". Radar units "identifying enemy aircraft and soldiers using anti-aircraft artillery to annihilate targets" were also tested, reports said. The official Xinhua News Agency reported from Lhasa that the drill also included the PLA's most advanced battle tank, the Type 96B and was aimed at testing "full combat readiness".

Pangong Tso Incursion Bid

Indian border guards foiled an attempt by Chinese soldiers to enter India's territory on the north bank of Pangong Tso (Lake) in Ladakh on 15th August 2017, reported PTI, quoting officials.

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) tried to enter the Indian side in two areas – Finger Four and Finger Five – twice between 6 am and 9 am. (The Finger Four area in the region has been a bone of contention between India and China as both claim it to be a part of their territory).

But on both the occasions their attempts were thwarted by alert Indian troops, they said.

After the Chinese troopers found their path blocked by Indian soldiers who formed a human chain, they began hurling stones, prompting swift retaliation by Indian border guards.

Personnel from both sides received minor injuries and the situation was brought under control after the customary banner drill under which both sides hold banners before stepping back to their respective positions.

The stand-off lasted 30 minutes, after which the forces pulled back.

The skirmish along the border comes at a time when the countries are locked in a face-off in the Doklam area of the Sikkim sector. The standoff has been ongoing for more than 50 days, after Indian troops stopped the Chinese Army from building a road in the area.

Clearly there is a lot of belligerence in the language and provocative actions in the form of incursions and fire drills in the Tibetan Autonomous Region leaving very little room for negotiations to resolve the ongoing impasse. 

Almost all the Indian electronic media channels have been referring to the Chinese military exercises in the Tibetan region as part of its “psych ops” and that there have been no large-scale PLA troop movement in the area suggestive of aggressive intent. Should India dismiss the tone and tenor of the statements of the Chinese as mere “psych ops?” According to a recent article in the Washington Post, India and China were perilously close to a military conflict. Analysts say that there is a potential for armed clashes elsewhere along the India-China border. PLA could indulge in shallow incursions – the PLA could try something in eastern Ladakh as was seen at Pangong Tso or eastern Arunachal Pradesh or Lipulekh Pass and Barahoti in the central sector (Himachal-Uttarakhand).  

Experts’ views based on the ground situation

A few of the former senior officers of the Indian army believe that the standoff may lead to skirmishes and not a full-fledged war between India and China. They are of the view that the Chinese may create other trouble spots, meaning thereby incursions in other sectors, in order to force India to withdraw from Doklam. 

Buttressing the analysis of the Generals, sources, well aware about the Chinese border informed ANI that there has not been any significant movement of military forces in the Tibetan region in the last two months. The sources also added that for India the tipping point will be when there's a significant troop movement across the eleven bridges that join the northern parts of the 1,100 kilometers of Tsangpo with the southern part of Tibet. The PLA’s war rhetoric has not so far translated to large-scale mobilization or deployment of troops on the ground.

China has deployed about 15-16 divisions along the Line of Actual Control starting from the Karakoram Pass up to the Arunachal Pradesh (LAC 3,488 km). This entire area comes under the Western Theatre Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. In case of the war, China can also move four to five divisions, which are stationed in the Xinjiang province, in the north of the Jammu and Kashmir, to cover the Ladakh sector. 

There has been no unusual movement by the Chinese at the LAC since last two months. Talking to ANI, they explained it as Chinese tactics to pressurise India. 

In the event of an armed conflict….

Iskander Rehman, a senior fellow at Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University has in his paper for the Naval War College Review titled “A Himalayan Challenge: India’s Conventional Deterrent and the Role of Special Operations Forces along the Sino-Indian Border” outlined four factors that is likely to shape an India –China conflict. Firstly India has far greater concentration of troops close to the border as compared to China; China stations a limited number of troops in its interior in Tibet. Secondly, insofar as the climate and terrain are concerned, with the exception of parts of Ladakh and Sikkim it is rather difficult for India to conduct mechanized warfare. On the other hand China has distinct advantages for surveillance and use of artillery. The high altitude and extreme cold affect military equipment including weaponry. Thirdly, there is considerable disparity in the infrastructure – the Chinese have developed highways and rail network which can facilitate the movement of PLA troops and equipment quite rapidly. Fourthly, China has one unified Western Theatre Command (WTC)[1], while the responsibility of securing India’s territorial integrity along the Chinese border are distributed between four regional army and air force commands. Thus the author is suggesting about the possible problems of coordination between the various commands and arms in the event of a conflict.

Coming to the military infrastructure in Tibet, China has five operational air fields. 

In addition, there are four-five landing strips, which may not be able to hold operations due to the lack of operational capabilities. 

Defending the nearly 4,000 km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India is the Lhasa-based Western Theatre Command of the Chinese army, a sprawling military formation spread across 4 provinces including the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where the drills were held. The command includes elements of the Chinese air force and its rocket (missile) forces.

In the event of an escalation, China can use its massive railway infrastructure to bring in additional troops. That has not happened. Since 2009, China has been training in Transregional Support Operations: shifting men and weapons between regions in training exercises.

According to a study carried out by Kevin McCauley for Jamestown Foundation, the primary border areas under dispute are the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin in the west, and Arunachal Pradesh in the east controlled by India.

“The Sino-Indian disputed borders represent isolated high-altitude regions with difficult terrain and weather conditions presenting problems for troops, weapons and equipment. Ground combat will occur mainly along roads that normally follow valleys or ridges, limiting support and cooperation between forces operating on different axes. The lack of cross-terrain mobility limits the ability of ground forces to conduct penetrating or outflanking operations against enemy forces. PLA publications stress airmobile landings in the enemy rear area to overcome the restricted terrain and enemy defensive positions. Special operations forces available to the WTC would represent highly qualified units to operate in the enemy rear area to disrupt operations and attack vulnerable lines of communications. The high-altitude reduces aviation performance and lift capabilities, and increases maintenance requirements on equipment in general, although the thin air increases the range of projectiles and shrapnel. Weather conditions would mostly limit air operations to June through September. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought in October and November without air support. Cold high-plateau regions place increases requirements on engineering and support operations, and the thin air is difficult for the troops even after acclimation. This situation reduces unit combat capabilities and increases non-combat losses. Training new recruits could affect an operation depending on the timing. New recruits would likely achieve a minimal operational capability to conduct small unit combat by late spring, which should be adequate for the restricted terrain which will limit maneuver and dictate primarily small unit operations. Depending on the timing of the crisis, the PLA could decide to delay mobilization of soldiers in the WTC to retain full combat capability of units.

The Aksai Chin border terrain mock-up at the Qingtongxia Combined Arms Tactical Training Bases (CATTB) depicts mostly Chinese occupied territory with only a small portion of Indian controlled terrain. This appears to indicate a focus on a Joint Border Counterattack Campaign in response to an Indian military incursion. However, the exact purpose of the large terrain model is unclear. The border counterattack campaign was originally considered an Army offensive campaign, although some PLA books now refer to it as a joint campaign. This campaign includes initial border defense actions with a transition to the offense to regain lost territory and restore the situation. The two mountain brigades and independent mechanized brigade are the closest ground forces to Arunachal Pradesh, although the 13th Group Army trains in mountain warfare and could deploy as needed. While no PLA forces are permanently garrisoned in the Aksai Chin area, it is likely that the mechanized infantry division in Hotan would deploy to this area. Air and missile strikes would support the ground operations to annihilate and expel invading enemy forces depending on the weather, or as in the Sino-Indian Border War operations could consist of mostly ground operations.”[2]

Chinese war planning has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on preemptive strike as a means of seizing the initiative and unsettling the enemy. The PLA operations in Korea, against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979 have been categorized as defensive counter attacks although China had been the aggressor in each of these conflicts. For Chinese thinkers there is no clear conceptual firewall separating defensive grand strategies from offensive military strategies or tactics. To the contrary, preemptive military action is an integral part of the Chinese concept of escalation management or war control.

Writings have emphasized on concentration of “elite forces and sharp arms” and the importance of gaining initiative from striking first and fighting a quick battle to force a quick resolution. Thus in the event of an escalation to armed conflict, China is likely to rely on its air power, airborne operations and Special Operation Forces (SOF) operating behind enemy (Indian) lines to gain the upper hand. This is the tactic that the PLA may adopt in the event of a short military conflict. Thus, there may not be significant troop movement across the eleven bridges that join the northern parts of the 1,100 kilometers of Tsangpo with the southern part of Tibet as stated above. According to Rehman PLA SOF would be assigned key roles to assault vital enemy targets, paralyze enemy operational systems, reduce enemy operational capabilities and interfere, delay or disrupt enemy’s operational activities to create favourable conditions for its main force units. A former senior officer of the Indian Army had stated that if a divisional size attack is launched in Tawang, then Chinese could employ its SOF units to cut off all routes for buildup of reserves, raid artillery and logistic locations. The deep induction of SOFs for providing early warnings and information on the movement of Indian reserves could also be tasked.  

India has closely monitored the development and modernization of China’s airborne assault capabilities in the form of PLAAF’s 15th Airborne Corps. The Corps Headquarters is at Xiagon and it comprises of three divisions (with over 35,000 troops) with a light artillery and mechanized component. The Central Military Commission accorded it priority for modernization and its capabilities were upgraded by the induction of the Y-20 heavy aircraft. This Corps is considered vital to the War Zone Campaign Concept and likely to be employed for disruptive deep strikes. PLA has carried out large-scale airborne exercises in the Tibet Autonomous Region in the past few years. Thus unlike large-scale infantry operations in 1962, the Chinese may use Special Operation Forces and air assault forces extensively.

The PLA could conduct a Mountain Offensive Campaign or possibly a Joint Fire Strike Campaign if Beijing issued orders for offensive operations. A Joint Fire Strike campaign would support the border counterattack or mountain offensive, but could also represent an independent campaign. The terrain, weather, and difficult engineering and comprehensive support conditions restraining the deployment and sustainment of forces could make a joint fire strike appear more advantageous to a mountain offensive. A mountain offensive would require a substantial advantage in the correlation of forces for the attacker operating under terrain and weather restrictions. As an independent campaign, a joint fire strike could represent punitive strikes against key Indian targets. A joint fire strike campaign is a long-range precision strike by long-range rocket, missile and air forces with the objective to destroy important enemy targets, paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems (integrated force grouping), weaken the will to resist and destroy war potential, or create conditions for other operations. The Chinese leadership could conclude that conducting precision strikes against key Indian targets was preferable to conducting difficult offensive ground operations where the defender has an advantage.

Lt. General H.S. Panag a former Northern Army Commander in his blog “How will Chinese use of force in Doklam manifest?” writes: “My assessment is that the Chinese will neutralise our strategy by not getting involved in “close infantry combat” over unfavourable terrain. If at all it chooses to use force, its strategy will be based on technological warfare with overwhelming use of PGM and cyber warfare. It will restrict its initial offensive to the Doklam and Sikkim Sector, but would be prepared for escalation to other sectors.
Such an attack will come in the winter, when conventional ground operations are severely restricted. PLA will carry out minimal mobilisation to cater to the unlikely tactical offensive by India in the winter. A massive PGM attack will be launched on our troops at Doklam and Doka La using cruise missiles and artillery after pulling out its own troops to safety.

Simultaneously, a massive cyber attack will be launched to neutralize our command and control systems and our fire power means. The strike will be with a declared limited aim of evicting us from Doklam. Depending upon our strategic and operational response, the PLA will escalate with similar attacks on more defensive positions in Sikkim and other sectors.” (cont'd)

[1]  In February 2016, China announced a major military rezoning that merged the former Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions into one unified Western Theatre Command.

[2] China’s Western Theater Command – Kevin McCauley, Jamestown Foundation