India’s Next War

Executive Summary 

While it is the task of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to be prepared to tackle any threats to the nation on the northwestern and northern land borders of the country, what is emerging is that the seeds of India’s next war are quietly being sown in the seas surrounding the Indian sub-continent. The seeds are being sown in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and even in the South China Sea.

The scenario as it is unfolding, presages a major conflict with China. A conflict that is likely to take place within the next 5-7 years. A conflict that shall be fought on dimensions and planes very different from any battles between major military powers in the past. We are not likely to see any pitched battles between sea-borne armadas. While many minor incursions and skirmishes may occur, a full-scale Chinese invasion from Tibet into India, of the ‘boots on the ground type’, is also rather unlikely. So what are the dimensions of this war likely to be? Let us do some crystal gazing and examine the possibilities and the probabilities.

India’s next war will be with China but the attrition that China will try to inflict upon India will be way of economic damage rather than military destruction. While the military muscle shall be used more to intimidate than to destroy, the major effort is likely to be to try to strangulate India through an embargo on its seaborne trade. This would serve a two-fold purpose. The prime purpose would be to signal to all the Asian nations the supremacy of the Chinese nation and its primacy in Asia-Pacific affairs The second would be to indicate to the world that China should no longer be considered a military lightweight that can be pushed around – in other words, that it is now ready to do some pushing itself. That if it can take on and constrain India, it can easily squeeze the other smaller Asian (particularly ASEAN) nations. It would be a major signal to the USA that the world is now to be divided into two empires: America’s western empire and China’s eastern one, and that each should respect the other’s domain. As all China watchers know, that country’s collective psyche has still not recovered from the “humiliation” the Middle Kingdom suffered at the hands of the Europeans in the 19th century and the Japanese in the early 20th century. The dragon is just biding its time and building up its strength to recover its lost hegemonic glory. 

Be that as it may, one aspect is a certainty: the predominant dimension of this next war shall be a maritime one.


Strategic Encirclement 
Modus Operandi 
India's Response
References and Footnotes

Strategic Encirclement

Slowly but surely, over the last many years, China has been encircling India strategically. Each link in the chain of encirclement has been carefully selected for its strategic importance. On the extreme west we have Gwadar, which has the potential to dominate shipping through and from the Gulf. In the southwest, it has been eying Gan Base in the Maldives hungrily, although so far without success. In the east, in the Bay of Bengal, it has a sophisticated listening post on the Great Coco Islands, which can monitor all Indian Shipping from Port Blair, Vishakhapatnam, Kolkata, Paradip, etc. (China has another listening post at Hainji island.) It has bases (as well as potential bases, since the PLA Navy (PLAN) enjoys right of usage) at the Myanmar ports of Akyab, Cheduba and Bassein, all of which it is helping to develop into naval ports with facilities for handling ships considerably larger and more sophisticated than what the Myanmar Navy currently possesses or is likely to possess in the near future. Similarly, in the Andaman Sea it has access to Tenassirim, which is most strategically located, fairly close to the Malacca Strait. All these bases or ports where Chinese Naval ships are permitted to dock and refuel, etc, can be used most effectively to block shipping to and from Indian ports. Test visits by PLAN ships to these ports have already taken place.

Not content only with naval bases, the PLAN is also working aggressively towards building a blue water navy including aircraft carriers and long-range nuclear submarines. Six to ten ballistic missile strategic nuclear submarines are planned in addition to 6-8 nuclear powered attack submarines. Surely these are not for coastal defense. [i]  Meanwhile, Varyag, the ex Soviet ex Ukrainian vessel should be nearing completion as China’s first aircraft carrier. In addition, China is acquiring ten new destroyers, mostly from Russia and has also contracted for two Sovremennyy-class destroyers (now renamed the Hangzhou and Fuzhou, respectively) equipped with 200-km-range supersonic Moskit Anti Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs). One such destroyer can simultaneously launch 8 ASCMs, each of which could take out a NATO Aegis-type destroyer, and three of which can disable a large aircraft carrier.[ii]

On the eastern landward side, China is constructing road and other communication links from Chengdu to Mandalay and thence southwards to Rangoon. Proposed and funded by China, ostensibly to reduce transportation costs and improve access to its hinterland, this road cum river linkages would also permit rapid deployment of troops from Chengdu, the headquarters of the PLA’s Chengdu Military Region, which also encompasses Tibet. Talking of Tibet, it is already proposed to extend the Chengdu-Lhasa railway all the way to Kathmandu. Reports have meanwhile indicated that China’s Tibet region now possesses a good military road network running parallel to the Indo-Tibet border.

Tibet is also known to have numerous India specific missile sites with most parts of India within range of their warheads. The string of forward airfields also now make it possible for PLAAF aircraft to conduct sorties into Northern India, with almost all northern and eastern airbases of India being within their striking range.

In the meantime, China has signed a defense pact with Bangladesh, a country with which it has no common borders or any common security concerns. The obvious imputation is that like its pact with Pakistan, this pact too is meant to pressurize India at an opportune moment.

Modus Operandi

There is every possibility that in the initial stages of the conflict with India, China merely incites Pakistan and Bangladesh to open hostilities with India on some pretext or the other. Myanmar would then grab the opportunity to raise some border dispute to raise the ante on India’s easternmost borders. China would at that stage ‘most reluctantly’ have to step in to protect its allies with which it has defence pacts, all the while insisting that it itself has no desire to pick a fight with India. In view of these peaceful and friendly intentions, it would only put its forces in Tibet on full alert and move them up to the LOAC but not actually attack Indian border posts. However, since it’s intentions were to act as an interlocutor that brought peace to the troubled region, it had little choice but to impose a ‘peaceful’ economic blockade on India to force it to abandon hostilities against China’s friends in South Asia. The ‘embargo’ would be justified as being in the interests of world peace. 

Let us examine this scenario in some depth:

I. Economic Blockade

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”

                                                                                                                               -- Sun Tzu

The implication of the encirclement of India by Chinese military bases / capabilities is clear. When push comes to shove, China shall be in a position to impose a massive economic blockade on India, thereby exerting enormous pressure. If the SLOCs for oil from the Gulf are blocked by ships operating out of Gwader and Karachi; if edible oil, and other supplies from Malaysia and the South East are strangulated because China dominates the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait; if the Indian Navy’s efforts are dogged and stymied by Chinese submarine and surface craft operating from a string of ports along the Myanmar coast and guided by the electronic eavesdropping from the Great Coco monitoring station; and if simultaneously, threats of missile and air-attacks from Tibet loom large, then It shall become so much easier to draw India to the negotiating table on bended knee. 

II. Assymetrical Warfare

Many analysts make the mistake of comparing China’s armed forces with those of India on an item-by-item basis. This is simplistic. A country’s military potential must be viewed against the backdrop of its military ethos, its determination to win, its ability to take and absorb ‘punishment’, and the ingenuity / innovativeness of its military leadership. In the last aspect in particular, the keen interest of Chinese strategists in ways of waging asymmetric warfare must be borne in mind. Damage far out of proportion to the simplistic military capabilities of a battle group can be achieved by using asymmetric techniques.

“In their book Unrestricted Warfare, [iii]  the senior Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, have proposed various methods of non-military warfare including inter-alia hacking into websites, targeting financial institutions, engaging in terrorism, and using the media. In an interview with Zhongguo Qingnian Bao, Qiao stated that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” 

The evolution of Chinese strategy can be traced back to its written history itself. The military strategy of China is identified with its pre-eminent military strategists like Sun Tzu, Sun Bin and others. However, later Chinese writings do not restrict this to a narrow military dimension only. They trace their strategic heritage to a very broad spectrum of ancient Chinese thinkers and scholars, starting from Confucius. The Chinese are a very traditional people. Their traditional roots are very deep and an integral part of their lore is the treatise on military strategy, The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu was a great proponent of asymmetrical war, as were other strategists like Sun Bin and Mao Zedong.

“China’s history of war is replete with examples of the successful use of asymmetrical war, where wisdom rather than valor was used to subdue the opposing forces. In particular one finds great use of D-3 viz. diversionary tactics, deception and disinformation. [iv] 

III. Intelligence

During World War II when Japan invaded Malaya and Burma, it was found that the Japanese troops had extremely detailed maps showing every little strategic feature, important building, defensive site and military installation. It emerged that the Japanese had been working for over a couple of years, through their agents, spies, moles and informers, gathering and collating detailed intelligence. Many of the agents had infiltrated army installations working as menial staff and made detailed drawings of all they saw. 

The Chinese are known to place a great deal of premium on such activities. A very painstaking people, when the time comes, they too are likely to have done their homework well.  

India's Response


Counter –intelligence


The Chinese, like the Japanese during World War II are known to be very strong believers in Humint. It would be safe to assume that they have built up a powerful network in India, with moles and sleepers who can be used not only for gathering intelligence but also as fifth columnists and agent provocateurs. There is, therefore, an imperative need for the Indian Armed Forces to gear up their own counter-intelligence capabilities, particularly since the Chinese are known for their patient ability to infiltrate religious and social organizations in order to establish contacts and gain recruits for their agenda. 

In today’s world, cyber counter-intelligence measures also assume great significance.

Role of the Indian Navy


The major onus of defending India’s economic and maritime interests shall rest upon the Indian Navy. It is in this future context that the Indian Navy has to gear up its capabilities. In addition to a defensive role of guarding the coastline, the ports and offshore assets like drilling rigs, the Indian Navy will need to play an active blue water role in ensuring that SLOCs are kept open. This role shall include surveillance, monitoring, interdiction, capture, and confrontation (if necessary). 

There is a strong likelihood that China shall be seen to be exercising the 21st century version of Gunboat Diplomacy vis-à-vis Nepal, Indonesia, and possibly Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Pakistan is already in its pocket as is Myanmar. With Bangladesh it has a defense pact that it can invoke to allow use of the harbors at Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar as well as refueling facilities for its aircraft.

The Indian Navy shall need greatly enhanced surveillance capabilities; capabilities that should stretch well beyond India’s EEZ, and well into the Gulf Region on one hand and the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait on the other. Obviously, this would require space-based satellite assets dedicated to Naval use. The Indian Navy shall next need the capability to project force well beyond India’s shores or EEZ for extended periods of time if an adversary’s efforts to intimidate India’s neighbors are to be stymied. Apart from supply ships, oilers, submarine support ships, etc, this would mean some bases at a distance from the mainland. Port Blair is certainly a useful outpost. Gan too should be considered, before China makes the Maldives an offer they cannot refuse. Overtures need to be made to Iran for permission to regularly use port facilities for Indian Naval ships at Bandar Abbas or Kish. This might offset to some extent the strategic importance of Gwadar. In the South East, some kind of arrangement or understanding would need to be arrived at with Singapore and if possible, Malaysia for berthing, refueling, victualling, communication and other support facilities for Indian naval vessels. Inter-operability with the Republic of Singapore Navy would also be a highly desirable development. In view of Singapore’s interest to be allowed some sort of a base along India’s coast for its armed forces to conduct exercises, it should be possible to work out reciprocal arrangements either at Singapore or on one of its many outlying islands.

Strengthening blue water capability


Amongst the long-range prolonged capability fighting vessels, nuclear powered submarines are a high priority. Conventional submarines do not have the capability for prolonged underwater operations that might be required. A submarine support base with all facilities as well as a VLF communications center needs to be built in the vicinity of the Ten Degree Channel, perhaps on Little Andaman in the South Andaman Islands.

Another corollary of this unfolding scenario is that the Indian Navy needs to have at least two functional carrier-based task forces at all times. Current indications seem to show that this is unlikely to happen. This implies the availability of at least three aircraft carriers / Air Defense Ships and an adequate number of escort vessels. 

Similarly, unless immediate action is taken to build / buy additional vessels (the Scorpene is hanging fire for many months now), the Indian Navy is likely to see a dwindling submarine fleet, perhaps even a hiatus of a year or two when no effective submarine strength exists – a situation that could seriously impact both the defensive and offensive capabilities of the nation.

If one bears in mind the 7-10 year gestation period that it takes to acquire / build naval assets as well as train manpower and evolve a tactical doctrine, it is not a day too soon to start planning for meeting this threat that looms large over India’s maritime horizon. 


This article first appeared in the India Defence Review and has been reproduced here with the permission of the author. 

References and Footnotes


[i] Amrish Sahgal. PLAN's Plans.II. Indian Defence Review.


[ii] Amrish Sahgal. PLAN's Plans.II. Indian Defence Review.


[iii] Chinese People's Liberation Army Literature and Arts Publishing House (Beijing). February 1999


[iv] Amrish Sahgal. China and the Doctrine of Asymmetrical Warfare. Indian Defence Review.


October-December 2002.