In this era of intelligence gathering and inputs, deep analyses and appreciations, political one-upmanship and diplomatic intrigue, one wonders if the Doklam incident (if it can be termed so, in retrospect) really came as a surprise to the government of India as well as to the military? If it did, one would put it as pure naivety on our part and it is a sad commentary on our sense of national security. This is considered so because not for an instant is one ready to believe that we did not see it coming. The steady build up of infrastructure by the Chinese across from our Northern borders has been the lever for demanding more for our own development. The ‘sudden’ (?) shadow of the Chinese over the vulnerable ‘Chicken’s Neck’ set the government and the military machinery into overdrive to now ensure national security, which seemed under threat. The huddle, the scramble, the raised hackles — we saw it all in the space of a few days.
Finally, the ‘Stand-Off’ was a great job done and to my mind it was the Army’s firm footprint and the Air Force’s cool projection of the ‘bloody nose’ the Chinese would suffer that finally brought about the ‘diplomatic reconciliation’ rather than the NSA’s distressing attempt during the BRICS meet. But I sometimes wonder why the Indo-Bhutan treaty was not effectively activated to project the ‘no-go’ area as the Chinese steadily progressed their infrastructure into the Chumbi Valley. It is possible they may have been psychologically impeded/dissuaded in their attempt to occupy the Dolam plateau in the Doklam Area.
China has been inflicting pin-pricks along our borders and in diplomatic rebuffs at regular intervals ever since their successful 1962 escapade in the North-East. India, in true historic apathy, has continued to absorb these inflictions with no counter, either proposed or taken. It is time we flexed our muscles, very much like the Chinese, and project a posture which will send a message that we are ready for any eventuality. It is time we started projecting our strong points and highlight the vulnerability of China. While it is no great secret, nor is it some new revelation, it is a fact that geographically, India dominates the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean which are so vital to half the world and are China’s economic life-line. We have been reading about this for decades but where is our political will to project our ability and demonstrate our domination? The Indian Navy has been crying hoarse to beef up its flotillas to be able to flex its muscles. The sudden surge towards their acquisitions and further, their participation in international exercises has been a welcome shot in the arm.
Is there more we can do? Certainly we can. The essence of projection is visibility, without undue intimidation or provocation. Visibility is indicative of capability and will. While the naval ships would be constrained to be constantly on vigil or training intercepts, it may be productive to use air power for projection, just as effectively. LRMP aircraft are known for their long forays deep over ocean tracts. Getting down to low levels and over flights of surface shipping would help send the message across. The IAF is now establishing a SU-30 MKI base at Thanjavur. It does not take a mathematician to see that operating from Thanjavur and/or Trivandrum, the SU-30 MKI effectively straddles the crucial SLOCS between the straits of Malacca in the East and Hormuz in the West. Exercising the IAF SU-30s with Navy LRMPs and surface warships on a reasonably regular basis would have the desired effect.
It is time to build up our capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is the battlefield of the future. Support services in the form of infrastructure should not be overlooked because of the perception of a benign zone of conflict. Without shifting focus from our primary army oriented threat zones, we need to absorb and accept the new frontier. Let us adopt a Look South Policy. It will go a long way in projecting our national will and military power.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.