The recent (April 15th) Chinese incursion inside Indian Kashmir has reminded Indian military leaders that despite over five years of brave talk and bold plans, not much has actually been accomplished to rectify the shortage of access to the Indian side of the border. It was this lack of access that played a key role in the last border war with China (in 1962) which saw better prepared and supplied Chinese forces wearing down their brave but ill-supplied Indian opponents. Indians are waking up to the fact that a repeat of their 1962 defeat is in the making.
Over the last five years India has ordered roads built so that troops can reach the Chinese border in sufficient strength to stop a Chinese invasion. The roads have, for the most part, not been built. The problem is the Indian bureaucracy and its inability to get anything done quickly or even on time. The military procurement bureaucracy is the best, or worst, example of this. The military procurement bureaucracy takes decades to develop and produce locally made gear and often never delivers. Buying foreign equipment is almost as bad, with corruption and indecisiveness delaying and sometimes halting selection and purchase of needed items.
Despite the bureaucracy, some progress has been made. Three years ago India quietly built and put into service an airfield for transports in the north (Uttarakhand), near their border with China. While the airfield can also be used to bring in urgently needed supplies for local civilians during those months when snow blocks the few roads, it is mainly there for military purposes, in case China invades again. Uttarakhand is near Kashmir and a 38,000 square kilometer chunk of land that China seized after a brief war with India in 1962. This airfield and several similar projects along the Chinese border are all about growing fears of continued Chinese claims on Indian territory. India is alarmed at increasing strident Chinese insistence that it owns northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This has led to an increased movement of Indian military forces to that remote area.
India has discovered that a buildup in these remote areas is easier said than done. Without new roads nothing else really makes much difference. Airfields require fuel and other supplies to be more than just another place where an aircraft can land (and not take off if it needs refueling). Moreover, the Indians found that they were far behind Chinese efforts. When they took a closer look three years ago, Indian staff officers discovered that China had improved its road network along most of their 4,000 kilometer common border. Indian military planners calculated that, as a result of this network, Chinese military units could move 400 kilometers a day on hard surfaced roads, while Indian units could only move half as fast, while suffering more vehicle damage because of the many unpaved roads. Moreover, China had more roads right up to the border. Building more roads on the Indian side will take years, once the bureaucratic problems are overcome (which often takes a decade). The roads are essential to support Indian plans to build more airfields near the border and stationing modern fighters there. Military planners found, once the terrain was surveyed and calculations completed, that it would take a lot more time because of the need to build maintenance facilities, roads to move in fuel and supplies, and housing for military families.
All these border disputes have been around for centuries but became more immediate when India and China fought a short war, up in these mountains, in 1962. The Indians lost and are determined not to lose a rematch. But so far, the Indians have been falling farther behind China. This situation developed because India, decades ago, decided that one way to deal with a Chinese invasion was to make it difficult for them to move forward. Thus, for decades, the Indians built few roads on their side of the border. But that also made it more difficult for Indian forces to get into the disputed areas. This strategy suited the Indian inability to actually build roads in these sparsely inhabited areas.
The source of the current border tension goes back a century and heated up when China resumed its control over Tibet in the 1950s. From the end of the Chinese empire in 1912 up until 1949 Tibet had been independent. But when the communists took over China in 1949, they sought to reassert control over their "lost province" of Tibet. This began slowly, but once all of Tibet was under Chinese control in 1959, China once again had a border with India and there was immediately a disagreement about exactly where the border should be. That’s because, in 1914, the newly independent government of Tibet worked out a border (the McMahon line) with the British (who controlled India). China considers this border agreement illegal and wants 90,000 square kilometers back. India refused, especially since this would mean losing much of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India and some bits elsewhere in the area.
Putting more roads into places like Arunachal Pradesh (83,000 square kilometers and only a million people) and Uttarakhand (53,566 square kilometers and ten million people) will improve the economy, as well as military capabilities. This will be true of most of the border area. For decades local civilians along these borders have been asking for more roads and economic development but were turned down because of the now discredited Indian strategy.
All the roads won't change the fact that most of the border is mountains, the highest mountains (the Himalayas) in the world. So no matter how much you prepare for war, no one is going very far, very fast, when you have to deal with these mountains. As the Indians discovered, the Chinese persevered anyway and built roads and railroads anyway and now India has to quickly respond in kind or face a repeat of their 1962 defeat.
Despite the lack of roads, India has moved several infantry divisions, several squadrons of Su-30 fighters, and six of the first eight squadrons of its new Akash air defense missile systems as close to the Chinese border as their existing road network will allow. Most of these initially went into Assam, just south of Arunachal Pradesh, until the road network is built up sufficiently to allow bases to be maintained closer to the border. It may be a decade or more before those roads are built, meaning China can seize Arunachal Pradesh anytime it wants and there’s not much India can do to stop it.
Undeterred by that the Indian Army has asked for $3.5 billion in order to create three more brigades (two infantry and one armored) to defend the Chinese border. Actually, this new force is in addition to the new mountain corps (of 80,000 troops) nearing approval (at a cost of $11.5 billion). The mountain corps is to be complete in four years. The three proposed brigades would be ready in 4-5 years. By the end of the decade India will have spent nearly five billion dollars on new roads, rail lines, and air fields near the 4,057 kilometer long Chinese border. Spending the money is not the same as actually getting the roads and railroads actually built.
All this is another example of the old saying that amateurs (and politicians) talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics. China realized this first and has built 58,000 kilometers of roads to the Indian border, along with five airbases and several rail lines. Thus, China can move thirty divisions to the border, which is three times more than India can get to its side of the frontier.