By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
In the media frenzy surrounding the attack on the Mehran many questions of specific concern to India were overlooked. Specifically, what exactly were Chinese technicians doing on a base housing sensitive US equipment, protected ostensibly by treaties designed specifically to insulate such equipment from Chinese contact? Can there be something deeper to this than meets the eye? Could the American presence on the base have been specifically to offset and/or monitor Chinese activities? Most importantly what does the Chinese presence in proximity of sensitive US equipment mean for India in the strategic sense?
The equipment in question – The P-3C Orion is a ‘sensor rich’ platform housing many secrets. The real prize here is not just the radar frequencies that they use to detect naval targets, but rather the Link 16 systems used to securely communicate and share information with friendly forces. Compromising that particular system (and lets face it, Chinese reverse engineering and code breaking are world class) would mean that while the all-new radars of India’s new P-8 Poseidon’s wont be compromised, the information they relay back to attacking forces now becomes vulnerable.
The other major breach here would be that the sensitivity of the sonobuoys that the Orions carried as well as the Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) and the Electronic surveillance systems could easily be compromised without the Chinese actually having visited the insides of the plane. All this would have required was beams from these devices being targeted at a Chinese electronic measuring apparatus – possibly even in the presence of the six American trainers reported as being there on the pretext of ‘testing’. The sonobuoys of course could have simply been gifted to the Chinese on the pretext of having ‘tested’ them out at sea, or actually testing them by launching into a pre-designated area in close proximity of a waiting Chinese submarine, specifically outfitted for the task.
When the latest arms package comprising the Orions and F-16s was sold to Pakistan, the dangers of that technology crossing over into China weighed heavily into the debate within the US – no doubt spurred on by the India lobby. Many assurances were given that this would not happen even though there were several such reported instances in the past. To begin with, the Pakistanis allowed the Chinese to inspect their older F-16s and gave them the wreckage of some of the Tomahawks shot down during the 1999 US assault on Afghanistan. Similarly following the recent Abbottabad raid one can never really tell if Pakistan returned all the wreckage of the stealth helicopter or kept some select scraps to hand over to the Chinese for spectrum analysis, with intent to reverse engineer.
The reality now is that as the sensitivity and quality of Chinese electronic snooping systems improve, actual physical contact will no longer be necessary to pick up the emitting frequencies of Western equipment and to then devise countermeasures. As a result, the reports of 6 Americans also being present on the base do nothing to alleviate concerns in this regard. However one could argue that if China does get its hands on such equipment, India has nothing to worry about since its next generation of sub-killer (the P-8s) capabilities would not have been compromised. This misses the point entirely.
India in the face of overwhelming Chinese quantitative superiority is aiming at balancing out the Chinese qualitatively with Western equipment. This balancing requires a certain complex matrix to be maintained wherein numbers are inversely proportionate to their electronic superiority. Unfortunately this inverse relationship is not arithmetic but rather geometric, and reduction in the electronic superiority of equipment fielded by India will have to be matched with a disproportionate investment in numbers of that equipment to restore the balance. In effect therefore with the lid being blown off the Chinese presence at a base housing US equipment, what India needs to worry about is if it’s future force level calculations are still relevant.
One also needs to look at the larger picture of why Chinese personnel were stationed specifically in a naval aviation base. Does this perhaps have to do with Chinese eastwards naval expansion for a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) base, given former Premier Li Peng’s emphatic declaration that the Indian Ocean could no longer be viewed as ‘India’s Ocean’? Of course Chinese industrial espionage, especially in the military sphere, is a serious epidemic of global concern, but the reality is that it affects Indian and the Chinese littoral states far more than it does Europe or America, sitting thousands of kilometres away. While terrorism needs to be condemned, perhaps somewhere, someone is thanking the Jolly Jihadis of PNS Mehran, for highlighting a problem of significant long-term concern to the world.
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]