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Military Reforms Have Put China’s Combat Capability Way Ahead Of India’s – Analysis

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Indian decision makers face two hard choices: either reduce the size of the Indian Army or significantly expand the defence budget.

By Harsh V. Pant and Kartik Bommakanti*

The latest announcement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cutting its size by 50% is unsurprising yet consequential. This steep reduction brings about a structural transformation announced by President Xi Jinping and consistent with the military reforms introduced in 2015. The composition and disposition of Chinese military power today has changed significantly. The PLA’s transformation into a more streamlined fighting force has been nothing short of spectacular given the amount of internal bureaucratic and institutional resistance there was to bringing about a change in its force structure.

Chinese military power is aimed at defeating the adversary without actually engaging in active combat. In the event the latter does not occur, China would prefer subduing the opponent with overwhelming force at low cost. It corresponds roughly to the balance between attrition and manoeuvre. Given that the Chinese military was largely following the Second World War operational models, its overhaul was indeed deemed necessary by policymakers. The PLA’s experience of warfighting post Second World War did impress upon its leadership, particularly Deng Xiaoping, the importance of moving away from fighting debilitating wars that claimed the lives of too many fighting personnel.

Attrition warfare was the basis of the PLA’s war fighting principles. Notwithstanding a slowdown in recent years, double-digit economic growth has helped Beijing transform the PLA. Undergirding China’s military transformation is a political leadership under President Xi that has cut manpower-related flab, integrated theatre commands, instituted jointmanship in the form of combined arms warfare, and transformed the PLA into a technologically advanced fighting force. In addition, a general diminution of the size of the field army enables better offensive capabilities. More critically, it also elevates the importance of the other service arms relative to the ground fighting forces. This represents a significant shift, as the PLA was the most dominant of the three services historically. Clipping the size of the army also enables the other service arms to project military strength beyond China’s shores and land boundaries. Indeed, the reductions brought about by the Xi regime will crucially determine how effectively the Chinese military now wages war.

Military reforms undertaken by China will have far-reaching consequences for the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific and very specifically for India. Following deep manpower reductions and a commensurate expansion in firepower, the PLA today stands better poised to wage a decisive war against India at low cost. New Delhi’s challenge primarily lies in preventing such an outcome.

In the context of India’s at best uneven efforts to modernise its army, force planners have to seriously consider the trade-offs between firepower and manpower. As of today, the Indian Army, the largest of the three armed services, is a manpower-intensive fighting force. The missions and tasks it is condemned to include fighting insurgencies, which fundamentally require boots on the ground. Given that the personnel issue is the bane of the Indian Army, which the PLA has addressed almost completely, the defence budget of 2019 has significantly constrained the Indian Army’s capital budget. Second, the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) from 2014 leaves little for hardware modernisation or capital acquisitions. If the armed services were to undertake deep personnel reductions and become a more efficient fighting force, the army would be the most critical target for cutbacks. To be sure, the Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat in informal and formal meetings in September and October 2018 with his military commanders did deliberate on the imperatives of undertaking a structural transformation of the Army. The potential changes cover agility, capacity to undertake conventional and hybrid warfare, a major restructuring of the army headquarters and giving the officer corps a lower age profile. With the PLA transforming itself, the Indian Army is still in the process of charting a way to transform its order of battle. Indian decision makers face two hard choices: either reduce the size of the Indian Army or significantly expand the defence budget to make up for shortfalls in firepower, logistics and military transportation.

It was in 2016, while addressing the Combined Commanders Conference, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called upon the military leadership to reform their “beliefs, doctrines, objectives and strategies.” He had touched upon key areas, including defence planning, enhancing jointness, manpower rationalisation, emphasising professional military education, restructuring higher defence management and the defence procurement process. Since then, while China has been able to accomplish much, India’s civilian and military bureaucracy has only been able to do what it does best: meander along without any clear focus, thereby effectively scuttling the prime minister’s vision of defence reforms. Unless defence reforms become a priority for India, the ability of Indian armed forces to fight future wars effectively will remain constrained.


This article appeared in Hindustan Times.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

5 thoughts on “Military Reforms Have Put China’s Combat Capability Way Ahead Of India’s – Analysis

  • Avatar
    February 14, 2019 at 5:32 pm
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    It is obvious fact that China is far ahead in combat capabilities as compared to India. But India always seems busy in exhausting its taxpayer’s money in competition with China. India’s such aggressive moves cannot be proved fruitful for the region. Whereas, India’s such acts are hitting the stability of the region badly and can bring the entire region at the brink of instability.

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  • Avatar
    February 15, 2019 at 9:58 am
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    Measured by ambition, India may rank higher still. Its military doctrine envisages fighting simultaneous land wars against Pakistan and China while retaining dominance in the Indian Ocean.

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  • Avatar
    February 15, 2019 at 2:23 pm
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    If India and China go into a war, China will have military victory. But the people of India will be the big winner as India will split into pieces just before British arrival. This will make India easier to govern. As a result, people of India today would benefit the most from the war.

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  • Avatar
    February 18, 2019 at 8:01 am
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    India is playing a folly here, it wants to compare itself with China, but, on the contrary, India is destabilizing the region through arms race and territorial threats. Indian arms buildup is being deployed against Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India wants to suppress all neighboring states in the name of threats from China, the objective behind is to create hegemony over South Asia.

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  • Avatar
    February 18, 2019 at 9:28 am
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    It would be too naive or can say foolish on part of Indians to compare its fores and military strength with that of India. It is of no match even in numbers. The disparity in military hardware between India and China is larger than it appears due to India’s heavy dependence on imports and negligence of indigenous industry. India’s dependence on foreign suppliers and imports is actually going against what India is seeking for. Fighting war while relying on foreign imports is like being in a gun fight where one has to order the bullets and wait for the delivery.China being advanced in military hardware and thats too depending highly on its indigenous equipment always put it self on upper mode to that of India.

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