‘The further one looks back, the further he looks ahead’

Historically, military might alone served as the primary instrument of national power and for securing national interests. Later diplomacy, economic power, science and technology (S&T), internal & external policies, energy, environmental policies supplemented this single influencer. A combination of these now determine geopolitical standing of modern nation states.

By Col Pradeep Jaidka

The three domains of military, intelligence and modern technology interdependently coexist. The imperative to minimize attrition spurred military systems to collect more information about the adversary from longer distances before engaging and subduing him. Essentially military requirements – rather than S&T goals – led to developing and harnessing technology for more autonomy, lethality and remote operability. Technology also conferred unprecedented capabilities in acquiring real time Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to the intelligence apparatus. Modern collection systems have gained such capabilities and often produce the reaction – ‘is it at all possible?’

The increasing complexity of global threat environment is partially offset by capabilities of modern systems to gather, transmit and process information. Properly used, these capabilities can reduce the fog and friction of decision making. Yet, the most visible part of intelligence work that gets highlighted is “failures”.

In the India-China context, the equation of mutual military, technology and intelligence capabilities is skewed in favour of the Chinese. When the areas of 2020 conflict remained the same in 1962, theoretically, it should have been easier to discern their unfolding, but it did not happen. Were enough indicators not available, or, were these misread, ignored?

This paper analyses some characteristics and intelligence functioning with respect to the 2020 Ladakh events and make some suggestions for the future.

Comparing Historical Similarities

In October 1962, the major thrust of PLA offensive was in the East inflicting losses on Indian forces in NEFA. In Ladakh, coordinated but ‘limited’ operations were launched to secure Aksai Chin and the Western Highway linking Kashgar to Lhasa. Pitched battles were fought at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Galwan, astride Pangong Tso banks, Kailash range, Chushul, Rezangla and Dungti – Demchok areas. China gained over 38000 sq km.

The 1962 war took India by total surprise at a time when politically, Mao faced criticism on the outcome of his Great Leap Forward policy and when world attention was focussed on Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, today, Xi is reported to be facing internal criticism for Corona, US – China Trade war and on the South China Sea developments.

The un-demarcated (therefore contested) LAC in Ladakh generally adheres to the territorial control established at the end of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The rugged inhospitable terrain of Ladakh inhibits conventional ground observation of depth areas. Adequate discussions over topography and infrastructure are available and hence excluded.

Pre Crisis Situation

Since the 1962 war, barring an exceptional faceoff, both countries maintained a ‘hands off’ relation and developed many economic ties. Doklam, the site of 2017 skirmish was the exception. In 2020, China established three villages across the disputed Doklam area possibly to assert its territorial claims.

Some other significant developments are discussed below.


During the 1980s, China undertook many initiatives to grow into a global economic and industrial power. Xi Jinping started military reforms realigning PLA’s role to suit China’s global aspirations. Examples are –BRI, economic aid to African and Asian countries, numerous S&T advances, setting up bases abroad (Djibouti) and major upgrades to infrastructure in Tibet. Almost on an annual basis, Xi had been extolling PLA to be prepared for major offensive.

In 2008, China completed the Qinghai Tibet Railway (QTR). It undertook construction of a new rail link (Sichuan Tibet Railway or “STR”), running roughly along the Arunachal border. On completion, the STR will significantly improve capability of PLA to induct, maintain, employ or switch forces in Tibet. China is also improving its existing dual use airfields (civil-military) in Tibet. Hotan, Tianwendian and Ngari have emerged as important bases. Reports of PLA augmenting its forces in Tibet keep regularly coming in.


The comparative inadequacy of India’s border infrastructure is common knowledge. The DBO airstrip was reactivated in 2008. DBO is 8 km from Chinese border and 9 km away from Aksai Chin and can provide a launching pad for offensive across the Karakoram Pass into Xinjiang. Even today, India is developing roads and bridges over the local rivers and streams. Examples can be found in the 2017 Doklam confrontation and the recent objections on the strategic all weather Darbuk – Shyok–DBO road. Other instances of periodical testing of India’s resolve are the objections in 2018 on Raksha Mantri’s visits to forward areas of Arunachal and inauguration of the strategic Bogibeel Bridge by PM connecting Dibrugarh to Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh.

Analysing the 2020 Experience

As noted earlier, China has been objecting to India developing its comparatively inferior border infrastructure in Arunachal and Ladakh. Per se, this handicap suggests that India’s military posed no threat to China. It was believed that China would not conduct any violation of the India – Tibet border. Therefore, the reasons of Chinese action remain enigmatic (recently so stated by the Foreign Minister too).

The few theories advanced i.e. China wanting to divert world attention away following Corona outbreak, Check India’s emergence as a challenger in Asia, preventing India from joining new alliances in pursuit of its global ambitions; exploiting India’s preoccupation with its economic downturn following Corona outbreak – remain inconclusive.

Intelligence Failure?

Any security crisis brings forth the customary accusation of ‘failure of the intelligence agencies.’ The intelligence community is criticized for failing to predict the future events.
All intelligence consumers require their agencies to constantly monitor developments and produce assessments on which to take decisions. Often, ‘assessments’ are equated with ‘prediction about the future’. Herein lies the danger of “Mirror Imaging” – (wherein one’s own understanding of the situation is imposed on the adversary who is then expected to act on the pattern envisaged by the analyst or decision-maker). Obviously, this carries an intrinsic risk of failure and results in own side being surprised. When this happens, intelligence agencies or analysts are blamed for intelligence failures!! It also produced a warped logic of arbitrarily (and wrongly) concluding that the Chinese leadership would be less inclined to gamble and escalate hostilities to qualitatively new levels. The advantages gained by China from launching these very actions, was likely ignored.

Intelligence setups are expected to warn about any environmental changes, even when budgetary support is withheld. Naturally, their performance is impacted. (UAV purchases were only sanctioned in Nov-December 2020 when fighting was over!).

In peace time, Paramilitary forces are equipped and tasked to observe and report activities in areas immediately across the LAC. The continuous, diligent collection of tactical information should have generated few inputs which when shared with the military – (through the structurally circuitous channels) – would have helped build a more cogent picture.

Inter Agency Relations

Presently, multiple intelligence agencies collect and produce desired in/outputs. The Inter agency Information sharing is at best, incidental, selective, motive driven and delayed. Evidence is ‘distorted’ to find favour with decision makers. ‘Disclosure Failures’ amongst agencies commonly prevail. Aspects like Structured Sharing, Collaboration and Synchronisation remain absent.
The type of intelligence produced remains limited to agency’s charter & orientation. Coordination of these diverse inputs, at best, produces ‘Generalized intelligence.’ For example, civilian agencies cover the complexity of the environment in a broad objective manner. They produce ‘generalised’ assessments and avoid making categorical judgments. In contrast, military agencies, constantly convert inflowing information into snap and operational, actionable intelligence. The analysis and assessments produced by them differ substantially.

Recommendations – What Needs Changing

Few avenues are – (a) Exploiting Open Source Intelligence (OSI) (b) Improving ISR for inaccessible, remote areas (c) Reducing Inter agency Turf wars (d) Conducting focussed Intelligence Analysis and Assessment and (e) Consumer–Producer relationship.

A mistaken belief exists that raising demands for receiving OSI will reveal own interests. The fact that those studying emerging environments are already aware of these very developments is overlooked. The effort should be to forge an alliance with them, tap their databases or receive these through other indirect means.

Inter agency turf wars are natural outcome of creating these multiple agencies. The agency or analyst who first produces a new input rushes to the decision-makers. Organisational culture and the (mis)perception that this will improve their ratings in eyes of decision-makers are the causes. Sharing of inputs with the concerned agency (for whom it is critical) is ignored, and when done its value to the end user has considerably changed. The decision-makers and producers should realise the inherent dangers and eliminate this malady. Institutionalising a process to mandatorily share critical information with actual end user, in a compressed time frame may help. Besides periodical evaluation of this sharing be done and defaulters held accountable. Available networking and computerisation can serve to implement this change and eliminate related accusations.

Conventionally, all human analysts work in a single environment (say political, technology or military) to produce related Intelligence analysis and assessments. In the near future, increased multi source availability and situational fluidity will require analysts to handle large volumes of incoming data through many diverse channels. The time frames for processing, producing and sharing analysis will be further compressed. Analysts and their organisations need to now develop alertness, skills, agility and ability to perform. Using AI and Data mining tools and techniques will assist meeting this challenge.

Dynamic situations dictate that an ‘in depth’ analysis should be done prior to rejecting any new input or hypothesis. This would usher in more realistic scenarios. Consider the fallouts of straightforward accepting or discarding the two reports about China deploying its aircraft on Pakistan airfields – in Skardu (in July-August) and recently at Bholari (opposite Gujarat); or the possibility of China requiring Pakistan to infiltrate militants in Kashmir to put pressure on India during 2020 winters while maintaining status quo in Ladakh; China developing Aksai Chin heliports.

Developing an aggressive mindset to critically analyse such inputs would help second-guess potentially hostile intentions and realistically evaluate adversary’s machinations. Concurrently, it optimises resource employment, prevents exploitation of known Indian weaknesses and surprise attacks.

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.