The key to India China border face off in Ladakh lies off Dondra Head

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Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar is the Author of the book S71 INS Chakra - The Pioneer and her men. He graduated from the National Defence Academy in Dec 1971 and was joined the Navy in 1973. He joined the submarine arm in 1975. He was part of the commissioning crew of India's first nuclear submarine INS Chakra. He served on Chakra as the operations officer and later the executive officer. He has held many important land and sea-based positions of the Indian Navy. He also graduated from Defence Services Staff College and Naval Higher Command Courses with distinction. His last appointment was Principal Director Submarine Acquisition (PDSMAQ) at the NHQ. He was decorated twice by the President of India with Nausena Medal and Ati Vishisht Seva Medal.

The tension at Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has been simmering in East Ladakh since May this year, is an attempt by the Dragon to alter the status quo on the India China Border against the spirit of the Peace and Tranquility agreement, along the LAC, of 1993. The practice of Salami slicing by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has this time been checkmated, a process which started with Doklam in 2017. The Armies of India and the Chinese Communist Party have concentrated forces along the LAC, which has more or less resulted in a standoff. Whilst talks at the military level are ongoing, no tangible progress is being made and it is evident that this situation will persist well into the winter and maybe beyond. It is also clear that 2020 is not 1962 and a taste of which, was given to PLA at Galwan and more recently at the heights along the Southern bank of Pagong Tso lake. Endless continuation of the situation is not tenable for either side and therefore, a message or an answer must be given to the Dragon that its interests will be imperilled where they matter most, in the North Indian Ocean in general and along the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to the Straits of Malacca in particular. Accordingly, a way to end the impasse must be sought by both sides.

Geography has been strategically, kind to India as far as access to the North Indian Ocean is concerned. With Indian sub-continental peninsula jutting out into this maritime area and with the location of strategically placed island territories of Andaman and Nicobar to the East and the Lakshadweep in the West, India can control the access as also dominate the sea lanes of communication as mentioned above. In order to understand this matrix, it is necessary to study the geographical factors that prevail in this region. 

Access to the North Indian Ocean is from Bab-el-Mandeb from the Red sea to the East from the Mediterranean Sea and from the Malacca, Lombok Straits and the Timor Sea from the East and East South East. From the South, it is by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Further, access to the Persian Gulf is through the narrow Straits of Hormuz in the North. Most of the Middle Eastern countries exporting oil are in the Persian Gulf such as Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Iran. The oil from Saudi Arabia comes through the Red sea. 

China imports nearly 54% of its oil from the countries in the Middle East and African Countries. Angola exports about 9.4 % oil to China. This is carried by tankers to main-land China through the seas. The main sea routes from Ports of origin pass through the 8 Degree Channel which lies between the Lakshadweep islands to the North and the Maldives group of islands to the South. Ships coming from the Bab-el-Mandeb and Straits of Hormuz shape course to the 8 Degree Channel and from thereon to the south of Dondra Head in Sri Lanka to take a departure fix before heading to the entrance of Malacca Straits. After clearing the Malacca and Singapore Straits they enter the South China Sea and head for their ports of discharge but mainly to Shanghai. Ships coming from Angola too would head to enter Malacca or Lombok straits. There are no other sea routes. Going through the Timor Sea increases the distance by nearly a 1000 NM and is not economical. It, therefore, is evident that their shipping has to pass through several choke points starting with the Bab-el-Mandeb, Oman Sea, 8 Degree Channel, Dondra head and the Malacca/Lombok straits. The geography proves a major handicap for their shipping. In total 80% of Chinese imports pass through the Indian Ocean region (IOR). It is at these points that their shipping is exposed to interdiction, which would severely curtail if not totally strangulate their oil imports. 

The Indian Navy has air assets at the Lakshadweep islands, as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It has recently upgraded its airfield at Car Nicobar to operate Jaguar aircraft in the maritime role. To protect its SLOCs in the IOR region the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will have to move forces and in addition to protecting its shipping, it will be forced to deploy ships and submarines to deter the Indian Navy. Let us examine this maritime dimension.

Surface Dimension.  PLAN has a large inventory of surface warships, including two aircraft carriers, which far outnumber those of the Indian Navy. However, it has maritime interests to defend in the South and East China Seas. To its North East it has to protect its maritime interests from Japan and South Korea. In effect, to its East and North East, it is confronted by, adverse maritime forces of the United States, South Korea and Japan.  This threat, therefore, necessitates deployment of the majority of its naval assets in this region. Consequently, the forces that it could deploy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will be limited. The Indian Navy has a formidable surface combatant force, a Carrier group with guided-missile destroyers and frigates, which is capable of dominating the theatre of operations in the IOR. India can mount continuous surveillance using its maritime patrol aircraft P8 I from Port Blair, which also carry the Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in addition, to carry out anti-submarine operations. The PLAN surface forces will therefore be under threat from our air assets based in the A&N islands as well as the Lakshadweep islands and from the Carrier group. It devolves that in the surface dimension, the IN enjoys an overwhelming advantage in operations and in sustaining them due to the proximity of own bases. To summarise, any surface task force of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will most certainly come off at a disadvantage in a possible skirmish in India’s own backyard just as an IN task force in the South China Sea would. The long lines of communication create a favourable asymmetry for India. Also, entrance to the North Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea for the Chinese surface forces will have to be through the Malacca Straits. Consequently, they would be under constant surveillance of Indian assets, primarily air and satellite-borne. The absence of surprise and the advantage of shorter lines of communication, which enable faster turn round and hence sustainability of operations, create an asymmetry predominantly in India’s favour. The presence of a carrier battle group and the capability to induct air offensive assets virtually on-call further widens this asymmetry.

Sub-Surface Dimension.  The incursion of Chinese submarines (in particular the nuclear-powered ones) in this region, pose a more concerted threat than a surface one. Indeed of late, it has been noticed that at least one SSN of PLAN has maintained its presence in these waters. However, the limitation of this threat needs examination in the light of following relevant factors:-

  • Distance from Dalian naval base to North Arabian Sea off Mumbai via Lombok Strait is 7300 nm
  • Distance from Dalian naval base to the Bay of Bengal off Visakhpatnam via Lombok Strait is 6000 nm.
  • Passage time at a cruise speed of 13 knots (kn) one way in (b) & (c) above works out to 24/19 days respectively. Cruise speed of 13 kn is taken as optimal at a reactor loading of 45%.
  • Force Levels of SSGN/SSN in PLAN
  • Type 095 NATO Designation Not Yet Allotted – 1
  • Type 093 Shang Class – 2+4 (planned) 3rd entered   service
  • Type 091 Han Class – 3 to be phased out as Shang’s induct
  • Conventional – 55 of various types.

Note: Only SSGN/SSNs are considered for analysis as the deployment of conventional boats would be unlikely for operations in this area despite the possibility of PLAN using bases in Pakistan, Djibouti which will be under constant surveillance and their deployment will lack the stealth of operations.

Additional Operating Factors.

  • Stealth is critical in deployments of these boats.
  • Accordingly, passage to & fro area of interest should be submerged.
  • Thus passage through Malacca Straits is not an option.
  • Passage will have to be through Lombok Straits.
  • This implies total passage time would be 48/38 days respectively to be off Mumbai/Vizag.
  • An autonomous patrol of a SSGN/SSN is usually of six weeks (45 days) duration. This period of six weeks has been arrived at after empirical and psychological studies on crew endurance. Absence of sunlight and other stresses in a confined environment have debilitating effect on the human body.
  • The above two factors are taken into design considerations and the planned preventive maintenance (PPM) routines are accordingly scheduled.
  • In exceptional circumstances the above period could be stretched to eight weeks/60 days while accepting certain degradation in crew and auxiliary machinery performance. A typical example of important aux machinery is the distiller which makes double demineralized fresh water for the reactor and the crew after its made potable.
  • However, operating with a depot and support ship in vicinity would enhance the duration of the Patrol without significant penalties on crew and machinery performance. The crew is replaced as most SSNs operate on Gold/Blue crew concept. Indeed intelligence suggests that the Chinese SSNs do operate in this region with a support ship standing bye.

Time on Task (TOT) and Threat perception

  • From the foregoing, it is evident that in the absence of a support ship, the TOT of these boats is extremely limited. Even in an extended deployment it would 12/20 days in Western and Eastern seaboards of India respectively.
  • For an effective deployment a minimum of 20 days TOT is considered essential.
  • To maintain a continued presence, adequate force levels are necessary, which the PLAN does not yet have for this area. Usually, a deployable factor of 2/3rd of available boats is taken as the thumb rule.
  • It, therefore, accrues that given the present strength of the SSNs in the PLAN inventory, the threat in the Western seaboard of India is minimal. This will become more probable if operating with a support ship. But then the presence of the support ship compromises on the stealth factor as the ship on the surface would be detected by air/satellite surveillance.  However, as the force levels in the PLAN increase the threat posed by their SSNs will correspondingly increase.
  • To effectively neutralize/reduce the effects of such a threat our surveillance of Lombok Straits would be a critical factor. We could co-opt the Indonesians for this. They are unlikely to side with the Chinese as the latter have territorial claims on the former. In other words sharing of intelligence and surveillance assets with potential friendly states is of the essence.
  • On the other hand, the Indian Navy would be able to deploy its submarines at the choke points as indicated herein with adequate time on task to interdict Chinese warships and shipping. Almost all the submarines are equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

Multi-National Forces.  Should the circumstances so develop that, naval hostilities were to break out in this region, the role of multinational forces will definitely play a major role. The QUAD arrangement of USA, Japan, Australia and India will coordinate their maritime assets to neutralize PLAN assets in the South China Sea and IOR. This is particularly so after the Covid 19 crisis which most of the world believes was unleashed by the Peoples Republic of China on the world. This global pandemic has not endeared China to the world. The recent deployment of Two Carrier Battle Groups by the US Navy in the South China Sea is a pointer of things that may take shape. Despite the Sino-Russian relations, the participation of three Russian warships in the Andaman Sea in the ongoing annual exercise INDRA is also a signal. Further, the expansionist tendency that China has shown has also played a major part in shaping the world opinion against it and the international community cannot afford to let China emerge as the dominant party in this part of the world. That would constitute a threat to the world order.

Infrastructure, Bases and Lines of Communication.  The Indian Navy has the geography on its side in this scenario and with bases in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep Islands in addition to the main bases on the mainland with shorter lines of communication. Mounting and sustaining maritime operations with quick Operational Turn Round (OTR) is a very major advantage, which is not available with the Chinese presently. They hope to achieve this with their OBOR initiative of which, development of Gwadar port in Pakistan is a vital part under CPEC. Djibouti as a base is not, as yet, adequately equipped to sustain their naval operations. However, with India securing a foothold in Al-Duqm on the Northern coast of Oman and availability of a forward operating base in Seychelles, which has been recently agreed to, neutralizes the Gwadar factor considerably. Efforts to re-invigorate our arrangement with Iran on Cha-bahar port must be undertaken. The agreement with USA under the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) also makes USN facilities available to the Indian navy. The availability of these basing and logistics give the Indian Navy a tactical advantage. Given these factors as examined above, the asymmetry in the maritime dimension is heavily loaded in India’s favour and will subject the PLAN and the Chinese shipping to severe pressure.

Conclusion.  We have examined the factors affecting maritime dimensions in the North IOR and the SLOCs for the Chinese shipping. We have also analysed the possible scenarios and factors affecting the deployment by PLAN of its surface and subsurface forces in the IOR. The geographical advantage, which gives the Indian Navy an asymmetry in its favour were also seen. The support of multinational forces that would come into play in the new order in the Indo-Pacific and the IOR region became evident.  All these factors dictate a course of action, which envisages that India should and could maintain a holding operation in Ladakh, which, it is in a position to do so, given its recent deployment posture and holding of advantageous position at heights. To force the hands of the Dragon, the key lies in the Northern IOR (Metaphorically, Off Dondra Head) wherein pressure on Chinese maritime and commercial interests could be applied almost to the point where the Dragon will start facing such a pinch that it will be forced to alter its hostile stance in the Ladakh region and seek a face saver to return to status quo. Ultimately, a long-term solution lies in resolving the boundary dispute, which will be in the interest of both the giants of Asia in particular and the world in general.


  1. One of the most logical piece I’ve read in recent times. The Author has explained the nuances of naval operations and has clearly brought out the challenges which the PLA Navy would face in IOR inspite being the largest Navy in the world. I sincerely hope that they do not succumb to Xi’s pressure and become a scape goat in our backyard.

  2. I am overjoyed at such detailed discussion of the current situation in the context of the and shortcomings in IOR and the role that our Navy can play to twist the tail of the Dragon. The Army can hold it’s own. But the decisive factor will be the actions of our Navy in the IOR.


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