China may be ahead in land power but a confrontation involving air and sea power would be a different matter altogether
Leave aside economic growth parameters and astounding leaps in infrastructure that only increase the disparity between India and China with every passing day, the story is repeated about the increasing gap between the military capabilities of the two countries. China's expenditure on defence is three times ours - if we accept disclosed figures - and could actually be more. It has improved its India's border infrastructure considerably, thereby enabling quick mobilisation and redeployment of troops.
China's land forces mustered on the border outnumber those of India, whose own quite dismal efforts in improving infrastructure inhibit mobilisation and effective conduct of operations. Modernisation of its air and naval power are key ingredients of China's objective to be able to fight "high technology limited wars", and steady progress is apparently being made in both these sectors.
An old Soviet aircraft carrier, initially bought by the Chinese for conversion to a recreational platform, has now been refurbished as a full-fledged aircraft carrying ship - no small achievement - and more such platforms can be expected to be built locally in the years to come. China has realised that credible distant operations are impossible without access to organic air support and surveillance. Newer types of warships, surface and underwater, are being built. Reportedly, a Stealth fighter has also been developed.
India, on the other hand, is languishing - unable either to build or to develop, and indeed, even to buy, as most recently seen in the chopper deal. Enough money is not being provided, say some; what is provided is not being spent, say others. Insufficient focus on indigenisation is given as one reason for this state of affairs - as if that is something that can be achieved with simple changes of policy.
The number of countries that can build their own tanks, guns, planes, ships and submarines and fit them with their own weapons and sensors can be counted on the fingertips. The US, the UK, France, Russia, Italy, Germany and Japan have not been in this business for just decades - they have been turning out major warships for more than 100 years.
The inability to bring in the private sector as a major supplier of defence equipment is another drum that gets beaten with increasing regularity - as if that route would quickly resolve the difficulties. This ignores the fact that some of the most common technologies - used in even ordinary consumer electronics - still have to be imported.
Military technologies are several cuts above and manufacturing is not India's strongest suit. How and why China has been able to do so much better is something that merits separate discussion, but the present reality is that, in terms of its military capabilities, India is falling way behind China.
Quite clearly, in terms of land power, the Chinese are ahead of us not just in numbers, but in their ability to move forces quickly and in the required numbers, both force multipliers. That said, this does not immediately make our cause a lost one. We are not about to see a war being fought a la World War II in which the fight will go on until one side is, ultimately, forced to surrender.
What is more germane is whether, in a limited conflict, like the one in Kargil, we have the capability to inflict a degree of punishment that the adversary might not find acceptable - militarily and politically. In 1978, Vietnam achieved this objective against the invading Chinese army easily, despite being seriously outnumbered and outgunned. The moot question, therefore, is whether we are equipped and able to do something similar or not. Frankly, not even the most cynical among our military will doubt the Indian Army's ability to do much more to the adversary than what Vietnam could do more than three decades ago. Our capabilities may not deter in the absolute sense, but are sufficient to dissuade the Chinese.
In the air, the situation is different. The Chinese have many more aircraft, but a good number are relatively old and unsuited to today's war fighting. Even though they have lengthened and strengthened airfields in the Tibetan plateau, Chinese aircraft are more constrained in their operating parameters, such as endurance and weapon loads, compared to ours operating from airfields located at sea level.
So, if it comes to a fight in the air, do not expect the Chinese air force to have a free ride. On the contrary, India has enough in its inventory to give the Chinese a run for their money, and more. Despite delays in inducting more fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force, in its Sukhois, MIG-29s and Mirages has a quite potent punch. In short, in air power, the equation is pretty even.
At sea, the equation is decidedly tilted towards us. In the Indian Ocean region, India has advantages that the Chinese will be hard put to match. Availability of organic air power through dozens of airfields strung across the Indian coast and island territories enable not just credible operating capability across the large water space, but also surveillance over critical energy and shipping routes.
Not only do the Chinese have limited resources to facilitate credible operations, their access to the Indian Ocean is constrained by the narrow channels of the South East Asian archipelago. These potential vulnerabilities in this maritime theatre must weigh heavily in Beijing.
This brings us to the nature of a possible military conflict. A skirmish at a couple of places on the land border cannot be ruled out and will soon be controlled, but anything more substantive will almost certainly bring air and sea power into play. China has an exposed energy lifeline across the Indian Ocean that it will find difficult to safeguard in the face of opposition. This serious vulnerability at sea cannot be kept out of the calculations that it will, inevitably, have to make, should it decide to take the military option.
In short, there is power asymmetry on land to our disadvantage, reasonable equality in the air and credible advantages in our favour at sea. It is this totality of the military interface that any adversary has to consider. The balance is not as lopsided as many of our people would have us believe, but it could become that if we are not careful.
We must look at the military equations in their totality - and not just those limited to the land border - and develop our capabilities accordingly. Military planners are not concerned with what potential adversaries may or may not do; their task only is to ensure that the equation is not allowed to alter to our disadvantage. This calls for calm and continuing analysis - not alarm.
The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command. He has also been a member of the National Security Advisory Board.