Message from Chinese Army drill in Tibet

By Malladi Rama Rao

People’s Liberation Army, PLA, has just tested its “logistics, armament support capabilities” and “military-civilian” integration by carrying out a drill in the Tibet. Held on 26 June, it was the first such exercise since the Doklam stand-off, and second since the 13-hour-long drill also in Tibet held two years ago. It fits in well with President Xi’s strategy of building a strong military in the new era.

There are two messages.

One for India, obviously.

And the other for a domestic audience as well as the outside world

The first signal is that unlike in 1962, the Chinese PLA is now in greater control of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which will enable it to launch operations against India as and when required with adequate logistic support.
The sec0nd signal is that PLA has been able to enlist the support of the local Tibetans to its military exercise. “A local petroleum company supplied fuel when the armored unit ‘ran’ out of fuel and the city government of Lhasa delivered a steady flow of food to soldiers after a day of mock battle, as a part of ‘actual integration on the ground’, Xinhua reported. It is no more than simulating a war-like situation in which civilian authorities rush with aid to the military. Well, this is the civil-military integration that the PLA is talking about – living off the land, as it puts.

Zhang Wenlong, head of the Command Logistics Support department, has an interesting take. The PLA has adopted a military-civilian integration strategy and constantly advanced logistics support capabilities to solve difficulties in “personnel survival, delivery, material supply, rescue, emergency maintenance, and road safety,” he told Xinhua (Global Times, 28 June 2018).

For the PLA, the drill is a very significant milestone, according to the Chinese media which has gone to the town to say that the PLA has achieved what it had failed to accomplish in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict – namely integrating local resources with Army units. “In the 1962 China-India border conflict, China failed to protect its fruits of victory due to poor logistics support. Although local Tibetan residents provided soldiers with temporary support, it was not sustainable,” military commentator Song Zhongping, told Global Times.

Why the Chinese media has raked up this so-called failure? About it a little while later.

As pointed out at the outset, the Tibet Military Command conducted a 13-hour drill at an elevation of 4,600 meters in August 2016. It was targeted at specific issues that came to the front in a high-altitude drill conducted a month earlier. Again in July last year, the PLA had carried out a live-fire assault exercise also on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. A ground combat brigade of the PLA Tibet Regional Command took part in the drill that featured rapid deployment, multi-unit joint strike, and anti-aircraft defense.

What are the implications of the present exercise? Reports in the Chinese are understandably sketchy. Only the location of the exercise has been indicated. There is no mention of the kind of troops or the Theatre Command that had carried out the drill. It is most likely a show of the Western Theatre Command headed by Lt. Gen. Zhao Zongqi.
The objectives of the exercise, namely improving the logistics from the time of 1962, Sino-Indian war, require a careful look at where the Chinese are today. True in 1962, one of the factors which kept the Chinese from advancing fully into India was logistic difficulties.

But there can be no gain in saying that PLA has had a long march since then. Ever since Xi Jinping took over as President, the PLA has focused on improving, integrating and reducing the teeth-to-tail ratio in the forces.
The first signs that the PLA was reorganizing its logistics came in late 2015 and early 2016 when President Xi brought all military elements under the Central Military Commission, (CMC). The process led to the creation of a Logistic Support Department. A natural corollary by September 2016, was the setting up of Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) of the CMC to support the five new Joint Theater Commands. Under its domain are civil-military integration related to logistics, including outsourcing of logistics and promoting research and development of dual-use technologies.

What prompted Xi to set up JSLF? Well, rampant corruption. Many PLA officers accused of corruption were from the logistics department. It was obviously a weak spot in PLA’s capabilities with embezzlement of funds from the purchase of supplies, logistics equipment and maintenance of stocks in depots. President Xi and his egg-heads expect greater central control over logistics to reduce corruption.

Civil-military integration is not a new weapon in the PLA armory. For over a decade, the Chinese army has been working to integrate and improve its mobility across varied terrain. It has conducted exercises across Tibet to improve the delivery of man and material and to respond to different contingencies. And faced the harsh reality – access to many areas in the West and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau remains limited particularly in terms of logistics and support to troops on the ground. This increases the importance and dependence of ground troops on military and civilian fixed wing and rotary-wing transport capabilities.

Today, Chinese control over Tibet is complete, and there is little worry about local Tibetans not supporting PLA troops should the need ever arise. It is, therefore, strange, that Chinese media should hark back to 1962 and to say that in 1962, “although local Tibetan residents provided soldiers with temporary support, it was not sustainable.”
This makes no sense unless it is a signal to India that it had better be prepared for another short conflict? Of course, the Chinese are past masters at using their historical examples to justify their actions and Doklam was no exception.

Frankly, it is necessary for India to monitor such exercises closely and focus on its own logistics as we have a much greater logistic challenge while confronting China. It is not to say that things have not changed over the past five decades. Road network has improved vastly though not substantially as yet. Our forces have also increased access to air and missile power. All this may be reason enough to not worry about the Chinese.

Nonetheless, the Chinese model of civil-military integration in Tibet is relevant to India. Reason? It is being done in a territory, which China assumes never to be in its absolute control. That is the lesson for India as its military prepares for any eventual conflict with China.

New Dragon Signals

In July, PLA has held a new round of military drill in Tibet. It simulated behind – the enemy –lines infiltration mission and trained helicopter pilots in the potential military confrontation. Like the June drill, this also has an Indian angle, according to Global Times which broke the ‘news’ on 19th July.

“It’s normal for any military training to have an imaginary opposing force. In this case, it’s obvious who the target is, given the fact that training was conducted on the plateau in Tibet”, Song Zhongping, a military expert, told the daily. And went on to add: “The training prepared participants for a potential military confrontation with India”.
The drill should offer good food for thought for the Indian strategic community on Dragon’s signals. Because China has just opened an unmanned automatic weather observation station in Tibet near the border with India. Data from the weather station will assist aircraft take-off and landing and the launch of missiles.

(* This commentary appeared first in the August issue of Power Politics, a monthly magazine from New Delhi)

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