The mouthpiece of the Communist Party referred to the new system as ‘PLC-181’, claiming that it had already been deployed by an artillery brigade in Tibet during a 73-day-long stand-off in 2017 between the PLAGF and the Indian Army at the Doklam tri-junction between Sikkim, Tibet, and Bhutan.
Though this information was not confirmed, The Global Times posted a PLAGF photograph (see above) with units of the new howitzer system in a mountainous area. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, “the platforms are similar in appearance to the Norinco SH-15 155 mm self-propelled artillery system.”
What does it mean for India?
It has to be seen in the larger context of the PLA’s preparedness for War.
On January 4, President Xi Jinping ordered the Chinese armed forces to enhance their combat readiness “from a new starting point and open new ground for developing a strong military.”
He gave this instruction during a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC); Xi added that the armed forces had resolutely safeguarded national sovereignty, security and development interests and withstood complex situations and severe struggles: “The world is facing a period of major changes never seen in a century, and China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for development," he asserted while speaking of the various risks and challenges facing China.
The Chinese Armed Forces are expected to speed up their preparation in view of a series of landmark anniversaries in 2019, particularly the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Xinhua recently ported that some 2 million personnel had been involved in more than 18,000, mostly small-scale exercises in 2018. The report did not offer a comparison for 2017, but state media reported earlier that the PLA conducted roughly 100 larger-scale exercises in 2016.
Apart from that China has been active for months in boosting its border defence with India; one can cite a few examples:
- Construction of Xiaogang (‘moderately well-off) model villages in Tibet on the Indian border
- Rapid development of infrastructure on the plateau (in particular three new airports in Lhuntse, Purang and Tingri)
- New drones to boost border control.
- In November, The Global Times quoted a professor at the National Defense University who revealed details of China's new armed reconnaissance drone, which had been seen at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai: “The GJ-2 is believed to enhance China's border patrol and counter-terrorism efforts,” said the professor. The military-industrial conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China had unveiled a new reconnaissance drone series. Reportedly, the GJ-2 prototype flew over the 8,848-meter Mount Everest during one trial flight. The drone has six weapon bays under its wings, capable of carrying more ordnance than its predecessors, including up to 12 air-to-surface missiles.
- The new-generation Type 15 lightweight battle tank, which is much swifter and has better mobility than other armoured vehicles, could easily be deployed in Tibet in the event of a conflict with India. It was also recently handed over to the PLA; last month, the Chinese Defence Ministry’s spokesman confirmed that the tank has been put into service. According to The South China Morning Post, the tank will enhance PLA’S combat readiness and it could be quickly deployed in sensitive regions such as Tibet and the plateau border area …if a dispute broke out.
- Already in August 2018, The Global Times, published photos of China's in-development Z-20 utility helicopter trend on Chinese online military forums. It is meant to replace the imported UH-60 Blackhawk to be deployed in Tibet. The Z-20 is a newly developed 10-ton medium-lift utility helicopter, which will fill the gap between light and heavy helicopters.
All this shows that China is working hard to be ready to any contingency.
The deployment of vehicle-mounted howitzer should be seen in this perspective.
India needs not to be worried, but should closely follow the developments on the plateau and take necessary counter-measures to boost the preparedness of the Indian Army and the Air Force on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
On the Indian side
It is however true that the pace of development on the Indian side of the border is painfully slow.
The Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju stated in written reply to a question in the Lok Sabha that 73 roads had been identified as strategic Indo-China Border roads (ICBRs) with a total length 3812 km, out of which 61 ICBRs have been entrusted to Border Roads Organisation (BRO) with a length of 3417.50 km. Out of the 61 ICBRs, 28 roads of length 981.17 km have been completed.
The quasi monopoly of the BRO is a serious problem.
Can the government bold enough to tackle it? Doubtful.
In Arunachal Pradesh alone 11 roads for a length of 1110 km has been identified. Though it is said that connectivity has been achieved in 27 roads out of these 33 roads, in practical terms many are not motorable as yet.
The main reasons given by the Minister are: “delay in obtaining Forest/Wildlife clearances, hard rock stretches, limited working season, difficulties in availability of construction materials, delay in land acquisition, natural calamities i.e. earthquakes, flashfloods etc. and strategic security consideration.”
China does not seem to be facing so many problems on the other side of the line.
One explanation is probably that the Middle Kingdom is ruled by a totalitarian regime.
Though Rijiju assured the Parliament that “all measures are being taken to ensure timely and smooth supply of essential commodities and ammunition to the troops in remote locations by appropriate means of transport,” the progress are agonizingly slow.
Developing the border infrastructure (roads, advanced landing grounds, communications) is one of the actions India should take immediately on fast track to counter China, at least far more vigorously than presently.
The acquisition of the Rafale aircrafts will also be a game changer …if the Opposition let it happened.
China does not have these problems ...and Beijing greatly enjoy watching some debates in the Parliament.