Dealing with the Darned Dragon-III: A Lesson from Pearl Harbour

Shredded…

8:00 am.  Sunday, December the 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbour happened––a surprise military strike by the Japanese devastated the US naval base in the Pacific. Major US losses included: four battleships sunk and another four damaged and three each cruisers and destroyers damaged. Worse was the destruction of 188 aircraft. Even greater setback was the loss of 2336 men (killed) and 1,143 wounded.

Although the US avenged Pearl Harbour by nuke bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it left indelible scars on the American psyche.

After the end of WW II, the Americans turned almost the whole of Pearl Harbour into a War Museum. The USS Arizona Memorial with the list of the dead warriors; the tattered Stars and Stripes and copies of the next day’s newspapers and much more––keep jolting Americans. “Never again,” is the message writ large upon everything American in Hawaii.

Strafed wall: HQ US PACAF

On my first visit to Hawaii, Brigadier General Meryll drew my attention to bullet marks on the wall of a building of the Headquarters of the US Pacific Air Forces. “We’ve deliberately not repaired those craters left by the Japanese bombers––they remind us that we were caught napping once. Pearl Harbour will never repeat,” he said.

A solemn resolve.

Time erodes memories. America was caught napping again––9/11 happened. The US pounded Afghanistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Those follow-up actions certainly did not avenge or offset the 3,000 innocent American lives lost in the ghastly attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

As if that was not enough, America lowered its guard yet again. Covid-19 pandemic is no less than another Pearl Harbour––close to 1,97,000 innocent American lives lost, and still counting. America blames this one on China. Yet, simmering internal strife and the forthcoming Presidential election has blunted weakened Uncle Sam’s ability resolve to punish its perpetrator.

Caught napping…

Countries have their Pearl Harbour moments––October 1962 was India’s, when China attacked and occupied Indian territory by surprise. In the nearly six decades gone by, China has occasionally reminded India of that one time when India had dozed off. Galwan Valley incident was a rude reminder of the dragon’s sliminess. In fact, it was a jolt that let India learn its lesson hard, and fast. The result was evident in the swiftness with which Indian Army grabbed tactical advantage in the Pangong Tso Area. PLA will now use every arrow in its quiver to neutralise the Indian advantage. In all probability, the present lull is a prelude to yet another adventure by the dragon.

For whatever reasons, in 1962, India did not employ its combat air power against the Chinese. Likewise, during Kargil, restriction was imposed on the Indian Air Force on crossing the LAC. In both those cases, India paid an avoidable cost for not exploiting the full potential of its combat air power.

In the present situation, when the Indian Army is sitting pretty on heights overlooking the Chinese positions, it would be advisable to give the Air Force a free hand to plan and execute its operations in support of the Indian Army.

The supreme sacrifice made by the Indian Jawans in Galwan Valley is too recent an occurrence to be forgotten; it is never to be forgotten. 1962, India’s Pearl Harbour, is too unpleasant to be allowed to repeat.

Related posts:

Dealing with the Darned Dragon: Preface

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-I: Border Infrastructure

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-II: Escape Hatch

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-IV: Exercising (with) the Nuclear Option

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-V: Time to Kowtow!?

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-I: Border Infrastructure

[This follows from an earlier post: “Dealing with the Darned Dragon: Preface”]

News from India-China border isn’t very encouraging. Last month end situation became volatile in eastern Ladakh after India thwarted a Chinese attempt to occupy Indian territory near Pangong Tso. As it stands, India has occupied a number of strategic heights on the southern bank of the lake and strengthened its presence in other areas in the region. India has also rushed in additional troops and military hardware to the region.

The diplomatic and military level talks to ease tensions have failed. Also, nothing worthwhile emerged from the interaction between the Defence Ministers on the sidelines of the SCO Defence Ministers Meeting in Moscow on September 4, 2020. The probability of the success of a similarly planned meeting between the External Affairs Ministers scheduled on September 10, 2020 hovers closer to zero than 1. The reasons are understandable. India, having occupied positions of tactical advantage in Ladakh will be approaching the dialogue with a little more bargaining power than it usually does. China might want this status to change before discussing contentious border issues. Besides, unlike the Indian representatives who are empowered to take decisions, the Chinese representatives at such meetings are not authorised to take decisions.

Meanwhile, following reports of Chinese troops firing warning shots in Ladakh, troops on either side are on the razor’s edge. There are ominous signs that after having made relentless vain attempts at negotiating peace, the political leadership on both sides might pass on the baton to the military to ‘handle’ the issue.

‘War-mongering’? May be. Or, is it ‘wisdom’? Wisdom wrung out of the experience of 1962, which points at the dire need of military preparedness of a high order and readiness to deal with a belligerent neighbour.

Among others, one dimension of military preparedness is existence of support infrastructure along the border. Several projects related to new construction (and development of old ones) of roads, runways, helipads, ammunition dumps, logistics nodes, transit camps and military hospitals etc are under way. These projects are unprecedented and are to Beijing’s chagrin. Once ready, they will bolster India’s war fighting ability considerably. This will force China to invent alternate ways to breach India’s defences. That, in turn, might give rise to the need for India of developing more new infrastructure.

The dire need to create infrastructure in times of crisis is a recurring issue. In 1947, service personnel and the refugees led by Lieutenant Colonel Pritam Singh built a 600-yard runway at Poonch in six days. In another case, tonnes of barbed wire were airdropped to barricade the advancing Chinese (Sino-India War 1962), even as troops were engaged in fighting. Whether it served the intended purpose, is doubtful. During the Berlin Airlift, building from a scratch 17,000 Berliners––men, women and children­­––worked in 8-hourly shifts to construct a runway at Tegel. Those (Poonch and Berlin) were cases of people rising to the occasion.

US Navy’s Construction Battalions (CBs) better known as Seabees have institutionalised speedy creation of infrastructure in times of crisis––a desideratum for fighting forces. Formed following the attack on Pearl Harbour when the task of turning imminent defeat into victory seemed almost insurmountable, the Seabees are very well equipped teams renowned for building bases, bulldozing and paving thousands of miles of roadway and airstrips, and accomplishing numerous other construction projects in different war zones since World War II. They constructed six 8500+ feet runways at the rate of one runway per 53 days; over 18 kms of taxiways; hard-standing to accommodate over 400 bombers, and accommodation for 50,000 personnel and office complexes, on the islands of Tinian and Saipan in a record time of less than a year during World War II. Seabees have been deployed around the globe supporting a variety of humanitarian missions and contingency operations. They were among the first forces in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to upgrade and repair airfields.

To sum up, it is humanly impossible to make the long borders physically secure. While creation of border infrastructure does go a long way in securing the borders, it is also an endless process. There’s a case for creating teams of experts that can undertake rapid construction work of any type, anywhere, anytime: during wartime or during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Lockdown due to Covid-19 pandemic has rendered a large number of ‘experts’ jobless. It should be possible to enrol volunteers to be employed and paid to serve ‘when the need arises’.

The need could be round the corner.

Other posts in the series:

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-II: Escape Hatch

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-III: A Lesson from Pearl Harbour

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-IV: Exercising (with) the Nuclear Option

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-V: Time to Kowtow!?