China Is Taking Advantage of India’s Intelligence Failures

New Delhi has failed to learn from its mistakes.

A Chinese soldier and an Indian solider stand guard at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008.
A Chinese soldier and an Indian solider stand guard at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China on July 10, 2008. DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP via Getty Images

In June, soldiers from India and China engaged in a violent skirmish along the two countries’ unmarked border in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed, along with an unspecified number of their Chinese counterparts, in what was the first such confrontation since 1975 that resulted in fatalities.

New Delhi and Beijing have now embarked on a fitful process of de-escalation. But even as the two parties seek to restore some semblance of normalcy along their shared border, a critical question lingers: Why was India’s security establishment seemingly blindsided by China? Local officials in Ladakh have in fact been sounding the alarm about Chinese forays into Indian territory for years, a fact that points to a complete breakdown in New Delhi’s intelligence gathering and risk assessment.

It wouldn’t be the first time. And India doesn’t seem to be learning crucial lessons from previous security failures.

In the late 1950s, after Indian and Chinese forces engaged in minor clashes, China laid claim to significant tracts of territory along their disputed border. In response, New Delhi adopted its so-called forward policy, sending in small contingents of lightly armed soldiers to assert India’s hold over the contested areas. But without adequate firepower or logistical support, the policy had disastrous consequences: The strategy proved needlessly provocative in October 1962, when the battle-hardened People’s Liberation Army attacked in force. The Indian military, while displaying considerable valor, simply collapsed before the onslaught. At its climax, the town of Tezpur in India’s northeast had to be evacuated in the face of advancing forces. India doesn’t seem to be learning crucial lessons from previous security failures.The ease with which China overran Indian positions was also reflected in its seizure of the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. Having demonstrated its ability to crush the Indian forces if needed, China announced a unilateral cease-fire the next month and withdrew from much of the Galwan Valley, among other locations. But it retained much of the Aksai Chin plateau, an area of land roughly comparable in size to Switzerland.

How could India’s policymakers allow such a colossal error of judgment? The failure stemmed from structural problems in India’s security apparatus: The Intelligence Bureau, the country’s apex intelligence organization, was simultaneously responsible for the collection, collation, and assessment of intelligence. This was a flawed system because there was no meaningful external scrutiny of its conclusions that could detect weaknesses in their sourcing and analytic reasoning. Worse still, there were no provisions for parliamentary oversight—a critical component common in many other countries. The Intelligence Bureau was also starved of resources and mostly marginalized from India’s policymaking process. And because the bureau was eager to support a policy that was designed to limit defense expenditures, it downplayed the imminent danger of Chinese aggression to policymakers, leading them to continue their forward policy and dismiss the mounting Chinese threats. Not surprisingly, India found itself grossly unprepared to tackle China’s onslaught.

The military debacle of 1962 served as an important wake-up call for India. New Delhi embarked on a significant military modernization program. India authorized 10 new mountain warfare divisions as part of an expansion of the Indian Army and revamped its intelligence collection system by establishing a new Directorate General of Security focused on external intelligence. As a result of these advances, India became better prepared to deal with new threats. For example, when Pakistan sought to infiltrate Indian-administered Kashmir with special agents in 1965, Indian forces were ready to respond with alacrity: The military sealed the disputed border, an action that took away Pakistan’s ability to subsequently surprise India when it launched its so-called Operation Grand Slam attack later that year to seize Indian territory. Pakistan’s commitment of forces to that operation, and its inability to break through the now well-fortified Indian lines, created an opening for India to counterattack across the international border in Punjab and at one point threaten the major Pakistani city of Lahore. While the war eventually ended in a rough The military debacle of 1962 served as an important wake-up call for India.stalemate, this was still a far more impressive performance by Indian forces than in 1962.

But India’s military didn’t keep up its pace of progress. In 1999, a now sprawling Indian military was caught napping when Pakistan made significant incursions across the so-called Line of Control. On May 3 of that year, an Indian shepherd notified local authorities that he had observed what seemed to be a cross-border intrusion. But strangely, the military and intelligence authorities ignored this and several other local warnings, allowing Islamabad to consolidate its position. Pakistan’s advances involved nearly 2,000 soldiers, who captured a 62-mile stretch of land as much as 6 miles deep within Indian territory. It was an incursion so extensive that the Indian Army had to call in aerial support to dislodge the intruders from the commanding heights they had occupied. But even the Air Force’s involvement was delayed: The Army took too long to share intelligence, which in turn slowed the eventual response.

After the conclusion of the conflict, the Kargil Review Committee was established to examine the war’s causes and India’s response to it. Among its findings was that there was “no institutional mechanism for co-ordination or objective-oriented interaction between the (intelligence) agencies and consumers at different levels” nor was there a mechanism “for tasking the agencies, monitoring their performance and reviewing their records to evaluate their quality.” The feedback led to the establishment of two new intelligence bodies—the Defence Intelligence Agency and the National Technical Research Organisation—to coordinate among various agencies. However, a core problem identified in the Kargil report remains unaddressed to this day: the need for a rigorous central system for reconciling intelligence findings and providing consensus reports to policymakers at the pace mandated by often fast-moving crises. (The U.K. Joint Intelligence Committee and U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence are examples of such systems.) The absence of such a central system in the Indian context leads to poor interagency information-sharing, the provision of improperly processed (evaluated and contextualized) intelligence to policymakers, and inadequate coordination of agencies to refocus on an emerging threat.

A disjointed Indian intelligence system appears to have permitted China the crucial time window to initially move forces into the contested areas of Ladakh. India in fact holds a military advantage against China in its border areas, leaving Beijing with only one pathway to create a localized force advantage: through deception. And so it was this year. China’s army began a major military exercise near Indian border areas from January as a distraction, later diverting forces to Ladakh to begin its occupation. Such significant Chinese activities should have merited exceptionally close monitoring and interagency evaluation by Indian intelligence services.

Individual agencies did in fact report suspicious Chinese movements toward Ladakh through February and March, but the intelligence clearly didn’t reach top policymakers—at least not in a way that conveyed enough urgency. As a result of this lapse, Chinese forces moved in to hold areas of Ladakh, cutting off Indian border patrol posts from each other and blocking critical roads connecting the mountainous region. By the time Indian forces received accurate intelligence regarding the Chinese incursions, their only realistic response involved rushing in troops from Leh, the regional capital. Under a more effective national intelligence system, Indian forces would have received enough prior warning to be in position to block Chinese troops as they attempted to make incursions. They instead had to play catch-up to halt further Chinese advances, with the invading forces also able to consolidate their presence on the ground they had gained.

These intelligence failures have persisted, as with other intractable issues in India’s national security system, due to the lack of votes to be won for implementing needed reforms. Reports are commissioned following major intelligence failures, such as after the Kargil War or 2008 Mumbai attacks, but their reform recommendations have only ever been partly implemented. In a political system where little happens without the personalized attention of the prime minister, constructing a more centralized and rigorous intelligence system would entail the Prime Minister’s Office spending its limited time and energy on confronting the bureaucratic interests of the disparate intelligence agencies, for little political reward.

The question now is whether New Delhi will even admit it experienced an intelligence failure this year, especially given the Narendra Modi-led government’s desire to project itself as strong. And even if India were to conduct an official review to determine the points of failure in its intelligence system, it would likely uncover the same recommendations that previous such studies have arrived at: to establish parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services, and thus improve their performance through scrutiny, and to create a director of national intelligence staff to ensure interagency development of timely intelligence products for political decision-makers. In India’s prime minister-centric political system, however, both reforms will require political will—and the admission of weakness—from Modi. Given that Modi’s early responses to the crisis were to deny any Chinese incursion had taken place, and with the national media’s focus now moving toward the worsening Indian coronavirus epidemic, these intelligence reform outcomes are unlikely.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy.

Frank O’Donnell is a nonresident fellow in the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program and a postdoctoral scholar in the Rising Power Alliances Project at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Twitter: @frank11285

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