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Saturday, December 5, 2009

A fireball on the Indo-China border

Kolkata, India — In astronomy, unraveling the mysteries of the universe – such as the enigma of a gamma ray burst – can be daunting. A gamma ray burst is a display of immense luminosity carrying unfathomable energies. One among many exotic theories is that it is born of a “fireball.”

How does this relate to political or security issues on Earth?

The Indian Army – always warned to remain subservient to the civil leadership – conducted a military exercise codenamed “Fireball” close to the Indo-China border, near Tsomgo Lake in the northeastern state of Sikkim on Nov. 27. The mock targets were hit by precision with the heavy firepower of artillery and infantry weapons.

The capabilities of modern machines of conventional warfare like the Swedish-made Bofors gun were openly brandished. Surviving kickback controversies since they were first purchased in the 1980s, the Bofors guns have given India an edge over its adversary on the Line of Control and helped it win artillery duels in the Kargil War against archrival Pakistan in 1999.

The FH-77 Bofors guns were considerably better than the medium artillery guns available to the Pakistani Army at the time. The guns are capable of firing three rounds in 12 seconds. After Kargil, they proved their mettle during Operation Parakram in 2001 against Pakistan when they fired 80-90 rounds each day, causing immense damage to enemy posts and morale.

After the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13, 2001, Operation Parakram was launched and thousands of Indian troops were deployed along the Indo-Pakistan border, as India blamed Pakistan for the attack.

Today, the Bofors guns have been deployed at altitudes ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 feet and are expected to aid the Indian troops in achieving total dominance over the enemy in unfavorable terrain.

Interestingly, these guns have a Mercedes Benz engine in them and are able to move short distances on their own. This capability helps to avoid the enemy’s counter fire.

In the Fireball exercises, Cheetah helicopters were also displayed, which are indigenous versions of the French Aerospatiale Lama SA-315 helicopters. The Cheetah is a lightweight high-performance helicopter specially designed for operations over a wide range of weight and altitude conditions. It is powered by the tried and trusted Artouste-IIIB engine, manufactured in India under license from Turbomeca of France.

The Cheetah also incorporates the latest technologies, like an automatic starting system that facilitates a start and take-off in less than one minute. Being highly maneuverable, it can carry cargo up to one megaton and also excels in observation, surveillance and logistics support and rescue operations. It comfortably seats five and can also operate in unfavorable environmental conditions.

The speaker of the Sikkim Legislative Assembly, K.T. Gyaltsen, congratulated the army personnel responsible for conducting the exercise and encouraged young people present there to join the Indian Army.

The Indian government and the army may have downplayed the event by terming it an annual exercise, but two things stand out in a critical analysis of this exercise – its timing and its location.

It cannot be purely coincidental that the event was arranged at a time when Sino-Indian border relations are not exactly smooth and China has been unceasingly using blunt rhetoric against India. At one time China even reminded India of the consequences of their interactions in 1962, which led to war between the two nations in India’s northeast border region with China.

It is high time India sheds its pacifist tag in a realist world. If it has to showcase its prowess in Asia and cross the boundaries of the subcontinent, then it definitely needs to exhibit its conventional firepower, as a nuclear option is beyond feasibility.

India’s advocacy of nonalignment and disarmament after World War II was not only ethical but also a practical necessity on the ideological plane of the time. But ideological maxims do change, and India should strategically embark on a paradigm change in foreign policy, beyond mere illusions.

China’s tough talk and U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Beijing do not augur especially well for India. That Obama is envisioning a larger role for China in South Asia must have shaken India’s top diplomats from their slumber. It is no surprise then that the Indian Army chose the serene locale of the Tsomgo Lake at an altitude of 3,780 meters – just 8 kilometers from the China border – to conduct its military exercise.

Sikkim has a chequered history in Sino-Indian relations. It became an Indian state in 1975, but it took China 28 years to recognize it as part of India, in 2003. This was construed as a significant overture on China’s part and considerably alleviated border tensions.

But it seems China is flexing its muscles as Asia’s hegemon, more so in consonance with the commemoration of its 60 years of communism. On the other hand, India too has crossed 60 years of democracy. It should show its firepower and wherewithal to counteract any domineering moves in the region.

Sanity should prevail in South Asia and Asia at large and both China and India must take responsibility to assure this. But it does not mean that a country of 1 billion people should act in a servile manner. In that regard the Fireball exercise has sent an appropriate message across the border.

(Uddipan Mukherjee has a doctorate in physics from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India. He has qualified the Indian Civil Services Examination in 2007. He writes on international relations and security issues pertaining to India. He blogs at: ©Copyright Uddipan Mukherjee.)

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