India needs Rapid Response Military Intervention Capabilities

Contrary to populist notions of the nation being imbued with a pacifist strategic culture, the Indian government has not hesitated to ask its armed forces to intervene militarily several times since independence, both internally and beyond India’s shores, when such intervention was considered necessary in the national interest. The army was ordered to forcibly integrate Goa, Hyderabad and Junagadh into the Indian Union as part of the nation building process. The Indian armed forces created the new nation of Bangladesh after the Pakistan army conducted genocide in East Pakistan in 1971. India intervened in the Maldives and Sri Lanka at the behest of the governments of these countries and was ready to do so in Mauritius when the threat to the government there passed. 

Now the world is witnessing the emergence of a resurgent India that is already a dominant power in Southern Asia. In keeping with its growing regional responsibilities, India may need to join other friendly countries to intervene militarily in its area of strategic interest when the situation so demands. While India would prefer to do so under the United Nations (UN) flag, it may even join ‘coalitions of the willing’ when its national interests are threatened and consensus in the UN Security Council proves hard to achieve. Also, though it will be a gradual and long drawn process, it is quite likely that a cooperative international security framework will eventually emerge from the ashes of Gulf War II. The concept of cooperative security also requires collective intervention when it is inescapable. 

Contingencies
The need for contingency planning, particularly in support of its forces deployed for UN peacekeeping duties, and for limited power projection, will also propel India to raise and maintain small expeditionary forces to participate in international coalitions sanctioned by the UN Security Council. The aim of intervention operations will be to further India’s national security and foreign policy objectives, to support international non-proliferation efforts, and to join the international community to act decisively against banned insurgent outfits like the LTTE in Sri Lanka. 

International non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI), in particular, cannot succeed in the Southern Asian and Indian Ocean regions without Indian participation as a member or as a partner providing outside support. As a regional power, India will also need to consider its responsibilities towards undertaking humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified and will need to prepare for large-scale disaster relief operations such as those undertaken in the wake of the South-east Asian Tsunami. The expeditionary forces required to discharge these responsibilities will have to be maintained in a permanent state of quick-reaction readiness.

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan, a perplexing question was what India would do if it ever became necessary to launch a military operation to rescue the Indian ambassador or members of his staff from Kabul. Would India ask for American or Russian help and how would they respond? Or would India have no option but to leave the embassy staff to the mercy of terrorist Jihadis? That contingency fortunately did not arise but another one did. Indian Airlines’ flight IC-814 was hijacked to and parked at Kandahar airfield for several days in the cold month of December and the nation was forced to look on with helpless rage, as virtually no military options worth considering were available. Hopefully, the ignominious surrender to the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists has prompted some soul searching and the government will no longer neglect its responsibility to create the required air assault capabilities. 

In case they have not already done so, the powers that be must recognise that the need to join future international coalitions, with or without UN Security Council sanction, cannot be wished away. Several contingencies requiring Indian participation can be visualised. The late General K. Sundarji, former COAS, had often spoken of converting an existing infantry division to an air assault division by about the year 2000. Though the idea was certainly not ahead of its time, the shoestring budgets of the 1990s did not allow the army to proceed in that direction and it could not implement the concept. Now the time has come to translate his vision into reality. Besides being necessary for out-of-area contingencies, air assault capability is a significant force multiplier in conventional conflict as well. Despite what the peaceniks may say, substantial air assault capability is not merely essential for furthering India’s national interests, it is now inescapable.

Capabilities
The present requirement for intervention is of one air assault brigade group with integral heli-lift capability for offensive employment on India’s periphery. This capability should be in place by the end of the ongoing 11th Defence Plan, that is, by April 2012. The first air assault brigade should be capable of short-notice deployment in India’s extended neighbourhood by air and sea. Comprising three specially trained and equipped air assault battalions, integral firepower component, combat service support and logistics support units, the brigade group should be based on transport helicopters equivalent to MI-17s. It should have the guaranteed firepower and support of two to three flights of attack and reconnaissance helicopters. The air assault brigade group should be armed, equipped and trained to secure threatened islands, seize an air head in enemy territory and capture a value objective such as a bridge that is critical to furthering operations in depth. 

The brigade should also be equipped and trained to operate as part of international coalition forces for speedy military interventions. To make it readily deployable, it will have to be provided sufficient air and sealift capability and a high volume of close air support till its deployment area comes within reach of the artillery component of ground forces. Since the raising of such a potent brigade group will be a highly expensive proposition, its components will need to be very carefully structured to get value for money. It must be emphasised that a brigade group of this nature will provide immense strategic reach and flexibility to military planners and the Cabinet Committee on Security in the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty.

Simultaneously, efforts should commence to raise a division-size rapid reaction force, of which the first air assault brigade group should be a part, by the end of the 12th Plan that is by 2012-17. The second brigade group of the Rapid Reaction Division (RRD) should also have amphibious assault capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. The brigade group in Southern Command that is designated as an amphibious brigade at present, but lacks adequate amphibious capabilities, could be suitably upgraded. The amphibious brigade should be self-contained for 30 days of sustained intervention operations. The third brigade of the RRD should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and mountains as well as jungle and desert terrain. All the brigade groups and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air. 

With the exception of the amphibious brigade, the division should be logistically self-contained for an initial deployment period of 15 to 20 days with limited daily replenishment. The infrastructure for such a division, especially strategic air lift, attack helicopters, heli-lift and landing ship capability, will entail heavy capital expenditure to establish and fairly large recurring costs to maintain. However, it is an inescapable requirement and funds will need to be found for such a force by innovative management of the defence budget and additional budgetary support. The second RRD should be raised over the 13th and 14th Defence Plans by about 2027 when India’s responsibilities would have grown considerably. Unless planning for the creation of such capabilities begins now, the formations will not be available when these are likely to be required.
The only airborne force projection capability that India has at present is that of one independent Parachute Brigade with three parachute battalions. Since the organisational structure of this brigade is more suitable for conventional operations, this brigade should be retained as an Army HQ reserve for strategic employment behind enemy lines to further the operations of ground forces that are expected to link up with it in an early time frame. However, when necessary, the brigade could be allotted to the RRD for short durations to carry out specific tasks.

India cannot aspire to achieve great power status without simultaneously getting politically and militarily ready to bear the responsibilities that go with such a status. Military intervention in support of its national interests is one such responsibility and it cannot be wished away. Unless India becomes the undisputed master of its own backyard in Southern Asia, including the Northern Indian Ocean region, it will not be recognised even as the numero uno regional power, leave aside becoming a power to reckon with on the world stage.
(The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)