Wars in mountains Capacity building needed for future conflict

THE key geo-strategic challenges in South Asia emanate from the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and on the Af-Pak border; unresolved territorial disputes between India and China, and India and Pakistan; and the almost unbridled march of radical extremism that is sweeping across the strategic landscape. In May 1998, India and Pakistan had crossed the nuclear Rubicon and declared themselves states armed with nuclear weapons. Though there has been little nuclear sabre-rattling, tensions are inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons by neighbours with a long history of conflict. While the probability of conventional conflict on the Indian subcontinent remains low, its possibility cannot be altogether ruled out. Therefore, there is an inescapable requirement for defence planners to analyse future threats and challenges carefully and build the required military capacities to defeat these if push comes to shove. 
In view of India’s unresolved territorial disputes with China and Pakistan in the mountainous Himalayan region, there is a very high probability that the next major land conflict on the Indian subcontinent will again break out in the mountains. As it is not in India’s interest to enlarge a conflict with Pakistan to the plains sector south of the river Ravi due to the possibility of escalation to nuclear exchanges, there is a fairly high probability that the next conflict, having broken out in the mountains, will remain confined to mountainous terrain. While the three Strike Corps are necessary for conventional deterrence and have served their purpose well, it is in India’s interest to enhance its military capability to fight and win future wars in the mountains. 
A strategic defensive posture runs the risk of losing some territory to the adversary if capabilities do not exist to be able to launch a deep ingress to stabilise the situation. The first requirement is to upgrade India’s military strategy of dissuasion against China to that of genuine conventional and nuclear deterrence and vigorous border management during peace-time. Genuine deterrence can come only from the ability to take the fight deep into the adversary’s territory through the launching of major offensive operations. To achieve this objective, it is necessary to raise and position one mountain Strike Corps each in J&K for offensive operations against China and Pakistan and in the Northeast for operations against China. In addition, as a Strike Corps can be employed only in one particular sector and cannot be easily redeployed in the mountains, it is necessary to give the defensive (holding) corps limited capability to launch offensive operations with integral resources. 
In the modern era, military strategists have invariably preferred Liddell Hart’s strategy of the indirect approach through a deep manoeuvre, rather than the heavy attrition that used to be routine on the battlefields of World War I to achieve a favourable decision. It is necessary to recognise that in the Indian context, manoeuvre is extremely limited in the mountains and India’s capability for vertical envelopment is rather low. In the plains too India’s Strike Corps cannot execute deep manoeuvres due to the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear red lines being threatened early during a campaign. As firepower is the other side of the coin, it is necessary to substantially upgrade capabilities of the armed forces to inflict punishment and indeed achieve victory through the orchestration of overwhelming firepower. Unless firepower capabilities are upgraded by an order of magnitude, India will have to be content with a stalemate. 
The firepower capabilities that must be enhanced include conventionally-armed SRBMs to attack high-value targets in depth. Air-to-ground and helicopter-to-ground attack capabilities need to be modernised, particularly those enabling deep ground penetration and accurate night strikes. In fact, the Indian Air Force should aim to dominate the air space and FGA strikes must paralyse the adversary’s ability to conduct cohesive ground operations. Artillery rockets, guns and mortars must also be modernised. Lighter and more mobile equipment is required so that these can be rapidly moved and deployed in neighbouring sectors. India’s holdings of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) continue to be low. In recent conflicts like the war in Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing Afghan conflict, PGMs have formed almost 80 per cent of the total ammunition used. Indian PGM holdings must go up progressively to at least 20 to 30 per cent in order to achieve high levels of operational efficiencies. India’s defence planners must recognise that it is firepower asymmetries that will help to achieve military decisions and ultimately break the adversary’s will to fight. 
Capabilities for heliborne assault, vertical envelopment and amphibious operations are inadequate for both conventional conflict and dealing effectively with contingencies that might arise while discharging India’s emerging regional responsibilities. Two rapid reaction-cum-air assault divisions (with an amphibious brigade each) need to be raised by the end of the 13th Defence Plan — by 2017-22. The expenditure on these divisions will be highly capital-intensive and will be subject to the defence budget being gradually raised to first 2.5 per cent and then 3 per cent of India’s GDP. 
A seamless intelligence-cum-targeting network must be established to fully synergise the strike capabilities of air and ground forces in real time. A good early warning network will enable the Army to reduce the number of troops that are permanently deployed for border management and will add to the reserves available for offensive operations. Infrastructural developments along the northern borders have failed to keep pace with the Army’s ability to fight forward and must be speeded up. 
During the long history of post-Independence conflicts with India’s neighbours and prolonged deployment for internal security, the Indian Army and its sister Services have held the nation together. Dark clouds can once again be seen on the horizon, but the efforts being made to weather the gathering storm are inadequate. The government must immediately initiate steps to build the capacities that are necessary for defeating future threats and challenges. It must take the opposition parties into confidence as a bipartisan approach must be followed in dealing with major national security issues. In fact, there is a requirement to establish a permanent National Security Commission mandated by an Act of Parliament to oversee the development of military and non-military capacities for national security. 
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.