Strategic Preparedness Must

Within the space of a few hours after the devastating Himalayan earthquake on April 25, the Government of India sprung to the aid of the people of Nepal with Operation Maitri, a large-scale rescue and relief operation. Over a dozen C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster aircraft and Mi-17V5 helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) transported doctors, mobile hospitals, personnel of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and ferried water, food, medicines and tentage. In return flights, they evacuated over 5,000 stranded Indian nationals.

In early-April 2015, India had evacuated 5,600 displaced persons from Yemen under Operation Rahat (relief).  They were evacuated by air by C-17 aircraft of the IAF flying from Djibouti, Ethiopia; by Air India aircraft flying from Sana’a; and, by sea on board ships of the Indian Navy from Aden, Al Hudaydah and Al Mukalla ports in Yemen.

These were not merely humanitarian relief operations, but operations that showcased India’s military intervention capabilities. It is not the first time that India has undertaken such operations. Starting with the war in Iraq in 2003, through the conflicts in Lebanon (2006), Egypt, Libya and Yemen (2011) and Ukraine and Syria-Iraq (2014), the Indian armed forces and civil aviation personnel have been evacuating beleaguered Indian citizens from war zones.

In keeping with its strategic interests and growing regional responsibilities, India may soon need to intervene militarily in its regional neighbourhood when the situation so demands. While India would prefer to do so with a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council and under the UN flag, it may not be averse to joining ‘coalitions of the willing’ when its vital national interests are threatened and consensus in the Security Council proves hard to achieve. The aim of such 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.

International non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) cannot succeed in the Southern Asian and Indian Ocean regions without Indian participation as a member or as a partner providing outside support. As an aspiring regional power, India may also undertake humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified.

‘Air assault’ and rapid reaction capability is a significant force multiplier in conventional conflict as well as intervention and humanitarian operations. The present requirement is of at least one air assault brigade group as part of a Rapid Reaction Division (RRD) with integral heli-lift capability for offensive employment on India’s periphery. 

Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, the brigade group should be based on Chinook CH-47 and MI-17 transport helicopters.  It should be supported by two to three flights of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and one flight of UCAVs. 

The second brigade group of the RRD should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. One brigade group in Southern Command has been recently designated as an amphibious brigade; this brigade group could be suitably upgraded. 

The third brigade of the RRD should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and the 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. The first RRD should be raised by the end of the 13th Defence Plan (2017-22).

Another RRD should be raised over the 14th and 15th Defence Plans by about 2032 when India’s regional responsibilities would have grown considerably. A permanent tri-Service headquarters equivalent to a Corps HQ should also be raised under HQ Integrated Defence Staff for continuous threat assessment and operational planning and to provide C4I2SR support to the RRDs. The HQ should also be suitably staffed with a skeleton civilian component comprising diplomats, civic affairs personnel and disaster relief staff.

Creation of the capabilities
Unless planning for the creation of the capabilities that are necessary begins now, these potent fighting echelons will not be available when these are likely to be required. The commissioning of INS Jalashwa (formerly USS Trenton) has given the armed forces the capability to transport one infantry battalion by sea. Other ships for transporting troops are available; some are in the acquisition pipeline. The Indian Air Force has acquired strategic airlift capability.

It must be emphasised that rapid reaction-cum-air assault capabilities will provide immense strategic reach and flexibility to the Cabinet Committee on Security and multiple options to the military planners in the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty. As government sanction may take some time to obtain, the nucleus of such a force should be established immediately by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) by pooling together the resources currently available with the three Services. The nominated echelons must train together at least once a year so that the armed forces can respond suitably to emerging threats.
It is also necessary to work with strategic partners and other friendly countries in India’s extended neighbourhood and with organisations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and, when possible, even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to establish consultative mechanisms through diplomatic channels for the exchange of ideas, coordination of the utilisation of scarce resources and joint training and reconnaissance.

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. 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 a regional power.