Joint Operations in the Mountains

The role of modern armed forces is to prevent conflict through deterrence and if it does break out, to fight and win - on the adversary's territory. In any future war that the armed forces are called upon to fight in the mountains against either China or Pakistan - gaining, occupying and holding territory and evicting the enemy from Indian territory will continue to remain important military aims. Only a joint air-land campaign can possibly achieve the desired military objectives. 
The Kargil conflict of 1999 was a reminder that it is not possible for the Indian Army to conduct a successful land campaign without overwhelming and sustained support from the Indian Air Force (IAF) by way of air-to-ground strikes by fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft in the contact zone, the intermediate zone and the areas deep inside the adversary's territory. Hence, it is necessary for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to be organised, armed, equipped and trained for the conduct of joint operations in the mountains. 
The present organisational structures and the limitations imposed by the weapons systems and platforms, in service with both the army and the IAF, are merely likely to produce a stalemate at the operational and the strategic level. The IAF's helicopters are not suitable for air-to-ground strike operations in high-altitude and precision-guided munitions are in short supply. While defensive capabilities have improved significantly, the Indian Army continues to lack a potent offensive punch to carry the fight into enemy territory as the terrain permits only a direct or frontal approach and precludes bold maneuvers. There are no flanks to turn. 
At the strategic level, a strong case can be made for a mountain strike corps headquarters (HQ) for J&K, with a strike division each pre-positioned north and south of the Pir Panjal Range and capable of moving to either launch pad quickly. Such a corps, organised, equipped and trained for an operational role across the LoC with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China would enhance the quality of India's conventional deterrence in the northwestern Himalayas. A dissuasive strategy need not be purely defensive. In any future border war with China, the Indian Army must resort to offensive-defence and should plan to take the fight across the LAC on to the Tibetan plateau.
Even across the LoC with Pakistan, the capture of a major objective like the Haji Pir Pass will not be possible without a simultaneous offensive from the direction of Uri from the north and Poonch from the south. A mountain strike corps will naturally provide several other lucrative options for operations across the LoC. Such a strike corps will need to be supported by the IAF with large volumes of air-to-ground strikes. There is no need to raise a new strike corps for the mountains over and above the 1.2 million strength of the army. It can be done by reorganising available reserve formations for the role. 
At the operational level, only an "air assault" formation can turn the tide through vertical envelopment and enable deep offensive operations to be carried out when employed in conjunction with Special Forces. An air assault brigade group inducted across the LoC or LAC by helicopters after the IAF has achieved a favourable air situation can seize an objective in depth by achieving surprise. For example, if Pakistan ever reneges on an agreement to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier conflict zone by occupying the Saltoro Ridge vacated by the Indian Army, the Skardu garrison could be cut off by an air assault brigade and subsequently captured through a ground offensive to eliminate Pakistan's access to the Saltoro from the west once and for all.
Operational mastery over air-to-ground strikes can favourably influence the outcome of tactical battles in the mountains. As artillery-batteries and regiments cannot be moved and redeployed easily, operations in the mountains place a premium on battlefield air support. Firepower ratios can be enhanced to levels necessary for achieving overwhelming firepower superiority only through a major upgradation in the availability of offensive air support. The peculiarities of terrain and the lack of sufficient road communications, particularly laterals, place heavier demands on helicopter lift for the movement of reserves within divisional and brigade sectors. Air-transported operations can also play a major role. During Operation Parakram in 2001-2002, almost a complete brigade group was airlifted to Kashmir valley to enhance the reserves available in 15 Corps for offensive operations. 
Integrated operational plans that are jointly evolved, meticulously coordinated and sufficiently flexible to exploit fleeting opportunities and to take advantage of the enemy's reactions during execution are the ones that will lead to success. This is even more so in situations when the military aims and objectives are limited in scope. Both the Services must work together to create the capabilities that are necessary to take the battle into the enemy territory during the next war in the mountains. At present both the army and the IAF are ill equipped to deter aggression and incapable of fighting and winning the next war in the mountains in a crisis.