India Lacks Offensive Punch Integrated Planning is the Bottom Line for Winning Wars in the Himalayas

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. Future wars on the Indian Sub-continent are likely to be limited wars. These are likely to spin out of ongoing conflicts like the half-century old military stand off along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on Saltoro Ridge west of Siachen Glacier conflict zone and the proxy war being waged by Pakistan. Despite the ongoing rapprochement between India and China a limited border conflict cannot be ruled out due to the unresolved territorial and boundary dispute and the yet to be demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC). As the ongoing conflicts are mainly along land borders in the mountains, there is a very high probability that the next conventional conflict will again break out in the mountains. Since it will be fought under a nuclear overhang, there is a fair possibility that it will remain confined to the mountains so that it does not escalate out of control to nuclear exchanges.

In any future war that the armed forces are called upon to fight in the mountains, gaining, occupying and holding territory and evicting the enemy from Indian territory occupied by him will continue to remain important military aims. Only a joint AirLand campaign can possibly achieve the desired military objectives. The Kargil conflict of 1999 was a reminder, if it was needed, 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 of the present weapons systems and platforms, both with 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 manoeuvres. There are no flanks to turn! 

At the strategic level, a strong case can be made out 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 north-western 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 re-organising 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 influence the outcome of tactical battles in the mountains extremely favourably. As artillery batteries and regiments cannot be moved and re-deployed 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 2001-02, almost a complete brigade group was airlifted to Kashmir Valley to enhance the reserves available in 15 Corps for offensive operations. 

Only integrated operational plans that are jointly evolved, meticulously coordinated and flexible enough to be fine-tuned to exploit fleeting opportunities and to take advantage of the enemy’s reactions during execution, 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 enemy territory during the next war in the mountains. At present both the army and the IAF are ill equipped to deter aggression and, if it comes to a crunch, fight and win the next war in the mountains. 
The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Abridged version published earlier in the IPCS Web Journal.)