Among countries with modern armed forces, India and Pakistan are possibly the only two countries in the world that believe in the concept of separate holding and strike corps, for defensive and offensive operations, respectively. Once battle is joined and the enemy launches an offensive in the corps sector, massive redeployment takes place to first contain and then eliminate the ingress made by the enemy.
Among countries with modern armed forces, India and Pakistan are possibly the only two countries in the world that believe in the concept of separate holding and strike corps, for defensive and offensive operations, respectively.
The concept of holding corps (now called “pivot” corps) grew out of the necessity to guard every metre of territory as close to the international border as possible. After the experience of the 1965 and 1971 wars in the plains along the western sector, where the two armies succeeded in making bold incursions into the adversary’s territory unhindered by major obstacles, both the countries have organised their forward defences on either a ditch-cum-bund (DCB) or an irrigation canal with a specially constructed higher home bank. In fact, in many cases, even the second tier defences are based on linear obstacles.
The essence of the concept is that virtually the entire combat potential of the holding corps is deployed to man static defences in a thin line all along the front though it is well appreciated that a corps level offensive by the enemy with two divisions up will address an initial frontage of only 4,000 metres on the obstacle. (This will be the case if each of the two divisions simultaneously launches two brigades and each brigade launches two battalions into assault and each battalion assaults on a frontage of 500 metres.) Diversionary and holding attacks may add up to another 1,000 to 1,500 metres. Hence, it could be deduced that at present the combat potential of a holding corps is being dissipated even before the first shot is fired. Once battle is joined and the enemy launches an offensive in the corps sector, massive redeployment takes place to first contain and then eliminate the ingress made by the enemy.
Due to the political directive that any loss of territory would be unacceptable and due to the lack of means to gain adequate early warning of the enemy’s offensive plans, the present method of deployment was perhaps unavoidable when it was conceived. However, battlefield transparency grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. Though the ongoing RMA has almost passed India by, now that the nation has been stirred from its stupor after the Kargil conflict, more funds should be forthcoming for modernisation. It is essential to acquire reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) devices and precision guided munitions (PGMs) to provide early warning, discern the enemy’s intentions and cause attrition by employing long-range artillery, rockets and missiles.
Since the obstacles in question have been constructed already, their defence potential must continue to be gainfully exploited. However, this need not be done only through physical occupation of the entire front by infantry battalions. Mobile domination patrols that are triggered by early warning systems can patrol and deny stretches of the obstacles that are threatened by the enemy by direct and indirect fire. Breaches could be sealed by coordinated fire assaults from tube and rocket artillery using a mix of ‘dumb’ shells, PGMs and scatterable mines, supplemented by strikes from attack helicopters and fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft, particularly to carry the defensive battle deep inside enemy territory. [he obstacle system must act aS no more than a trip wire for the sector and theatre reserves to be launched to evict the intruding enemy force.
It has been repeatedly emphasised Dy numerous military leaders and thinkers that offence is the best form of defence. Denial of territory by observation and fire rather than by physical presence will enable the corps commander to retain almost two-thirds of the combat potential of his infantry and mechanised forces intact as reserves in well dispersed hides for exploiting opportunities to launch offensive action into enemy territory. For this purpose, the offensive punch of pivot corps will have to be suitably beefed up, particularly in terms of mechanised assault elements.
Perhaps some of these additional resources could come from or be shared with strike corps formations. Such a paradigm shift in defensive plans will have to guard against the enemy’s insidious land-grab designs on lucrative patches of territory close to the international boundary through deterrent measures. A declaratory policy of massive retaliation across the international boundary for even minor transgressions would need to be .put into place and vigorously implemented when required.
Re-organising for Offensive Operations
Pakistan’s low nuclear threshold, as perceived by most Indian analysts, and the need to mass firepower rather than forces when planning to fight in a nuclear environment, prompt the need for a fresh look at the Indian concept of maintaining massive strike corps for deep thrusts into Pakistani territory. As is well known, India has three strike corps. Each of these comprises two to three infantry divisions for the break in and follow-on support battles and an armoured division that can be supported by an independent armoured brigade for the break out battle and the destruction of the enemy’s strategic reserves. These manoeuvre formations are provided firepower resources of an artillery division in addition to their integral firepower and reasonably sufficient engineer, air defence artillery, communications and logistics resources to enable them to be self-contained for the break-in battle. Additional resources can be provided to reinforce success or develop operations in depth.
The enemy can easily discern the concentration areas of the strike corps and has no illusions about where they are going to strike. In fact, with some imagination, he can pin down their likely strike frontage to within 40 to 50 km. Even if he is powerless to stop the juggernaut completely, he can concentrate his ground and aerial firepower assets to cause immense damage as the battlefield would be teeming with targets. If a strike corps does succeed in making a deep penetration, and one or the other is bound to succeed, the stage at which Pakistan’s famed nuclear threshold will be crossed is a matter of analysis. However, planners in the Military Operations Directorate must take into account the possibility that the nuclear genie may once again be unleashed from the bottle in which she has been tightly corked since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
On the other hand, if the Indian strike corps are going to be employed only to achieve small, operational or even tactical-level gains, why have them at all? In the coming decades, Indian military genius will lie in finding a suitable via media for launching offensive operations as well maintaining countervailing forces. One of the options could be to split the three strike corps into several division or division-plus size battle groups of the size and capabilities of Russia’s famed OMGs (Operational Manoeuvre Groups). While one each could be allotted to the holding (pivot) corps for providing an offensive punch to them, the others will need to be so structured that they are capable of independent action. These should also be designated as theatre and Army HQ reserves. Each one will need to be specifically structured to achieve designated objectives in the terrain in which it is expected to be launched and yet be flexible enough for two or more of them to fight dispersed under a corps HQ to bring to bear the combined weight of their combat power on a common depth objective. Hence, at least two of the three strike corps HQ must be retained and should be capable of taking under command strike battle groups at short notice to achieve given objectives.
Because of their massive size, the present strike corps are difficult to concentrate, side-step, deploy and manoeuvre and this virtually rules out surprise and deception. As reported by several analysts, during Operation Parakaram the strike corps took too long to move to their concentration areas. If a fleeting opportunity is to be exploited, the strike formations must be capable of launching an offensive operation from a “cold start”. Within 72 to 96 hours of the issue of the order for full-scale mobilisation, three to five strike division battle groups must cross the IB straight from the line of march. They should be launching their break-in operations and-crossing the “start line’ even as the holding divisions are completing their deployment on the forward obstacles. Only such simultaneity of operations will unhinge the enemy, break his cohesion and paralyse him into making mistakes from which he will not be able to recover.
In case push comes to shove and the conflict spills over from the mountains to the plains, the full combat power of the Indian Army must be employed to destroy the combat potential of the Pakistan Army so that it is cut to size once and for all. This aim can be achieved by a skilful combination of offensive operations and offensive-defence. The art of generalship will lie in achieving India’s military aims quickly without crossing Pakistan’s nuclear threshold before the international community blows the whistle for a cease-fire. If this is not done, the next war will be as futile as the last few that India has fought.