Indian Army’s pivot to the mountains

Salute | Jul 5, 2015

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 sub-continent will again break out in the mountains. 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.

There is a need to build capacity for future conflict in the Himalayas.
The key geo-strategic challenges in Southern 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; the deepening China-Pakistan nuclear warheads-ballistic missiles-military hardware development nexus; 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 sub-continent remains low, its possibility cannot be altogether ruled out. hence, 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 sub-continent 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 Ravi river due to the possibility of escalation to the level of nuclear exchanges, there is a fairly high probability that the next conflict between India and Pakistan, 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 develop appropriate military capabilities to fight and win future wars in the mountains.

Capability for Offensive Operations

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 deterrence in the conventional domain, combined with vigorous border management during peacetime. 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 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 the ability to manoeuvre in the mountains is limited due to the restrictions imposed by the terrain. Also, India’s capability for vertical envelopment is limited to one infantry battalion lift at a time. In the plains too, India’s strike corps cannot be tasked to launch 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 manoeuvre-firepower coin, it is necessary to substantially upgrade capabilities of the armed forces to inflict punishment and indeed achieve the military aims 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.

Upgrading Firepower, Air Assault and C4I2SR Capabilities

The firepower capabilities that must be enhanced include first and foremost 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 penetration and accurate night strikes. In fact, the Indian Air Force (IAF) should aim to dominate the air space and FGA strikes must be so predominant that they 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 for deployment 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 the current 12th Defence Plan (2012-17) and to 50 per cent in the next defence plan in order to achieve high levels of operational efficiency. India’s defence planners must recognise that it is firepower asymmetries that will help to achieve military aims and ultimately break the adversary 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 Indias 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 (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 3.0 per cent of Indias GDP.
C4I2SR capabilities are still rudimentary in nature and must be substantially modernised to exploit the synergies that can be achieved by a network centric force. 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 together with rapid reaction capability 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.

Raising Strike Corps for Offensive Operations

As stated above, as long as the territorial and boundary dispute with China remains unresolved, though the probability of conflict is low, its possibility cannot be ruled out and India must prepare for such a conflict. With its present military capabilities and defensive strategy, India is well poised to defend its territory against Chinese aggression. However, that is not adequate to deter aggression. Only the ability to take the war into Chinese territory will deter the adversary from initiating another border war. Such a Capability is provided only by strike formations with the army combined with the ability of the IAF to dominate the skies over Tibet to give army commanders a free hand and to inflict punitive damage. India needs at least two Strike Corps to take the war into Chinese territory — one each for Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.
On July 17, 2013, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) finally approved the army’s proposal for raising a Strike Corps for the mountains. [hough the approval came after considerable delay, it is a pragmatic move that will send an appropriate message across’ the Himalayas. It will help India to upgrade its military strategy against China from dissuasion to genuine deterrence as the strike corps, in conjunction with the LAF, will provide the capability to launch offensive operations across the Himalayas so as to take the next war into Chinese territory. It is time for the Indian armed forces to pivot to the mountains in its quest for building military capacities and it is creditable that the government has given the go ahead to raise a new strike corps.
The new strike corps (17 Corps) will comprise two infantry divisions and will be supported by three independent armoured brigades, three artillery brigades to provide potent firepower, an engineer brigade, an air defence brigade, an aviation brigade and units providing logistics services. The Corps will cost Rs 64,678 crore to raise and equip over a period of nine years. The raising of 17 Corps is to be completed by 2021. The Corps HQ is based at Panagarh, West Bengal. One infantry division each is being raised at Misamari and Lekhapani. (Some reports suggest that one of the divisions is being raised at Pathankot.) According to the government note, 90,274 new personnel will be added to the army’s manpower strength, including those in ancillary support and logistics units. The raising of two infantry divisions is already underway though there are reports of the dearth of new equipment and that equipment from the War Wastage Reserve (WWR) is being utilised.
Before the raising of 17 Corps began, the army had raised 56 and 7] Mountain Divisions and deployed them in Arunachal Pradesh to fill existing gaps in the defences. Some elements of these two divisions (which are in addition to those of 17 Corps) will act as readily available reserves for the new strike corps to add weight along the axis of attack and exploit success. These divisions will also be employed to secure launch pads for offensive operations across the Himalayas.
Hence, these must be seen as playing a significant supporting role to aid the operations of the strike corps. Like 17 Corps, 56 and 71 Mountain Divisions are likely to be dual-tasked for operations on the western front as part of contingency planning for a war with Pakistan.

Need for Army-IAF Synergy

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 alms. While these will be infantry predominant operations, no war plan will succeed without asymmetries in the application of firepower to destroy the enemy’s combat potential and infrastructure. Therefore, army-IAF operational plans must be fully integrated. These must be 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.
This is especially so in the mountains where the military aims and objectives are limited in scope because of the terrain. 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. The IAF has begun work On anew station near Nyoma in Ladakh and several old air strips that were in disuse are being activated. The IAF has also made plans to move one or more Squadrons of SU-30 MKI, it’s frontline fighter-bomber aircraft, to the northeast. New acquisitions of transport aircraft and helicopters will enable the army to move reserves rapidly.
As artillery batteries and regiments cannot be moved and re-deployed easily, operations in the mountains place a premium on battlefield air support. Operational mastery over air-to-ground strikes can influence the outcome of tactical battles in the mountains extremely favourably. Firepower ratios can be enhanced to achieving massive levels necessary for achieving overwhelming superiority only through a Major upgradation in the availability of artillery guns, rocket launchers and missiles and offensive air support.
A contract for the acquisition of 145 howitzers of 155/45 mm calibre (M777) has been hanging fire for long and needs to be expedited. The new artillery units that will be raised must be equipped with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that can engage targets deep inside Ideally, each of the infantry divisions of the strike corps must have one air assault brigade with the requisite airlift. Air-transported operations can also play a major role in influencing the course of the war. 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. In addition to attack helicopters, which will provide sustained firepower support, a large number of utility helicopters will be required to support offensive Operations across the Himalayas, including medium- and heavy-lift helicopters. Tibet from deployment areas in the plains. Precision-guided munitions (PGMs) need to be acquired in large numbers both by the artillery and the IAF to accurately destroy important targets such as communications centres. The government must also hasten the acquisition of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment.
The peculiarities of terrain and the lack of sufficient road communications, particularly lateral roads that connect the road axes leading to the border, will place heavier demands on helicopter lift for the movement of reserves within divisional and brigade sectors. 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.
The successful launching of Strike Corps operations will depend on the availability of good infrastructure, including double-lane roads with all-weather capability and suitably placed logistics nodes. Indias plans to upgrade the infrastructure in the states bordering China have not been progressing at an adequate pace. In fact, there have been inordinate delays due to the lack of environmental clearances and other reasons. Of 73 roads (total length 3,427 km) sanctioned by the government in 200607, only 21 (total length 661.59 km) had been completed so far. While the new strike corps is being raised, equipped and trained, the government must make vigorous efforts to speed up the completion of infrastructure projects.
Otherwise, the army will have a new strike corps and not be able to launch it effectively.
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 sporadic. 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 National Security Commission mandated by an act of Parliament to oversee the development of military and non-military capacities for national security.