The Transformation of the Indian Army Is Long Overdue
Balance needed between manpower, weapons, force-multipliers
The Indian Army is carrying out a comprehensive exercise to restructure itself. From the few leaks and snippets available in the public domain, it appears that the exercise has three aims.
First, to resize the army so that flab is removed and operational capabilities increase.
Second, to enhance funds in the Capital Account for modernisation by reducing expenditure under the Revenue Account.
Third, to carry out a cadre review, with the aim of creating more slots in successively higher ranks, to bring them on a par with their counterparts in the civil stream.
The aim of trimming the army is to be achieved by cutting or pruning what is euphemistically called ‘The Tail’ (still undefined and thus prone to various interpretations); and by utilising the savings for modernisation, which is long overdue.
Many such exercises have been undertaken earlier, but when it came to implementation nothing happened because hierarchies of the army and the ministry of defence opted for the comfort of the ‘status quo’. The few changes made to meet immediate challenges had no lasting effects.
Media snippets seem to indicate that a comprehensive study I carried out on restructuring in 1999, when I commanded the Army Training Command (ARTRAC), has been retrieved and many aspects have at last been found to be ‘workable’, after two decades! Hurrah!
Changes in force structure are necessitated by national interests, strategic imperatives, and changing threat assessments. Other factors are the nuances of future battlefields; fiscal outlays; changes due to the nuclear dimension; and national aspirations. As an example, since protracted regional wars are unlikely, restructuring should fit in with plans of time-bound and fast-moving operations, which will also keep the adversary politically destabilised and economically burdened.
Restructuring must be a balance between manpower, weapons and force-multipliers, within fiscal realities, and if budgets continue to be what they have been, we would need to reduce manpower and induct modern weapons and equipment.
Restructuring the organisations of units/ formations is only one aspect. The aim should be to optimise doctrines and concepts; restructure higher defence organization and the field force; manage high-grade internal conflicts; streamline logistics; and upgrade human resource development.
Here I will confine myself to suggestions on restructuring combat and combat support arms, as space does not permit delving into logistics and HRD aspects, which are equally important.
Important changes include a major doctrinal shift from ‘attrition’ to ‘manoeuvre’, with the aim of creating ‘strategic dislocation’ and psychological paralysis in the minds of enemy military commanders and political leaders. The essence of all operations must be proactive, bold and offensive. Force multipliers, especially for enhancing mobility in obstacle-ridden terrain and in mountains are essential.
Starting at the very top, we urgently need an integrated MoD, which is currently wholly staffed by generalists of the IAS, who have no knowledge of matters military. Procrastination of the government about appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Theater Commands must end, so that joint, well thought out strategies and quick decisions emerge.
At present, regional commands act as field armies for operational matters and for administrative responsibilities they perform the role of static commands. There is a need to separate these two functions. Creating separate static commands (perhaps three) and converting present geographical commands to field armies will enable focused attention on both aspects and will relieve field armies of the ever-increasing administrative functions. Such a change will also result in better career progression at higher ranks, which is necessary to avoid a lop-sided officer cadre with bulges at flag rank levels and inadequate tenures at every level.
A major weakness of the Indian army is its excessive focus on tactical levels resulting in maximum attention on the contact battle; focus on capture/ re-capture of objectives; and isolated offensives resulting in a lack of synergy.The requirement is to achieve a concentration of force at decisive points.
We need to discard the present dispensation whereby only planning and dispensing resources is carried out at the corps level. Instead, the need is to plan, conduct and synergise operations at the corps level. This will lead to integrated employment of all resources and optimum exploitation of striking power.
With a view to playing a dominant and effective role in the expanded Southern Asian Region, a limited force projection capability is a must, as is the ability to mount a punitive response to provocations short of war.
In its secondary role, the army should support counter-insurgency (CI) operations, but without diluting its conventional capability. The mantra for this must be to carry out CI tasks and de-link fast, and not as it is at present: prolonged deployments stretching over decades.
The pillars of our nuclear strategy must continue to be no first use; strategic deterrence; enhanced missile capability; triad; transparent command and control structure; and credible retaliatory capability.
No country can wage war on multiple fronts. The army’s conceptual framework should be based on a one-front scenario; a pro-active strategy; manoeuvres; a focus on the operational level of war; no tactical or logistics pauses; and simultaneity of operations.
It is imperative to restructure the field force. Infantry units, which are the army's mainstay for varied employment, need increased intrinsic direct firing weapons; greater mobility; force multipliers like commandos (ghataks); better surveillance capability with modern sensing devices; and no decrease in bayonet strength at the section level.
In infantry and mountain brigades, we are constantly running short of infantry at crucial junctures. The answer lies in adopting the concept of ‘Square Brigade Groups’, which are self-contained in all supporting arms and services. Such task forces would be agile and be able to sustain the tempo of operations.
Armoured brigade groups should also be square, as the present triangular structure does not give the brigade commander any leeway to exploit fleeting opportunities. For defensive formations, they should have two armour regiments, one mechanised infantry battalion and one reconnaissance and support battalion. For offensive formations, square armour brigade groups should have two armour regiments and two mechanised infantry battalions. They also need integral attack helicopter squadrons and mobile information warfare assets. Such an organisation will enable them to maintain momentum, without the need to group/ regroup in the initial stages of battle.
At the formation levels, we can do away with the divisional headquarters. The number of square brigade groups in a corps will be six or seven, depending on the tasks and terrain. One truncated divisional headquarters for command and control of the offensive components of the defensive corps may be retained.
In offensive corps, considering present day communications a corps headquarters can easily command six square brigade groups. However, truncated divisional headquarters will be needed to command different thrust lines. The combat support and logistics elements of present divisions can be reallocated between corps and infantry brigade groups.
Artillery divisions are best suited to plan, coordinate and execute degradation operations, through the operational depth of the combat zone. For similar tasks up to tactical depth, all square brigade groups need long-range guns and modern surveillance and target acquisition units. Air defence sub-units should also be grouped with square brigades. Engineer units are needed to maintain the momentum of operations/ tempo of battle, especially in short and intense wars. All specialised engineer units for rapid support to lodgments across obstacles/ intermediate nodes in depth, should be corps assets, to be released in accordance with the progress of operations.
Specialised signal units should be centralised at the corps level and released to square brigade groups as per plans or as contingencies arise.
Army aviation must be expanded substantially, by enhancing the number of squadrons of reconnaissance, utility and attack helicopters. It is eminently desirable to have attack helicopter units/ sub-units in armoured brigade groups of the strike corps, as well as corps assets. In mountains, gunships with rockets, and heavy machine guns, will be effective force multipliers.
Close air support is as essential for land operations as it was earlier. As the Air Force is shying away from this assigned role, it may become necessary to enhance army aviation, both in terms of numbers and additional platforms, including fixed wing assets.
We do need an air assault division. It must have air assault and amphibious capabilities. It has to be a joint formation for obvious reasons. The major role of such a division should be force projection within our region of interest for military and quasi-military tasks. Its subsidiary roles include support to offensive formations, and other contingency tasks.
In conclusion, it needs to be highlighted that major restructuring exercises cannot be resorted to every few years. When they are carried out, they must be comprehensive and must encompass all levels, from the strategic to the tactical. The army hierarchy should also ensure that restructuring is implemented fully.
Creeping reforms, as in the past, must give way to holistic and comprehensive restructuring of the entire force. Phasing is acceptable only on account of fiscal constraints and not for any extraneous reasons.
The writer is former Vice-Chief of Army Staff.