India is undertaking major military reforms to enhance its capability to fight possible wars with Pakistan and China as Prime Minister Narendra Modi settles into his second term.
The reforms are redrawing military concepts and formations and junking plans that have prevailed for more than 80 years in institutions that have been slow to reform. They are also moving forces up much closer to the front lines for quicker mobilization. Previously, this used to happen only when war was imminent.
Over the last four years, key military units that are part of India’s three Strike Corps – I Corps, II Corps and XXI Corps – have shifted and moved closer to the border with Pakistan and China. Meanwhile, India’s top military hierarchy is also examining the effect of these changes will have on the current rank structure and the morale of its officers.
India inherited its military structures from the colonial British, policies initially created to keep the natives in check. But the two world wars changed how the British Empire looked at its colonies. Between the two big wars, the British Indian Army expanded exponentially.
As historians have noted, if anyone other than the British and the Americans fought in every theater of the war, it was the Indians, who were part of the Allied troops on every continent. In 1947, after the British divided India into two countries, the army also split and immediately plunged into war with each other, with both sides led by British generals.
In the seven decades since independence, India has fought five wars, launched two expeditionary operations and built the third-largest standing army in the world. But the structures and methods of fighting a war have remained the same, with some incremental changes implemented periodically.
However, all that changed when India was surprised by Pakistani military intrusions in Kashmir and a sharp, short conflict, known as the Kargil war, was fought in the summer of 1999. This resulted in a realization that modern warfare needed new ideas.
On December 13, 2001, Pakistani terrorists stormed India’s Parliament. India reacted with fury and mobilized the army under Operation Parakram and sent them to the border and war seemed imminent. But 10 months later the Indian Army returned to its barracks, after international pressure and mediation drew promises from Pakistan to rope in terror attacks from its soil.
However, Indian military planners knew their age-old plans and formations for war had been rendered useless, and it was time to draw up new plans.
Fighting new wars
By May 2004, the Indian Army had come up with a new war plan. They called it the “Cold Start Doctrine.” However, the same colonial structures remained untouched and were expected to fight according to the new doctrine.
“We found that mobilizing our Strike Corps was taking inordinately long. Pakistan has a large component of Mujahid battalions that have to be mobilized,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda, a former Northern Army commander. As a younger officer, Hooda worked on the plans to restructure the army after Operation Parakram.
Since the Mujahid battalions are basically a reserve force, it took time to mobilize them. India sought to exploit this gap for a decisive operation using its Cold Start Doctrine.
The Indian Army’s fighting strategy depended on two key formations, the Strike Corps and the Pivot Corps. While it had three Strike Corps targeting Pakistan, it was building one for China. The aim of the Strike Corps was to use all mechanized forces for a rapid thrust into Pakistan’s vulnerable areas and exploit its lack of depth.
The Pivot Corps were essentially defensive formations that can turn around and launch offensive operations once the strike formations established dominance. However, this became obsolete as the Pakistanis and Chinese also changed their strategies.
“Cold Start was a vague term. We knew that any military operation was unlikely to last for a long time due to international pressure,” said Lieutenant General KJ Singh, an armored corps officer who rose to head India’s Western Army Command.
“Therefore, we had to fall back on the concept of SNIPE – Short Notice Intense Proactive Escalatory operations. The fighting elements of our Strike Corps were too far behind the front lines, and they were too large to mobilize without being noticed. This needed to change.”
India is now moving towards Integrated Battle Groups, that are much smaller than the Corps but carry nearly as much firepower. It is taking the key elements of offensive operations from its Strike Corps, while also dipping into the Pivot Corps. This meant freeing up a lot of “captive” offensive capabilities and combining them for optimum use.
“We realized that Pivot Corps had significant reserves of armor and infantry. So we can look at eight to 10 independent battle groups in a situation where we only had one Strike Corps,” Hooda said.
In part, the strategy is drawn from a similar experiment carried out by the US military when it went to war with Iraq after 9/11 in 2001. It created the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which was a combination of highly mobile infantry and armor that could carry out a range of operations across different theaters. They could mobilize and deploy quickly, but also carry enough firepower to punch above their weight.
“All over the world armies are changing. The Americans, the Russians and even the Chinese have done it,” Hooda explained.
Importantly, Pakistan began to shore up its doctrines to counter a “Cold Start” Indian offensive. It began to convert its Mujahid battalions to regular troops last year, while it also introduced the Nasr missile, a tactical ballistic nuclear warhead that could be used against mobile formations.
In regard to China, the traditional strategic thought in India for decades was that size would be the decisive factor. By 2012, India was all set to raise a Strike Corps for offensives against China.
“The idea was that we need a ratio of 9:1 superiority to tackle any adversary in the mountains. But the costs and the challenges of maintaining such a massive force with a chronic resource crunch made that impossible,” a senior serving military official told Asia Times.
“At that time when cabinet sanctions came for 17 Corps, framed as a Strike Corps against China, we planned for three army divisions (about 12,000 personnel). But the funds never came so we started the new formations with existing war reserves. But as the Northern Army commander I couldn’t spare any, because all my troops were engaged in active operations in Kashmir and on the borders,” Hooda said.
These practical problems and a lack of funds forced the army to drop two of the planned three divisions. Today, 17 Corps has only one division that is being converted into independent battle groups.
Unlike in the past, all major strike formations have been moved forward to their operational areas. This has greatly reduced the time needed to mobilize existing formations from a month to days. However, the size and orientation of the formations were unchanged until the latest exercise began.
“My recommendation was to do this in a three-year phase. Create test beds to exercise battle plans, review lessons learnt in the second year and then formally implement it in the third year,” said Hooda.
Many serving and retired generals have also raised doubts about a Corps commander managing too many independent battle groups at a time. “This needs to be addressed from a command and control perspective,” another serving senior general said.
In September 2016, Pakistani terrorists struck an Indian brigade headquarters in the Uri sector in Kashmir, which led to India retaliating and launching raids by Special Forces units.
“Those were synergized multiple cross-border raids. But they failed to deter Pakistan and terrorists again struck India in February 2019. Our air strikes on Balakot in Pakistan in February this year has helped create a new threshold below the nuclear threat,” General KJ Singh said.
“But we still need to work on strategies that will be decisive and will prove to be a deterrent.”
Finally, while China has subsumed the whole India border under one military command, India has four army commands and a separate airforce command dealing with the Chinese border.
“This is chaotic and frankly, leads to massive issues. In fact, we are not even sitting with the Indian Air Force in the same location,” said Hooda. “At best, India’s two army commands, Northern and Eastern, should cover the border with China, instead of the current four. The Air Force should move its Eastern Command and co-locate it with the army’s Eastern Command. Right now they are in different states and that does not help planning joint operations.”
Lieutenant General Singh said India’s decisive victory against Pakistan on 1971 brought peace until the Kargil war in 1999. “But Pakistan and the Chinese have changed their military. Today, the Chinese have shed their flab and built a mobile army equipped with modern weapons. This poses a significant challenge to Indian military planners,” he said.
While the Modi government has given the go-ahead to make these far-reaching changes, it also needs to work on cyber warfare and look at weapons that threaten its satellite assets in space.