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For future wars, World War 2 army divisions won’t cut it. It’s time for a ‘revolution’

Integrated battle groups have helped the Army optimise its size and make itself more agile. Now it's time to boost our national security with reforms.

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Three years ago, the Indian Army carried out four studies to bring about a “revolution in Indian Military Affairs,” — an all-encompassing military hypothesis about future warfare based on new theories of victory and emerging military technologies. The research necessitated changes in strategy and restructuring/reorganisation of the armed forces to enable them to fight wars of the future.

The first study focussed on restructuring, reorganisation and right-sizing of the field formations to make them more agile and responsive, and improve the tooth to tail ratio. The second was on the re-organisation of the Army headquarters to bring in integration and preclude redundancies. The third was to carry out a review of the officers’ cadre to meet their aspirations. The fourth reviewed the terms of engagement of rank and file and was aimed at harnessing the higher life expectancy and ensuring a younger profile of key commands and motivation of the personnel.

The recommendations of the four studies were approved during the Army Commander’s conference on 9 October 2018. The implementation of the recommendations has been a work in progress. These reforms started without a strategic review and a formal national security strategy and fell well short of the lofty goal of bringing about a revolution in military affairs (RMA). The reforms were not government-owned and did not take into account the budget, which is contingent on the technological transformation and modernisation necessary for optimising the size of the Army. The premise was probably to get on with restructuring and reorganisation and progressively introduce high-end technology.

Be that as it may, the pathbreaking reform to restructure and reorganise the field formations has been pursued with zeal and resolve. I analyse the progress of this reform to create Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) as the basic fighting formation for the future.


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Default fighting formation for the Army

The “division,” in various forms, has been the default combined arms fighting formation capable of independent operations for over two centuries. Three to four divisions are grouped under a Corps. Its strength varies from 10,000 to 20,000 personnel, with three to four manoeuvre brigades supported by combat /logistic support formations/units under centralised control. A division could field three/four brigade-size combined arms groups for operations. The last major wars fought with this size formation were the first and second Gulf Wars.

Over the last two decades, most nations concluded that the probability of full-scale wars to achieve decisive victories is very low. Future conflicts, particularly between nations armed with nuclear weapons, will be limited in time and space and dominated by high-end precision and lethal military technology. The first mover will have a major advantage. In such wars, the Corps and divisions were too unwieldy and slow to respond. This led to the evolution of tailor-made combined arms battle groups of brigade-size operating directly under the Corps. Modern communications and networking overcome the need for a division.

A classic example of their employment was the preemptive People’s Liberation Army operations at multiple points in Eastern Ladakh last year, employing only six Combined Arms Brigades.

In a nutshell, the division had centralised resources and allocated them to create brigade-sized battle groups. Now the combined brigade size battle groups ab initio are tailor-made keeping in view the threat, terrain and mission with varying fighting units — armoured, mechanised infantry and infantry, and combat/logistics support units/subunits. All modern armies have transformed or are in the process of making such a grouping as the default fighting formation. The Indian Army has named its new default fighting formation as the Integrated Battle Group (IBG).


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Integrated Battle Groups

It is heartening to note that the Indian Army has been very methodical in evolving, refining and testing the concept of IBGs over the last three years and has now reached the execution phase.

All IBGs will be tailor-made keeping in view the mission, threat and terrain. The divisions will be transformed into two or three IBGs commanded by Brig/Maj Gen operating directly under the Corps HQ. The IBGs will have command and control and organisational flexibility for interoperability with enhanced or reduced resources. The IBGs can be mechanised forces or infantry predominant or balanced, depending on the role. The quantum of combat support and logistics support units/subunits can also vary. The Corps will directly control the long-range and bigger combat/logistics support formations/units. A corps may have six to nine IBGs depending upon its role.

This restructuring and reorganisation will optimise the size of the army to save manpower and make it more agile. IBGs will be able to execute the Cold Start strategy more efficiently. Conversely, these can be rapidly deployed to deny or even preempt an enemy attempting preemption. Based on its surveillance and reconnaissance in Eastern Ladakh, a restructured 14 Corps with three to four IBGs could have preempted the PLA by securing the un-held Depsang Plains, Gogra-Hot Springs-Kongka La, north of Pangong Tso and the Kailash Range both in Chushul and the Indus Valley sectors or even across the Line of Actual Control.  The void in 14 Corps could have been filled by reserve formations moved from the plains.

Two IBGs, one each in 9 Corps (in the plains) and one in 17 Corps for high altitude, are likely to be in place by the end of September. In phase one, probably by mid-2022, the divisions of 17, 9 and 33 Corps will be converted into two, four and six IBGs respectively. Thereafter, progressively, all divisions will be restructured/reorganised as IBGs.


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The missing link

The Army has done well to begin this path-breaking, in-house reform to restructure/reorganise the World War II vintage fighting formations. General Bipin Rawat, who was the initiator of this reform, is now the Chief of Defence Staff. He must now prevail upon the Narendra Modi government to own and formalise the RMA.

After a strategic review, the national security strategy must be formalised. The reforms to bring about the RMA must be tri-service, all-encompassing, including the creation of theatre commands, and guided by a steering committee under the defence minister. The process must be progressive and related to the defence budget our economy can sustain. The RMA requires political will and holistic and radical reforms. Incremental changes, however good, will invariably fall well short of this ideal.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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