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Modern wars need tech edge. Army’s Integrated Battle Groups will be toothless without it

In the IBGs, third-generation anti-tank and air defence weapons, and loiter ammunition must be available down to unit level.

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The Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Pande, has hit the ground running with respect to restructuring and reorganising the Indian Army. On 9 May 2022, while speaking to a group of journalists, he gave details on the progress of raising of the Integrated Battle Groups, or the IBGs:  “The purpose of restructuring our existing formations into integrated battle groups was to have forces which are lean, agile and tailor-made which would afford the commanders the flexibility and more options for their employment in the respective theaters to achieve the desired outcomes. To that extent we have identified a holding formation on the Western front and a Strike formation on the Northern borders for the IBGisation to commence.”

The divisionhas been the default combined arms fighting formation for nearly two centuries. It constitutes, under one Commander, a force of three armoured/infantry/mountain brigades backed by inherent centrally controlled combat/logistics support units. It is capable of creating three combined arms manoeuvre brigades with varying groupings. Three to four divisions are grouped under a Corps to conduct large scale operations. These formations were suited for setpiece battles in prolonged wars.

But in the 21st century, most nations assessed that the probability of full-scale wars to achieve decisive victories, particularly between nations armed with nuclear weapons, was very low. Future conflicts/wars were likely to be limited in time and space and dominated by high-end precision and lethal military technology. In such wars, the requirement was for more agile formations to gain the firstmover advantage. Divisions were considered to be too unwieldy and slow to respond. Over the last two decades, most armies have done away with divisions and restructured them into two to three tailormade combined arms brigades, keeping in view the mission, threat and terrain, and operating directly under the Corps. Modern technology, communications and networking overcame the need for a large division.

The Indian Army made a late start in 2018 by conceptualising its new combined arms formation known as the IBGs.


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Progress

Indian Army organisations are mostly of World War 2 vintage. However, ad hoc battle groups for specific operations/duration have also been around since then. In mid1980s, we created the Reorganised Plains Infantry Divisions wherein Infantry Divisions were permanently allotted an armoured brigade. Within the divisions, all arms retained their pure forms and were grouped at brigade and battalion level with other arms for operations.

In the mechanised formations, there was permanent grouping of armoured and mechanised infantry units at brigade level. But at unit level, the grouping was only for operations. This structure lacked the real cohesion and synergy of combined arms, apart from being an impediment for meaningful training. Our divisions and corps suffered from time inertia and were slow to mobilise and respond to conflicts/war. During Operation Parakaram in December/January 2001/2002, we could not exploit the window of opportunity despite being the firstmover because we took three weeks to mobilise and be ready for war. Since then, the idea of IBGs was being debated but the hierarchy lacked the will to execute.

It was only in 2018 that the idea was formally conceptualised and the credit for this must go to General Bipin Rawat, the then Chief of Army Staff. The concept was tested in the plains and in high altitude in 2019. And it was expected that IBGs would be progressively created with effect from 2020. The two-year delay is primarily due to organisational inertia. The crisis in Eastern Ladakh is a lame excuse as conflicts/wars should spur even more rapid reforms. The silver lining is that we have the advantage of learning lessons from the patterns of conflict for the 21st century as demonstrated in Armenia – Azerbaijan War 2020 and the ongoing  Ukraine – Russia War 2022


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Composition

The challenge faced by the Army is much more than the mere restructuring/reorganisation of its 17 Mountain Divisions (including the three, otherwise designated as Infantry Divisions),18 Infantry Divisions (including 4-6 Reorganised Plains Infantry Divisions), 3 Armoured Divisions and 12 Independent Armoured Brigades. It is to find the necessary combined arms resources and infusion of high-end military technology. Organisations down to the unit level of all arms and services would have to be reviewed. If that is not enough, we will have to find the money to infuse high-end military technology. 

The organisation of the IBGs will have to be tailormade, keeping in view the mission, terrain and the enemy. Mountains will require Infantry predominant IBGs. High-altitude valleys/plateaus will require a mix of mechanised forces and infantry in protected mobility vehicles/Armoured Personal Carriers (APCs). In the plains also, there would be a requirement of mechanised forces predominant or Infantry (in protected mobility vehicles/APCs) predominant IBGs. Similarly, amphibious and airtransported IBGs will be tailor-made for their roles. Our organisations are notorious for lack of reconnaissance units. These are a must at unit and IBG level. 

To find the basic resources for raising nearly 80-90 combined arms IBGs, the organisations of the units of all arms and services would have to be ruthlessly reviewed. Our units are 25-30 per cent larger than corresponding units of modern armies. There is a strong case for reducing the Infantry Battalion to three companies from four, saving 120 soldiers from each of our 500 infantry battalions of various types. An armoured regiment can be reduced to 31 tanks with each squadron having three troops of three tanks each and all command above squadron level being exercised from armoured command vehicles. This will make 980 tanks or additional 31-tank regiments from the current 70 regiments available for the IBGs. Similarly, mechanised infantry can be reduced to three Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs) per platoon, in place of four, sparing 450 ICVs or 10 additional Mechanised Infantry Battalions from the current 50 Mechanised Infantry Battalions. 

A similar bold exercise with respect to other arms and services will lead to finding all arms/services resources for the IBGs, including those for new units and will also result in a net saving of manpower.


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Infusion of technology

Infusion of state-of-the-art technology is a bigger challenge than the restructuring/reorganisation. The lessons that stand out from 21st century conflicts is the conspicuous absence of close combat and destruction of attacking/defending forces from standoff ranges using Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) delivered in various modes. Fixed defences invite destruction by PGMs. Small mobile teams with state-of-the-art weapon systems have destroyed much larger forces arrayed for battle. 

In the IBGs, third-generation anti-tank and air defence weapons, and loiter ammunition must be available down to unit level. Reconnaissance and armed drone units relative to capability must be available at unit/IBG/Corps level. Electronic and cyber warfare units must be included and communications made interference proof. Attack helicopter support must be on call. Own equipment and personnel must have requisite protection and countermeasures against PGM attack. 

In our zeal to reduce manpower, we must not forget to ensure that secure logistics are available — one of the primary reasons for the Russian debacle in Ukraine. 

It is evident that the bigger challenge than restructuring and reorganising the divisions into IBGs is the infusion of state-of-the-art technology. Our elephantine divisions are lethargic but without cutting-edge technology, the IBG will end up being a toothless tiger.

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 Anurag Chaubey)

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