A crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind’ goes a Chinese proverb. The Chinese-perpetrated crisis in Eastern Ladakh seems to have inspired the Indian Army to seize the opportunity to initiate structural and organisational reforms. Without much ado, it has given directions for 1 Corps — one of the three mechanised forces, predominant Strike Corps focussed on Pakistan — to be restructured and reoriented as the second Mountain Strike Corps for Ladakh. 17 Mountain Strike Corps will now become the strategic reserve dedicated only to the Northeast, and it will be restructured into three-four Integrated Battle Groups, or IBGs.
This move signals that, at last, the Army has recognised that it is China, and not Pakistan, that is the principal threat to India’s national security. However, it also allows the flexibility of using the Mountain Strike Corps against Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir/Western Ladakh. One sincerely hopes that this does not remain a one-off change but becomes part of larger, holistic reforms for optimisation of the Army through restructuring and reorganisation. The Army is still based on World War-II organisations, living with incremental changes tailored to the wars of the 20th century. We need to come to terms with strategic compulsions that will influence the way we engage in future conflicts/wars.
The strategic compulsions
- Nuclear weapon armed States cannot engage in decisive conventional wars.
- Conflict/wars will be fought below the nuclear threshold, will be driven by high-technology and limited in time and space. For this type of conflict/war,agile and multi-capability formations are required.
- Indian economic compulsions do not permit any substantial increase in thedefence budget in the near future. Currently, the bulk of the defence budget goes in sustaining a manpower-intensive army.
And this is why the restructuring of our mechanised and infantry formations becomes important.
Restructuring of mechanised and infantry formations
We are an infantry predominant army, organised in 17 Mountain Divisions (including three, otherwise designated as Infantry Divisions) and 18 Infantry Divisions (including 4-6 Reorganised Plains Infantry Divisions, or RAPID, which also have an armoured brigade in lieu of an infantry brigade). In addition, we have some Independent Infantry Brigades. The mechanised formations are organised into three Armoured Divisions, 18-20 Independent Armoured/Mechanised Brigades, including those part of RAPIDs. All Infantry Divisions operating in plains and two Mountain Divisions also have an armoured regiment. The divisions operate under 14 Corps, seven each for mountains and plains.
A decision has already been taken to reorganise the divisions into tailor-made Integrated Battle Groups, or IBGs, with varying numbers of combat arms and combat support units dictated by the mission and terrain. All modern armies have or are in an advanced stage of adaption to these organisations. The PLA has already implemented this concept in the form of Combined Arms Brigades. India’s progress has been painfully slow and needs to be expedited. Unfortunately, the basic fighting units of the IBGs — armoured regiments and infantry battalions —continue to be organised as they were 80 years ago. We seem to have discounted our own war-fighting experience and the impact of technology. The organisations have become part of regimentation, and the fighting arms remain smug and revel in status quo.
An infantry battalion has four rifle companies of 120 soldiers each. In addition, it has specialist platoons for mortars and anti-tank guided missiles apart from a logistics subunit. Based on the World War experience, particularly causality rates, and the advent of modern technology, all modern armies have switched to a three, instead of four-rifle company system and provide armour protection with Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV) or Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC). Our own experience supports this change.
In Kargil War, we suffered 527 killed (462 were due to actual combat) and 1,363 wounded. Thirty infantry battalions took part in the operations. Since 90 per cent of casualties are suffered by the infantry, mathematically, on an average, each battalion suffered 16 killed and 41 wounded, that is just 6 per cent of the unit strength of 800 personnel. As a defending and defeated army, Pakistan suffered approximately 453 killed and 665 wounded, out of nearly six infantry battalions in the battle, that is about 20 per cent of the total strength. These figures justify adopting the three-company system. Modern weapon systems and reconnaissance/surveillance resources further reinforce the logic.
We have 390 infantry battalions (including 10 Scouts Battalions), nine Para Special Forces Battalions, five Para Battalions, 63 Rashtriya Rifles Battalions and 40 Assam Rifles Battalions. If all/most of these are reorganised on basis of three rifle companies, we can spare approximately 50,000 troops, giving us enough infantry battalions for at least 12-18 IBGs, with 4-6 Infantry Battalions each. Alternatively, this manpower could be utilised to meet other shortfalls or be simply reduced.
An armoured regiment in the Indian Army has 45 tanks since 1940, organised into three squadrons and four troops each, with 14 and 3 tanks respectively. Regimental Headquarters has three tanks and Squadron Headquarters two tanks each. Since those days, tank design has undergone revolutionary changes in terms of mobility, protection and firepower. Our war experience makes a very strong case for reducing the number of tanks to 31, that is 10 tanks per squadron with three troops of three tanks each, and one tank each for squadron commander and regimental commander. Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICVs)/Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) can be used for command and control by the regimental/squadron second-in-command and adjutant.
The maximum number of tanks lost by a regiment in 1965 or 1971 wars has been only 15. In the battle of Chawinda in 1965, out of 225 tanks in the battle, as part of five armoured regiments, we lost only 29 (we were on the offensive). Pakistan, out of its 150 tanks, lost 44. In the battle of Asal Uttar, 1965, (we were on the defensive) out of the 135 tanks, we lost only 10-14. Pakistan, out of its 220 tanks, lost 99, that is 20 tanks per regiment, primarily due to flawed tactics and boggy terrain. The biggest of tank battles of the 1971 War was at Basantar, where we lost 10-14 tanks and Pakistan 46, once again a higher number for Pakistan due to the flawed tactics adopted.
We have approximately 70 armoured regiments, including those that are being raised. If these are reorganised on the basis of 31 tanks, 980 tanks will be available, which is equivalent to 32 armoured regiments organised on 31-tank basis, enough for 16 IBGs at scale of two regiments per IBG.
Similarly, there is scope for reducing one ICV per ICV platoon in mechanised infantry battalions, that is 9 ICVs per battalion. With 50 mechanised infantry battalions, 450 ICVs will become available, enough for nine additional mechanised infantry battalions.
On a transparent battlefield, unprotected infantry cannot carry out any movement without incurring heavy casualties. Hence, in a gradual manner, all infantry battalions operating in the plains and relevant terrain of Ladakh and the Northeast must be equipped with a simple, cost-effective wheeled APC.
The above restructuring/reorganisation will enable us to switch to the IBG concept, fulfilling 100 per cent requirement of fighting arms, including the formations in Ladakh and the Northeast. A similar exercise can be carried out for combat support arms and combat support services. However, in respect of these, it is their need-based allotment as per mission and terrain which is relevant and not placing them under command.
It is time for the Army to get out of inertia and restructure, reorganise and modernise for wars of 21st century, and it can be done from within. Concentration is a principle of war. In future battles/wars, what will matter is agile and usable combat potential at the point of decision and not a huge elephantine mass per se.
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.