How the nature of military threats, and warfare, India faces from its neighbours has changed over the last 70 years, and how the Indian Army has responded to them.
Classically, when one reviews a complex and operationally diverse organisation such as the Indian Army, there are mainly four areas to be examined. First, the organisation and structure itself. The second is operational and tactical tenets, which always remain dynamic. Third comes the technology and advancements which enable matching, or better capability than adversaries. And the fourth and last is the sociology of the organisation, whether it has supported the professional culture through the growth process. This review can be as elaborate as one may wish to make it, and given my passion as a second generation soldier it can border even on the inane and irrelevant. To keep it balanced, only some of the major issues will be addressed. The aspect of military sociology will be touched upon only perfunctorily.
The purpose here is to review the Indian Army's ability to withstand threats through 70 years of Independence, in a short essay without getting too bogged down with detail. The areas described above will concurrently run through the essay in each described phase of the Indian Army's existence. The 70 years can be broadly divided into phases as follows:-
- Post-Independence, from 1947 to 1962
- The Reorganisation and retrieval, from 1962 to 1971
- The consolidation, from 1972 to 1991
- Multiple threats and challenges in the path to modernisation, from 1992 to 2017
Post-Independence, from 1947 to 1962
Emerging from the victory of the Allies in 1945, the then British Indian Army went through a phase of virtual chaos till 1950. First came the downsizing from the war time strength of almost 2.5 million soldiers, which was followed by Partition and the division of the British Indian Army into the armies of independent India and Pakistan.
The ensuing confusion was exacerbated by the fact that within three months of Independence, the Indian Army was at war with an awkward mix of regulars and criminal tribals led by the newly formed Pakistan Army’s officer cadre. Even as the two armies remained at war from 27 October 1947 to the end of 1948, the assets of the pre-Partition British Indian Army were being divided and handed over to the Pakistan Army. Armies at war do not aid the other by parting with assets, which may be due to be given under any agreement. Yet, the code of ethics of the Indian Army remained intact through a strange war in which old friends and comrades in arms continued to remain in touch even as battles between their two armies raged.
The Indian Army ensured that Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) did not fall into the hands of the marauders through the valiant battles it fought at Zojila, Leh, Uri, Poonch and Naushera among many others. The ceasefire halted what would have been a sure culmination of the campaign with capture of the entire territory of J&K. The operational experience and training of the Second World War was a great contributor to the professional capability and ingenuity displayed during the 1947-48 campaign in J&K. The transportation of light tanks to Zojila in semi-knocked down condition, to be assembled and employed in battle, and the manner in which Gurez was captured by manually pushing artillery guns up the Razdan Pass, were just some of the examples of ingenuity.
In September 1948, the Indian Army launched Operation Polo to wrest Hyderabad in five days of fighting against the Nizam’s state forces once the Nizam had refused to accede to India. The government obviously did not wish to have a balkanised subcontinent of independent states and parts of the Indian union mixing with each other.
After the J&K campaign, the Army underwent little change in organisation, operational concept, doctrine or even weapons and equipment. Armour and artillery continued to be characterised by tanks and guns from the Second World War and the Infantry had the vintage .303 rifle as its main personal weapon. Even as the Army entered Nagaland in its first counter insurgency operation in 1955, there was no attempt to acquire any specialist equipment to successfully pursue the operation. In 1961, the Army launched a swift operation to capture Goa where it met little resistance.
The period up to 1962 did not see any other conventional operations after the hard fought success of 1947-48. The only other deployment was of an Indian infantry brigade as the Custodian Force of India to oversee peace in Korea and the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance Company as part of the UN force to fight the invasion by the Chinese and North Koreans. A brigade was also deployed in Congo as part of the UN forces and it participated in some robust operations too.
In terms of training institutions, the Defense Services Staff College at Wellington which moved from the original location at Quetta, was re-established with much care and attention, thus retaining its premier status as a leading centre for joint training. Two more major institutions were established. In January 1955, the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla, was inaugurated at the culmination of a long process with much care and focus of the civilian and military leadership. NDA ensured the concept of joint training at the entry level, something rarely found anywhere else in the world. The other institution which has met the challenges of the times till today is the National Defence College (NDC). Established in 1960, as an institution of strategic learning for various departments of the government and housed centrally at Tees January Marg at New Delhi, this institution was established on the lines of the Imperial Defense College, now called Royal College of Defence Studies. All three institutions exemplified the early realisation of the need for joint operational philosophy.
The social makeup of the Army remained essentially steeped in British traditions. The Army succeeded in retaining the British Army’s regimental system, its strict code of conduct and discipline, never mixing on and off parade stances of its officers. Indian officers pushed into senior ranks at relatively young age and service profiles displayed much maturity and yet ruthlessness in ensuring the highest standards of probity. The officer man relationship remained one of deep mutual respect.
The Sino-Indian border war of 1962 did not come as a surprise as there was a gradual buildup leading to the show down. A little more than a division worth of troops was involved from the Indian Army in three broad areas – Ladakh, Kameng division of North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and the Rest of NEFA. Unfortunately, the then government of India had failed to appreciate threats to the nation as they would manifest and invested little in the Armed Forces. The result of the Chinese invasion was an ignominious defeat which shook the nation and led to a dented psyche for long.
The Reorganisation And Retrieval, From 1962 to 1971
Post 1962 saw the sudden expansion of the Army. Specialist terrain related organisations such as mountain divisions and scouts units were raised for the Himalayan front while additional infantry divisions were raised for the plains. The semi-automatic 7.62 mm SLR rifle, L1A1, became the personal weapon of the Infantry. The Centurion Mk 7 and the indigenous Vijayanta emerged as the main battle tanks for a short period even as the Soviet T-55 competed for space. The need for manpower resources for expansion at the level of enrolled ranks was met by increasing the capacity of training centres and resorting to emergency commission (EC) for officers. There was no shortage of officers and the performance of EC officers in subsequent operational situations was always at par.
The India-Pakistan conflict of 1965 was triggered by Pakistan on the premise that the reorganisation and re-equipping of the Indian Army would make it near impossible for the Pakistan Army to defeat it in a battle. Thus Pakistan decided to launch operations in 1965 before the Indian Army’s makeover could be complete. The intent was to wrest J&K and make maximum inroads into the plains sector of the western theatre. The 22-day war of August–September, 1965, preceded by another short war in the Kutch sector of Gujarat, was largely a stalemate, although Pakistan celebrates 6 September each year as Victory Day.
The truth is that Pakistan failed to achieve its stated objectives. The Indian Army made some spectacular gains in the mountains capturing Haji Pir in J&K but lost ground in Akhnur and in Southern Punjab. A major defensive armour battle at Asal Uttar destroyed a large part of Pakistan’s pivotal 1st Armoured Division. Pakistan’s attempt to motivate the local population of J&K to rise against India through Operation Gibraltar, did not succeed.
The Indian Army thoroughly reviewed its failings of 1965 and conducted a major training event to validate changes that were envisaged after lessons learnt. Exercise Betwa, conducted in early 1967, examined and practised operations of the then only offensive Corps size formation. In September 1967, serious clashes broke out at Nathula on the Sino-Indian border. The ability of the Indian troops to resist Chinese attempts at intimidation was a major morale booster although there were large scale casualties on both sides resulting from the rogue action by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This action, coming after the successful dissuasion of any Chinese pro-activeness to assist Pakistan in 1965 by opening another front, helped the Indian Army redeem much of its lost self-esteem resulting from the reverses of 1962.
Although India accorded a lower priority to the then territory of East Pakistan in terms of threats and own equipment profile, it was the eastern front which got activated in 1971. The possibility of a two-front war was overcome by ensuring that no hostilities took place before the winter of late 1971. General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw bought time for preparations once it was evident that war could be a possibility given Pakistan’s rogue handling of the civil strife in East Pakistan. The broad strategy if India was pushed into a war dwelt upon sufficient buildup of forces on the East Pakistan front with forces deployed to prevent any Pakistani ingress in the West; only short offensive thrusts were activated to tie down Pakistani reserves along the entire western front. Despite winter, the troops on the Sino-Indian border remained deployed at battle stations to dissuade any Chinese pro-activism. A rapid switch of selected formations from east to the western front was planned and executed.
The 1971 war was a spectacular success on the eastern front resulting in the surrender of 93,000 Pakistan Army soldiers, although success on the western front was limited as intended.
The Consolidation, From 1972 To 1991
Despite the spectacular military victory of 1971 the nature of threats to India’s borders did not dilute. In fact, the clear Pakistani intent for retribution for the military disgrace remained a threat in being. The Pakistan mindset which remains fixated to the day is that the loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) was not a result of the competent military showing on the part of the Indian Army but rather the disloyal actions of the Mukti Bahini and the Bengali people. It continued to perceive that the war on the western front remained in its favour, and given more time and resources, it could have executed a breakthrough on this front. This psyche and mindset remains till today and much of the threats arise from the arrogance of this thinking.
To meet the threat from Pakistan the then Army Chief, General TN Raina, ordered a review of the mobilisation procedures. This resulted in the move of operational formations to stations closer to the western front. Regimental centres at Dehradun, Meerut and Nasirabad made way for fighting formations and moved into Central India. However, India’s stance still remained reactive contingent upon any offensive intent of Pakistan. A second armoured division was raised as also more independent armoured brigades to add teeth to strike forces which were now more potent having been organised into two corps sized forces with an armoured division each. A major decision in the reorganisation of forces was the setting up of Headquarters (HQ) Northern Command at Udhampur and the move of HQ 15 Corps to Srinagar thus effectively splitting up the rather large Western Command whose responsibility had been from Ladakh to Southern Punjab and North Rajasthan. Simultaneously, HQ 16 Corps was raised at Nagrota to take responsibility from south of Pir Panjal to Pathankot.
Alongside the reorganisation, which anyway remained an ongoing process, an experts committee comprising Lieutenant General (later General) KV Krishna Rao, and Major General (later General) K Sundarji, deliberated on the future organisational structure and operational doctrine of the Indian Army. These deliberations were to be largely the basis upon which all subsequent raising of additional resources and the restructuring of the order of battle was to be based. An aspect which assisted in the discourse of future expansion to meet threats was the assured supply of weapons and equipment from the Soviet Union. Since the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict was followed closely by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973, much of the Soviet equipment employed effectively by Egypt in the latter conflict was made available to India. It led to a revamp of the air defence with induction of missiles and anti-tank resources through anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). The T-72 tank became the main battle tank and the BMP 1 followed by BMP 2 became the infantry carrying vehicle (ICV). The focus remained very largely on the mechanised battlefield and the deployment in the mountains on the line of control (LoC) did not receive matching attention primarily as the winning ability in the mountains was perhaps considered questionable.
It was in the late seventies that a potential nuclear threat from Pakistan started to emerge. Gloved in frequent denial and deliberate leaks to create a psychological effect, Pakistan was desperate to acquire nuclear capability in order to conceptually offset India’s asymmetric conventional advantage. The concept of nuclear red lines did not seriously emerge at this time although this has today become a major factor in our operational doctrine. Through the eighties, the Indian mechanised forces were expectedly gung ho with their numerical and qualitative advantage. Deep objectives were sought and planned for, with destruction of the Pakistan war machine as the prime intent of battle.
What really assisted in the adoption of some offensive concepts was the early decision after 1972 to construct the ditch cum bund (DCB), a continuous anti-tank obstacle through the plains sector of J&K, Punjab and the Rajasthan-Punjab border. Although linear obstacles have been known to have been breached many times in history, they do prevent surprise and early loss of territory. Defensive stance can then be lighter with dependence on reserves that are available for both defensive and offensive operations. Progressively, the offensive content of the doctrine for the plains, obstacle ridden and desert terrain has thus witnessed an increase. The same could not be said of the mountains where the doctrine remained largely defensive. Till 1991, except for the raising of one mountain division for the Kameng sector in the East, no accretions took place signifying how much more the commitment of India was towards the threat emanating from Pakistan.
From 1978 to 1984, India witnessed increasing intimidation by Pakistan in the Siachen area. It was an area with an un-demarcated LoC . Left to the Pakistan domination it would have meant a broader swathe of territory to give depth to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)–China border and thus assist in their collusive strategy. Rightly, in one of the finer strategic decisions, the Indian Army occupied the Saltoro Ridge and denied the Siachen Glacier to Pakistan. An additional division was raised to take charge of the LoC in Ladakh and a new terminology came into being – the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in the general area of Siachen. It is important to remember that Siachen’s strategic importance cannot simply be wished away; its holding is even essential for the defence of Leh.
In 1987, the Indian Army ventured on its first out of area operation; Operation Pawan was perceived as necessary to retain the regional influence, but assessment about the way the operation would pan out went completely awry. Admittedly, an unclear aim and an uncertain strategy ensured that 30 months of deployment resulted in little gain except in refining the infantry’s basic tactics and getting many units battle inoculated under fire. In late 1988, another out of area operation (Operation Cactus) led to the scuttling of an attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Maldives. By any yardstick it was a highly successful operation launched with uncharacteristic decision-making which was speedy and correct. If anything, India did learn from Operation Pawan that launching out of area operations or deploying forces in assistance of another government should only be done with extreme care and full war-gaming of contingencies. Without a matching strategic and logistics air-lift capability, taking decisions on out of area operations will always be fraught with danger.
The threat scenario came to a head in 1989 when Pakistan took full advantage of the prevailing chaos in the world order and the political and financial instability at India’s centre to launch a proxy war in J&K and instigate the population to revolt. This was far bigger than Operation Gibraltar attempted in 1965 and was a result of the elaborate strategy of Zia ul Haq and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The aim was to tie down India in a ‘war of a thousand cuts’, instigate separatist tendencies, restrict the achievement of India’s aspirations. Although the conflict was centred on J&K, the intent was to target different parts of India. By 1991 the proxy war was already raging through Kashmir. The Indian Army undertook responsibility for countering the proxy war, which over a period of time has evolved into an effective hybrid war against India. The Rashtriya Rifles (RR) was raised for the purpose of fighting the insurgency to relieve the main Army units and formations from the responsibility. However, the campaign has evolved into a mixed responsibility model.
The period 1972 to 1991 did not see a conventional conflict but the threats kept the Indian Army deeply involved in low intensity conflict of different kinds which kept its ranks actively involved and sufficiently inoculated. It was the well thought through structural changes, the regular induction of military wherewithal, reorganisation of support organisations such as Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) plus a score of other progressive changes which kept the Indian Army sufficiently geared for combat across the spectrum of conflict. The one single fault that one could pin point now was perhaps the lack of sufficient attention towards infrastructure at the northern borders, something we rue even today.
Multiple Threats And Challenges In The Path To Modernisation, from 1992 to 2017
In the nineties, the main theme in the threat scenario was terror and its manifestation in J&K. The Northeast also remained unstable. On the conventional front, China was in the process of its modernisation and involved with high percentage economic growth. Agreements not to disturb the status quo at the Line of Actual Control and remain in engagement helped create a more congenial relationship with China. However, Pakistan continued to sponsor a proxy war in J&K ensuring at the same time that it kept the threshold just below India’s limit of tolerance. The degree of success gained in neutralising foreign and local terror groups through the nineties was a remarkable achievement leading to the showdown at the Kargil heights.
The Kargil conflict (Operation Vijay) was a high octane war fought by the zeal and leadership of India’s new generation officers and soldiers. However, it was a landmark event in that India and its Army were taken by surprise even as the operations revealed glaring intelligence, equipment, ammunition and organisational frailties. The fact that Pakistan could re-energise the Valley simply by forcing out a full formation from there, as a response force did prevail on the minds of India’s strategic planners. The strategic space lost in North Kashmir took almost three years to regain.
The one aspect made reasonably clear by the Kargil conflict was the relative reluctance of India to expand the ambit of the conflict beyond the localised scope of Kargil to the entire international border. At least that is how it was perceived by Pakistan. The reason Pakistan perceived it as such was the nuclear angle which could emerge should Pakistan feel it was threatened conventionally.
The entire J&K experience in fighting proxy war operations has matured the Army to a great extent in the finer nuances of hybrid conflict. However, a full understanding is yet to dawn on middle and lower level functionaries. The resistance towards soft power, over reliance on kinetic operations to bring about conflict resolution and the inability to convincingly see the larger picture through balanced employment of hard and soft power may prevent the emergence of a fuller understanding. However, the higher leadership is fully seized of this and conceptually is following the right course. What it needs today is to take the state government on board in a more pro-active way to ensure that the hard earned stability through robust counter terror operations is not lost due to inability of the government to cash the success. Inanities like attempted removal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts, which became the bane of our success of 2011-12 must be guarded against.
The Kargil Review Committee, which took stock of various nuances of India’s security, made a number of recommendations which were then reviewed by the Group of Ministers (GoM). Almost every facet of functioning of the Army was touched upon, but even after approval of the GoM many recommendations did not see the light of day. The delegation of powers to the Service HQ should have been progressive, not a one-time exercise. The integration of the MoD and the creation of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) for single point advice have not seen the light of day despite the half way measure of creating a HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS).
The other major landmark of this period was Operation Parakram, the response to the Pakistan-sponsored attack on India’s Parliament on 13 December 2001. The yearlong mobilisation and stand to of the Armed forces did not result in any major achievement except that it spawned the new doctrine, then called Cold Start and now referred as proactive strategy. It was the arrival of a major change in that instead of responding to Pakistan’s pro-activeness India would undertake the initiative if it felt threatened or subjected to a Pakistan-sponsored targeting by proxy groups. It would not await full mobilisation and would launch trans-border operations as its battle groups arrived or were ready for launch. It forced Pakistan to redeploy its formations to meet the threat. It also forced Pakistan to look at tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) as a means to counter the ingress of Indian battle groups. The claims by Pakistan of having developed TNWs remain shrouded in the same strategy it followed in the eighties when it developed nuclear weapons.
The ceasefire at the LoC, in November 2003, helped calm the threat scenario and gave peace a chance but 26/11 upset the momentum of peace parleys. Getting increasingly restive about its inability to drive its J&K agenda successfully, Pakistan has exploited every possible situation to promote alienation in the Valley and counter the Indian Army’s successful marginalisation of the terrorist strength. The brief hiatus with the coming of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2014 was entirely upset with the Pathankot and Uri attacks in 2016. Pakistan continues to maintain its belief that keeping slow fires burning will serve its eventual purpose. The Indian surgical strikes were a one-time message of capability and not a deterrent action. There will be fresh situations which will demand fresh responses at the LoC and in the hinterland.
The last is reserved for modernisation and the response to China’s challenge. On modernisation, the much touted transformation, the study of which was undertaken in 2005-2006 remained only on paper as the then government lacked the imagination or the concern of the Army. With procurement of essential equipment in the field of artillery and air defence at stake as also ammunition stockpiles dwindling, the hollowness in the Army’s critical stocks and capability took a beating. The NDA government has made efforts towards preventing the free fall in capability, but there is much, which is yet to be done. The streamlining of defence procurement through revision of the defence procurement procedure (DPP) has been an achievement but its true worth is yet to fructify on ground. What is actually required is to return to transformation as a concept, meshing a full rooted revamp of doctrine and capability in a given time bound programme.
Although China deserves a couple of pages it would suffice to say that India remains threatened by the possibility of a two or two-and-a-half front war with Pakistan and China in collusion with ongoing insurgencies providing the half front. We may be in the process of raising an additional Corps to undertake contingency tasks, yet we severely lack infrastructure to optimally employ such a formation. It is China’s intent to keep India pegged to the continental domain so as not to concentrate on the one area where it can upset China’s intentions; that is the maritime zone. China’s vulnerability lies in the oceans where it needs to be confronted.
Modernisation to meet collusive threats, especially in the light of an ever deepening Sino-Pakistani relationship is a prerequisite. Earlier the stranglehold on procurement is loosened the quicker will the targets be achieved.
This essay has not touched upon issues concerning military diplomacy and UN operations, two areas which contribute to India’s image in the world. It has also paid a comparatively low key focus to issues concerning nuclear aspects of security. It is time that cyber and space domains are also given their due and the higher organisation for the management and employment of Special Forces is professionalised.