One day in mid-September 2019, an Indian Army Brigadier commanding around 3,000 soldiers along the 1,126-km Line of Actual Control with China walked across to stiffly shake hands with a Colonel from the People’s Liberation Army during a flag meeting at Bumla. The gesture signalled that India is prepared for war any time and if need be, can give a bloody nose to any of its enemies, irrespective of their size. It was the Brigadier who had asked for the meeting as protocol demanded, to convey a single message: the Indian Army will, for the first time ever, be carrying out a massive war-gaming exercise in its eastern region bordering China, somewhere around 100 km inside Indian territory. It was a sign to prepare for the unexpected—a possible war with the northern adversary.
India has made significant changes in its military structure, with the appointment of the first-ever Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, as the single-point military contact with the government and to bring about the much-needed synergy among the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The government has approved the Army’s restructuring, to ensure that it has enough manpower and adequate specialist equipment to meet any challenges against Pakistan and China.
A month after that flag meeting, India’s newly acquired Chinook heavy-lift helicopters flew over Arunachal Pradesh, the border state claimed fully by China. The twin rotors of Boeing-made helos whirred warnings against the backdrop of the clear blue skies, with BAE Systems-made M777 ultralight howitzers attached to its belly. They were taking part in the massive military exercise code-named ‘Him Vijay’ that saw a Division-sized troop of around 12,000 soldiers validate India’s new warfare doctrines and concepts to perfect the art of winning any war against China. The US-made helicopter can carry loads up to 10 tonnes while the loaded M777s, weighing just 3,745kg (half the weight of a Bofors gun used in the 1999 Kargil war), can bring 155mm artillery firepower on enemy positions.
As the Indian troopers were practicing moves to counter China in the east, the Army on the western border with Pakistan launched a massive week-long military exercise in Barmer district, Rajasthan. Conducted by the Bhopal-based ‘Sudarshan Chakra’ Strike Corps, around 40,000 warriors honed their combat skills and validated their deep-strike capabilities in desert terrain and to deal a swift punitive blow to the adversary. The integrated air and land battlefield scenario saw the Indian troopers deploying the newly inducted T-90, T-72 and Arjun battle tanks, supported by the Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, and the K-9 Vajra Self Propelled Artillery Gun System, Grad and Tunguska missiles and rockets slamming the enemy positions and blowing them to smithreens. Indigenous armed ‘Rudra’ helicopters boasting innovative military technologies and prowess of the army’s Network Centric Force, ensuring effective communication between the sensor, shooter and decision-maker.
The September 2016 surgical strikes by the Indian Special Forces on Pakistani terror camps were a hit-back strategy never been attempted by India. It changed the paradigm of Indian reaction to Pakistani provocations with an unpredictability which is now a predicament for the Pakistan Army. The cross-border action is just a sample of the Indian Army’s capability should a full-scale war break out. The Brave New Indian Army is envisaged as a lean, mean fighting machine with the capability to act swiftly and decisively against any attack. The success of all military power lies in its brain before the brawn is deployed; it requires experience combined with ideation and coordination. The appointment of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff was to ensure seamless coordination with the country’s political command, which has placed national security and military empowerment on top of its agenda.
Coaction is behind the creation of another new post—Deputy Chief of the Army Staff Strategy DCOAS (Strategy)—who will handle military operations, military intelligence, strategic planning and operational logistics. Factoring in the importance of cyber warfare, a new information warfare wing and hybrid warfare is in the offing. The beginning of the change in strategy and modernisation was perhaps the unconventional public announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris on April 15, 2015, to buy 36 fully built Rafale fighter jets; his justification named “critical operational necessity”. Since January 2012, the Defence Ministry had been caught in the dithering and disagreements between the military and bureaucracy on the purchase of Dassault Aviation-built aircraft and the mainstay Sukhoi Su-30MKIs. With his Rafale decision, Modi was signalling the importance of cutting through red tape, for long the bane of arms procurement and modernisation in the military. The changes in the structure are in tune with the Indian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine that was adopted in 2018 aimed at winning wars of the future. For, no bullet has been fired across the border between India and China for the last 40 years, except for minor skirmishes over territory. “But if there has been no war earlier, it doesn’t mean there will be no war in the future. We have to be prepared for a war at all times,” Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane told this writer in late January. On the conflict scenario along the northern borders with China, all measures will be undertaken to enhance deterrence.
Till 2013, India had only three strike corps—a war-fighting force of around 35,000 troopers each to penetrate behind enemy lines—to focus on Pakistan. The PLA and the Pakistan Army together can muster over two million armed personnel against India’s 1.3 million-strong military. Hence, outdated ideas of deploying large military formations on the battlefield have given way to the new Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs), specialist forces with warfare capabilities and equipment to suit the terrain and the task assigned for a battle. IBGs are a huge transition from the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, a loose term for a swift, short war with Pakistan with deployment in just about two days.
The new Indian doctrine talks of using all its forces as IBGs, with equipment matching their envisaged roles and potential for greater flexibility. The IX Corps at Yol Cantonment in Himachal Pradesh, under the Chandimandir-based Western Army Command, will be the first to be tested, followed by the XVII Mountain Strike Corps. The IBGs involve the integration of infantry, armoured tank regiments, artillery, UAVs, engineers and signals into one fighting unit, whereas the old model had each of these functioning in silos. Now the Army plans to fully raise a dozen or more IBGs with about 5,000 soldiers each within a year. These battle groups, which are theatre-based formations for fighting a quick, short war, will be equipped with specialist weapons and platforms to meet their unique requirements. In the next two years, IBGs will cover the entire expanse of India’s western and eastern borders.
To arm these new battle groups, fresh procurement such as the Rs 20,000-crore contract for 464 more T-90 battle tanks has begun. IBGs—composed of a mix of infantry, artillery, air defence, signals and engineers—will be centred around T-90S tanks and will be backed by attack helicopters on the western border. A different battle composition will focus on China based on the terrain and nature of combat by using Chinook helicopters and ultralight M777 howitzers. This transition is to prepare India for what both General Rawat and General Naravane have warned of: a joint Pakistan-China two-front war to squeeze Indian troops and test their capabilities and capacities on both the western and northern borders. The new philosophy will maximise the joint resources of the three forces to maintain ascendancy and deterrence against India’s traditional rivals.
A big challenge for the Army is to meet its budgetary constraints effectively. This year, India’s defence modernisation budget stands at $16 billion against $15 billion last year. In 2017, when the Sukna-based 33 Corps was engaged in a 72-day standoff with the PLA at Doklam, Indian Army commanders refused to wilt under pressure and retreat. The 33 Corps was mobilised with additional resources. However, the inherent disadvantage became apparent soon: the enhanced operation had consumed the army’s total transportation budget for the remaining part of the year. No additional budget was allotted for the last quarter of the FY18 either. Fifty-five years ago, on October 20, 1962, the PLA crossed into Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, and started a war that lasted a month. The Chinese strategy was well thought out: after gobbling up 43,000 sq km of land in Aksai Chin, the PLA swiftly withdrew from Indian territory to avoid being trapped by snowfall. India lost 3,250 soldiers. An analytical assessment of force structuring, doctrinal advancement over the last 30 years and modernisation efforts will reveal the high level of complexity that has gone into optimising the Indian Army capabilities, and keeping pace with or stealing a march over its strong adversaries who threaten our borders and internal security.
India’s New Formations
In three years, Indian military will have joint theatre commands
China Theatre Command
Peninsular Theatre Command
Air Defence Command
Cyber Defence Command
Special Operations Command
Army’s Force Structure
Command 3 Corps
Corps 3 Divisions
Division 3 Brigades
Brigade 3 Battalions
Battalion 3 Companies
Two Integrated Battle Group = One Division
One Integrated Battle Group = Infantry, Armoured, Artillery, Signals & Engineers (Full fighting unit)
The Ether War Against China Picks Up
In September 2019, India’s newest nuclear power plant at Kudankulam came under a malware attack which went unnoticed for almost 48 hours, before the government admitted to the breach. A combined investigation by the Department of Atomic Energy and the CERT-IN revealed that the infected computer belonged to a user who went online for administrative purposes. The attack on the facility was not an isolated cyber breach. Over the last decade, China is known to unleash military and nonmilitary offensives on enemy installations. Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu’s Art of War says that a war can be won without having to go into battle.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken the idea to its next level. It wages digital war from air-conditioned facilities deep inside Chinese territory, without having to meet the enemy face to face. Since 2009, India has faced cyber-attacks on its critical facilities, including the National Informatics Centre servers, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation, Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministry of External Affairs, ranging from defacing of the website to even downing an Indian Air Force Sukhoi combat jet.
In April 1997, the Chinese Central Military Commission set up a 100-member elite corps to devise ways of hacking into computer systems of the US and other Western countries. In 2015, PLA decided to raise Strategic Support Force, which is being touted as the fifth service and not just a branch of PLA. Though the Indian military woke up to this challenge a decade ago, it is now in the process of setting up Cyber, Space and Special Operations Commands. The government has established cyber defence and space agencies with headquarters in New Delhi, along with a special operations division based in Agra.
These three key agencies are expected to secure Indian assets from attacks on its critical cyber and space assets. A fourth is dedicated to special operations such as the Surgical Strike deep inside Pakistan territory. While the Defence Cyber Agency will be spearheaded by the Indian Navy, the Defence Space Agency will be under the leadership of the Indian Air Force and the Armed Forces Special Operations Division under the Indian Army, each staffed with personnel from all three services. While the three are looking at raising a battalion-strength of around 1,000 initially, these would develop into larger formations over time. The cyber agency team is currently being trained at the National Technical Research Organisation, one of India’s cyber-espionage spying units. Its current focus is to create assets with both defensive and offensive capabilities.
Battles India Fought
1947 with Pakistan: India successfully repels attack on Jammu and Kashmir, but loses control over parts of Kashmir. What went wrong: Midway through the war, India went to the UN against Pakistan, resulting in a ceasefire.
1962 with China: China’s massive attack leaves India reeling; the defeat has had a deep scar on India’s psyche. What went wrong: India failed to use air force, resulting in a disadvantage against the superior Chinese numbers.
1965 with Pakistan: India successfully defeats Pakistan’s plan to cut off Kashmir from India’s mainland.
What was right: Pakistan miscalculated India’s strength and resolve to militarily defend its territory.
1971 with Pakistan: India inflicts a crushing blow to Pakistan, midwives creation of Bangladesh.
What was right: India had done enough groundwork with Mukti Bahini, the underground resistance to Pakistan in East Pakistan.
1999 with Pakistan: India overthrows Pakistan Army regulars who clandestinely occupy Kargil heights.
What was right: Pakistan thought India would talk only peace with statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm. But he took a military call.