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Army ‘Transformation’: A ‘Radical’ One?

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 17, 2011

    The defensive orientation of India’s strategic culture was pinpointed by George Tanham in the early nineties. This approach has been much criticised in strategic commentary and in military literature. A consensus for a more assertive strategic culture and posture is in the process of being built up.

    A news report suggests that this impetus for change has finally put military reforms on the anvil.1 The proposed changes, due to be effected beginning March-April, are likely to be as follows:

    • According to the news report, ‘One of the most critical proposals is the creation of a Strategic Command, under which the three Strike Corps would be brought together.’
    • Either the South Western or the Southern Command headquarters will be changed into the headquarter of the Strategic Comamnd.
    • A proposal for the raising of a mountain strike corps is with the ministry.
    • Governmental imprimatur to the plan has in all likelihood been given. The report states: ‘A dependable Army source said the plan is now set to be rolled out. A defence ministry source said the ministry would go along with the proposed reforms.’

    The change is part of the ‘transformation’ study undertaken under the leadership of the chief of the army staff, during his earlier stint as eastern army commander. Rumours regarding the study have been around for about three years. Since it was confidential, little discussion has been possible on the subject. Now that the contours of the makeover are in the public domain, more informed analyses and critiques have become possible. This commentary attempts to pinpoint the issues on which a debate is likely to ensue - with the caveat that the report is taken to be partially factual rather than a red herring, for the purposes of sustaining a debate.

    Contextualising the change involves locating it in the continuum of organisational evolution. The mechanisation of the eighties had two strike corps poised for riposte or counter offensive, based on the assumption that an offensive, military-led Pakistan would be first off the block. Thereafter, the holding corps were to absorb the offensive and the strike corps would be deployed to either retrieve losses, or better still, to punish Pakistan. The conflict ending would see the two sides at the negotiation table trading the gains made in terms of captured territory -the victor being the one who makes greater territorial gains and suffers less damage. The HQs of the IPKF on its return from Sri Lanka, were re-designated the HQ 21 Corps and the newly raised 33 Mechanised Division was converted into India’s third armoured division. India thus managed to gain a 3:2 advantage over Pakistan in terms of strike corps.

    The straitened circumstance of the nineties and the opportunity smelt by Pakistan in Kashmir contributed to India’s inability to deter proxy war. India had the ability to deter any Pakistani intent to follow up its sub-conventional offensive with a conventional offensive (The ‘Op TOPAC’ scenario). The nuclear backdrop, the economic circumstances of the early years of liberalisation and coalition governments limited offensive options. The offensive mindset was instead evident on an ‘active’ Line of Control from the mid nineties onwards. This, among other reasons, culminated in the Kargil War - if Musharraf’s autobiography and other Pakistani sources are to be believed. By then the Shakti tests and the counter tests at Chagai had altered the nuclear dimension from ‘recessed’ to overt.

    Increased provocation by Pakistan under nuclear cover to the extent of targeting the Parliament in a terror attack combined with the NDA regime’s self-image of being more defence-oriented, fostered the offensive tendency in strategic culture. This has been consciously built into the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. The ‘holding’ corps became ‘pivot corps’, with a capability for a limited offensive in real time. The strike corps with faster mobilisation were to be launched or located in a game of posturing. This enabled the creation of a wide-front with multiple pivot corps offensives going in and a strike corps under each command, poised in its wake, creating a decision predicament for the adversary whose assets would be under attrition from the air. The disquiet this generated in Pakistan has prompted the Army Chief to lower the profile of Cold Start.

    It is at this juncture that ‘Transformation’ comes into the picture.

    The first question is ‘why?’ The Army HQ gets so involved with the business of running the war or posturing, that it risks losing sight of the bigger picture. Having intervening HQs to manage operational level offensives would allow it to take the strategic view. The latter is particularly important in the nuclear backdrop and in the absence of a CDS. This intervening HQ will free the Army HQ for inter-theatre issues, central logistics, monitoring, advice and support etc, since it is impossible to micro manage a war from the Military Operations room. The ex-Army Chief General V.P. Malik, speaking from his Kargil war experience, underlines the necessity of a wide angled view for the higher HQs thus:

    ‘Continuous control of the escalatory ladder requires much closer political oversight and politico-civil-military interaction. It is, therefore, essential to keep the military leadership within the security and strategic decision-making loop and having a direct politico-military interface.’2

    The next question logically is ‘so what?’ This change implies that India has the capability of undertaking deep operations. This may seem anachronistic in the nuclear age. However, the change is not so much for deployment as much as for bolstering the conventional deterrent with an escalation dominance capability. General Malik writes, ‘Capability to wage a successful conventional and nuclear war is a necessary deterrent. A war may well remain limited because of a credible deterrence or ‘escalation dominance’ (which means that one side has overwhelming military superiority at every level of violence).’

    This ability is necessary to enable the political decision maker to have confidence in military means. This is better illustrated by General Malik’s observation that ‘Militarily, the greatest challenge could be in the political reluctance to commit to a pro-active engagement…’ While political prudence is essential in the nuclear era, it is for a professional military to serve up military options. These have of course to be in cognizance with the nuclear dimension. A counter argument that can be anticipated is that reconfiguring the offensive forces away from gigantic strike forces may be a better way of acknowledging this.

    In terms of ‘jointness’, the strategic command can serve as a precursor to a joint offensive command. Once the CDS is in place at an indeterminate future, the offensives of the pivot corps could be controlled by the Army HQs and those of the strategic command by HQ IDS for better integration with air power and the evolving nuclear scenario. For the initiative to be practical, the command headquarters should instead be an army group headquarter and led by a Colonel-General given the vast ambit of its responsibility.

    This makeover indicates that interesting times are in store for the military over the next decade.

    The commentary has benefited from the critical inputs given by Brig. (Retd.) Rumel Dahiya.