To avoid large number of soldier casualties, modernisation of infantry has to be the top priority of the government
Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia (retd)
The year 2016 has not started well for the Indian Army. The Pakistan-engineered attack on the Pathankot airbase by Jaish-e-Mohammed on January 2 left six soldiers martyred. In another attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist at Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar, three Special Forces personnel, including two officers, Capt. Pawan Kumar and Capt. Tushar Mahajan were martyred in addition to two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.
These two high visibility attacks are attributed to certain power centres in Pakistan at not being too happy with the bold initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in reaching out to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his short but meaningful visit to Lahore on the eve of Christmas. In between the two attacks, Indian army also lost 10 gallant soldiers of 19 MADRAS to an avalanche at 19,000ft at Siachen Glacier. The indomitable spirit of L/Nk Hanumantappa, who survived five days under 35 feet of snow defying nature and medical science, will be long remembered and revered by soldiers all over the world. The year 2015, too, had ended on a tragic note with another gallant Special Forces officer, Col Santosh Mahadik making the supreme sacrifice of fighting terrorists in Kashmir. The fatal casualties are indicative of lack of adequate survival and protective equipment as also weaponry issued to soldiers, who operate in some of the most challenging situations and inhospitable terrain in the world.
The year 2015 was again not so good an year for the army as 85 soldiers were martyred fighting terrorist in Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast, with 18 soldiers martyred in a single ambush by the NSCN (K) in Chandel district of Manipur in June 2015. There is little doubt that the violence levels in Jammu and Kashmir are subcritical and the multitude of insurgencies in Northeast have outlived their life and have a little more than nuisance value. All this has come at a great cost and many sacrifices by the army. The key question is whether we as a nation and the army are providing adequate wherewithal to the fighting soldiers to help them minimise casualties. The army needs to prioritise and ensure immediate procurement of personnel protection and survival equipment and arms.
Commanders in chain are grappling with this all important factor. The concern of the Commanders deployed in low intensity conflict situations is no longer the fear of failure, it is the cost of success. Given the continued deployment of the army and other security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast, loss of life is a major concern for the army and the nation. The need is to equip the army to operate effectively with minimum costs in terms of life, across the complete spectrum of conflict from sub conventional to conventional and nuclear, however, the priority for force protection and protection of individual soldier at the sub conventional conflict is an immediate and urgent need.
Equipping for the infantry soldier has, unfortunately, never been the priority of the army and the government. The equipping of the Para (Special Forces) also remains neglected. It is unfortunate but true that even the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) is better armed and equipped than the Para (Special Forces) in terms of small arms, night fighting capabilities and other essential requirements.
In July 2012, the Director General Infantry, who is responsible for equipping the infantry and the Para (Special Forces) on the express verbal instructions of the then defence minister sought sanction of a standing Empowered Committee for Procurement of equipment for Special Forces, on the lines of an existing and established procedure, as is being practiced for procurement of clothing and equipment for troops deployed at Siachen Glacier. It has been nearly four years now and the file for sanction of Empowered Committee is still being analysed at the ministry of defence (MoD) or MoD (Finance) to be more precise, while the Special Forces continue to suffer avoidable casualties.
The recent casualties suffered both at Pathankot and Pampore are in certain quarters being attributed to various extraneous factors including pressure by the Commanders to ‘hurry up’ and finish the operation successfully. This may or may not be true, however, one thing is certain and that is had the soldiers in contact been issued protective equipment and arms like corner shot weapons, Sniper rifles, night fighting devices, real-time surveillance like micro UAVs, modular body armour, and ballistic helmets, then it is likely that the young lives would not have been lost.
India faces the most complex threats and challenges spanning the full spectrum of conflict from small wars to collusive and hybrid wars to conventional and nuclear wars, two adversaries, a mischievous Pakistan and a strong China. Pakistan has also waged a ‘proxy war’ against India for over a quarter of century now in Jammu and Kashmir, and will continue with this ‘low cost high affect’ war.
The prevailing geopolitical scenario, clubbed with advancement in technology, necessitates that the soldier has to be prepared to fight in all types of terrain in the entire spectrum of conflict. The ongoing counter terrorism (CT) and counter insurgency (CI) operations are infantry based operations. It is imperative that the army focus should be on modernisation of the infantry to enhance the firepower, battlefield mobility, communication and surveillance, night fighting capability and survivability.
Survivability of the force and the individual assumes added importance in the present and future battlefield milieu. With weapons of mass destruction in the inventory of our adversaries, increased lethality of weapons, pinpoint accuracy of delivery means and a hither-to-fore not witnessed intensity and tempo of operations, force protection and soldier survivability is a key battle-winning factor. No nation in the world can afford to take avoidable casualties, and hence, it is an imperative to prioritise and provision equipment to enhance the survivability of the soldier. The nation that can absorb the initial assaults with minimum casualties, survive and protect its combat power will ultimately be the victor.
(The writer is director general, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies)