The Lightness of Being

Smaller arms and lighter clothing can make the infantry more agile

Ravi PalsokarBrig. Ravi Palsokar (retd)

The integrated battlefield is an acknowledged reality of modern war fighting. In essence what this means is that no single combat arm can operate on its own and hope to achieve a decision. It has to be a combined all-arms operation duly supported by the necessary logistics and when feasible, the support of the other services, usually the air force and when feasible, by the navy.

That said it needs to be emphasised that the infantry remains central to the combined arms operations in the most modern of battlefields. This has always been so even as technology has evolved over the last many years. The reasons for this centrality stem from the characteristics of the infantry; its versatility – the ability to undertake any operation, by itself or in conjunction with other arms and be able to switch from one role to another with the least amount of disruption. The other major characteristic is mobility in all types of terrain and weather. It is able to fight mounted and dismounted and indeed some of our inaccessible and underdeveloped border regions demand that the infantry operates under extraordinary conditions of hardship and if necessary, on man-pack basis, that is, what it is able to carry on its own. This allows it to carry out its main tasks: to close with the enemy and destroy him and; to seize and hold ground when the situation so demands.

It is not commonly recognised that the basic unit the infantry deploys is the individual soldier. It is true that every individual infantryman is part of a team, but when battle is joined and the sub-unit goes to the ground, every man is on his own. Admittedly, other factors come into play such as leadership, training, regimental ethos and the like, but it is ultimately the individual that counts. This often tends to be forgotten and the weaknesses of the infantry emanate from treating all individuals, units and sub-units alike. The infantryman’s job is facilitated by giving him supporting firepower besides what he already has, enhancing his mobility and giving him more protection. The last three are the key attributes of the two combat arms; armour and the infantry. In the case of armour, the tank combines all three attributes and the priority given to each dictate the capability of tanks. The heavier the tank, the more firepower and protection it can provide, the lighter tank is nimbler and more mobile and there is a trade-off between the requirements. This is a subject by itself, but it has been mentioned here because the same logic can be applied to the capabilities of the infantry. A lighter infantryman will be more mobile, but then the firepower he can generate on his own is correspondingly reduced. This is the key factor, to make the infantryman more effective no matter what the task, terrain or weather. This article will address two issues: enhancing firepower and mobility of the Infantry. As the battlefield becomes more hi-tech, we need to remember that simplicity in operating that technology is what helps the individual soldier, for it can be put succinctly – where bullet meets flesh, it is low-tech that rules.


Trade-off between Firepower, Mobility and Protection

The greatest asset of the infantry is its self-reliance. An infantry unit or a sub-unit can be and is usually tasked to carry out independent missions. Given the situation it needs little logistics support, can carry sufficient ammunition and be employed in offensive or defensive tasks. Its versatility allows it to be used as easily in counter-insurgency operations in varied terrain as in, say the desert in conjunction with the most mobile of formations. Its greatest asset is also its major handicap for there is a tendency to misuse the infantry for any and every task. Effective infantry has to be equipped and trained, the latter particularly for varied tasks and while a unit may rely on its institutional memory (‘when we were in … we used to do this’) and experience as well as regimental cohesion to fall back on, many commanders overlook this simple fact. However, first let us examine the trade-off between firepower and mobility and as a concomitant factor, the need for individual protection.

As newer equipment becomes available, there is a natural tendency to overload the individual infantryman. Look at what an infantryman carries. He will carry his small arm (rifle, carbine or a light machine gun) and corresponding first line ammunition with may be an odd rocket or a mortar bomb or may be a small radio set, depending on the need. Additionally, he will carry the unconsumed portion of a day’s ration, water as well as some emergency rations. He may or may not have a bullet-proof jacket, but definitely be wearing a helmet. Depending on the support available he may carry a big pack containing a spare set of underclothes, socks and may be a blanket. In cold weather, he may don items of extreme cold clothing which would also double as a raincoat. Pause at this point and consider how mobile he can be and what is the additional weight he can be given.

A lightly loaded infantryman will move faster and further i.e. cover more ground and appear where and when he is least expected to surprise the enemy. A heavily loaded infantryman will not be able to do so. A sceptic may well ask if such an eventuality is common or how often it is likely to be faced. Too often! Look back at the basic tasks of the infantry: to close with the enemy and destroy him and to do so the assaulting infantryman has to be as lightly loaded as feasible. To seize and hold ground, he needs all the paraphernalia but to reach, first he must be capable of quick movement. After reaching he may have to assault and evict the enemy or the location may be unheld. Whatever the situation, he has to reach the selected area as quickly as possible. Once static, in a defensive role, weight is of little consequence unless he is required to change his position – a common enough occurrence. To a lay reader this may appear esoteric. A task has been given and the infantry is organised and trained to carry it out – so, get a move on and get the job done! But consider what it requires of an infantry jawan who is the basic fighting unit of his sub-unit or unit. The argument then can be clarified further – a heavily loaded infantryman may pack more firepower and may also be better protected, he will not be as mobile as may be required. The converse of this is equally true.

It is for this reason that we have infantry battalions configured differently for varying tasks such as mountains and high altitude, plains and counter-insurgency. The army has taken this one step further and formed a separate corps of mechanised infantry. In fact, we have two regiments, Brigade of The Guards and the Mechanised Infantry Regiment which are especially configured, organised and trained to operate with mechanised formations. It is a moot point whether given modern soldiery who are better educated and more technology-oriented, it is possible to alternate units between the mounted and dismounted role – but more on this later. Additionally, there are specialist units such as airborne and special forces. However, these have separate tasks and need specialised organisation and equipment and are not considered for the purpose of this article.


Quality of clothing and equipment determines efficiency of operations

The Philosophy of Small Arms

The aim usually is to have a single family of small arms for the individual soldier. A rough and ready definition of such small arms would consist of a pistol and carbine for self-protection and a rifle – the workhorse of small arms, not only for the infantry soldier but for personnel of all arms and services, non-military security forces, armed police and other users. A light machine gun based on the same bore as the rifle with just a tripod added for ease of firing to give a longer range and a medium machine gun with the same bore, but heavier to give a greater volume of fire over yet longer distances. The pistol and the carbine will usually be of a smaller bore and lighter for the simple reason that they are used at short distances where protection rather than killing the adversary is required.

There are three main requirements that are usually kept in mind when designing or choosing such small arms. These are, first the distance at which the target is likely to be engaged, two, whether the intention is to incapacitate or kill the target and three, how light the weapon can be made so that more ammunition can be carried. Look at these individually and the choice starts being narrowed down. The small arms that the Indian Army inherited after World War II had been proved in battle. The rifle which was a single shot which meant the bolt had to be cocked each time and had a bore of .303 inches (7.7 mm approx.) It was common to fire the rifle on range practice to a distance of 500 yards (approx. 460 m) and to do so required strong physique and unusually good aim to achieve high standards. As time passed it became apparent that an individual rarely had to engage a target at such long distances. An effective range of 200 to 300m was more than adequate which meant that such a heavy rifle was not required.

The second requirement is really the tricky one which is, does one need to incapacitate the adversary or is it to kill him? There are two diametrically opposite views on this which are unlikely to be reconciled. The ‘incapacitation’ school believes that a soldier who is injured and needs evacuation as well as treatment is a greater burden to the enemy than if he were killed. The ‘kill’ school believes and not without reason that the incapacitation may not be severe enough and may allow the adversary to continue with a no- so-serious an injury and continue fighting. The Indian Army’s experience particularly in Sri Lanka with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tends to support the latter view. However, western powers and particularly the Americans are votaries of the ‘incapacitation’ school. The Americans have stuck to the 5.56mm bore for their rifles and other small arms whereas Russia and now India have opted for the 7.62mm bore for their rifles. We will return to this point later but at this stage, it suffices to say that there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument.

The third requirement emerged out of the army’s experience against the Chinese during the 1962 war. A single shot, bolt action rifle was wholly inadequate against the so-called ‘human wave’ tactics the Chinese had employed. This required the infantry to have a rifle that was at least semi-automatic if not fully automatic. Initially, the army went in for the semi-automatic version but later experience proved that automatic mode with burst control was required for the extremely close ranges that some of the engagements were taking place particularly in counter-insurgency operations. A lighter rifle requires lighter ammunition and a heavier rifle the other way around. Given the capacity of the infantry soldier to carry limited weight, the call for a lighter rifle with corresponding ammunition seems to be a better solution, but then we have already seen why many armies prefer the heavier (7.62mm) version. Note that ammunition of a similar bore which may come in two sizes, one shorter, packing lesser quantity of explosive and hence, lesser range can be compensated by having a longer cartridge with greater punch. This is over-simplifying but illustrates the point. Thus, often armies will have some weapons with shorter bullet length and some with longer. The Indian Army’s choice of the AK-203 rifle which has been recently contracted for is a good example of the latter choice.

In addition to this there are special weapons such as the sniper rifle. Since these are made available on a specific needs-based requirement, they are not being discussed. But our army has been using them in certain areas where our troops are deployed in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation with our enemy. Then there are the specialist pistols and rifles used by Special Forces, National Security Guards and others, but these are outside the purview of this discussion.


The Indian Experience

The 7.62 SLR rifles and machine guns were introduced after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The 9mm machine pistol and the 9mm carbine were an improvement on the previous pistol and sten machine gun, but not much. These weapons served the country well during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. However, their limitations were exposed during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka by the well-trained and motivated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The AK-47 family of rifles firing 7.62mm ammunition in a semi-automatic or an automatic controlled burst mode proved itself superior in the sort of skirmishes – brief, intense that were being faced regularly. The time for change had come, first in Sri Lanka and later in Jammu and Kashmir, where our adversaries across the border poured men, material and weaponry to destabilise the region. However, the resilience of the Indian jawan and junior officer leaders blunted Pakistan’s nefarious designs and brought the situation back to near normal. But the search for a suitable assault rifle continued. This was sought to be replaced in 1994 by the indigenously produced INSAS family of small arms based on the 5.56mm bore, where incapacitation rather than killing the enemy was aimed at. The INSAS rifle did not prove to be the solution sought. It was unpopular from the beginning. It was heavy, prone to stoppages and during the Kargil war, there were issues of jamming, magazines cracking and unreliable automatic mode. This necessitated continuing the search for a suitable assault rifle.

In the interim period the government contracted for 72,400 assault rifles with the US firm Sig Sauer. These are under procurement but remained a stopgap arrangement. After much discussion and the usual bureaucratic delay, the current government with the advice of the army settled on the 7.62mm version of the AK-203 assault rifle. It has improved ergonomics (ease of use) and the facility to attach an under-barrel grenade launcher or a bayonet. An inter-government agreement has been reached with Russia to set up a joint venture (JV) to produce 7.62mm AK-203 rifles. The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) will hold 50.5 per cent equity stake while the remainder will be by Russian partners. These rifles are to be first assembled and later manufactured at Ordnance Factory, Korwa in Amethi district. It will allow the country to acquire the much-needed modern technology and expertise of the famed AK-47 series. The contract also has a clause that allows export once the needs of the country’s security forces have been met.


Nexter’s VBCI


The integrated battlefield requires that infantry has to be as mobile as the arm with which it operates and in mobile warfare this implies being as mobile as the armour. The army has progressed a long way in achieving greater mobility both by day and night for its armour and supporting infantry. Initially, infantry had wheeled vehicles but real change came about with the introduction of the armoured personnel carrier (APC), which naturally progressed to the infantry combat vehicle (ICV). As the nomenclature suggests, the former was just a vehicle with protection and the latter a much more developed armoured vehicle which allowed the infantry to fire outside while seated and had more anti-tank capability. The aim remains the same, to enhance infantry mobility so that it can carry out its basic tasks: close with the enemy to destroy him and to seize and hold ground.

Mobile operations demand that infantry and armour units operating in conjunction with each other are closely integrated and this is achieved by the formation of a combined arms team. To achieve maximum potential the ICV has to have characteristics such as tracked mobility, sufficiently large carrying capacity for the basic infantry fighting section of approx. 10 men, it must have reasonable protection from enemy small arms fire and an anti-tank capability, presently consisting of the anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). The availability of night fighting devices suggest that the infantry has to match the armour’s capability and be able to ‘swim’ across certain water obstacles. The closed cabin of the ICV (as also the tank’s) allows for sealing for NBC protection. This last is an eventuality that must be a feature of all modern fighting vehicles. One caveat must be sounded: whatever capability is added to the ICV it cannot substitute a tank. Its role must remain infantry oriented.

The infantry by its versatility is able to adapt to such warfare with necessary training. The formation of specialised mechanised infantry units suggests that the army believes that it is necessary. However, this is a short-term view. As our soldiers are now more educated and equally adept at driving and use of technology (smartphones), it is time to consider whether such an arrangement is in keeping with the times. The recent development in the army of forming integrated battle groups suggest that in a standing army as large as ours, with extended responsibilities across all types of terrain, the need to rotate infantry units to varied roles will remain. The mechanised infantry could begin by experimenting with such roles as units because as it is the individual soldiers and officers do serve with distinction in Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles units. In the final analysis the infantry roles will remain unchanged.


Responsibilities of the Private Sector

A professional reading this would say that all this is well known and understood, but there are other factors which also influence the manufacture or procurement of arms and equipment. The deciding factors are funds available, technology, political will as well as strategic national interests requiring cooperation with certain countries. A cynic would also add the unsavoury factors associated with the arms trade. No matter, what is sought to be highlighted are the basic requirements and the principles that dictate them. A developing country like ours needs to progress its self-sufficiency amid the varied distracting factors.

The ’Make in India’ concept seeks to give a boost to self-reliance. However, this emphasis has not as yet translated into solid contribution by the private sector except in some eclectic fields. There are valid complaints on both sides. It must be emphasised that till we are dependent on imported technology, no real progress can be made. No doubt this is a separate subject on its own but there have to be greater inputs in terms of financial support from the government to encourage R&D in the private sector, which in turn needs to ‘attack’ the problem on a war footing. Sadly, there is a lack of trust and dialogue on both sides and this needs to be resolved if we are to make any real progress.



This article has attempted to look at the infantry related requirements in terms of small arms and mobility. The vast responsibilities of defending the vastly different terrain of our borders require that versatility of the infantry is tested to the maximum. The ordinary jawan during the course of his service could operate from World War II conditions to the most modern of battlefields. His responsibilities are as diverse as they are numerous. It is necessary to enhance his effectiveness by providing him with the best of small arms and means of mobility. It is not an easy task. Further challenges await the modern infantryman, the country and the army are working towards this end.



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