Time for all Infantry to have mechanised skills
Brig. Ravi Palsokar (retd)
There is change in the air in the Indian Army. This stems from the Chief of the Army Staff’s decision to carry out reforms within the army to be better prepared for a future war by strengthening the force and making it more efficient while maximising the use of increasingly limited budgetary allocations.
It is reported that four studies have been initiated under officers of Lt General’s rank and their subject is to restructure Army Headquarters to make it leaner and more effective; maintain a youthful profile of the officer cadre with particular emphasis on commanders of units and formations; and re-examining the terms of service engagement of other ranks, the bulk of whom retire at the age of 35. It is also reported that a concomitant aim is to reduce the size of the army which many commentators and serving officers feel has become bloated, unwieldy and is not making optimum use of the capabilities of soldiers. Note that today’s soldier is an educated individual unlike those of yesteryears when limited education was the norm.
Along with this there has been discussion about re-structuring field formations by recasting traditional divisions and brigades into self-contained all arms Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) operating directly under respective Corps Headquarters. For the lay reader, it needs to be explained that a corps-sized formation comprises an independent field force, responsible for a specific geographic area with tailor-made defensive and offensive operational tasks. The success of this reorganisation obviously depends on the optimal use of manpower in terms of organisation, training, deployment and operational capabilities. Therein lies the rub and the challenge.
The above discussion suggests that what is needed is a field force consisting of trained soldiers who are versatile, technologically capable with adequate training for effective deployment along and across the country’s borders, as capable of operating in the plains as in the mountains.
Regrettably, the last few decades have seen an emphasis on specialisation, particularly in the Infantry with units permanently organised for mounted and dismounted roles. This resulted in the late Seventies in the formation of a newly constituted Mechanised Infantry Regiment and as the requirement grew, conversion of the Brigade of The Guards which is the senior-most regiment of the Infantry, to a mechanised role. Thus, we now have two regiments of Infantry permanently configured for a mechanised role. It is a moot point whether this is a wholly desirable change. It has been functional over the last 40 years and expanded as needed. It is now time to re-examine, in the background of the Army Chief’s proposed makeover whether the Infantry needs to reconsider such specialised role or make every infantryman capable of operating in the mounted and dismounted role.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the modern battlefield is an integrated one requiring the closest co-ordination between its component arms. Remember, however, that warfare across centuries have required all fighting men on the battlefield to act in concert, the only difference being the increasing level of technological sophistication.
It is worthwhile to reiterate that the role of the Infantry has always been to close with the enemy and destroy him and be able to hold ground. Note also that no other arm is capable of this task. The Infantry must be versatile to be able to do this and weakness in any of these tasks would result in operational shortcoming. Every infantryman operating on the battlefield acts both, in his individual capacity and as part of a team and is often required to take his own decisions, particularly, if his commander or buddy is injured or killed. Thus, without hyperbole it can be safely stated that every infantryman is a fighting unit on the ground.
As we study the problem of the modern battlefield, one needs to take into account the everchanging conditions in terms of enemy capability and intentions, introduction of new technology in terms of weapons and equipment and trained manpower capable of handling weapons of ever-increasing sophistication in a milieu that is integrated not only with other arms and logistics services within the army but also in operating with the air force and where required with the Indian Navy. The Army Chief’s ambitious programme is designed to pull the land force into the 21st century keeping in mind the defence needs of the nation and its ever-shrinking ability to budgetarily support a large standing force.
Many commentators outside the army while welcoming COAS’s initiative have raised their own caveats. This is fair and as it should be — presumably the army has internally encouraged discussions, war games and as the reforms fructify, exercises with troops on the ground. It is not as if this has not been done before. The Seventies and Eighties saw intensive studies which ushered in change, and particularly during General K. Sundarji’s tenure, a definite shift towards mechanisation and emphasis on mobile warfare. It is altogether a different matter that the Gen. Sundarji years saw the army get bogged down in Operation Blue Star and the low-level insurgency that followed, and Operation Pawan which was the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s (IPKF’s) misadventure in Sri Lanka, both of which were predominantly traditional infantry operations.
However, he was able to change the mindset of the army and mobile warfare, particularly against Pakistan, became the new norm. This resulted in the reorganisation of divisions into RAPIDS (Reorganised Army Plains Infantry Divisions) and offensive imbued formations in the mountains. General Sundarji also conceptualised and conducted Operation Brasstacks, an exercise to practise offensive mobile operations, but its results were ambivalent. The lack of political support caused its aims to be restricted or rather not turn out as Gen. Sundarji had envisaged. Operation Chequerboard, a similar exercise for the mountains, did not receive the same publicity though it did exercise the formations deployed in the Northeast against the Chinese.
The General’s one great success was in reacting vigorously to Chinese incursion in Wangdung in the Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh which defused the potentially fraught situation. This in turn has resulted in the formation of a strike corps in the mountains which is grandiose in its aim but has not quite achieved the necessary capability and appears to being shelved for the time being. The usual shortfall of manpower and budgetary constraints has been blamed, but it needs to be asked whether the whole process was conceptually sound or fully thought through.
The background having been established, it is now time to ask the all-important question – whether we need a specialised corps of mechanised Infantry or whether all Infantry battalions should also be able to operate in the mechanised role as well as traditional Infantry tasks? It goes without saying that Infantry units changing from one role to the other need specialised training and equipment. This is already being done in other operational spheres; for example, before troops are inducted on to the Siachen glacier or units that undergo special training at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School in the Northeast. But first look at what an Infantry unit does when it is operating in conjunction with armour and as part of a mechanised formation.
It has been stated earlier that on an integrated battlefield Infantry and tanks must operate in close conjunction with each other. The tanks providing the heavy firepower coupled with mobility, the Infantry providing the manpower to close with the enemy and hold ground when necessary and yet have the same mobility as the armour. The specialised mechanised Infantry units provide this support to the armoured units they operate with.
As time has passed since the raising/ conversion of the first mechanised units, there is no doubt that certain skills related to mobile warfare have been internalised by such units. But these are mainly in terms of drills and battle procedures as well as the operating of their combat vehicles. Conservative purists will raise their eyebrows at this statement, but consider all ranks, officers and men of all arms including armour and mechanised Infantry and logistics services, do Infantry training and tenures, either with the Rashtriya Rifles battalions in Jammu and Kashmir or with Assam Rifles battalions in the Northeast.
It is also the army’s experience that non-Infantry officers and men attached to various Infantry units of all types, in different areas have given sterling performances in operational situations – some have lost their lives or limb and indeed many have earned richly deserved decorations for gallantry. One common factor is that they have all acquired and experienced Infantry skills in live operations.
What then are the real differences between specialised mechanised and traditional Infantry units? One is the organisational structure. The former has three mechanised companies whereas the latter has four rifle companies with requisite support weapons. The small arms in both cases remain the same, the mechanised units have trained anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) operators and drivers of infantry combat vehicles (ICVs). Given today’s educational and technological background of the ordinary jawan, it can be safely assumed that most young men know how to drive before they join the army — in any case it is a common enough skill easily acquired. Driving a tracked ICV is a more advanced version of the same skill though it must be admitted that maintenance needs to be learnt by everyone.
Learning to drive an ICV would require conversion training. Being an ATGM operator is undoubtedly a specialised skill and needs specific training and subsequent practice. Both these can easily be put right with due training. What is of importance is that a mounted unit has to be equipment oriented to achieve its optimum operational efficiency, whereas the traditional units are not burdened with such needs. However, this is not an insurmountable problem and given correct leadership and training, these are skills that can easily be inculcated. Infantry units which have converted in the past might well say that such a mindset does not change easily. This is true but it held more salience when the educational level of the JCOs, NCOs and Other Ranks was much lower than it is today. It is debatable whether the nimbleness of shifting roles is as difficult today as it was say, maybe 10 years ago. But all these problems pale before the real challenge of operational tasks of the mechanised Infantry.
The mechanised component of the Infantry provides close support to the tanks it operates with; closes with and clears opposition and if necessary, holds ground when required or during certain pauses in battle. To achieve this, it has to dismount from its fighting vehicles and carry out traditional tasks as have just been enumerated. There are two components to this requirement; Infantry skills and the capability of fighting vehicles available and their optimum use. Look at these separately.
Take now the question of Infantry fighting vehicles. It is now an established fact that the army’s Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) programme has stalled and units are having to make do with refurbished BMP 2 ICVs. The crux here is whether the ICV is required to be used as a ‘battle taxi’ or a fighting vehicle. The former implies that the Infantry is transported to the objective and dismounts to engage with the enemy. The latter involves fighting from the vehicle and depends upon the ‘shock and awe’ of a mounted assault. A basic question needs to be answered, what is it that is exactly required of an ICV? We need to be clear that the aim is definitely not to have ‘a poor man’s tank’.
Researching for examples in recent times where tanks and mechanised Infantry have operated as integrated teams, surprisingly there are few examples. Most come from the first Gulf War when Americans and their allies, mainly the British, attacked into Iraq. Possibly the most talked about and successful is the battle of 73 Easting when M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles operated as combined teams. Two points stand out, one that the opposition put up by the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be more hype than substance and two, that the advanced technology and air power utilised by the Americans proved to be the decisive factor in the defeat of the Iraqis.
Despite this, the maximum casualties even in these one-sided engagements were suffered by the Infantry that operated from the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The point being made is that the ICV cannot have the same firepower and protection that a tank has, though it may have matching mobility. Infantry fighting dismounted is likely to have its own advantages of being spread out and offering small targets. An interesting aside is that Gen. H. R. McMaster, till recently President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, earned laurels in this battle as a young tank commander.
It also needs to be added that mechanised Infantry with its ICVs has been used by the army in certain situations in counter-insurgency operations; notably in Sri Lanka in the initial stages of operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in the built-up areas of Jaffna, but later, as operations got prolonged and the emphasis shifted into the jungle, they were of little use.
In a nuclear scenario, the NBC protection provided by the ICV to its occupants will definitely lend an advantage, not only in terms of protection but also to be able to negotiate contaminated areas. These advantages have yet to be tested in live situations, but cannot be denied.
The reader will recognise the thrust of the argument so far, which is that it is now time that all Infantry acquires mechanised skills. How this is to be implemented could well be the subject of another study. However, at the cost of over-simplifying, two options present themselves.
One is that two or three mechanised battalions be affiliated to each Infantry Regiment, which in turn would take on the responsibility of manning and staffing their respective mechanised units. Initially there would be cultural problems, but once officers start alternating between the mounted and dismounted roles, this could in the course of time spread to JCOs and rank and file. The experience of officers and men of mechanised units with Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles units would ease their induction to the traditional Infantry role.
The other alternative is to give a mechanised sub-unit to each Infantry battalion, working on the assumption that in the future all battalions operating in the plains would operate on a mechanised configuration. Thus, there would be only two modifications for the Infantry units, one for plains and the other for mountains. The existing mechanised Regiments, Guards and Mechanised Infantry, could absorb infantrymen from the regiments with which they exchange soldiers.
Once again it needs to be reiterated that the management of the officer’s cadre in terms of postings, promotions, career management would need detailed study, but this does not mean that it cannot be done. The time to do it is now.
The Army Chief needs to be complimented for his forward looking vision for the army. If the Chief’s vision has to be implemented in the spirit in which the four studies for reform have been initiated, there is no reason why a wholly forward-looking reorganisation cannot be aspired to.