Can the Integrated Battle Groups Reinforce India’s Conventional Deterrence?
Dr Kapil Patil, Associate Fellow, VIF

In a significant decision last month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has officially cleared the proposal for launching the first Integrated Battle Group (IBG) under the Indian Army’s 9 Corps, which will be deployed along India’s Western Border.1 The 9 Corps has been test-bedding the concept of IBG ever since it was officially enunciated in Indian Army’s new military doctrine announced in December last year. Through extensive war gaming and field exercises like Kharg Phrahar and Him-Vijay, the Army is reported to have operationally refined the idea of IBGs and is set to embark upon the largest-ever reorganisation of its forces since the 1980s.2 The creation of IBGs is significant as it operationalises the new doctrinal concepts including the unofficial Cold-Start Doctrine, which the Indian military planners have been deliberating for more than a decade now.

For the Indian Army, the need for new military doctrine became acute as the old precepts of dealing ‘deep-sledgehammer blows’ in high-intensity attrition warfare became increasingly unsuitable for responding to Pakistan’s growing sub-conventional threat in recent decades. Prior to Kargil Conflict of 1999, the Army’s doctrinal plans were premised on leveraging the massive conventional superiority of its strike corps wielding significant mechanised and artillery support for securing a decisive advantage over the enemy3. In the 1980s, the Indian Army undertook two major military exercises namely Exercises Digvijay and Brasstacks, which unambiguously demonstrated India’s ability to launch joint land and air operations in the plains of Punjab and Rajasthan4. The massive offensive power wielded by the strike and pivot corps had significantly bolstered India’s conventional advantage over the Pak-Army.

Nuclearisation of South Asia in 1998, however, significantly transformed the Indo-Pak military equations, and enabled Islamabad to employ terrorism and as a tool to blunt India’s conventional edge. Post-nuclearisation, escalation risks evidently eclipsed India’s large-scale conventional advantage and restrained the Indian political leadership from launching punitive strikes during the Kargil Conflict in the summer of 19995. The events following the Operation Parakram led the Indian Army to introduce a new military doctrine along with the concept of ‘Cold-Start’ involving rapid mobilisation of IBGs across the International Border (IB) in a shortest possible time6.

Although the idea of Cold-Start and creation of IBGs gained significant traction in the deliberations within and outside the Indian Army, the Government did not officially acknowledge it as the concern of escalation loomed large in India’s response calculations in the nuclear environment. The escalation syndrome deterred New Delhi from responding to recurrent incidents of terrorism including the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks7. In recent years, however, this is beginning to change as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed greater political resolve to respond to Pakistan’s proxy war against India8. Over the past six years, the Modi government has not only expedited the long-pending defence reforms but also accorded greater priority to implement the new doctrinal concepts.

The Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces-2017 and the Land Warfare Doctrine-2018 are the important indicators of India’s changing military posture to deal with the existing and emerging military challenges9. The 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine officially endorsed the concept of ‘composite IBGs’ for inducing “greater flexibility in force application”. According to reports, the IBG’s are planned as the self-contained fighting groups - which would be larger than the existing 3,000 personnel-strong brigades but smaller than a 16000-strong divisions which can be readily deployed for launching independent ground offensives against the enemy10.

As part of this reorganisation, the Indian army plans to put together about 8 to 10 IBGs comprising the elements of infantry, armoured, artillery, engineers, signals, air-defence, and support units, all of which would be backed by air-power11. As opposed to large strike corps, the IBGs’ are designed according to the specific threat, terrain and task and can be mobilised within 12 to 48 hours. The IBGs, by being able to launch multiple swift and shallow offensives, can inflict heavy damage on the Pakistani Army and deny it the opportunity to consolidate and launch retaliatory strikes. Besides right-sizing the large strike formations into the leaner and agile force, the IBG’s also seeks to achieve an overall synergy in the use of arms.

The military logic of this doctrine is compelling and would reinforce India’s conventional deterrence against terrorism and sub-conventional provocations. First, the IBGs by virtue of their ability to quickly mobilise a number of mechanised formations stationed near the border can retain the elements of surprise and early attainment of political objectives in the conflict. The critics contend that Pakistan too has reorganised its forward deployments in the wake of Indian IBGs and prepared its troops to stave-off any potential Indian offensive. Also, the improved surveillance and reconnaissance technologies will enable Pakistan to detect the movement of IBGs in real-time and to rapidly launch the counter-offensive12. But these assertions, irrespective of their validity, do not take into fact that the IBG’s would enable the army to launch multiple shallow offensives and secure early spatial gain along a broad front, which can be quickly consolidated. Though smaller in size compared to the heavy corps, the IBGs carry a lot of firepower by combining the offensive elements from both strike and pivot corps. Thus any terror or sub-conventional strike by Pakistan would extract a heavy cost for Pakistan on the conventional front.

Second, though Pakistan continues to brandish its Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) to deter India’s conventional offensive, the Pakistani threat clearly lacks the credibility. As noted by many Indian and international military experts, the use of TNWs by Pakistan early in the conflict will invite massive Indian response and outweigh the political gains that Islamabad may secure by sponsoring major terror strike on the Indian Territory. The idea of TNWs is conceptually flawed as India does not recognise the difference between tactical or strategic nuclear weapons13. From the Indian standpoint, the TNWs and the concept of limited nuclear war by Pakistan is an unwarranted obfuscation of reality. According to Former Foreign Secretary Shri Shyam Saran, India does not differentiate between the strategic or tactical label attached to Pakistani nukes and “any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level” 14. Thus launching a TNW on the rapidly advancing Indian forces would automatically invite a massive response from India.

Third, the new doctrinal thinking has offered the Indian Army a historic opportunity to overcome a number of structural limitations including the operational synergy within the different arms of the Indian Army, and among the Army and Air force. The enhanced operational synergy and mobility, as observed during the exercises like Kharga Prahar and Him-Vijay is a clear pointer to increased agility and capability of the army to face a range of 21st-century threats. As per the reports, as many as eight to ten IBGs will to deployed based on the terrain and task specificities15.

In conclusion, the reorganisation has been the biggest and most far-reaching reform introduced by the Army and will bring to bear India’s conventional power against military threats. The IBGs’ are a logical conclusion of India’s gradual escalation and punitive retaliation strategy against Pakistan as seen during the cross-border surgical strikes after the 2016 Uri attack and Balakot air-strikes after the Pulwama attack this year. Post-Pulwama, India’s promise of inflicting unacceptable punishment to the adversary in a shortest possible time and cost becomes clearly attainable with IBGs enabling an element of greater unpredictability to New Delhi’s response repertoire.

Notably, the IBG concept is equally applicable in all of Indian frontiers, albeit with customisation to terrain and other operational factors. The IBGs can be thus be labelled as one of the best doctrinal innovations in India’s warfighting history which not only signals a decisive shift in India’s approach towards future wars and military contingencies but also offers a lesson for countries fighting the scourge of terrorism and proxy war world-over.

Endnotes:
  1. Sen, Sudhi Ranjan (2019), “First integrated battle group to be deployed along India-Pakistan border”, Hindustan Times, Sep 02, 2019, URL: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/first-integrated-battle-group-to-be-deployed-along-india-pakistan-border/story-wrvIDDDkQHqcBwxeFI2wpN.html.
  2. “Army postpones critical wargames due to deployment on Pakistan border”, ANI, May 07, 2019, URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/army-postpones-critical-wargames-due-to-deployment-on-pakistan-border/articleshow/69217272.cms?from=mdr.
  3. Ladwig III, W. C. (2008). A Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army's New Limited War Doctrine. International Security, 32(3), 158-190.
  4. Simha, Rakesh Krishnan (2019), “Cold Start: General KV Krishna Rao’s Greatest Legacy”, Indian Defence Review, February 27, 2016, URL: http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/cold-start-general-kv-krishna-raos-greatest-legacy/.
  5. “Vajpayee refused permission to IAF to cross LoC during the Kargil conflict: Tipnis”, PTI, June 28, 2019, URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/vajpayee-refused-permission-to-iaf-to-cross-loc-during-kargil-conflict-tipnis/articleshow/69994773.cms.
  6. See, “Indian Military Doctrine”, Headquarters Army Training Command, October 2004, URL: https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/157030/India%202004.pdf; and “Cold Start: India's answer to Pakistan's nuclear bullying”, ET Online, March 04, 2019, URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/cold-start-indias-answer-to-pakistans-nuclear-bullying/articleshow/68254953.cms?from=mdr.
  7. Sandeep Unnithan, “War Strategy: The collapse of Cold Start”, India Today, December 4, 2010, URL: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/defence/story/20101213-war-strategy-the-collapse-of-cold-start-745013-2010-12-04.
  8. Shukla, Ajai (2017), “Army chief says military must prepare for Cold Start”, Business Standard, January 14, 2017, URL: https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/army-chief-says-military-must-prepare-for-cold-start-117011301174_1.html.
  9. “The Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces - 2017”, Headquarter Integrated Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence, April 2017, URL: https://bharatshakti.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Joint_Doctrine_Indian_Armed_Forces.pdf; and “Land Warfare Doctrine - 2018”, Indian Army, URL: http://www.ssri-j.com/MediaReport/Document/IndianArmyLandWarfareDoctrine2018.pdf.
  10. See, N.9 - Land Warfare doctrine 2018, Indian Army, pp.5.
  11. Sen, Sudhi Ranjan (2018), “Indian Army wants to change the way it fights enemies”, Hindustan Times, October 10, 2018, URL: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/indian-army-wants-to-change-the-way-it-fights-enemies/story-j8U5opGxYbAqM4CJmnhIeP.html.
  12. Ashraf, Maimuna (2018), “Pakistan’s Consolidating Conventional Deterrence: An Assessment” South Asian Voices, December 7, 2018, URL: https://southasianvoices.org/pakistan-conventional-deterrence-assessment/.
  13. For more on Pakistan’s nuclear posture, see: “Rare light shone on full spectrum deterrence policy”, The Dawn, December 07, 2017, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1375079.
  14. “Even a midget nuke strike will lead to massive retaliation, India warns Pak”, TNN, April 30, 2013, URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Even-a-midget-nuke-strike-will-lead-to-massive-retaliation-India-warns-Pak/articleshow/19793847.cms.
  15. Banerjee, Ajay (2018), “New battle groups to face Pak, says Army chief”, Tribune News Service, November 4, 2018, URL: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/new-battle-groups-to-face-pak-says-army-chief/678928.html.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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