Modern Warfare and Structural Transformation
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Prime Minister Narender Modi in a valedictory address at the Combined Commanders Conference at Kevadia, Gujarat on 05 March 2021 stressed upon the armed forces to shed the legacy systems and practices that had outlived their utility and relevance. The PM called upon the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, in the doctrines, procedures and customs practiced in the armed forces. Taking note of the rapidly changing technological landscape, the PM highlighted the need to develop Indian military into a “Future Force”. Addressing the Naval Swavlamban (self reliance) seminar on 18 July 2022, PM Modi opined that “National Security and National Defence are not limited to the borders but have a much broader ambit, with the expansion in the number of conventional and unconventional threats and the changing methods of warfare. Earlier, we used to imagine our defence only till land, sea and air, now scope is moving towards space, cyberspace, economic and social space. Warfare is becoming invisible more lethal from the earlier face to face one…”
Earlier, in Oct 2015, on board INS Vikramditya in Kochi, addressing his first Combined Commanders Conference, the PM had envisioned future, where security challenges will be less predictable, situations will evolve swiftly and technological changes will make responses more difficult to keep pace with. Indeed, these are clarion calls that bring to fore the dire necessity of modernisation by setting priorities for creation of National and Military capabilities that meaningfully contribute to enhance the combat power of India. There is an optimal necessity to reappraise deterrence and defensive posture, create capabilities, which would impose significant costs on the adversary and lead to identifiable strategic advantages on conflict termination.

Roberta Wohlstetter in study of surprise, Pearl Harbour: Warning and Decision wrote, “The possibility of surprise at any time lies in the conditions of human perception and stems from uncertainties so basic that they are not likely to be eliminated, though they might be reduced.” Assuredly, surprise from adversarial nations is not going away, regardless of how technologically sophisticated we might become. 1999 occupation of Kargil heights by Pakistan Army after the euphoria of PM’s Lahore visit and the ingress of the Chinese Army in Eastern Ladakh in 2020, despite an atmosphere laden with large number of Agreements, CBMs and Protocols, clearly indicates future will be volatile and unpredictable.

If surprise in any which way is more than likely, it is the bounden duty of the military and Nation to remain prepared, and continue enhancing capabilities for a Modern War, and structures of a Future Force! Contextually, the system of jointness, though suited well to fighting in the specific service domain, is not suited to adapt to dynamic, cross domain operations, where decision cycles and reaction times are compressed and each layer of response may lie in different domain. Integration, on the other hand, includes institutional combining of constituent elements into a single formal structure, with representation of all services, domain specialists and representatives from relevant non-military domains, is because of the change of the scope and the context of wars. Major militaries world over have taken forceful steps in integration of forces, as part of their doctrines and organisational structures. In this matter, the armed forces of the US, the Russian Federation and Peoples Republic of China (PRC) have taken strong lead forward.

Jointness and Integration in Organisations at Tactical Level

The Chinese PLA’s restructuring, of April 2017, dissolved five of the PLA Army’s 18 group armies, transformed most divisions into brigades, and largely disbanded regiments. The group army, roughly equivalent to a corps, has been standardized into 12/13 brigade level organizations/groups to “flatten” the command structure into a corps-brigade-battalion hierarchy that replaced the original corps-division-regiment construct. All infantry and armour brigades are reorganized into permanent combined arms brigades, with each group army commanding six such brigades and six or seven functional support brigades. The new PLA combined arms brigades, with heavy, medium, and light constructs included four basic permanent combined arms battalions (CAB), a reconnaissance battalion, an artillery battalion, an air defence battalion, an operational support battalion, and a service support battalion. The powerful CAB, each one including almost all types of basic military arms and professions, has now become a basic combat unit. This is enabling the service to react much more quickly in the fast-paced dynamic of modern warfare, gaining more advantages. This is an immense change! This modularized, multifunctional force structure can achieve fast and flexible combinations based on the situation on the battlefield, forming different kinds of combat patterns and letting all combat factors make the best of the system's potential. The PLA’s CABs are seen in action in Eastern Ladakh from 2020 onwards, tailored for operations in super high altitude.

A Russian army battalion tactical group (BTG) is a combined-arms manoeuvre unit deployed by the Russian Army that is kept at a high level of readiness. A BTG typically comprises a battalion like tank and mechanised infantry of two to four companies reinforced with air-defence, artillery, engineering, and logistical support units, formed from a garrisoned army brigade. As of August 2021, Russia was stated to have created about 170 BTGs. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has made the term BTG commonplace worldwide. In the US Armed Forces, the brigade combat team (BCT) is the basic deployable unit of manoeuvre. A BCT consists of one combat arms branch manoeuvre brigade, and its assigned support and fire units. A BCT contains combat support and combat service support units necessary to sustain its operations. There are three types of brigade combat teams: infantry, Stryker, and armoured.

Transformation in Higher Defence Organisations – China, Russia and the United States

There have been significant organisational changes at the Apex Military Levels too, more so with the US, Russian Federation and PRC. In PRC, the five core areas of capability development and deployment are the PLA’s land, air, naval, strategic forces and nuclear-cum-ballistic missile forces. The operational structure of the PLA has been changed into five regional theatre commands: North, South, East, West and Central Theatre Command. The Western Theatre Command opposite India is responsible for Tibet and Xinjiang! The PLA Rocket Force (or PLARF, formerly known as the PLA Second Artillery Force) is the custodian and end-user of China’s nuclear and missile forces.

The ‘New Look’ military modernisation process in Russia began in late 2008, with creation of regional theatre Commands called Military Districts in 2010. The Southern Military District was formed through the amalgamation of the former North Caucasian Military District, Black Sea Fleet, Caspian Flotilla, and 4th Air Force and Air Defence Army. Central Military District was formed through amalgamation of Volga–Ural Military District, Siberian Military District (part of), and the Air Force and Air Defence Command. The Eastern Military District was a result of the amalgamation of the Far Eastern Military District, south-eastern parts of the Siberian Military District, Trans-Baikal Military District, Pacific Fleet, and 3rd Air Force and Air Defence Command. Central Military District was formed through the amalgamation of the Volga–Ural Military District, Siberian Military District (part of), and the 2nd Air Force and Air Defence Command. In 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence authorised the formation of a new district known as the 'Arctic District', tasked with protecting Russian interests in the Arctic region. The Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) or RVSN contains one of the most potent missile forces in the world.

In the US, process of Apex level integration was pushed in by the Goldwater‐Nichols Department of Defense (DoD) Reorganization Act of 1986. However, the establishment of Army Futures Command in August 2018 marks one of the most significant US Army reorganization efforts, integrating with entrepreneurs, scientists, academia, and businesses to employ an entrepreneurial spirit of accepting risks. The Army Futures Command will lead eight cross-functional teams that are responsible for furthering the Army's pursuit of six modernization priorities, including long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, and future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defence capabilities, and Soldier lethality.

Indian Military and Structural Transformation

For the tactical integration, the Indian Army approached it with its own exclusive appraisal of threat, terrain and task and is test-bedding the Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs). The IBGs are likely to be agile, brigade-sized, and self-sufficient combat formations, and would aim at making the force more lethal, swift and suitable to fight a modern war with the support of technology. The analysis of operational employment of the US BCTs in Afghanistan and more essentially the Russian BTGs in the Russia-Ukraine War of 2022, and the test-bed results should bring about larger lessons for Indian Army in creating IBGs.

The Apex level integration too it is mandatory to build the requisite force structures, to implement this philosophy! The issue of Integrated Commands or Theaterisation has been debated extensively over the last two decades, including between the Government and the Services. Finally, while establishing the offices of the CDS and DMA, the Government listed their tasks like implementing the Integrated Capability Development Plan, bringing about jointness in operations and “facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.” However, the recent postulation, at the Apex Services level in a think-tank in Delhi, on the proposed Air Defence Command to be ‘counterproductive’, and with no alternative proposal on integration/ theaterisation, simply implies status quo. It is obviously that the process of establishment of theatre commands has seemingly taken many, many steps backwards! Indeed, jointness at status quo is far from optimal in creation of requisite combat power, against credible adversary.

In Indian military, there are three areas of concern in the current system of functioning jointly, which impact operational efficiency. These are:

  • With only loose overarching politico-military directive, planning remains largely compartmentalised Intra-Service. The operational planning is based largely on `Single service perception’ of National Security and National Defence Policy. Respective strategy and capability development models get added together to be called LTIPP earlier or Integrated Capability Development Plan (ICDP). It is a must to maximise resource optimisation and infuse much needed jointness/integration in tri-services planning/ procurement process.
  • There is absence of authority at Command and at the apex level to institutionally integrate inter-service plans, much less to rightfully create singular plan to force individual services to reconcile perceptions and expectations. Over a very long period of time the three Services have developed most un-identical internal cultures, and the tri-service training institutions only lead to social bonhomie, with liaison and cooperation only on basis of functionality!
  • There prevails an environment of inadequate inter service communication and information networks, there is absence of common intelligence and operational picture and non-availability of commanders and staff trained in integrated and multi-domain functioning.

This system of jointness, hence is suited well to fighting in the specific service domain, and not to adapt to dynamic, multi and cross domain operations, where decision cycles and reaction times are compressed and each layer of response may lie in different domain. The change of the scope and context of wars is demanding from the Services to graduate to `Integration’, that is, institutional combining of constituent elements into a single formal structure, with representation of all services, domain specialists and representatives from relevant non-military domains. Three pathways could force a stronger impetus to integration:

  • A political fiat, akin to that undertaken in the US, PRC or Russian Federation, clearly delineating the task ahead, with timelines.
  • Next hostilities, whenever, will invariably bring out lessons that will force the transition. This however, should be the last resort to force integration among Services, and their requisite amalgamation with National power, like CAPF, NTRO, ISRO, DRDO and civil sector, for it will come with attendant long-term effects.
  • A major deduction in the recent wars is use of concerted firepower and its lethality. In the first 48hours, on 19/20 March 2003 against Iraq, and on 24 February 2022 against Ukraine, US/ allied forces and Russians respectively had a focussed targeting strategy in the battle-space that encompassed over 1000 missiles– cruise or ballistic (and hypersonic), launched from ground, sea, air or sub-surface. This is along with conjoined cyber-EW-space attacks in varied configurations. This is becoming the pre-emptive trend at commencement of wars, and the armed forces need to prepare for it. The surface forces should, suo-moto, decide to proceed ahead on Theaterisation. There is much that can be done herein:
    • Indian Army needs to plan the resilience and hardening to face the missile/rocket/precise artillery onslaught and to respond in substantial measure. Time is hence right to create Rocket Forces (North and West), with ground-launched Agni and Prithvi series, Brahmos, Rudram and Shaurya, to create a meaningful deterrent and for prosecution of operations. With 155mm-isation (Mediumisation) of artillery, the Regiments to operate the rocket forces could be re-equipped from the existing artillery formations/ regiments. Theatre’s ISR (including Electronic Warfare) resources should become seamless, including catering for post strike damage assessment (PSDA) and recuperability, and provide a layered common intelligence picture, across the chain.
    • The Army should suo-moto plan to create the Northern and Western Theatres, at say Lucknow and Jaipur respectively, in a given timeframe. Similarly the IN with the requisite Army formations, should establish the Maritime Theatre. This will of course require political nod!
    • Indeed there would be command and control issues, and other formative irritants – requiring change management. In short term it might be prudent to retain the North and West (and Maritime) Theatres under the respective Chiefs of Services, before systems are created to bring them under the CDS/ political hierarchy. The two proposed Rocket Forces could yet be under the overall responsibility of the Directorate General of Artillery, though decentralised to the Theatres to create the targeting plans with Artillery formations.

It is repeatedly said that conventional wars are passé. With recent examples of wars, this argument is fraught with grave danger. In sum, the PM has presented the challenge of creating the “Future Force” and “Indigenisation” of doctrines. The easiest way out for the militaries is to remain status quo, and hence it is oft stated that ‘Generals’ (should include ranks at the apex of other Services!) have tendency to ‘fight the last war’. This might be the time to press ‘pause’, contemplate, refashion and ‘reset’, and jettison the silo-ed approach, where individualistic components think they are the best and end all, and that no change in necessary! The need of the hour is to study the issues with a broad-based agenda outside the concerns of higher ranks, understand and decide on competing requirements, question assumptions, weed out those wedded to bygone ideas, and redirect institutional energy with foresight.

(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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