Contemporary Land-Centric Operational Environment: Need for Dynamism and Adaptability
Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Distinguished Fellow, VIF

It was half a decade ago, when the ‘strategic community’ commonly opined that conventional wars were passe, and if and when future wars did occur, they would ‘likely to be ambiguous, uncertain, short, swift, lethal, intense, precise, non-linear, unrestricted, unpredictable and hybrid’. Grand strategy of India was ‘as much concerned with avoidance of war as with its conduct’ (Indian Armed Forces Joint Doctrine 2017). It was then that stock of as many as 61 types of ammunition, out of a total of 152 types of ammunition considered critical by Indian Army to fight a war, was for 10 days only (CAG Report July 2017).

Transition in nature of war (not differentiating in Clausewitzian nature and character of war) has been strategically contemplated as riding on immense technological advancements. In uncertain, ambiguous environment, warfighting domains–land, sea, air, cyber, electro-magnetic spectrum, space and informational, will all be critical to warfare conjointly by creating synergy!

This is an era of confused global geopolitics; wars have been on the rise. Conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen commenced with 2011 Arab uprisings. There have been 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, war in Ethiopia, Myanmar Army’s coup in 2021 and ongoing 2022 Russia-Ukraine War. The Sahel Region of Africa had a series of coups and 2023 Israel-Hamas (Gaza) war. There are also tensions between Venezuela and Guyana on the horizon.

Tense Situation along Line of Actual Control (LAC)

In last four years, Indian security environment has taken a dramatic turn. India and China have had border discussions since 1981 -- Joint Working Group meetings from 1988 to 2005, Special Representatives Talks, Meetings of WMCC and many summits and visits at apex political level. Agreements to maintain peace along the border, CBMs and non-use of force were signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013. There were sporadic incidents of scuffles and fisticuffs, and the stand-offs in 2013, 2014 and 2017, which were later resolved, with troops disengaging and moving to their respective bases. Despite LAC being un-demarcated and un-delineated, continued discussions at multi-fora signified progress and unlikelihood of any escalation to conflict.

Literally out of the blue, in May 2020 with the pandemic raging, China attempted expansionism across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. PLA with mechanised/ motorised divisions surreptitiously moved from its training areas to Aksai Chin, followed by multiple aggressions in Eastern Ladakh. The incursions in Eastern Ladakh led to the serious incident at Galwan Valley on 15 June 2020.

Incursions along the LAC by PLA cannot be impromptu, extemporaneous or unpremeditated, clearly indicating coercion and intimidation as Chinese way of realising its geopolitical ambitions. 2020 incursions clarified to India that expansionist policies of China, and the challenge must not be soft-pedalled! Consequently, ‘mirror deployment’ and twenty rounds of Corps Commander level talks have brought situation to uneasy peace, with buffer zones along the Shyok Watershed, North and South of Pangong Tso and Kailash Range in Eastern Ladakh. The incursion attempt by PLA at Yangste, in Tawang Sector in December 2022, brought to fore the precarity of the complete LAC! Consequently, China has also created intensive military and dual-use infrastructure, as also undertaken near-permanent relocation of warfighting wherewithal and formations, creating ‘threat-in-being’ of prospective war for India.

Though conventional war is not inevitable, and all efforts must be made to avert it, yet peace is too fragile and not guaranteed. China has been repeatedly seeking to convert current situation into ‘normalised border management and control’. Realism for India is, that balance of power has been severely disrupted in China’s favour, and this unbalanced power wielded by China is a potential threat to India. One of the important issues is that this …“new normal” on the India-China LAC will from now on entail higher levels of military deployment on a more or less permanent basis than was the case before 2019…”[1]

Counter-Terrorism Operations in J&K

Post abrogation of Article 370/ 35A in J&K, with security and socio-economic situation in J&K having distinctly improved, the central government was considering removal of the AFSPA from some districts in Jammu and Kashmir (India Today, 04 April 2022). Accordingly, there were some redeployments of units/ formations from South of Pir Panjal Range to cater for situation that came up in Eastern Ladakh.

It is apparent with the increased incidents of terrorist violence South of Pir Panjal in 2023 that some advantage of the void may have been taken by terrorists and Pakistan. Terrorists are exploiting superior knowledge of terrain, carry out surprise hit-and-run attacks and evade prolonged engagement with security forces. The rules of engagement of armed forces also impede swift and decisive responses, to avoid collateral damage and verify identities. Counter-terror operations doctrinally entail use of minimal force and avoidance of collateral damage, and are hence exclusively land-forces intensive. This has taken its toll on the security forces, which is bound to increase in 2024 that will witness National and State elections.

Short-war formulation of Indian Armed Forces Joint Warfare Doctrine, in light of current experience of wars, mandates serious re-examination. The National capabilities essential for prolonged wars are different and significantly elaborate. Six issues from this uncertain and dire environment mandate examination.

Firstly, there is considerable decline in confidence on dependence on deterrence. With deterrence prone to failure, CBMs ineffective, intent of adversaries’ dubious, aggressive peacetime build-upand deployment, the land forces in India do not have the luxury of easing-off on defending the disputed borders. Under normal circumstances to avoid escalation, other domains of warfare may not be deployable or employable to deny incursions. The obvious implication is that unlike pre-2020 patrolling-based border-management posture, manning of LAC must be at the farthest lest PLA take advantage of any gaps on the watershed, thereby creating fait accompli. Implication also is to retain in proximity, adequate acclimatised reserves and ensure logistics capabilities.

The counter-terror grids and layered approach need to be recreated and tactics on ground reappraised, or the intense advantage gained post abrogation of Article 370, in a multiple election-year, will get weakened. Both LAC and LOC and the counter terror-grids are exclusively Army-centric, and now mandate much higher deployment of forces.

Second, wars being waged in Ukraine (and in Gaza) are technology intensive, with plethora of advanced technologies, from UAVs, to space-based surveillance, precision weapons, hypersonic missiles, handheld electronic jammers, artificial intelligence, networked communications, and the like. This is technologically transformed warfare!

In many ways Ukraine is also drone war! Three tactical drone types have emerged from the war. Most popular and largely used by both sides are Chinese DJI Mavic-style drones. They are easy to learn, boast a good camera, and are versatile, and can be used both for spotting and dropping ordnance with great accuracy (YouTube videos show grenades being dropped through open tank hatches). Then are FPV (First Person View) drones which are a great invention of the war, more like DYI (Do-it-yourself) machines. These are the ‘fighter pilots’ of the drone industry, though require skill to use successfully. Of course, there are fixed-wing drones of greater range, heavier payloads and good cameras.

India is to face an overheated technology surcharged and drone-laden environment of all varieties, and these will fundamentally change warfare. There is no silver bullet to counter drone threat. It has to be layered approach – right up to forward infantry platoon/ tank troop/ artillery battery, each requiring their own ‘Switch Blade type’ and FPV drones with close-in counter-drone systems. Similarly, every counter-terror team must have its own integral FPV drone with a tablet to view! In the layering, electronic warfare capability must also get decentralised to sabre forward sub-units.

Third, for Indian army Ukraine war seems quite familiar. It features foot soldiers slogging through muddy trenches in tiers, like World War1, with extensive minefields. Armies are yet seeking and holding dominating ground or urban environs, which have proven indomitable. Artillery has fired millions of unguided shells. Images of war in Gaza are typical scorched earth urban wars of Mosul, Fallujah and the like. To take ground on a large scale and prevent the enemy from doing so requires forces to coordinate deep defences with mobile reserves; to combine infantry, armour, artillery, engineers, air defence, and more, on the offensive; and to integrate fire and movement on a large scale—and these are much harder tasks.[2]

Military technology will give serious heads-up to warfighting of the future. It is also true that state-of-the-art military technology, sooner-than-later finds adaptations to contest high-technology! However, for India, there has to be an admixture of modern military technology, and yet time-tested linear defensive system!

Fourth, 2024 may be an over-heated year, on security front. In the last five years, rationalisation of the Army strength was on the cards as an attempt to reduce the army’s ballooning salary and pension bills that was considered a hurdle to modernisation of the force. It has been oft and on stated that the army is working towards rationalisation of its troop strength and plans to reduce its strength by nearly two hundred thousand!

Rationalisation (or right-sizing) of Army manpower may have been right when appreciated half a decade ago. 2020 changed the character of 3488 km long Northern Border! 2023 has cautioned in counter-terror operations South of Pir Panjal Range that may affect improving situation in J&K! There have also been major commitments in Manipur. It is not feasible to pullout more units from peace tenures anymore; there are cultural, social and health reasons that demand viable peace tenures. Resorting to ‘Teeth to tail ratio' and tail reductions need to be reconsidered. Further chopping of ‘tail’ may materially affect logistical management.

There has to be dynamism and adaptation in manpower planning, it cannot be stretched beyond a limit. Right-sizing in 2024 has a contrary view to the same in 2019!

Fifth, is the issue of lesson learnt, of constant appraisals and constant tweaking of tactics on the ground. Learning lessons of operations is very essential, they provide context in operational, human, moral and psychological learning that helps to make informed decisions. Those tasked to generate ‘lessons learnt’ and recommend tactical adaptations and modifications, cannot do so on the basis of sanitised reports, while located at say Shimla! The lessons have to be learnt from the ground, with ongoing operations!

Sixth is the issue of micromanagement, tactically and operationally. Gen Charles Krulak’s concept of ‘Strategic Corporal,’ and reasons like careerism, lead on to micromanagement that commences from Delhi downwards. As General George Patton had famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Higher leaders (and higher staff more importantly) must desist from breathing down the chain, just to obtain ‘first information report,’ and convey orders that may be countering ground realities. Well trained units work with decentralized leadership that places enormous amounts of responsibility in the hands of young soldiers - men and women. Even higher commanders landing-up in area of operations within a couple of days, does not in any which way exemplify leading from the front, it narrows higher leader’s focus away from the greater picture, and dulls creativity and slows decision making. As a good organisation that is incessantly in battle, Army should function plainly through chains of command, leaving initiative where it due.

Conclusion

In sum, deterrence is prone to failure, and planning must gradually shift to longer wars. Manning of LAC/LOC at the furthest and maintaining reserves in proximity are land forces exclusive and cannot be compromised with, lest adversaries take advantage and create fait accompli. Border-management and counter terror-grids are exclusively Army-centric, and now mandate larger deployment of forces. In India there has to be an admixture of modern military technology, and linear defensive system along disputed borders.

Right-sizing in 2024 has a different connotation to the same in 2019! It is not feasible to pullout more units from peace tenures anymore; there are cultural, social and health reasons that demand viable peace tenures. Hence, there has to be dynamism and adaptation in manpower planning,

Endnotes/h5>

[1] Vijay Gokhale, Stabilizing the Border: A Possible Way Ahead in the Post-Galwan Situation, Ca India, 15 Dec 2023, accessed at https://carnegieindia.org/2023/12/15/stabilizing-border-possible-way-ahead-in-post-galwan-situation-pub-91244
[2] Stephen Biddle, Back to the Trenches, Foreign Affairs, Sep-Oct 2023, accessed at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/back-trenches-technology-warfare

(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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