By Lt. Gen P R Shankar (retd)
Despite Pakistan’s economic tatters and a Chinese economic slowdown their militaries are expanding and modernizing, unabated. While our relationship with both our nuclear neighbours is increasingly adversarial, there is an increasing collusivity between them. The latest being that China is going to give 236 of the latest 155mm Howitzers to Pakistan. On the domestic front, societal events and upheavals are forcing our so-called ‘Strategic’ friends and neighbours into a rethink mode to recalibrate their relationships with us. We need to be prepared to face international headwinds. Welcome to the world of realpolitik and increased threats. Be prepared to row our boats by ourselves.
Non-Contact Warfare and Long-Range Precision
The Chinese White Paper on defence lays tremendous focus on surveillance, firepower, extending ranges and standoff engagements. The USA has very clearly stated that Long-Range Precision Fires is the highest priority and have funded programs accordingly. They talk of Multi-Domain Operations, Non-Contact Warfare and Standoff. So does our newly appointed CDS. In recent times he has been speaking of Non-Contact Warfare in every possible forum. Beyond a point, Non-Contact Warfare involving violence must be executed by Artillery and Air Force only. That point is where Infantry and Tank range end.
Shrinking Military Budgets
Military budgets will stagnate or shrink in a slowing economy. There is no option but to modernize with tight budgets. That means we need to spend more on new technologies. The noose is tightening. If you cannot think out of the box, be prepared to die within it.
The Himalayan Requirements
Turn to the Himalayas – our main and future battlefield as evident from the first thoughts of the COAS. The core capability we need is well-equipped Infantry to hold ground and devastating firepower to inflict damage on a sustained basis. Firepower means a strong Air Force and Artillery - short, medium and long-range fire-power with annihilative capability despite taking a hit. To make firepower count we need to force multiply it with accurate surveillance and target acquisition capability. This implies that the arrowhead of our forces whose capabilities must be strengthened and sharpened revolves around Infantry, Artillery and Air Force. Any imbalance in their synergistic capacities will be at a national cost.
State of Infantry, Air Force and Artillery
Let us examine the Infantry, Air Force and Artillery. Our top-heavy Infantry leadership has failed to modernize its own Arm – The Infantry. Expecting them to modernize the rest of the Army is far too much. That is a proven fact now. Infantry Generalship apart, our Infantrymen are the salt of the earth. They will fight to the last man- last round if the enemy and his firepower are kept off their backs. To do that we need a strong Air Force and Artillery which are complementary to each other to deter the Chinese as also take them on if needed. The potency of IAF is plummeting with reducing the number of Squadrons even after considering future induction of Rafales and Sukhois and production of Tejas.
Any new RFP for any kind of fighters will have a time loop of 15-20 years. That is our record which cannot be shortened. Things will not improve overnight. In the meantime, China is busy upgrading airfields and its Air Force, to outmatch us. Our Air Power edge is eroding. Our Artillery is getting to be potent with a plethora of Guns and Missiles set to enter the fray. It has the potential to plug the loopholes which are palpably appearing due to the slow pace of Infantry modernization and the decreasing Air Power edge. It is time to go for long-range precise rocket artillery for deep strike (like Balakot) to free air force for air superiority
Pragmatic Options vs Limited Thinking
Very importantly Artillery is the low-cost option which can substitute air power to meet our national requirements in these hard economic times. Is Artillery being positioned and developed accordingly? NO. We are caught in a situation where the IAF is unable to think beyond fighters and the Indian Army is not able to think beyond the Infantry. Individual Service capabilities based on narrow views have taken precedence over overarching national perspectives. The requirement of the defence establishment to work for a national perspective has clearly eluded us. The CDS must bridge this divide. Otherwise, we will pay a heavy price.
Force Division vs Force Multiplication
Increasing range of engagement, having non-contact deterrence capability, substituting depleting airpower with relatively low-cost artillery demands that we have adequate numbers. In 2008 we visualized a set of numbers for the Pinaka. When the national scenario demands more numbers, the Indian Army has reduced them!
Further, the efficacy of long-range Artillery is linked with an inherent capability to seek, locate and destroy targets in depth. There is an essential link between sensors and shooters. Unless you have UAVs and Long-Range Guns and Rockets intimately linked and functioning as one, they cannot substitute Air Force. Without UAVs, long-range Artillery is like the blind ‘Dhritarashtra’ of Mahabharat.
Till now that link was the UAVs which were integral to the Artillery. Recently they were hived off. All the UAVs are to be handed over to the Army Aviation for surveillance purpose. From dual tasking, we have reduced the UAVs to a single task situation in one stroke. This is the prime example not of force multiplication but of force division.
Sensor to Shooter Links- Snapped Like a Twig
Once upon a time, the aerial sensor-shooter umbilical was the erstwhile Air OP. They used to carry out observation duties. They were very effective and so were the guns. Their success is borne out in all operations. There was an elan about the Air OP boys who carried out daredevil flying to destroy the enemy. They were in sync with the guns. Many times, they were from or had an affiliation with the regiments with which they were firing. These were both personal and professional.
Ever since Army Aviation has come into being, this link has snapped like a twig. The Army Aviation with its grandiose imagination of being part of airmobile forces drifted away from Artillery. In the process, Artillery lost its cutting-edge over the hill capability of observation, liaison and communication to direct fire effectively through Aviation. Today, these are peripheral tasks of Army Aviation and not practised. Army Aviation is still full of glorious plans while effectively being air taxis. The Indian Army, by denying observation to its Artillery is force dividing itself. It has done it once before with Helicopters and is doing it again with UAVs. That is a pity, to put it mildly.
Leadership and Generalship
Why is this happening? I ascribe it to poor leadership and decaying Generalship. I have already written that Generalship is sorely wanting in our context. Please read my article ‘Generally on Generals’. An overdose and overemphasis of Counter Insurgency operations have propelled a crop of less than competent Infantry Officers to the top. In turn, it has led to the marginalization of the Artillery and Mechanized Forces and ‘Infantrisation’ of Generals.
The current system of ‘General Cadre’ is flawed and heavily biased. I have no problem with Infantry Generals at the top. The best of them are as good as any and I revere them. However, when the not so good are promoted to the top it is at the cost of marginalization of the best Artillery, Mech Forces and Sapper Officers.
India must recognize that there is a problem. That is already showing up operationally in the way Artillery is being viewed and handled. Look beyond to pay, perks and status erosion. Look at the break down in jointness, crawling pace of modernisation, the polarisation of leadership and acrimonious Inter-Service views which often surfaces. Look at Social Media and its views on Generals. Take peer and subordinate views. I will re-quote Bob Dylan - as did the previous Air Chief – “the answer, my friend is blowing in the wind”.
A National Relook is Mandated
If the Army leadership presides over force division either by default or design how can synergy with its Air Force or Navy develop to get to a national doctrine or game plan going? In such conditions, no amount of budget allocations will suffice since a fool and his money are soon parted.
The time has come to seriously relook at the promotion to Higher Ranks in the Army. Maybe a Pro-Rata system is not a bad option. Choose the best from each Arm and you will have a balanced composition of professional Generals.
When Infantry Generals aspire for a rifle with two barrels; which does not exist in the world and want Infantry to man and command strategic missile units instead of Artillery which has developed and raised them from scratch, I think the nation needs to rethink very seriously on the Generalship ability of some of them. This is a national issue and not merely an internal issue of the Army or Air Force or Navy anymore. I also think that the time has now come to shed the Counter Insurgency orientation of the Army. The boots on the ground approach which has dominated our thinking need a serious rethink since the time has passed for that too. A subtle change is happening. More on that in my next article.
*The article has been reproduced and edited with permission from author. The unedited version can be read at https://palepurshankar.blogspot.com/