India Today - - CONTENTS - By San­deep Un­nithan

What the new In­te­grated Bat­tle Groups (IBGs) bring to the army in the con­text of a nuclear over­hang

IIn the next few weeks, the In­dian army’s Moun­tain Strike Corps will go into ‘bat­tle’ across its intended area of de­ploy­ment—the Hi­malayas. In the first ex­er­cise since its rais­ing in 2014, the Ranchi-based 17 Corps will launch three In­te­grated Bat­tle Groups (IBGs)—brigade-sized for­ma­tions backed by medium ar­tillery, he­li­copters, tanks and ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers in sim­u­lated thrusts across the Line of Ac­tual Con­trol (LAC). The ma­noeu­vres will be far away from the cur­rently taut and vi­o­lent Line of Con­trol (LoC) with Pak­istan, but not too dis­tant from Dok­lam, where In­dia and China ended a 72-day mil­i­tary stand-off in 2017.

Army chief Gen­eral Bipin Rawat and his gen­er­als will watch the ex­er­cise very care­fully be­cause it val­i­dates sev­eral con­cepts they have worked on for months. The chief is bet­ting big on IBGs—lean mo­bile for­ma­tions con­sist­ing of 5,000 sol­diers, backed by ar­tillery and ar­mour—to be­come the army’s force of the fu­ture. It is the big­gest re­struc­tur­ing of a force that has con­tin­ued al­most with­out any re­or­gan­i­sa­tion since In­de­pen­dence.

Se­nior army of­fi­cials say the ex­er­cise, the first of its kind in the north­ern theatre, re­spects the April 2005 pro­to­col with China, which urges both sides to ‘avoid hold­ing large-scale mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in­volv­ing more than one di­vi­sion (ap­prox­i­mately 15,000 troops) in close prox­im­ity to the LAC’.

The ex­er­cise, which is yet to be given a name—army of­fi­cials say this is to main­tain se­crecy—is to be held at al­ti­tudes of over 10,000 feet. It will also val­i­date the army’s abil­ity to launch ma­noeu­vres in the moun­tains using its only strike corps un­der the East­ern Com­mand. The three Moun­tain IBGs have been carved out of the 17 Corps’ Pana­garh-based 59 Moun­tain Di­vi­sion. From its base in Ranchi the Corps HQ will con­trol the ex­er­cise that is in the plan­ning stages for sev­eral weeks. De­tails of the ex­er­cise are se­cret, but mil­i­tary tac­ti­cians say the bat­tle groups could be ex­pected to do one or more of the fol­low­ing: in­ter­dict a strate­gic high­way, make an ini­tial bridge

head for launch­ing fur­ther of­fen­sives, seize an area pos­ing a threat to the Chumbi Val­ley or launch an of­fen­sive across a frozen river to capture posts.


Ever since the down­ward spi­ral in re­la­tions with Pak­istan in 2016, the In­dian army has been re­stock­ing mis­siles, tank and ar­tillery am­mu­ni­tion to be able to fight a 10-day in­ten­sive war, or what it calls ‘10(I)’ scales. The Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of Mil­i­tary Op­er­a­tions (DGMO), the army’s prin­ci­pal war plan­ner, has be­gun study­ing the ter­rain from Jammu and Kash­mir to the Rann of Kutch to see how IBGs can be de­ployed.

“You don’t an­nounce a war,” Gen. Rawat tells in­dia today when asked whether a con­flict with Pak­istan is now a more prob­a­ble op­tion than it was in re­cent years. He em­pha­sises the el­e­ment of sur­prise. “No­body would want to go to war, but if the (si­t­u­a­tion) were to go out of hand, we won’t hes­i­tate to do some limited ac­tion,” says the army chief. ‘Out of hand’ is a clear ref­er­ence to an act of grave provo­ca­tion. For in­stance, a mass-ca­su­alty ter­ror­ist at­tack orig­i­nat­ing from across the bor­der?

The ad­ver­sary, Gen. Rawat ac­knowl­edges, is ‘un­pre­dictable’. “And un­pre­dictable is a very sober word if you see the kind of state­ments that are com­ing from Pak­istan these days,” he says. The army chief hopes to have about a dozen IBGs along the western bor­der with Pak­istan “in the next four to five years”. The aim is for IBGs to break through the ad­ver­sary’s de­fences and cross the bor­der in hours, not days as was the practice ear­lier. The ob­jec­tive is to capture ter­ri­tory and cre­ate ‘launch­pads’ in­side en­emy ter­ri­tory for the main body of troops to join in.

Even as the 17 Corps is ready­ing for its moun­tain ma­noeu­vres, the 9 Corps, based in Yol, in the Hi­malayan foothills near Dharam­sala, has been ear­marked for re­struc­tur­ing. One of the corps fall­ing un­der the Chandi­mandir-based Western Com­mand will be bro­ken up into three IBGs. The IBGs will be po­si­tioned along the in­ter­na­tional bor­der with Pak­istan.

The IBGs will be sec­tor- and ter­rain-spe­cific. No two IBGs will be alike. “From one­size-fits-all, we are mov­ing to­wards sec­torand ter­rain-spe­cific IBGs,” says Gen. Rawat. The IBGs will be guided by what he calls ‘TTTR’—Threat, Ter­rain, Task and Re­sources. The re­sources of an IBG—the num­ber of tanks, ar­tillery pieces, bridg­ing equip­ment it car­ries—will be guided by its task, ter­rain and the threat it faces. In the strongly-de­fended plains of Pak­istan’s Pun­jab province, In­dian IBGs can ex­pect stiff resistance from heavy and light anti-tank units and in­fantry en­trenched be­hind ditch-cum-bunds (DCBs). They will need tanks, anti-tank weapons, ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers and close-air sup­port from the IAF’s newly ac­quired AH-64E Apache tank-bust­ing he­li­copter gun­ships. In the Ra­jasthan desert, where resistance is un­likely to be as stiff, the threat will come from en­emy tanks and anti-tank units.

IBGs are one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of Gen. Rawat’s plan to re­tool army for­ma­tions for a col­lu­sive mil­i­tary threat from China and Pak­istan. The pro­posal for IBGs will shortly be sent to the gov­ern­ment. The bat­tle groups could re­place the army’s basic ‘all-arms’ unit—the in­fantry di­vi­sion. The di­vi­sion, which con­sists of be­tween 15,000 and 18,000 sol­diers and in­cludes other arms like ar­tillery brigades, he­li­copters and sig­nal and en­gi­neer­ing reg­i­ments, has been found to be pon­der­ous and slow-mov­ing. It takes days to be mo­bilised. Strat­egy, as Napoleon said, is the art of mak­ing use of time and space. Using the IBG strat­egy, the army plans to capture en­emy ter­ri­tory within hours, not days.


The re­struc­tur­ing plan was ini­ti­ated with four studies last year, each headed by a lieu­tenant gen­eral, with the aim of re­con­sti­tut­ing the field army, re­duc­ing per­son­nel from the army head­quar­ters and re­view­ing the terms of en­gage­ment of of­fi­cers and sol­diers. The larger aim is to pare off up to 100,000 per­son­nel and use the sav­ings to boost the army’s cap­i­tal bud­get, what it uses to buy new equip­ment.

With IBGs, the army hopes to ad­dress a long-stand­ing weakness—the in­abil­ity to in­flict puni­tive strikes against the Pak­istan army. It also has the back­ing of a po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship un­afraid of call­ing Pak­istan’s nuclear bluff like it did when it car­ried out the air strike in Balakot on Fe­bru­ary 26. Un­til 15 years ago,

the army op­er­ated un­der what was called the Sun­darji doc­trine, pro­pounded by its for­mer chief in the late 1980s: seven de­fen­sive corps that held the bor­der with Pak­istan and three of­fen­sive ‘strike’ corps brought in from in­land. The first cracks in the doc­trine ap­peared in 2001. It took the army over 20 days to de­ploy its strike corps to the bor­der fol­low­ing the De­cem­ber 2001 ter­ror at­tack on Par­lia­ment. The army be­lieves this pon­der­ous de­ploy­ment cost them the el­e­ment of sur­prise at a time when Pak­istan had not laid mine­fields and its own strike for­ma­tions were far away from the bor­der.

The Cold Start doc­trine, un­veiled by the army in 2004, called for de­fen­sive corps to carry out shal­low cross-bor­der thrusts within 72 hours. The thrusts were given limited ob­jec­tives, such as capture of ter­ri­tory. Deep thrusts, it was feared, would force Pak­istan to launch nuclear weapons. The plans were, how­ever, never im­ple­mented un­til Gen. Rawat came on the scene in 2016. Even as it war-gamed Cold Start in mul­ti­ple ex­er­cises over the years, the army did not cre­ate IBGs. It opted for ad hoc bat­tle groups taken out of the strike corps com­ing together and ex­er­cis­ing on the bor­der just days prior to the of­fen­sive. This did not achieve the ob­jec­tives of hav­ing them fight as a co­he­sive, in­te­grated unit. Even the 72-hour win­dow pro­posed by Cold Start be­gan rapidly clos­ing when Pak­istan be­gan mov­ing its forces closer to the bor­der.

The solution, Gen. Rawat be­lieved, was to have a force that was sta­tioned as an in­te­grated unit near the bor­der, com­plete with ar­mour, ar­tillery, com­bat en­gi­neers and sig­nal units. These would be like the basic fight­ing for­ma­tion in the US—the Stryker Brigade Com­bat Team. Ev­ery Stryker brigade has 4,500 sol­diers and over 300 ar­moured ve­hi­cles. The IBGs, the army pro­poses, will strike across the bor­der in less than 24 hours. The army will eval­u­ate the re­sults, con­vert­ing some of its 40 in­fantry di­vi­sions into IBGs be­fore it ex­pands the scope.

This year marks the 30th an­niver­sary since the army in­creased its strength in Jammu and Kash­mir to fight Pak­istan-backed in­sur­gency. The low in­ten­sity con­flict op­er­a­tion (LICO) and the dis­puted borders with Pak­istan and China in J&K have drawn in close to a third of the 1.3 mil­lion-strong army. The large army pres­ence is also to guard the dis­puted bound­aries with China and Pak­istan. The im­pact has been what an­a­lysts call ‘LICO-isa­tion’ of the army, where the force is drawn away from its pri­mary task of fight­ing ex­ter­nal ag­gres­sion.


Pro­po­nents of ‘shock and awe’ say cre­at­ing IBGs amounts to di­lut­ing the power of the army’s strike corps for limited gains. “You are re­cast­ing your sledge­ham­mer, called the Strike Corps, into 20 smaller ham­mers to fight smaller, lo­calised de­fen­sive bat­tles near the bor­der. Where is the co­er­cive edge? How are you chal­leng­ing Pak­istan’s strate­gic depth?” asks Lt Gen­eral P.S. Me­hta, for­mer deputy army chief.

Mil­i­tary an­a­lysts see in the IBG con­cept a chance to make the army’s pon­der­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions lean, ag­ile and flexible on the bat­tle­field. It pro­vides the army an op­por­tu­nity to re­gain its bal­ance in com­po­si­tion of or­gan­i­sa­tion, equip­ment and qual­ity of lead­er­ship and a re­fresh­ing change from a heavy in­fantry skew to the com­bined arms ap­proach. “IBGs will de­mand greater dy­namism, bold­ness, ini­tia­tive and risk-tak­ing abil­ity from our mil­i­tary lead­er­ship, which has not been ev­i­dent in the re­cent past,” says Lt Gen­eral P. Ravi Shankar, for­mer di­rec­tor gen­eral, ar­tillery. “It also de­mands knowl­edge, un­der­stand­ing and ex­e­cu­tion of an all-arms con­cept, which has been di­luted by large sec­tions of the in­fantry that view counter-in­sur­gency as the prime and only op­er­a­tional area of ex­per­tise required.”

“The big­gest challenge the IBGs will face will be the Pak­istani mech­a­nised forces—tanks and anti-tank forces. An­other hur­dle will be lo­gis­tics—fu­elling our fast-mov­ing columns and re­sup­ply­ing them with am­mu­ni­tion as they fight intense bat­tles in a fluid bat­tle-space,” says Bri­gadier Kuldip Singh (retd), for­mer prin­ci­pal di­rec­tor (de­fence) in the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Sec­re­tariat.

These are questions that will be asked as the first IBGs take off later this year. Their suc­cess will be key to de­ter­min­ing whether the In­dian army will achieve greater agility or be con­demned to a jumbo-sized ex­is­tence. ■


BAT­TLE-READY? The army’s ‘Hame­sha Vi­jayee’ ex­er­cise in Jodh­pur



THINKING AHEAD Army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat

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