A meaner and leaner force capable of deterring hostile forces at their tracks has been one of the key missions for successive Army Chiefs to attain. General Rawat in the run up to his retirement through acknowledgment of Cold Start Doctrine and introduction of the Integrated Battle Group concept is aiming for radical overhaul of the Army. Will the General succeed in attaining a ‘battle ready’ Indian Army?

On 13 December 2001, a white ambassador car flashing a lal batti (red bacon light), the iconic image of India’s political power, pulled up on the main gate of the country’s parliament building, the citadel of India’s democracy. The security forces posted outside the Parliament signalled the car to stop for the mandatory security check. But much to the bewilderment of the security forces, the white ambassador, which had the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) and Parliamentary passes pasted on it, sped past the main security gate.

Shortly after, a volley of bullets pinned down the security forces and the pickets in the premises. As minutes passed and the indiscriminate firing raged on across the mammoth structure, it became apparent that a terrorist attack against the power seat of India was firmly underway. The ensuing ruthless gun battle had taken the lives of at least eight security forces.

Within hours of the ghastly attack, Indian intelligence agencies established the role of Pakistan and it’s intelligence agency – ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) behind the attack. This attack, according to senior Government functionaries, bore a signature strike of Pakistan based and backed terror organisation – Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

The terror attack targeting India’s very political power seat and the icon of its sovereignty had threatened to strangle the very veil of the democracy. Rattled by the audacious attack, the country’s political and security establishment unanimously decided to set a new tone in the country’s fight against terrorism by not only quelling the terror group but also their sponsor and supporter – Pakistan.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), headed by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which met within hours of the attack in consultation with the three service chiefs and the entirety of the country’s security establishment, unanimously decided for mounting kinetic strikes targeting Pakistan and its proxies.

Thus conceived was Operation Parakram, an ambitious military strategy to prepare grounds for massive Army-led offensive against Pakistan. Besides neutralising terror launch pads operating in close proximity to the Line of Control (LoC), the Indo-Pakistan border, the Indian Army under Operation Parakram wanted to strike deep into Pakistan to send a crystal clear message to Pakistan’s power players in Rawalpindi.

Operation Parakram, which was green lit on 15 December 2001 by the CCS, witnessed the deployment of at least 5,00,000 troops to the troubled Western and Northern borders. Central to the Army’s offensive plans was the deployment of the three strike corps, which bulked up with their armoured columns, were to rattle Pakistan by making deep ingress into their territory.

Crucial to the success of these planned kinetic strikes was that the offensive had to be mounted within weeks of the strike. Military planners eventually calibrated the optimal strike window to be between 48 to 72 hours from he strikes. While this target remained too ambitious, the security established hoped to mobilise, stage and mount the strikes by at least a week’s time. A war, if conceived, had to be well underway by at least the beginning of the new year (2002).

An offensive mounted in this timeframe provided India with two strategic advantages. Firstly the Pakistan Army, stung by the awe and surprise factor of the strikes, would be caught off guard. While the Pakistan Army had anticipated action along the LoC, it still had not deployed its defensive formations, as a large part of its forces were deployed along its Western border to assist United States’ operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban factions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the country’s FATA region. This would enable the Indian strike corps to tear deep into Pakistani territory with minimal resistance.

Secondly, a blitzkrieg style strike would deprive Pakistan off opportunities to run up to the international community to intervene on its behalf to halt India’s offensive. India, devoid of the international diplomatic pressure, would have wriggle room through the entirety of its campaign against terror organisations and its sponsors.

With the deployment under the aegis of Operation Parakram beginning on 15 December 2001, the entirety of the country’s three strike corps – the I, II and XXI based out of Mathura, Ambala and Bhopal respectively – were all given simultaneous marching orders.The higher echelons of the Army in anticipation of the arrival of the strike corps laid grounds for the eventual massive offensive operations.

But, as the elements of the three mammoth strike corps rumbled out fo their barracks, the Army was struck by bewilderment. The logistics and supply chain of the Army was greatly struggling to support the mobilisation and vast movements of the mammoth strike corps. With no requisite support elements in place, movement of the mobilised strike corps was crippled.

The strike formations ultimately succeeded in reaching their designated staging area only after almost three weeks of them having received their marching orders. This inordinate delay in the arrival of the Strike Corps, which held almost the entirety of the Army’s offensive capabilities, halted the country’s ambitious offensive plans dead in its tracks.

With India’s strike elements taking their own sweet time, Pakistan was provided with a golden opportunity to amass troops along the LoC. Pakistan itself was successful in deploying at least two of its strike corps, besides strengthening its holding (defensive) holding formations. The delay also opened up India to a lot of international pressure with the United States of America (USA) leading the bandwagon advocating for restraint, even as its Afghanistan campaign raged on in an effort contain Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Eventually, India had to backdown and the offensive against the perpetrators of terror against India’s idol of democracy remained only a mirage.

While the Government termed ‘Operation Parakram’ a success and the whole mobilisation exercise as its efforts in practising ‘coercive diplomacy’, the Army could not take the shortcomings under its stride. After all, more than 5,00,000 troops from as far as Chennai in the South and Kolkata in East had been mobilised in the aftermath of the attacks. Moreover, the entire mobilisation fiasco had costed the Army at least 450 valuable troops, besides costing the exchequer a dear INR 8,000 crore.

It was crystal clear to the Army and to the country’s security establishment that there existed an inherent flaw in the then conceived strike options. In an effort to address these shortcomings, the Army launched extensive reviews of its operational plans.

Several of the high-powered committees pointed to inherent flaws in the conceptualisation of the Strike Corps itself, which were crafted under the Army’s Sunderji Doctrine. The 1980s origin doctrine had divided India’s offensive capabilities between the three strike corps and the responsibility of repealing hostile land-based onslaughts to about seven pivot (defensive) holding corps. The strike corps were thus raised as the sentinel strike force of the Indian Army.  

Structured around the mechanised forces and artillery, these formations were to be decisive forces, which when inserted into the battlefield could deliver deep sledgehammer blows to hostile forces, thus decisively tilting the scales of the battle.

But in stark contrast, these very formations had tipped the scale of battle against India even before being inserted into the field during Operation Parakram. The review committees drew the fault line at the strike corps’ bulked up units of armoured and artillery elements. It was, in fact, the transportation of these units that had hindered the progress of the corps through the course of the mobilisation.

Under the Sunderji doctrine, these elements were placed  in barracks situated in hinterland such as in Ambala and Mathura. Thus, these elements had to be primarily transported to the fronts and then would congregate at predesignated locations, stitched together and would then have to be launched to battle. This entire exercise, according to the review committees, was extremely time consuming and effectively voided any opportunity for the country to act against grave provocations perpetrated from across the border.

After almost an year of deliberation, the then Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General N C Vij at the 2004 bi-annual Army Commanders Conference unveiled a new ‘war strategy’ doctrine, which would effectively address the shortfalls in the Sunderji doctrine and would replace that on the battlefield. The new doctrine, dubbed the Cold Start Doctrine or as the Proactive Strategy, advocated for swift shallow thrust offensive into Pakistan at times of conflict or as a response to grave provocations from across the border. 

The CSD, which was envisioned taking into account the growing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan [and the destabilising TNWs], paved the way for preparing grounds for an outright offensive operation even under the nuclear overcast. By acknowledging the future conflicts would be short, intense and extremely lethal, the Army opened up grounds for a conventional operation, utilising the strategic space, it advocated, existed between a probation and eventual nuclear conflict, initiated by Pakistan as a response to India’s offensive operations.

Given that the future conflicts would be extremely short and intense, the Army under the CSD conceptualised that it was absolutely necessary to mount offensive operations across the IB and the LoC within days if not hours of having secured the political directive for the operations. This effectively meant that the Army’s offensive forces had to be able to rapidly mobilising and stage in close proximity to the IB and LoC to be able to mount operations within the demanding timeframe.

Under the CSD, the Army decided to decentralise its offensive capabilities, which until then was almost solely secured with the strike corps. For instance, when Operation Parakram was underway, it was crucial that elements of the II Strike Corps based out of Ambala mobilised much ahead of the I and XXI Corps as it held almost 50% of the Army’s strike elements.

In its efforts to decentralise the strike capabilities, the Army under the CSD decided to arm the forward deployed pivot holding corps with significant strike capabilities. As such these field formations had been equipped with independent armoured and mechanised infantry elements. But however, under the erstwhile Sunderji doctrine, they were mandated to only hold ground and all of the offensive operations across the border was to be launched only by the strike corps.

The Army, now as part of the reforms, embarked on raising brigade-sized battle units – termed the Integrated Battle Group (IBGs). These were to be structured around an all arms combined concept. The Army strongly believed that these reforms would enable it to launch blitzkrieg strikes into enemy territory within the stipulated timeframe, thus enabling it to attain both the political and military objectives.

Cold Storage of the Cold Start Doctrine.

While the CSD was unveiled in 2004, the Army for years never publicly admitted to the existence of the cold start. The executive and legislative quarters also played down the CSD, all in the fears of granting legitimacy to Pakistan’s efforts of fielding the destabilising Tactical Nuclear Warhead (TNWs).

The Army though silently began preparing grounds for the implementation of the CSD across the battlefield. Through the course of multiple large-scale exercises such as Sanghe Shakti, the Army began honing operational modalities to mount the Cold Start.

But as the hawkish and rattled Pakistani Generals cried foul of these exercises, the Army eventually termed the much talked about Cold Start as only a proactive strategy that provided broad strokes to Army’s offensive operations and as a purely conventional strategy. While successive former COAS downplayed the CSD, it was General V K Singh who in 2011 formally and publicly announced that there existed no such doctrine termed Cold Start, and that whatever existed in the Army as a doctrine are a number of contingencies and options as a response to hostile aggressions. He reasserted that the Army to that point had stuck to a defensive military posture across the borders.

This deniability at the highest echelons meant that the necessary reforms meant to prepare the Army for shifting towards the Cold Start could not be carried out in the required manner. Several of the reforms, specially those that entitled movement of troops to newer locations and acquisition of necessary equipments, were put on the back burner. The Cold Start, a doctrine carefully charted and calibrated in the corridors of the Army HQ in Delhi nearly a decade ago, after years of denial was then finally put in the cold storage.

When the NDA Government in 2016 appointed General Bipin Rawat (then Lt Gen) as the 26th Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), going against the established principle of seniority, there was considerable outcry in the country’s defence and strategic circles. General Rawat, a decorated infantry soldier, took the helm of the world’s second largest Army, at an extremely tenuous time.

With the Army having successfully carried out cross-border strike against several terror launch pads as a response to the Uri terror attack, tensions between India and Pakistan were at an all time high. On the Eastern and Northern front, increased transgression by the Chinese and the increasing Pakistan-China nexus as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) materialised in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) had put the Army on it toes. Besides, increasing infiltration attempts along the troubled LoC meant that the Army had to be ready to fight conflict along two-and-a-half front theatre.

From the word go, General Bipin Rawat clearly communicated that he wanted the Army to be a leaner and meaner military force with enhanced combat capabilities, which is able to deter enemies at their tracks. Through the course of his first meetings at the Sena Bhawan, General Rawat sent out a clear message to his Generals that he was launching a major surgery to the ranks and files of the Army to better optimise it to be a fighting ready force. The Chief never missed an opportunity to let his men know that right sizing of the Army with optimised fighting capabilities remained his highest prioritised task. But, in a colonial establishment, where turf guarding is fiercely practised and has been perfected, rightsizing is an extremely demanding and daunting task.

With over 1.3 million soldiers in its payrolls, the Indian Army for decades has been a man power intensive fighting force, devoid of credible modern fire power. While the Army with almost 60%, receives the largest pie in the country’s defence budget, a major part of it is lost up on tending to the growing share of salaries and pensions. With revenue expenditure alone amounting to about 82% of the Army’s annual budget, the capital expenditure, which handles the modernisation of the Army, is left to tend with only 18%, leaving modernisation programs in a limbo.

While ammunition to these far-reaching rightsizing reforms were being drawn from the four independent studies that the Chief had personally commissioned since taking the helm, General Rawat had a radical roadmap to drastically enhance the Army’s fighting capabilities.

The broad contours to this roadmap were charted out in the run up to the 69th Army Day celebrations, when COAS General Rawat publicly acknowledged the existence of the Cold Start Doctrine and remarked that it remained to be an active option under the Army’s conventionally response strategy to any provocations from across the border. This marked a departure from the Army’s position of maintaining a proactive defensive posture across the borders.

It was in an interview to India Today soon after taking the helm of the Army that the General revealed the existence of Cold Start when he said “The Cold Start doctrine exists for conventional military operations. Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well-thought through, involving the government and the Cabinet Committee on Security.”

Detailing the shift to the Cold Start Doctrine, the General said “The basic task given to us is to ensure territorial integrity and not all of this task can be done by being defensive. There is a saying that goes ‘offence is the best form of defence’. So whenever you are tasked for such purpose of ensuring territorial integrity, there will always be an element of offence in your defensive strategy. How that offensive is to be conducted necessitates high degree of preparation and an element of surprise. We know that the future wars will be short and intense. When short and intense wars are the future forms of combat then you have to prepared to move fast.”

Elaborating on the factors that necessitated the public acknowledgement of the doctrine, the General said, “[One reason] for coming out with this was to communicate to the ranks and files and to the field commanders the kind of preparations we have to carry out for future combat. Also, weakness have to be overcome and weakness can only be overcome if you except a strategy. If you do not accept a strategy then you will let your weakness sail through say this is all I can do. But when you enunciate a strategy you say these are the weakness which I need to overcome and you adopt a strategy for that.”

While the top leadership of the country’s armed forces termed the acknowledgment and public disclosure of the CSD as a historic high moment in the Army’s history, the doctrine, however, was received with skepticism by the global strategic circles. Serious doubts were raised about India’s seriousness and capabilities in shifting to the debated and controversial CSD.

COAS General Rawat, however, silenced these naysayers, when through the course of the Bi-Annual Commanders Conference in 2018 he unveiled plans to lay groundwork to operationalise the CSD.  At the heart of the Chief’s efforts to recalibrate the Army towards an offensive posture was the raising of Integrated Battle Group (IBGs), which were to be at the spearhead of the Army’s future offensive operations.

It is these IBGs that the Army believes will provide it with the platform to effectively shift towards an offensive posture along the borders. The key requirement for this shift  is the need for strike units to be capable of mobilising rapidly while still maintaining agility and stealth. The erstwhile strike corps were a lumbering field formation that lacked both of these elements, but was yet on which packed a lethal strike power.

The fundamental problem with strike corps, the Army believes, was that their elements were based way too far from the international borders deep inside the country. And given their mammoth structure, mobilisation of these corps when ordered, was a dead giveaway of the Army’s intentions.

The Army now believes that it has through the concept of IBG, which the Army says will be far smaller than the strike corps, taken a path towards addressing these concerns. While under the Strike Corps concept the battle units such as the Armoured and Artillery would first mobilise, then after their arrival at staging bases had to be married and further launched to battle, under IBG, however, the fighting echelons will remain together and be launched to the battle at the word go.

The Army for achieving this will all together do away with the Division HQs, which until now where the biggest field formations. Traditionally it was only these formations which held all of the elements required for offensive operations.

Under the new battle concept, however, the Army will break each of these divisions, each of which is composed of at least 20,000 troops, to form at least 3 to 4 brigade-sized IBGs, which will operate directly under the Corps HQs. Each of the IBGs themselves will be composed of 5000-8000 troops and will be headed by an officer of the rank of a Major General.

Composition of each of the IBG will be unique as each of them would be structured based on the task assigned and terrain they would be deployed in. Structured primarily around infantry brigades, the need for punch and shove of IBGs will be provided by independent Armoured and Artillery brigades that will operate in lieu with the infantry men. Each of the IBGs will also have independent Air Defence (AD) brigades, Aviation, engineer group and support columns to independently sustain operations on the battlefield.

The Army as part of its efforts to tune the IBG concept has reorganised and deployed the Yol-based IX Crops as part of a massive exercise. Based on feedback from the field commanders, the Army HQ is now fine tuning the concept for eventual implementation across its operational horizon. The Sukna-based XXXIII Corps and Panagarh-based XVII Corps, which are tasked with guarding borders shared with China, are next in line for reorganisation under the IBG concept.

While the Army plans to raise at least 8 IBGs along the Western front for operation in deserts and plains, the numbers along the Northern and Eastern front are expected to be far greater as these units are expected to go into battle along the treacherous mountain ranges that are riddled along the Indo-China and Indo-Pak border.