Modernising of the Indian Army: Future challenges

Indian and Chinese Army

The Indian Army is the third largest army in the world in terms of the sheer number of personnel. However, this description obfuscates the fact that it is not as powerful as one of the world’s largest armies. Its capacity to undertake military operations optimally in the multi-domain, technology-dominated battlefield of the future is questionable. The Indian Army essentially remains a force largely organised, equipped and trained to fight wars of the past. Having said that, it is not as if the Army cannot carry out its role and tasks successfully if it is provided the requisite means to do so. And so, it seems almost imperative that the Army be modernised expeditiously if it has to be prepared to take on the security challenges of the future.

As India rises in stature, economically and technologically, towards a more eminent position in the region and the world, it has to concurrently build on its military power, in the modern context, to thwart the threats and challenges that it is likely to face along the way from our potential adversaries. However, for India, building military power is not easy, given the budgetary constraints, especially when the country needs to meet the requirements of economic development to provide human security and a better quality of life to its people.

The inadequacy of funds is compounded by bureaucratic prevarication, risk averseness, frequent changes in qualitative requirements by the Army, and occasional corruption charges, which result in blacklisting of vendors in an unplanned manner. Hence, not only is there a need to efficiently identify the future orientation and equipment needs of the Army—in its role as the largest and most powerful component of the Indian military—but it is also important to find a way forward to build capacity and speed up the procurement process while addressing the problems that may prove to be a barrier for the force.

Future Security Scenarios

India’s threats and challenges in the military realm primarily emanate from the historically inherited territorial disputes involving its two nuclear armed neighbours, over which five wars have already been fought. The growing nexus on military and nuclear matters between our potential adversaries suggests that, unlike in the past, India may face a ‘two-front threat’ the next time round. Meanwhile, the fact that the existing territorial disputes are ‘land-centric’ highlights the pre-dominant role of the Army in the Indian security context.

Further, Pakistan has been running a sub-conventional campaign against India since the early 1990s, which essentially involves stoking militancy in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), where it has been pushing terror modules across the border under cover of nuclear coercion to cause casualties among civilians and security personnel in an effort to keep the Kashmir issue alive. Nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’ is used in conjunction with the cross-border terror strikes to prevent India from “raising the ante” and retaliating with a punitive conventional response. The last war fought in this backdrop was the Kargil War in 1999, limited in scope and duration, which was launched by the Indian Army with support from the Air Force to evict an ‘hybrid’ intrusion by the Pakistan Army across the Line of Control in the Ladakh sector of J&K.

Changing Nature of Conflicts

In the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the first decade of this century, the world has witnessed a reduction in full fledged ‘State vs State’ wars. Hybrid wars appear to be the new norm, involving a combination of two or more of the following:

  • Conventional/Regular warfare: State vs State wars, primarily waged by conventional forces or regular troops on both/all sides. In case of India, all such wars will be fought under a nuclear overhang, implying that escalation to the level of nuclear exchanges is possible, and must be planned for.
  • Irregular warfare: Conflict against a State by employing trained combatants who are not regular military soldiers. Pakistan has launched such ‘irregulars’ in all its wars against India.
  • Asymmetric warfare: War between sides whose military power differs greatly, waged by the weaker side using non-traditional means like terrorism. Wars waged by insurgents/terrorists against nation states, its government or people fall in this category. For example, 9/11 by al-Qaeda and the Afghanistan war by the Taliban, among others.
  • Unconventional warfare: War waged by a country using means other than established forms of armed conflict to make the adversary capitulate even without a classical war. Economic wars, water wars and legal wars are some examples.
  • Technological/Informational warfare: Wars fought in the areas of cyber, space, electronic, propaganda, psychological, media or social media.

The Indian Army, as the largest component of the military, should be prepared to deal with asymmetric, informational and/or conventional threats in the backdrop of a nuclear coercion from across our Western border in the short to middle term, and additionally, from the Northern border in the long term. The Indian Army must therefore aim to achieve cross-spectrum (nuclear, conventional, counter sub-conventional) war-fighting capability to achieve a favourable outcome even in a ‘wo-front war scenario, which would concurrently achieve credible or punitive deterrence, as required, against our potential adversaries.

Capability Building in the Indian Army

India is not a member of any traditional military alliance and thus has to maintain an independent military capability as a critical need to retain its strategic autonomy while protecting its unity and integrity against possible threats.

The primary role of the Indian Army is to ensure the territorial integrity of the nation by deterrence or by waging a war. The secondary role of the Army is to provide assistance to civil authorities, when requisitioned. In keeping with its mandated roles, the Army has to ensure multi-dimensional capability to deal with external threats from our potential adversaries and also be prepared to assist in dealing with internal security threats of a heightened nature, especially those involving secessionist uprisings against the state or disaster management.

Accordingly, as most of our current threats pertain to conventional conflicts over disputed land borders and sub-conventional challenges like insurgencies and cross-border terrorism, the Indian Army has been structured as a ‘two-and-a-half front’ force, whereby, not only has the Army built conventional capabilities to deal with threats along the Western and Northern Fronts, but it has also built the capacity to deal with the lesser ‘sub-conventional front’—by employment of the Rashtriya Rifles independently or in combination with regular, paramilitary or police forces.

Capability building of the Army is a continuous process, where budget, especially capital funds, are requested annually based on the projected needs for implementing a 15-year long-term perspective plan. However, it has been the experience for many years now that adequate capital funds for modernisation are not allotted, and consequently, there are major shortfalls in acquiring new equipment and other war-fighting capability in a time bound manner.

Modernisation Needs of the Army

The Army of the future will have to be technologically oriented, with many more specialists on its rolls as compared to generalists. It will have to be equipped progressively with modern weapons and weapon systems, supported by technology-based processes and automation to meet the needs and challenges of the future battlefields. Accordingly,  the Army will need to replace or upgrade its ageing inventory of weapons and equipment while also restructuring in a transformational way. However, considering that the modernisation plans of the Army are lagging far behind already, budgetary constraints will play an important part in formulating and executing plans for the future.

As far as weapons and equipment are concerned, the Army needs the following on priority to replace or rejuvenate vintage equipment as part of the capability development programme:

  • Infantry: The infantry, which is continuously being employed in counter-terrorist or counter-insurgency operations, needs to be empowered immediately by provisioning of new generation lightweight assault rifles, bulletproof jackets and helmets, hand-held thermal imagers (HHTIs) as well as a host of other modern weapons like carbines, machine guns, rocket launchers, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), mortars, night-vision devices, radio sets and better back packs to replace outdated weapons and equipment. Further, the infantry needs to reduce the number of general duty (GD) soldiers and replace them with specialists. To that extent, it is worth serious consideration that many more infantry battalions be converted into Special Forces battalions. Further, the fourth company of each infantry battalion needs to be converted into a Special Operations company.
  • Artillery: Adequate quantities of new 155 mm artillery guns, including indigenously manufactured Dhanush systems, as well as more lethal precision artillery systems like BrahMos cruise missiles, Smerch and Pinaka rocket systems need to be inducted immediately to replace its earlier vintage 105 mm and 130 mm guns and vintage rocket systems. Also, the procurement of M-777 light howitzers must be expedited for early deployment along the mountainous terrain of the northern borders.
  • UAVs: More quantities of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of latest technology must be inducted in adequate numbers for surveillance and precision attack operations in both peace and war.
  • Mechanised Forces: Additional quantities of contemporary technology such as night-enabled T-90 tanks and ICVs, equipped with long-range ATGMs, need to be inducted on priority. Older generation T-72 tanks and ICVs must be refurbished and technologically upgraded at the earliest. Future Ready Combat Vehicle (FRCV) and Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) projects must be pursued with vigour so that the next generation of state-of-the-art replacements are inducted within the next 10 years.
  • Army Aviation: Acquisition of three squadrons worth of new generation Apache attack helicopters into the Army Aviation has been reportedly sanctioned, as a follow up of the Air Force order. Further, the Kamov replacement helicopters, indigenous Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) projects must be pursued aggresively so that reliable helicopters are delivered to the Army at the earliest.
  • Air Defence (AD): The Army AD equipment is undergoing a total revamp. The various Army AD weapon acquisition projects—for all types of surface to air missile systems—as well as the process of upgrading old generation systems must be provided fresh impetus so that these materialise at the earliest.
  • Engineers: Combat engineers need to be provided new generation bridging equipment, mine-laying equipment as well as mine clearance equipment. Where possible, old equipment must be upgraded indigenously.
  • Night Vision Devices: All arms of the Army have to be night enabled by fulfilling the remaining requirement of light-weight, long-range and easily usable night vision devices.

Challenges in Capability Building

There are huge ongoing challenges in the process of capacity building of the Indian Army. The more important of these are discussed  as follows:

  • At present, military planning is hamstrung by lack of a clearly articulated and integrated military strategy. In such a situation, the three wings of the military are left to devise their own strategies and military philosophies, which could end up being at cross purposes with each other. The reasons that can be ascribed to this state of affairs is the absence of military expertise at the apex level of national security and defence matters, exacerbated by non-institution of the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate defence policy and strategy more meaningfully.

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