An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 17 December 2003

Challenges for India’s Army

By Ranjit B. Rai

(Courtesy: Asian Military Review)

The 1 million-plus Indian Army, which is the second largest after China, is acclaimed to be one of the most professional and loyal land fighting forces in the world. But in view of the ever-changing roles of the battlefield soldier at the turn of the 21st century, it is beset with more challenges, than any Army has ever faced. In this era of global terrorism, revolution in military affairs with galloping and costly technology, the Indian Army is groping to reorient itself, with little or no political direction.

The Indian Army lacks a mission statement unlike the Navy and Air Force, which have crafted their own. The security affairs of India are guided through Cabinet Control and to add to the woes of the Army, India has a large coalition government with leaders of different hues, most of who have neither military training nor scholarship in strategic thought or modern management. The strength of some of the members is based on tradition and Indian scriptures, which may not be pertinent in the context of security today.

The Indian Armed Forces remain modeled on the archaic template bequeathed to India by the British and chiseled by its first Prime Minister Nehru to ensure the three Service Chiefs who are equal, are accorded minimal decision making capability for procurement and none for policy, for fear of “coup d’etats” that plagued West and South Asia in the late 50’s. There is opportunity for the Army to now dispel this fear, as democracy is firmly rooted in India.

In a democracy, no Army, not even the best in the world, can deliver without the Government laying down military and political aims in clear terms, and attempting a holistic threat perception for weapon induction and joint operational planning for war, and to counter terrorism aggressively. This has not been attempted and no wonder cynics have dubbed the Indian Army “a meek reactive force”, which reacts to Pakistan, when in fact, it has fangs, which, when sharpened, can be awesome in military terms.

Little initiative is left with the Army. Knee jerk reactions of the political leaders in all military operations (Op Pawan 1987–91 in Sri Lanka, Kargil war 1999 and Op Parakarm 2001–2002) and the four wars (1948, 1962, 1965 and 1971) the Army has fought, saw more decisions taken to placate the domestic and foreign audiences, to the detriment of the Army. With no CDS system, inter-service rivalry, which is a worldwide malady, has always reared its head higher in India, as each service attempts to get more of the ‘defence pie’. The outgoing Chief of Integrated Staff Lt Gen Pankaj Joshi had shrilly articulated this in September. These challenges will persist, but they also pose opportunities for change, as India’s defence budget is not so constrained, and as has been observed around the world, the mantra for success lies in jointness for procurement and operations.

Revolution In Military Affairs (RMA) And Terrorism

RMA on one hand, and unabated terrorism from Pakistan on the other, can be a heady mix for any professional Army as the US Army is learning only now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The QRs of soldiers inducted into the manpower intensive Indian Army are traditionally pegged low, and stress laid on brawn over brain, with the culture permeating even to the higher levels, where in India’s poorer days, technology was feared and considered expensive for such a large Army. The soldier was cannon fodder for victory. Now with the arrival of nuclear weapons, sophisticated guns (155mm Bofors Howitzers), computers, WLRS ANTPQ 47s, advanced AA systems with associated radars (Strella, IGLA and Tangushka), anti tank missiles (Konkurs and Milan2) and ballistic missiles (Agni I and II and Prithvi), UAVs (Searchers) and surveillance and night vision equipment (from Israel and France), the current Army has had to suddenly change its philosophy, culture and mindset. India’s foot soldier Army needs to convert to mechanized vehicles with protective armour and reduce manpower, to curtail revenue costs. The teeth to tail ratio needs change. With a shortage of 12,000 mid level officers alone, the Army is looking at net centric warfare, at a time when nearly half the fighting force is engaged in combating terrorism and border surveillance duties, leaving little time for reorientation and training of such a large Army for RMA.

India’s Armed Forces are under bureaucratic control, which many claim is its biggest challenge. In times of peace the Army is required to combat terrorism unleashed by Pakistan, despite a 600,000 strong para-military force. The Army perforce has to coordinate Intelligence and almost every military action or operation with the police and para-military forces of the Central and State governments, which unfortunately for the Army are controlled by the powerful Home Ministry. The Army has little authority to chalk out field plans or employ pro-active tactics in any operation by itself, except restrictively along the LoC.

At most times, the secrecy of actions is lost, and human rights activists raise shrill voices. At the tactical level the initiative has therefore always been with Pakistan to dictate rates, methods and places of infiltration. The rules of engagement for the Army are therefore forever changing, and at most times, political considerations outweigh military objectives.

In times of peace, the cross border terrorism unleashed by Pakistan’s ISI and other Jehadi forces in Kashmir, especially along the 740 km of the LoC, and through the Bangladesh border, has taken the lives of over one soldier per day at an average. The root cause lies in the camps established in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir where Pakistani, Afghani and foreign Jehadis are trained, motivated and armed before infiltration. The Army has always wanted to hit at the roots and decimate the camps in POK, but even in the Kargil war of 1999, the Army was restrained. More recently India leaned on the USA to restrain Pakistan, to no avail, and now opportunities exist, to call President Musharraf’s bluff with pro-active operations.

The Army has excellent paratroop battalions. It has gleaned lessons from the recent Iraq war and after excelling in exercises with the US Special Forces, more recently in Ladakh in September, it has appreciated the importance of Special Forces. This poses great opportunities to equip and train, top-of-the-line Special Forces to carry out cross border punitive raids if Pakistan fails to contain the Jehadis. The Indian Army can achieve results and the Government must show resolve to support its Army.

Both in war, and in preparation for war, the Army is dependant on the Air Force for its air-land-battle concept to attack the enemy from the air. Though it is acquiring 36 units of SMERCH launchers, the MI 25/35 attack helicopters are flown by the Air Force, and perceptions differ on this too. The Indian Air Force has the philosophy to first achieve air superiority before interdiction, while the Army would like to open the battle with softening air strikes. The commanders try to resolve the Op plans locally, and the recent OP Parakram, when the Indian Armed forces were mobilized for war for almost one year 2001–02, witnessed a lot of coordination sector wise, but not as a policy.

The opportunity exists for the Army to take over the attack role helicopters in a phased manner. That is the way modern Armies are going. The 500 strong Army pilots are capable and are successfully carrying out arduous flying in the Siachen region.

DRDO and Force Modernisation

Since the 1970s the Defence and Research Development Organistion (DRDO) championed the cause of “Made in India” philosophy and assured the Armed Forces that by the turn of the century Indian Armed Forces would be 60% self sufficient for its hardware needs. It reinvented the wheel in large projects to the determent of the Army This was the story of socialism and non-alignment, and the greatest sufferer was the Indian Army. The main battle tank Arjun failed to appear despite 15 years in the making, the T-72 tank could not get night fighting capability, the basic rifle for the soldier remained the 7.62 mm and in EW and in night vision devices and weapon locating radars (the Cymbiline was attempted for upgrade), the Army found itself deficient and with unprotected vehicles. Russia bailed India out, by supply of essential hardware, and the Bofors 155mm Howitzer saved the day in the 1999 Kargil war.

The Indian Army leadership has only now understood that it needs to plug the chinks in its own armour both for fighting terrorism and to have an upper hand in war, as analysts claim India has only a slight edge over Pakistan in conventional capability. It has therefore, imported T-90s tanks (with poor night fighting capabilities) and a host of other equipment and gone to the private sector for vehicles and other programmes. The DRDO is now collaborating with NPO Mach of Russia to jointly build the Brahmos missile. The DRDO has expertise and facilities, hence opportunities now exist to collaborate with Western defence companies for most unfinished projects. Herein lies opportunity for the Army’s modernization.

The IMF-led economic liberalization of India began in 1991 when its reserves fell to $1 billion. It resulted in neglect of the modernization needs of the Indian Army. As India’s Defence allocation hovered around 2.4% of the GDP, deficiencies to the tune of $ 3 billion resulted in the Army by 1999. Gen VP Malik, who was the Army Chief during the 1999 Kargil war, stated, “The army’s modernization programs are in a state of terminal illness. Our conventional combat edge over Pakistan has been eroding with every passing year. Unless additional funds are earmarked, future planning is not possible and the erosion in combat edge will soon become uncorrectable.” In hindsight it is apparent that when the Indian armed forces were mobilized on 18th December 2001 in operation Parakram (Valour), the Army was the first to realize how woefully short it was of spares, night vision equipment and lethal punch.

However, as strategic thought and long-sighted planning in India has been lacking, it has now come to light that the Army never received any verbal or written directives on the aims of this massive mobilization, which lasted till 16th October 2002. Most training and peace-time activities suffered. The Government cloaked Op Parakarm as coercive diplomacy, but it tired the Army which lost 728 lives, some 130 first in laying over 1 million mines and then in clearing them. Malik’s successor Gen S Padmanabhan had this to say on 9th November 2002. “Whenever there is a situation calling for (the) Army’s help, the latter’s role should be clearly defined to avoid confusion”, hinting the Army was not clear why it was mobilised. It is providential that India did not go to war. India’s political leadership was jolted out of its slumber in the stand off with Pakistan, which threatened to use nuclear weapons if its territorial integrity was transgressed. India realized that it had to honestly reexamine its nuclear weapon credibility.

The Nuclear and Air Defence Challenges

In May 1998, the strident BJP government took courage and exploded five nuclear devices including three fusion devices heralding India into the thermo nuclear club. India and Pakistan have been de facto accepted as nuclear powers. The scientists of BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) and DRDO rode piggy-back on the Army Engineer regiments deployed at the test site Pokhran, to ensure that their experiments were a success, but the ‘top brass’ of the Army were never brought into the loop to devise India’s nuclear strategy or their deployment. This led to a woolly approach to chart India’s plans for its nuclear deployment and a draft ‘No First Use’ policy was espoused for the first five years, which no one in uniform ever questioned. It will be the Armed Forces that would be hurt by a first strike and yet they were tasked to deploy the second strike, in a flawed theory. Only early this year an Air Marshal was appointed as the C in C Strategic Forces and a Nuclear Command Structure for decision-making announced. The first Nuclear Op Management course for mid level officers was conducted in November 2003.

The premise of command and control of nuclear assets remains diffused, as the Army believes in the principles of Artillery where Command means training, positioning and readiness of the gunnery forces, and control means “control of fire”. Attempting to clarify SFC’s position, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Madhvendra Singh articulated three points and confirmed what this article is conveying. First, the training in nuclear weapons and servicing of delivery systems would be the responsibility of the individual services. Second, the utilization and use of nuclear weapons would be the prerogative of the newly formed SFC. And third, while the “control” of ballistic missiles will be transferred to the SFC initially, the Indian Air Force would soon decide on the transfer of its nuclear capable fighters to the SFC. So far this has not happened but the Army missile forces have just been nominated for raising.

Raising Of Missile Forces

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) that stands in for the National Security Council has cleared the raising of India’s ballistic missile force. The Pakistan-specific 700 to 800 km range Agni-I and 2,000 km plus Agni-II manufactured by DRDO and Bharat Dynamics are designated as 334 and 335 Missile groups and based at Secundrabad where they are manufactured. The scientists would help the Army in the deployment. Two new Prithvi (150-250km) units for the Army, which would be named 444 and 555 missiles groups will also be raised to augment the two Prithvi missile groups – the 222 and the 333, deployed in Central India, where the Command shelter for the top leadership is planned. The new missile groups would be operational by the beginning of 2005. This decision offers the Army its first opportunity to clarify the command and control structure by a revisit on all inter-services issues. The IAF-ARMY battle for nuclear assets and air defence has been simmering for long. India has received the first shipment of Green Pine AD radar and the plans for long range AD missiles including the Arrow and the Patriot and the Russian SU 300 series are in the melting pot. Aerostats are also due to be positioned soon by the IAF’s Western Command.

India USA and International Cooperation

A defence review was attempted to take a holistic view of India’s military threats and security challenges in 1998 by the National Security Advisory Board but the events of 9/11 and USA’s lifting of sanctions and overtures has made the study redundant.

A new review is being attempted to look at the International World Order and how India can find a dominant position and voice its concerns. The Indian Army has close Infantry links with the British Army. An Indian Army Liaison Officer is stationed in HQ Infantry at Warminster in UK. More recently, USA is seeking cooperation and overseeing these interactions is the Defence Policy Group co-chaired by India’s Defence secretary and the US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy. Under this is the Joint Technical Group between the two defence research establishments, the Military Cooperation Group between the US Joint Staff and the Indian Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, and the Executive Steering Groups of the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy, which interact with their counterparts.

The US Pacific Command is responsible for the region, which includes India. There is also a Joint Working Group on peacekeeping, a Security Cooperation Group formed after the 9/11 events to discuss counter-terrorism-related issues, and a regular exchange between the defence research and analysis communities in both countries. The Army is now exercising with US and other forces but it needs to take greater part in the International arena and opportunities now exist, with France too. Russian links are already strong. This will enable it to change its old mindset, and India can be a training hub to counter terrorism, as it already has facilities for training UN Peace Keepers.


In conclusion the challenges before the Indian Army are the unresolved issues of defining what exactly is expected of this huge professional military machine and how, in the next decade India will safe guard its borders and yet quell terrorism, which actually is the role of the Para military forces and the expanded Rashtriya Rifles (National Rifles). The policy direction and template for the Army has to be given by the government, which in the past has never guided the Army with ground realities in mind. Instead political realities have always dictated the Government’s edicts to the India’s Army. This has affected command, control and coordination and the culture in the Indian Army. However, as it is a loyal professional force at every level, it has never questioned the Government or asked it to clarify its role or to define the threat perception and ambitions of the Government. The Army has been content to have operational orders in place for its professional Strike Corps to counter any threat from Pakistan and China. The arrival of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and most importantly better Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA) capabilities has led to opportunities for the Indian Army to define the enemy’s vulnerabilities and seek directions whether in the future the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir territory is to be gained, or offensive plans implemented, to ensure Pakistan does not dare to continue its policy of cross border terrorism, and China respects India. India’s Army deserves a long overdue mission statement, and the recent cease fire is a good time for the Army to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.

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