Features | Security | South Asia

India’s Doctrinal Shift?

The Indian Army is undertaking its first strategic transformation in more than two decades. And it has its sights firmly on China.

By Nitin Gokhale for

India’s 1.1 million-strong army is on the verge of major doctrinal and organisational change.

Working from the results of a ‘Transformation Study,’ which was produced by a team of generals led by Chief of Army Staff Gen. VK Singh when he was Eastern Army Commander, a series of radical suggestions are set to be implemented to bring about a paradigm shift in the way the Indian Army is deployed and operationalised, both defensively and offensively.

Essentially, the changes are aimed at strengthening the Army’s capacity for fighting what one serving general has described as a war on ‘two and a half fronts’—a reference to possible simultaneous confrontations with Pakistan and China at the same time as managing an internal counter-insurgency effort.

So far, India’s four wars with Pakistan and one with China have been stand-alone conflicts, but India’s strategic thinkers are concerned that there’s a genuine possibility that close allies China and Pakistan could launch a joint offensive against India.

And the Army doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed. Instead, it’s looking for an overhaul in thinking that will produce a force capable of quick mobilization and rapid deployment.

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Speaking at his annual media event, on January 15, Singh confirmed that this current line of thinking reaches up to the highest levels of the force. At the event, Singh revealed publicly for the first time that the Army would ‘reorganise, restructure and relocate’ various formations to help transform it into a more agile and lethal force. ‘We’re looking at reorganising and restructuring our force headquarters…for faster decision making, so that it becomes slightly flattened and more responsive,’ he said.

These views chimed with comments he made last year, when he told me: ‘Our focus is now shifting from being an adversary-specific force to a capability-based force, able to fight across the spectrum—in the mountains, in the desert, night and day, in the hot summer or harsh winter.’

According to Singh, the Army is planning ‘test beds’ to try out some of the concepts contained in the study with a view to eventually implementing them on a larger scale. ‘We’re looking at theaterisation of combat support resources to ensure synergy of resources in a theatre,’ he added.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Top generals have indicated that under these plans, the Army will be organised in a way that allows two theatres to be independent of each other so that one theatre won’t require the resources of another if both are engaged in combat operations. In addition, the Army is also reportedly planning to increase its aviation assets by securing more helicopters for the Army Aviation Corps.

It’s been more than two decades since the last transformation in India’s strategic doctrine. Back in the 1980s, the mercurial Gen. K. Sundarji conceptualised and implemented a strategy based around the principle of deploying massive armoured strength aimed at slicing Pakistan at its ‘waist’. This concept was first tested with Operation Brasstacks in the late 1980s, with the army divided into ‘defensive’ and ‘strike’ corps, on the assumption that it would be Pakistan that would make the first move in a conventional war.

Under the plan, the defensive corps, located closer to the border, was meant to absorb the initial Pakistani offensive, while the three strike corps, with massive superior capabilities, were designed to strike deep, with the ultimate aim of cutting Pakistan in two.

However, the limitations of the Sundarji doctrine were exposed in 2001-02 during Operation Parakram, when India mobilised the entire army as a coercive strategy after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. The massive mobilisation took weeks to come to fruition, nullifying whatever advantage India had hoped to derive from moving first. The failure of the Sundarji doctrine prompted India to devise a new strategy popularly known as ‘Cold Start,’ under which the defensive corps close to the border with Pakistan were re-designated as ‘pivot’ corps.

These pivot corps were given enhanced offensive elements under integrated battle groups that consisted of division-sized forces comprising armour, artillery and aviation assets designed to swiftly hit Pakistan before the strike corps, located deeper inside India, could mobilize. Cold Start was meant to see the battle groups in action in less than 48 hours.

Over the past decade, this doctrine has been tested and fine-tuned through a series of exercises in the deserts of Rajasthan and on the plains of Punjab. But this new study looks to take the Cold Start concept to another level by placing all three strike corps under one command to allow for a faster response.

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Another new element in the army’s reorganization plan is the formation of a mountain strike corps, which would be deployed closer to India’s vast mountainous border with China, either in the east or the north. The fact is that although no one in India’s military establishment wants to spell it out, China is at the centre of future strategic planning in the Indian armed forces as a whole, not just for the Army.

And, as China looms larger, India’s Defence Ministry is shifting its focus away from Pakistan in its discussions on the Army’s next long-term integrated perspective plan, which will cover the period from 2012 to 2027. Indeed, officials have said the Army has recommended that infrastructure along India’s entire 4000-plus kilometre border with China be swiftly upgraded to enable it to deploy and operate effectively in this difficult terrain.

Specifically, the Army wants the government to build all-weather roads right up to the border, and also connect all important formation headquarters in the high altitude areas of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. Already, more than 75 tactically and strategically important roads are reportedly currently under construction in the areas bordering China, and the army wants these roads to be operational as quickly as possible to increase its ability to deploy and maintain adequate troop strength along the border.

Other elements of the long-term integrated plan are to include the enhancement of meaningful training to prepare for existing and emerging challenges; improving the quality of life and living conditions in forward deployment areas; and enhancing synergies with other services.

Yet even though the plan is technically still under discussion, as far as China goes, then there have already been some developments. For example, two mountain divisions are to be raised in the north-east of the country by the middle of this year. Meanwhile, at least two more divisions to be raised in the next five years will enable the army to have a dedicated Mountain Strike Corps to be deployed in the north-east or in Ladakh.

All this suggests that after nearly two decades of lethargy and indifference, India’s defence planners are bringing in fresh concepts and gearing up to meet future strategic challenges. There’s plenty for them to think about.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster NDTV 24×7