India expects that the next war will be swift and short. It would be swift in not being a replay of Operation Parakram in which, as critics would have it, India took time to mobilise, thereby, risking losing the initiative. It would be a short in that the nuclear threshold would tend to loom larger as the war lengthens in duration and with added dangers of escalation.
What does such a war imply for the Infantry?
The infantry would be at its best in the mountains sector, leaving the fighting in the plains to its sister arms. Since the infantry deployed in J&K is already in field conditions, it would be easier for it to shift gears. The defensive formations are virtually in combat mode on the Line of Control. The immediate reserves meant for offensive are largely well practiced, though there may be requirement to shift from a counter insurgency mentality and profile to one that lends itself to conventional operations.
In this, the Kargil War experience and its lesson learned would prove handy. The switch over from anti-terrorism to conventional mode was more difficult then, owing to a higher intensity of the former. Now, while this gear change would be smoother owing to negligible militancy, correspondingly the shock effect of outbreak of hostilities in short order can be expected to be starker.
The second set of lessons learned date from the 2001 experience, with the then army commander, known for his moral courage, reportedly weighing in against an offensive without due preparation. Another factor then was the snowy weather in early 2002 rendering a prospective offensive considerably handicapped at the very outset. While neither the army commander’s concern of equipment shortages nor snow could be expected to tie down infantry, in operations more demanding of ‘results’ and aversive to setbacks, the risk of non-performance is higher.
Offensives in mountains are inherently fraught and the crust of defences on the Line of Control has been thickened over three score years of faceoff. Therefore, the going would be rather tough and consequently more reliant on firepower rather than bayonets. The higher reserves, such as the Mountain Strike Corps, may fetch up in a later time frame. They would be less relevant for making territorial gains and more for posturing and deterrence.
Territory gained would unlikely be returned this time round, unlike it was fifty years back. Holding on by reconfiguring these in real time in face of enemy counter attacks would be the primary challenge. Alongside, preventing any enemy riposte or counter offensive succeeding elsewhere would be at a premium in light of the optics that would make it prohibitive for a visibly stronger power and an offensive one at that losing ground. This would yet again be an infantry heavy exercise, supplemented by Rashtriya Rifles, close at hand, in a reinforcing role.
In comparison with the challenge facing the infantry in the plains, the showing in Northern Command would be relatively easy. The essential difference is in the plains and desert sector having infantry begin from a peace time mode. This degree of difficulty is accentuated by the cantonment mindset that is heavily manpower – read infantry – intensive.
Infantry as part of defensive formations being closer to the border can be expected to manage to reach operations locations and undertake pin prick offensive tasks, particularly if the time differential exists in India’s favour as can be expected in a ‘cold start’ scenario. Such infantry would have sufficient time to adapt from a peace time culture to a war time one, since Pakistani reaction to India’s offensives will take time to materialise, if at all. However, that Pakistan has practiced reflexive response to the so-called ‘cold start’ scenario suggests any complacency could prove embarrassing, as was the case to cite an instance at Hussainiwala in 1971.
The major question is whether the infantry undertaking an offensive role can at all shift gears by the time it races from its cantonment locations serving as concentration areas through assembly areas in launch pads. While it would not be the queen of the battles in this sector, leaving the privilege to armour assisted by mechanised infantry, it would be required for defensive tasks along shafts, flanks and in bridgeheads. Its showing would call for a high degree of psychological preparedness. Does cantonment soldiering today permit this?
A dignified respite in a peace station is indeed a must for the infantry, recuperating as it would be from a preceding high altitude or counter insurgency tenure. However, providing for an easy life and one with family entails higher pressure in the form of ‘events’ and ‘institutes’. This implies an inordinate – perhaps inescapable - attention to fatigue details and ‘working parties’. The terror threat post the Pathankot airfield terror attack has presumably also heightened static guard details. In fact, it is no longer remarkable to see soldiers who ought to be in barracks, living in tents near gates. Anecdotal evidence indicates that soldiers with families get to sleep over for a full nights rest at their houses only every other night. The upshot of such commitment is mixed. While the hectic pace of life in visits, inspections and events keeps the infantry on its toes and the guard details keeps it camouflage-clad and helmeted, it does not afford the infantry the much-needed rest.
The danger is in infantry outfits compensating through short cuts in training, physical fitness parades and battle efficiency – physical and firing - tests. To create time and breathing space, a unit could for instance do without inter-company games competitions. It might even club ‘langars’ together since manpower in barracks is scarce. The effect of such innovation can be in a deficit in subunit identity and cohesion. Absent horizontal bonding it is not certain such an infantry outfit would be able to carry the objective.
This begs the question: What needs doing?
Clearly, there is a case for reducing the weight of higher headquarters on infantry units. This means a cut in duties devolving on units by employing camp manpower suitably. The system of privileges with rank has to be reviewed in light of the top-heaviness of late in headquarters, since this invariably adds to demands on infantry. To reduce the pace of life, formations need to identify the ‘must do’ and restrict activity to these alone. Doing away with the ‘should do’ and ‘could also do’ at formation level will create the time, energy and attention spans at unit level to recreate the infantry ethos. Increasingly formations have resorted to inculcation of elitism, through celebrating formation days etc. Since there are only 24 hours to a day, this can only be at the expense of lower echelons, notably that of subunits. Company commanders are hardput today to instill company spirit. Assisting this crucial level of command must be priority, for this is the level at which fighting gets done.
Whereas there have been considerable doctrinal, planning, equipment and training upgrades to fight a short, swift war, a conclusion from the brief appraisal above is that, even so, winning such a war requires a fresh look at the human element.