The current volatile situation in Eastern Ladakh and with China’s aggressive approach to dominate us politically and militarily, India seems to have been literally caught on the backfoot. Over the years we have been lulled into complacency with the belief that military restraint along the LAC, coupled with a “peace and prosperity” approach, would result in a permanently harmonious environment between the two nations. Beijing has just proved everyone wrong.
We are a highly threatened nation with two unpredictable and hostile governments and militaries focused on keeping us destabilised with confrontations and aggressive actions across our borders. There is no likelihood of any change in their inimical approach in the coming decades. In the larger interests and aspirations of our nation and our people, we need to keep both these countries in check. This will only happen if we keep our military strong, well prepared, and motivated.
There is an urgent need to review and reassess all our military capabilities and options to ensure that not only are we prepared to stymie Beijing’s territorial ambitions but to also carry out offensive operations beyond our borders. Simultaneously, we must also reassess our interests and futuristic threats in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As a major power in Asia, with so much at stake, we cannot remain passive in developing our defensive or strategic power projection capabilities.
The Army has three Strike Corps for deep offensive operations into Pakistan. Ideally, two more Strike formations are required for the mountains, one each for the Ladakh and the Eastern borders. In 2013, to overcome this offensive vacuum to some extent, the government sanctioned the raising of 17 Mountain Strike Corps with two infantry divisions, two independent armoured brigades and strong combat support in the form of artillery, engineer, air defence and aviation brigades. The raising commenced with existing resources of the Army but unfortunately, the Government did not allocate a separate budget for it.
As a result, the raising was halted in 2018, leaving a truncated force comprising the Corps HQ, one infantry division and certain other combat and combat support elements. This force was then further tinkered with by testing them as smaller Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) for offensive actions in the mountains. The current status and roles of 17 Corps remain a little ambiguous.
With the changed military scenario along the LAC, the need has come to revive 17 Corps so that it is organized, equipped and trained to undertake offensive operations soonest.
At the outset, the Corps should be renamed as 17 Corps (Strategic Operations) with the primary role of carrying out offensive operations in the mountains and a secondary role in the IOR by detaching part of the Corps. While this may sound complex, with China also being the primary threat to our island assets and areas of interest in the IOR, we have no option but to train for multiple roles, just as some of our existing elements are dual tasked for operations on different borders.
That apart, with the likelihood of military alliances being formed with other nations in the Asia–Pacific region, it would be necessary for us to have a credible power projection force ready and prepared.
The major tasks of the Stratops Corps will be to (1) launch offensive operations in the mountains to capture/destroy/disrupt critical targets having direct impact on ongoing or planned operations by own forces, and (2) Power projection and combat operations in island territories or beyond, under the overall control of Andaman & Nicobar Command.
While currently we have to go along with standard infantry divisions as the strike elements of the Corps, in the long run we will have to raise Airborne and Air Transported Infantry Brigades comprising Special Forces battalions, Parachute battalions and Ladakh and Arunachal Scouts (Para) units. Apart from the normal combat support elements, the Strike Divisions would need integrated airlift capabilities, as also special elements like Apache and Chinook helicopter flights, UAV/drone units etc.
The Army will also need to carry out a holistic review of the role and employment of our forces meant for the Western borders and rebalance and reallocate these resources to prepare for future wars.
It would be necessary to create habitat and logistical support to locate major elements of both divisions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. All Special Forces/Parachute/Infantry battalions should be permanently affiliated to the Stratops Corps to develop domain specialization, as also to ensure that major elements always remain acclimatized and trained for high altitude operations.
Interchangeability of affiliations and locations of units should, however, take place between the two Strike Divisions as per a planned schedule, to ensure change of habitat as also to gain wider operational experience.
A developing nation like ours will always have a problem in finding resources and budget for the military. A strong military and a stronger economy will, however, have to co-exist, more so now that we have seen the ominous territorial plans of China. “Guns or Butter” will have to settle down to a “Guns and Butter” compromise by reprioritizing all major and minor government schemes, cutting out wasteful expenditure on non-essentials and ceremonials, reducing the vast manpower of Central and State governments and by strict fiscal discipline.
The Army may also have to reduce some of our high cost, equipment-oriented units in the West to provide the budgetary requirement for the Stratops Corps.
In the coming years, China will only expand its territorial aims along the LAC, as also in the IOR, threatening our island assets and areas of interest in this region. Till such time India remains a challenger to China, our border issues, far from being resolved, will get further aggravated at the time and place of Beijing’s chosen strategic plan. Today, with the severe resource crunch, the Army has no option but to train for multiple roles over different terrains and environments.
In the final analysis we would, however, need an Airborne/Air Transported strategic force with multiple deployment/operational capabilities on the lines of the US 101 Airborne Division to ensure that our nation is kept safe from aggressors.
(Lt Gen SR Ghosh (Retd) was the Former GOC-in-C Western Command This article was first published in the 'Times of India Blog' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')