India’s Ragtag Army

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It is low on money, officers, equipment and strategic vision. It just does not seem to have what it takes to fight a war—and win.

The job of the military officer to the Army Chief is one of the most sensitive in the force. It involves direct coordination between the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the workings of the large Indian Army. That was the job entrusted to Lieutenant General Avadhesh Prakash. He now becomes the highest ranking general in the Indian Army’s history to face court martial, even though the COAS General Deepak Kapoor went soft on his trusted aide, initially, ordering only administrative action. That it took Defence Minister AK Antony to overrule this is evidence enough that all is far from well in the Indian Army.

The land scandal in which Lieutenant General Prakash was allegedly involved relates to his issuance of a ‘no objection certificate’ for the sale of 71 acres of land in picturesque Sukhna, West Bengal, to a private building contractor. This instance of corruption and cover up at the very apex of the Army lays bare the fact that behind the fixation with keeping everything that moves secret—as ‘classified’—this once-admired army has slipped into a chaotic and often corrupt cesspool.

That is not all. Four major generals, two brigadiers and eight officers are being charged for various irregularities in relation to the procurement of ‘certain items of dry rations’ for soldiers in Jammu & Kashmir. At last count, 21 senior officers were facing assorted charges, according to a report tabled in Parliament.

This is an Army at war. With itself. Here’s a snapshot.


Dust whirls from the tracks of the Indian Army’s elite armoured corps’ T-90 tanks. These are the mainline offensive punch of the Army. A military exercise is on. But it’s dusk. And at night, the soldiers face a critical challenge—they are driving night blind. A majority of the night-vision equipment on tanks does not operate well under Indian conditions. An army blind at night is a sitting duck, or, to use a reverse metaphor, a deer caught in the headlights.


Addressing the problem of a massive shortage of officers is a key issue for those who run India’s premier National Defence Academy (NDA). Given the stark disparity between a corporate pay-cheque and an Army one, there are no easy answers. So desperate is the NDA that last year it decided, in principle, to increase its direct intake from the National Cadet Corps (NCC) from a handful to 80 cadets.


Rajendra Singh was an ordinary Army jawan. Till one day on 6 February 2008, he picked up his rifle for the last time. He shot himself. Over the last decade, the Army has lost more soldiers to suicide and in friendly fire than fighting insurgencies. It’s a telling indictment of the low morale and high stress that are proving a deadly combination for the 1.3 million-head strong force, the world’s fourth largest.


Even while the Indian Army has more than 8,000 officers serving in various UN missions around the world, Congo has been a particular embarrassment for it, with allegations of sexual abuse and gold smuggling, among other laurels earned. The credibility of the Army is on the line. A force that prides itself in its imperial legacy of discipline is in disarray when it comes to crucial postings abroad.


Brrr, it’s cold. And it is not just because the soldiers are at 16,000 ft above sea level—the world’s highest battlefield. At Siachen, a scandal has been exposed by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (Cag). Many of the clothes worn by the soldiers are hand-me-downs. That is, clothing re-used and not fresh, as is mandatory for heights above 10,000 ft. The Army is ill-equipped even when it comes to the basic attire of soldiers at such heights. And this, after improving the lot of soldiers fighting to hold the glacier was made a personal mission in the decade’s earlier half by the then Defence Minister George Fernandes.


The bad news is that the above mentioned are only the minor problems facing the Indian Army. A far larger crisis confronts the force. It faces doctrinal irrelevance. The conventionally envisioned role of the Indian Army was to pierce through Pakistan and aim at capturing ground territory fast, through rapier-like thrusts by its elite armoured corps.

However, with Pakistan now armed with nuclear weapons, and the hostility threshold for the use of nukes being ambiguous, how far can the Indian Army really go before Pakistan threatens a nuclear attack? This question paralyses India’s defence planners. The Army has not fully grappled with this central dilemma, thereby displaying strategic myopia of a perilously high order.

“The traditional doctrine of the Indian Army was based on the strike corps,” says Gurpreet Kanwal of the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies, a defence think-tank, “In this, two of the three strike corps were to punch deep inside Pakistan, while the third held a defensive formation. However, with a nuclear weapon-armed Pakistan, this traditional doctrine has become problematic. It calls for strategic boldness. Can India call Pakistan’s nuclear hand a bluff? Or will the threat of nuclear Armageddon spell the death of this doctrine? It certainly leaves strategy planners in a quandary.”

This is no small matter. Once a war is underway, those in charge from the Prime Minister downwards will have to work out the offensive’s strategic calibration. Is India willing to abandon its posture of ‘no first use of nuclear weapons’ in favour of a pre-emptive strike to ‘take out’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal? If not, what is the acceptable level of damage that India is willing to endure, should Pakistan choose the nuclear option midway? Unlike the Cold War standoff which brought plans of an American ‘Star Wars’ defence shield in its wake, the warning time between Amritsar and Lahore, say, of a nuclear missile attack is estimated at four minutes. In any case, striking down a missile with a missile is almost like shooting a bullet with a bullet—dicey.


The other big problem is force preparedness. In 2001-02, the Indian Army took much too long during Operation Parakram to mobilise its strike formations against Pakistan. “It took ten months to mobilise the full force,” discloses a retired commander who served in that operation, “In any war, if a force takes almost a year to mobilise an attack, it is a major disadvantage. This negated the impact, especially the diplomatic clout that the military mobilisation may have leveraged. It also took away the surprise element, critical in any military operation. The operation also exposed weaknesses in the supply chain and combat-readiness of an army that had not seen full-scale war for over two decades.”


To overcome its doctrinal lacunae, the Army has toyed with the concept of a ‘Cold Start doctrine’ with an ability to fight on two fronts simultaneously, with Pakistan in the west and China in the east. However, as of now, this military doctrine is only on paper. Cold Start implies a different set of capabilities, beyond the tank and manpower-heavy force of today. It is supposed to replace two deep thrusts into Pakistan with shallow interventions across a wide geographical swathe.

To pull that off, the Army requires far greater mobility than it currently has. In particular, Cold Start requires heavy-lift capacity through helicopters and attrition power through wheeled artillery. Attack choppers and artillery, along with tanks with night vision equipment, are a must for serial attacks to be mounted over a large theatre.

India has very few assets in either. Indian helicopter abilities are seriously constrained, given the dependence on old Mi-24 choppers. For heavy lifting too, India only has clunky old Mi-17s and Mi-26s. Last year, the Army did put out a request for information on 12 heavy lift helicopters, including the latest Mi-17s and Boeing Chinooks, but the process is likely to take at least three years before they are inducted. Meanwhile, the Army may have to depend on indigenously made Dhruv choppers, which aren’t world class.

India’s artillery has not added a single new piece since the Bofors scandal hit. The forces are short of 1,000 units of modern 155-mm howitzers. This was a number that was to be produced under licences from Bofors before the scandal broke out. As things stand, India is forced to cannibalise existing pieces of Bofors artillery. The Army has also been upgrading its Russian medium guns in the arsenal. Says General VP Malik, former COAS, “Without new artillery, the force will find it difficult to enforce escalating dominance in wartime. The introduction of Smerch multi-barrelled rockets from Russia was a positive step. However, force has to be sustained for a meaningful mechanised offensive on a larger scale. For that purpose, the current force level is simply inadequate. The Army will do well to quickly augment both howitzer and gun capacities, and add the requisite helicopter strength. In times of war, such shortages can let the enemy take liberties with you.” The equipment gaps are so huge that filling them up is no easy task. In 2009, the consultancy KPMG prepared a note on the gaps in the Indian defence sector that noted that only 20 per cent of the Army’s equipment was ‘state of the art’, 30 per cent was mature in age, and a staggering 50 per cent, obsolete.

Thus, the new Cold Start doctrine of waging war on two fronts simultaneously looks set to remain in cold storage for some time. In the meantime, the Army is adrift, without strategic direction.


The Army faces intense pressure on the eastern front against China. The Chinese have quietly built infrastructure that includes a railway line to Tibet. “The Chinese have transformed their side of the border,” says an ex-Army officer who has served in Sikkim, “They have rapid deployment capabilities through the No 13 group in Chengdu, that can, along with 149 divisions in Lesman, do a pincer attack on Indian positions. These are forces with armoured personnel carriers, light tanks and artillery capability, combined with the PLA air force’s fighter attack squadrons.”

The Indian side, in contrast, lacks troop sufficiency and support infrastructure. So concerned was General Deepak Kapoor that in an uncharacteristic public talk recently, he took note of the Chinese military build-up. The Army Chief pointed out that budgetary constraints may come in the way of India’s ability to match it effectively.

The budgetary constraints are real. A few months ago, the Indian Army had suggested raising two more mountain divisions to counter China’s moves, but nothing has happened. This proposal is lost in the labyrinth of bureaucracy that is the Defence Ministry. Although, at long last, some work has started in terms of raising the numbers. India is also in the process of raising a third artillery division in Alwar, Rajasthan.

But there are signs that China has been emboldened by the lack of a robust Indian response. At least 200 Chinese intrusions were reported into India along the Ladakh and Arunachal sectors over the last one year. The Indian Army has made only token gestures.


Beyond doctrinal and force constraints, other troubles fester within the Army. A major embarrassment for it has been its inability to stand up and deliver on counter-insurgency operations within Indian borders. In a January 2009 operation at Mendhar in North Kashmir, as many as 350 heavily armed soldiers found themselves unable to catch a single terrorist alive; although they did manage to kill a couple, the Army also lost two of its own (including an officer).

That operation was emblematic of the crisis within the Indian Army. “We are losing too many men,” says Major General Afsar Karim, who has served in similar situations, “The old approach of being reactive, a legacy of Kargil, really, has not gone away. In cases such as these, there is need for a joint operation with helicopter forces and artillery—there is a need to command the area, not cordon it. A new operations doctrine is foremost among the issues that face the Indian Army.” A cautious approach to battle often gives away the advantage to insurgents.


The Indian Army is clearly under siege, and has trouble closing in from almost all directions—the lack of weaponry and missing officers to the failing morale and central question of its military doctrine. The force’s ad hoc approach, however, continues as usual—as senior officers go golfing, lulled by the long period of peace since 1971, peace defined here as an absence of war. Four decades is a long time indeed. An entire generation of soldiers and officers has grown up with no record of action. The mess in the Army calls to mind words of the Prussian master of strategy, von Clausewitz. He once said that everything is simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. The Army must break out of its current crisis. But it will take more than a restoration of its image for probity.