In the recorded history of warfare, origin of Infantry dates back to 2500 BCE when for the first time, foot soldiers known as Mesopotamian Phalanxes were equipped with matching long spears, shield and equipment in the city state of ancient Iraq. It was the first time that fighting men appeared on the battlefield with matching weapons, protective shields and tactics. Since then, Infantry has remained a decisive war winning tool in almost all generations of warfare. The infantry is the only arm which has remained relevant throughout the evolution of warfare till the present day.
It is the only system that can fight by direct delivery into the battlefield by any means: mechanised transport, by air or be sea. With modern means of warfare taking centre stage on the battlefield as witnessed in Operation Desert Storm (US war in Iraq – 17 January 1991 to 28 February 1991) and (Operation Enduring Freedom (US War in Afghanistan), opinions were expressed by some that the role of Infantry in future combat would stand diminished. That however is not the case and the role of Infantry and the nedd for ‘boots on the ground,’ has become even more pronounced and important as never before.
Patrick Donahoe in his article “Future Warfare: The 21st Century Infantry Squad” wrote that, “Today we have reached a stage where the infantry soldier stands at the centre of the battlefield and all arms are arrayed around him or her to force the adversary to our will.” We’re standing on the cusp of a fundamental change in the history of warfare where we need Infantry to impose their dominance immediately on arrival in the combat zone. We don’t need infantry to engage for prolonged period in the combat but we need Infantry to end those engagements fastest and earliest.
Future Challenges to Infantry
Future warfare is likely to be complex, lethal and multi-domain, simultaneously targeting military, non-military, physical and cognitive domains by kinetic and non-kinetic weapons. Battlefield will witness massive collateral damage, disruption of services in the hinterland, disaffection of population against their own state, misinformation and paralysis of command and control network to prevent synergy and simultaneity of response. Infantry may be forced to fight on multi front with regular and irregular forces simultaneously.
Most daunting task is to adapt to the changing character of warfare and since no major conventional conflict has taken place as a result full impact of evolutionary and revolutionary changes over the past few decades in warfighting still remains beyond assessment. Hybrid war has added new challenges to the Infantry and it would be extremely difficult to manage the battle space where conventional and sub-conventional forces will be operating in synergy. The major challenges to the Infantry in the future battlefield milieu are as under:
- Survival in the battlefield will be one of the biggest challenge due to multi domain nature of war.
- Increased lethality in direct and indirect weapons with aimed and deep penetration weapon systems.
- Increased reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities of the enemy.
- Electronic warfare could lead to information vacuum.
- Night fighting capabilities cuts both ways.
- Challenges of a defensive battle due to the need to defend towns and cities whose loss is unacceptable.
- Autonomous weapon systems have increased the vulnerability of the infantry especially while advancing in the open.
Deep penetration radars, eye in the sky and remote sensing technology has rendered all camouflage and deception ineffective.
Emerging Role of Infantry in the Multi Domain War
The classic role and task of Infantry remains to hold ground. The manoeuvre and attrition war revolved around control and denial of space by superior manoeuvre, lethality and surprise. Now, disruption, decision dilemma and dislocation of enemy’s combat potential through cyber, information, electronic, psychological, precision attacks from land and air has made war fighting even more complex. Under such circumstances, Infantry has to act more decisively and is expected to play a much greater role since it is the Infantry which has to be on ground zero, at the point of decision. Thus under the changed environment, the responsibility of the Infantry soldier has multiplied manifold. The emerging role of the Infantry is thus:
- Infantry man is no more a foot soldier facing the full might of the enemy fire power. By being at the point of decision, he should be morphing into a battlefield coordinator.
- The infantryman will now be a critical decision maker. Jeffrey Becker, President of Context LLC, a defence consultancy, states that, the human will provide context, how wars will be fought and Infantry is best suited to decide how the engagement in a given milieu should terminate with own advantage.
- Leading thinkers in technology and warfare picture a transformed Infantry in future battles, where humans are most valued tool of war fighting. Thus, his survival is most essential because he is in a position to contextualise what is right quantum and right system to be employed against an enemy in a tactical situation. In future, instead of pushing Infantry to close in with the enemy it may be useful to distance him from the destructive firepower, if not entirely removed from the fighting till the infantryman can walk in with least resistance.
- Todd South, wrote in “Future infantry might not need humans” that Infantry commanders will be required to speed up their thinking and reactions to process all the information and make lightning-fast decisions.
- Role and scope of autonomous weapon system (AWS) and surveillance systems is going to increase manifold in future wars. Infantry being right up there must have the control when to employ and where to employ these force multipliers.
- The way forward for the Infantry is to prepare for the future challenge by developing special skills to fight hybrid, nontraditional and conventional wars.
- There is a scope for the Infantry to decongest the tactical battlefield area and operate through small teams because who so ever is able to survive in a highly destructive environment will be able to control the battlefield through array of systems including AWS.
Infantry Soldier as an Integrated System
To make Infantry soldier as an integrated system it will require improved situational awareness, lethality and survivability. More important is that he also needs command and communication to control and act as a coordinator of tactical battlefield area. He will be not only responsible for eliminating enemy and controlling the real estate but he will also be required to employ AWS (Advanced Warning Systems) and surveillance means to decide on what weapon system to be employed at what time. UK Army has identified five main areas of capabilities essential for the future Infantry soldier; C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence), lethality (weapons and sights), mobility (navigation, size and weight of equipment), survivability (clothing, stealth, body armour) and sustainability (logistical considerations). With the AWS and robots playing important role in conventional and sub conventional conflicts more than the lethal weapon system, the infantryman is required to be present in the tactical battlefield area to direct, control and decide when and where the force should be applied. His judgement and survival to bring heavy attrition on enemy men and material assumes greater importance.
One must not undermine the role of Special Forces in future complex wars. Infantry must train, equip and employ Special Forces imaginatively to achieve greater dividend to cause destruction and disruption at the most critical point in war. Special Forces not only require high skills but also the ability to operate behind enemy lines. Special Forces have the capabilities to neutralise tactical targets with strategic impact. Case in point is Surgical Strike by the Army Special Forces. The neutralisation of tactical targets was aimed to achieve strategic objectives.
An Infantry soldier is a system that has capabilities to take decisions under critical conditions, leverage lethal firepower for impact and maintain ability to control environment by being in the grip of the situation. Lutz Unterseher, a German scholar had written that, “In the modern battlefield scenario, infantry has experienced a veritable renaissance and has come more to centre-stage than ever before in modern times”. Huge armies have limited role to play in sub conventional and hybrid wars. Given the rise of religious terrorism and radicalisation, big armies, huge bombers and missiles have negligible role, whereas the small and swift can handle such threats with ease. We need to arm Infantry to fight in all terrain, against all adversaries by increasing the infantry’s situational awareness, survival, and lethality.
Brig Narender Kumar, an Infantry Officer, commanded a Rashtriya Rifles battalion in J&K and an Assam Rifles Sector in Manipur. He is currently Distinguished Fellow at United Services Institution of India, New Delhi.