Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs on March 2, 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, called for quadrilateral Australia-India-Japan-US consultations for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. He said, “Together, we can develop a roadmap that leverages our respective efforts to improve the security architecture and strengthen regional dialogues.
Together, we can ensure free and open sea lanes of communication that are critical for global trade and prosperity.”
Ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and maintaining the freedom of the sea lanes of communication for the unfettered flow of trade requires the creation of robust capabilities for military intervention. India has repeatedly demonstrated such capabilities, even if these have been used mostly for humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) purposes.
In the space of ten days in April 2015, India had evacuated 5,600 displaced persons from Yemen under Operation Rahat (relief ). Of these, 4,640 were from India and 960 from 41 friendly countries, including citizens of Britain, France and the United States. They were evacuated by air by C-17 Globemaster aircraft of the Indian Air Force flying from Djibouti, Ethiopia; by Air India aircraft flying from Sana’a; and, by sea on board ships of the Indian Navy from Aden, Al Hudaydah and Al Mukalla ports in Yemen
The operation was meticulously planned and efficiently executed despite the hazards of an ongoing civil war. It was not only a humanitarian relief operation, but also one that showcased India’s military intervention capabilities – though in a different context. And, it was not the first time that India has undertaken such an operation. Starting with the war in Iraq in 2003, through the conflicts in Lebanon (2006), Egypt, Libya and Yemen (2011) and Ukraine and Syria- Iraq (2014), the Indian armed forces and civil aviation personnel have been engaged in evacuating beleaguered Indian citizens from war zones.
Contrary to populist notions of the nation being imbued with a pacifist strategic culture, the Indian government has not hesitated to ask its armed forces to intervene militarily several times since independence, both internally and beyond India’s shores, when such intervention was considered necessary in the national interest in order to achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives. The army acted successfully to integrate Junagadh (1947), Hyderabad (Operation Polo, 1948), Goa (Operation Vijay, 1961) and Sikkim (1975) with the Indian Union as part of the nation building process. The Indian armed forces helped to create the new nation of Bangladesh after the Pakistan army’s genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 led to a popular uprising and 10 million refugees streamed into India. India intervened in the Maldives and Sri Lanka at the behest of the governments of these countries and was ready to do so in Mauritius when the threat passed.
External threats and challenges have been gradually increasing. When the Taliban had first come to power in Afghanistan, a perplexing question was what India would do if it ever became necessary to launch a military operation to rescue the Indian ambassador or members of his staff from Kabul. Would India ask for American or Russian help and how would they respond? Or would India have no option but to leave the embassy staff to the mercy of terrorist jihadis? That contingency fortunately did not arise but another one did. Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked to and parked at Kandahar airfield for several days in the cold month of December 1999. The nation was forced to look on with helpless rage as virtually no military options worth considering were available. That ignominious surrender to the Jaish-e- Mohammed terrorists had prompted some soul searching. However, the government has been proceeding rather slowly in creating the required intervention capabilities.
Analysts the world over are now discussing the emergence of a resurgent India that will be a dominant power in Southern Asia. Bharat Verma, former Editor, Indian Defence Review, wrote in 2003: “… our political aim should be the dominance of Asia by 2020 as an economic power backed by a world class military.” In keeping with its rapidly growing strategic interests and regional responsibilities, India may soon need to join other friendly countries to intervene militarily in its regional neighbourhood when the situation so demands. While India would prefer to do so with a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council and under the UN flag, it may not be averse to joining ‘coalitions of the willing’ when its vital national interests are threatened and consensus in the Security Council proves hard to achieve.
Though it will be a gradual and longdrawn process, it is quite likely that a cooperative international security framework will eventually emerge from the ashes of the ongoing conflicts. Stemming from the need for contingency planning, particularly in support of its forces deployed for United Nations (UN) peace-keeping and peace-support duties and for limited power projection, India will need to raise and maintain in a permanent state of quick-reaction readiness, adequate forces to participate in international coalitions in India’s area of strategic interest.
The aim of such operations will be to further India’s national security and foreign policy objectives, to support international non-proliferation efforts, and to join the international community to act decisively against banned insurgent outfits like the al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba or even rogue regimes like the one in Yemen. International non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI) particularly cannot succeed in the Southern Asian and Indian Ocean regions without Indian participation as a member or as a partner providing outside support. As an aspiring regional power, India will also need to consider its responsibilities towards undertaking humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified. Other requirements that are difficult to visualise accurately today but would further India’s foreign policy objectives or enhance national security interests in future, will also justify the acquisition of military intervention capabilities.
Force Structure Required
The late General K. Sundarji, former COAS, had often spoken of converting an existing infantry division to an air assault division by about the year 2000. Though the idea was certainly not ahead of its time, the shoestring budgets of the 1990s did not allow the army to proceed to practically implement the concept. Now the time has come to translate his vision into reality. Lt Gen. Vinay Shankar (Retd.) has written, “Some years ago the army had drawn up an approach paper projecting the requirement of two airmobile divisions… This is now a definite requirement and the proposal ought to be followed up.” Other analysts are also of the view that India needs to put in place a fairly expansive expeditionary capability. Bharat Karnad is of the view: “At the very least, a genuine expeditionary force would have to comprise two division equivalent forces, increasing over time to 5-6 division equivalent for distant employment…”
Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, Force Commander, UNPROFOR in former Yugoslavia in 1992-93, has suggested the following components for a ‘rapid reaction task force’ as he calls it:
• A tri-Service corps sized headquarters.
• A land forces component to include an airborne brigade, and a light armoured or mechanised division comprising an air transportable armoured brigade equipped with light tanks and infantry combat vehicles, an amphibious brigade and an air transportable infantry brigade.
• Army aviation elements, assault engineers, communications units and logistics elements.
• A Naval component that desirably includes an aircraft carrier, appropriate surface and sub-surface craft and aerial maritime capability.
• An Air Force component that includes strike aircraft, helicopters and strategic airlift capability.• • A Special Forces component.
• Civilian component to include diplomatic representatives, civil affairs personnel, civilian police, human rights personnel, etc.
Besides being necessary for out-ofarea contingencies, ‘air assault’ capability is a significant force multiplier in conventional conflict. Despite what the peaceniks may say, substantial air assault capability is not only essential for furthering India’s national interests, it is now inescapable for conventional deterrence. The present requirement is of at least one air assault brigade group with integral heli-lift capability for offensive employment on India’s periphery. This capability must be in place by the end of the 12th Defence Plan period 2012- 17. This brigade should be capable of short-notice deployment in India’s extended neighbourhood by air and sea. Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, integral firepower component and combat service support and logistics support units, the brigade group should be based on Chinook CH-47 and MI-17 transport helicopters. It should have the guaranteed firepower and support of two to three flights of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and one flight of UCAVs.
The air assault brigade group should be armed, equipped and trained to secure threatened islands, seize an air head and capture an important objective inside the adversary’s territory such as a key bridge that is critical to furthering operations in depth. It should also be equipped and trained to operate as part of international coalition forces for speedy military interventions. To make it effective, it will have to be provided air and sealift capability and a high volume of battlefield air support by the IAF and the navy till its deployment area comes within reach of the artillery component of ground forces. Since the raising of such a potent brigade group will be a highly expensive proposition, its components will need to be very carefully structured to get value for money.
Simultaneously, efforts should commence to raise a division-size rapid reaction force, of which the first air assault brigade group mentioned above should be a part, by the end of the 13th Defence Plan period 2017-22. The second brigade group of the Rapid Reaction Division (RRD) should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. One brigade group in Southern Command has been recently designated as an amphibious brigade; this brigade group could be suitably upgraded. The amphibious brigade should be self-contained for 15 days of sustained intervention operations. The third brigade of the RRD should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and the mountains as well as jungle and desert terrain. All the brigade groups and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air.
With the exception of the amphibious brigade, the division should be logistically self-contained for an initial deployment period of 15 to 20 days with limited daily replenishment. The infrastructure for such a division, especially strategic air lift, attack helicopters, heli-lift and landing ship capability, will entail heavy capital expenditure to establish and fairly large recurring costs to maintain. However, it is an inescapable requirement and funds will need to be found for such a force by innovative management of the defence budget and additional budgetary support. The second RRD should be raised over the 14th and 15th Defence Plans by about 2032 when India’s regional responsibilities would have grown considerably. Unless planning for the creation of such capabilities begins now, the formations will not be available when these are required to be employed.
Special Forces support should be available to the RRDs on as required basis, for conventional conflict and intervention operations. It needs to be appreciated by India’s policy planners that in many situations when war has not yet commenced and it is not possible to employ ground forces overtly, Special Forces can be launched covertly to achieve important military objectives with inherent deniability. In Kandahar-type situations they provide the only viable military option. However, they can act with assurance only if they have been suitably structured and well trained for the multifarious tasks that they may be called upon to perform.
The only airborne force projection capability that India has at present is FORCE PROJECTION 10-13-Gurmeet_14_19_ BEING A FLY GIRL.qxd 5/22/2016 11:28 AM Page 3 that of the Independent Parachute Brigade. Since the organisational structure of this brigade is more suitable for conventional operations, this brigade should be retained as an Army HQ reserve for strategic employment behind enemy lines to further the operations of ground forces that are expected to link up with it in an early time frame. However, when necessary, the brigade could be allotted to the RRD for short durations to carry out specific tasks.
A permanent tri-Service headquarters equivalent to a Corps HQ should also be raised under HQ Integrated Defence Staff for continuous threat assessment and operational planning and to provide C4I2SR support to the RRDs and their firepower, combat service and logistics support components. The HQ should also be suitably staffed with a skeleton civilian component comprising diplomats, civic affairs personnel and disaster relief staff. This component should be beefed up when the task force is ordered to be deployed. Unless planning for the creation of the capabilities that are necessary begins now, these potent fighting echelons will not be available when these are likely to be required.
It must be emphasised that rapid reaction-cum-air assault capabilities will provide immense strategic reach and flexibility to the Cabinet Committee on Security and multiple options to the military planners in the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty. As government sanction may take some time to obtain, the nucleus of such a force should be established immediately by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) by pooling together the resources currently available with the three Services. The nominated echelons must train together at least once a year so that the armed forces can respond suitably to emerging threats.
Cooperative Security Framework
India must join the US and other strategic partners, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, to establish a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and for the security of the global commons – air space, space, cyber space and the sealanes of communication – to enable freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. If China is willing to join this security architecture it should be welcomed. However, it is unlikely to do so as it believes that ‘one mountain cannot contain two tigers’ and sees itself as the lone tiger on the Asian mountain.
The international community hopes India will soon become a “net provider of security” in the region. The expectations include India joining international counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts; sharing intelligence; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy and narcotics trafficking; and, continuing to taking the lead in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region. All of these expectations are unexceptionable and India has been contributing extensively to achieving these common goals.
India must not hesitate to intervene militarily in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened in its area of strategic interest. This extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. India would prefer to intervene under a UN flag but may join a coalition of the willing in case consensus is difficult to achieve in the UN Security Council.
It is necessary to work with strategic partners, other friendly countries in India’s extended neighbourhood, organisations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and, when possible, even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to establish consultative mechanisms through diplomatic channels for the exchange of ideas, coordination of the utilisation of scarce resources and joint training and reconnaissance. Small-scale joint military exercises with likely coalition partners help to eliminate interoperability and command and control challenges. All of this can be achieved without having to enter into unnecessary alliances. Efforts put in during peace time always help to smoothen cooperative functioning during crisis situations when tempers are usually high, the media outcry for military responses is shrill and cool judgment is invariably at a premium.
India cannot aspire to achieve great power status without simultaneously getting politically and militarily ready to bear the responsibilities that go with such a status. Military intervention in support of its national interests is one such responsibility and it cannot be wished away. Unless India becomes the undisputed master of its own backyard in Southern Asia, including the Northern Indian Ocean region, it will not be recognised as a regional power. India’s aspirations of becoming a power to reckon with on the world stage will never be achieved without potent military capabilities.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.