By age-old convention, most wars have various forms of tactical operations undertaken under one overall plan – set-piece, irregular and Special Operations, for example. Indeed, the so called ‘conventional war’ has always had unconventional tactical recourses built into it. The infantry battalion has been in lead role in such irregular or unconventional operations, its flexibility of structure, weaponry and training allowing it to be moved by any mode of transport and fielded in any of the kind of aforesaid operations – all with equal proficiency and without much ado. The final test may, therefore, be to evaluate the significant flexibility which the infantry battalion has traditionally possessed.
“Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot but make it hot by striking.” —William Sprague
The central concern must be about the intangible assets that go to impart battle winning characteristics to any military unit…
Days of the Infantry
Evolution of the infantry as the decisive arm of war fighting is a phenomenon moored at the rise of British power in India, around the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that, victory favoured that force which committed its cavalry more effectively. After its introduction in the First Battle of Panipat, artillery joined as the second battle winner. Notably, these arms had generally been fighting as distinct elements of battle, inter-arm coordination being difficult if not impossible to implement. Arguably, it was the period of the Carnatic Wars and the Battles of Plassey and Buxar when the infantry’s steadfast defence from fortified redoubts followed by ‘volley and charge’ tactics carried the day, with artillery and cavalry playing their designated roles to prescribe the outcome1. Indeed, having conquered India with their ‘Sepoys’, it was the British who crowned the infantry as the ‘Queen of Battle’. It is important to understand as to why they chose to do so – because similar factors prevail even today.
With the decline of the Mughal Empire, horse-cavalry became difficult to maintain. Horses had to be imported from West Asia over a tedious logistics chain and bred in large depots. Obviously, it was frightfully expensive to raise and maintain cavalry. Development of the artillery, having earlier pushed the elephant arm to the services role, made cavalry charges even more costly to execute. An overseas trading company, stingy with investments as it had to be, the British East India Company, therefore, found it expedient to build up the infantry’s role in their campaigns. Development of field-craft, field works and tactical ground manoeuvres with high-technology artillery in support thus turned into an effective recourse of battle dominance, while the cavalry reconnoitred and shaped the battlefield before being committed to deliver coup de grace.2
Having validated its battle worthiness during the Carnatic, Bengal and Mysore Wars of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw the infantry gaining unprecedented structural as well as tactical flexibility. That characteristic permitted the infantry to operate under as diverse situations as the Maratha, Burma, Sikh, North-West Frontier and the First World Wars3. Meanwhile, in the intervening decades, the British chose to be increasingly dependent on lighter versions of the infantry to exercise their authority. These were the ‘irregular levy’ or armed ‘constabulary’. Gradually, in tune with developments in the realm of warfare, the infantry battalion assumed unique characteristics, developing into a microcosm of the army to hold within itself the elements of anti-armour, artillery, engineers, signals and even the services.4
Empowerment of any military unit is not just about modernisation of weapons and equipment…
Obviously, that development was dictated by the fundamental principle of organisational structuring which rules that a military unit must have at its express disposal what minimum it takes to perform a routine operation. The primacy of infantry was also an imperative of terrain in the South-East Asia and Pacific Theatres of the World War II.
Outbreak of insurgencies and external aggressions over mountainous terrain has caused that primacy to continue in the post-independence realm. It was so that the 1971 War generation found the infantry battalion to be a most potent force. Besides the tangible assets in terms of weapons and equipment, the most remarkable asset that force wielded was that of the spirit of infantry which thrived upon a fundamental attitude of ‘do it, preferably yourself’. That spirit was, of course, sustained by a high degree of tactical acumen that was earned by relentless ground training – ‘muddy and torn dangri’ in Sapper parlance. The ‘CO Sahib Bahadur’, as the Commanding Officer was referred to, was a ‘God’ in every respect while the Company Commander was one in the making. Their prerogative to keep the upper hierarchy ‘in their place’ was respected; not that they were overly concerned about seeking endorsement of their preferences. Aggression was the order; ‘feel good’ feedback was unheard of; exaggeration was taboo. The battalion demanded all the resources that it could think of, created a scene before taking what it could get and proceeded to accomplish the task it had to without fuss.
Indeed, the infantry battalion was a ‘power house’. It still is – for the good of the nation. But then it may be a good idea to test whether it remains empowered in concert with the contemporary complexities.
Obligation of Empowerment
Empowerment of any military unit is not just about modernisation of weapons and equipment, though that is a reckonable factor. These tangible matters are yet manageable, if with some difficulties. Truly, the central concern must be about the intangible assets that go to impart battle winning characteristics to any military unit. Unless nurtured in continuity, these assets are liable to turn stale and lead to debilitation of the military organisation. Indeed, it is the intangible characteristics that distinguish the victorious from those who just fight. It is, therefore, wise to test the efficacy of such intangible assets once in a while.
Filial communication between the various levels of leadership and the led seems to have been frozen…
Over the recent years, a series of modernisation schemes have been introduced to keep the infantry battalion as strong as the contemporary demands of warfare dictate. These schemes cover weaponry, war-like equipment, communications, mobility and accoutrement; fructification of such schemes could have been more brisk though. The real thrust of introspection, therefore, may be to go past the visible developments and have a feel of the core.
Arguably, when considered in terms of their empowerment under the overall dispensation, there may be observed signs of the infantry battalion wilting. In this context, it may be worthwhile to take note of certain observations. One, in the contemporary days of small team operations, sophisticated weapon and equipment systems and operational complexities, a shortage of battle leadership is stark. Besides, filial communication between the various levels of leadership and the led seems to have been frozen. Admittedly, this diminution afflicts all arms and services, but that should not be a consolation for the infantry. Two, while it may not be mandatory to get drenched and dirty (one believes that it still is), training is not the compulsory grind for every soldier as it used to be in the past; that is, thanks to administrative commitments, attachments, roll of medical categories, shortage of training areas and restriction on ammunition. But even if the constraints are many, more telling is the fact that these are stoically accedes to.
Three, the ‘power-factor’ of the battalion, the Officer Platoon Commanders, has vanished. Besides, the Company Commanders have turned non-entities while the Commanding Officers are expected, or inclined, to seek clearance on even matters mundane. Four, infantry units see less of their supporting arms; the mutuality of operational understanding, the intimate ‘we’ factor so to say, seems to be fading. The consequences, obscured but to the most intimate peers, would certainly surface when the entire military institution is put to severe test – not just in exercises or in fighting militants, but in full scale war, that being the army’s sanctified mandate.
No doubt, empowerment of the infantry battalion is contingent upon higher quality of artillery and air support than what is guaranteed at the present. Similarly, terrain permitting, unleashing of mechanised forces for them to secure the central objective in their own manner is another factor. Indeed, every arm and service has crucial roles to perform in the empowerment of the infantry battalion. But to focus upon the subject matter under discussion, we may invoke some ‘soldier-speak’ to test few representative instances, the purpose being to register the signs of possible dilutions which might coalesce to enfeeble the infantry battalion.
Proficiency of Pro-action
The first test relates to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. It had been a regular role for the standard infantry battalion to fight through urban areas to clear massive complexes. That kind of operation has been a part of training since as far as one might recall – setting up a command post, obtaining the layout and guides, forcing entry and despatching the enemy, all in a matter of hours. In this instance, there was a unit located just a small distance away; part of it was indeed moved to the location. Yet the terrorists had to wait for 40 odd hours to be sent to their doom, indulgent in their killing-spree all this while. While the civil administration, unprepared for such ruthless assault, stood confounded, neither the local military commander could take over the situation, nor could the battalion be sent-in to clear the premises. The National Security Guard, a police outfit actually even if manned by soldiers, had to act after over 12 hours to deliver the nation from the mayhem.
The ‘power-factor’ of the battalion, the Officer Platoon Commanders, has vanished…
Notably, this was not the first instance of asking for Special Forces to undertake missions which must perfectly be within the capabilities of a powerful entity like the infantry battalion. The reference of deploying the ‘most suited force’ may not be stretched to an extent where it becomes self-deprecating. May be it could have done good to a military unit’s faith if one did not have to wait at the sidelines while fire raged at hand.
Trust and Resilience
The recent incident on the Line of Control may be taken as a second test case. There are two issues here. One, no doubt, it was a tactical failure on the part of our troops to have been overwhelmed with no worthwhile riposte to show for. Notably, a failure of this magnitude is seldom a one-off incident; it may be indicative of professional laxity having found its way among the troops over time. The situation at the Line of Control was known to be ever-exacting and that was a weakness that could have been anticipated and probably prevented. However, even the best prepared troops are liable to slip up under conditions so hazardous.
The things to do in such situations is for the unit to, firstly, re-dedicate to the tactical tenets, and secondly, to deliver retribution as a matter of faith. With solidarity and resolve firming-in from local leadership, it is certain that the slip up would have been redeemed thus – stoically and forthrightly. Two, experience tells us that under conditions so excruciating, while setbacks are likely to occur, among hardened commanders such incidents trigger resolve rather than fluster. Therefore, neither was there a need for the army to be given a political “free hand”, nor was there a need for visitations from top commanders, ostensibly to chastise local commanders, with the infantry battalion at the target end, as it had been implied for public consumption. To that extent, this development may be indicative of systemic lack of faith within the military hierarchy and its miscommunication with the political authority. No doubt, this is a dangerous affliction.
It was a tactical failure on the part of our troops to have been overwhelmed with no worthwhile riposte to show for…
By age-old convention, most wars have various forms of tactical operations undertaken under one overall plan – set-piece, irregular and Special Operations for example. Indeed, the so called ‘conventional war’ has always had unconventional tactical recourses built into it. The infantry battalion has been in lead role in such irregular or unconventional operations, its flexibility of structure, weaponry and training allowing it to be moved by any mode of transport and fielded in any of the kind of aforesaid operations – all with equal proficiency and without much ado. The final test may, therefore, be to evaluate that significant flexibility which the infantry battalion has traditionally possessed.
In this context, it may be a good idea to establish if the full complement of the infantry battalion, not just selected ‘gladiators’, continues to be mentally perceptive and realistically trained in conducting small team, special team or guerrilla type of operations with the same ease as it did in the 1971 War. With continuous engagement in counter-insurgency, an easing burden of training and dilution of leadership élan, the answer may not bring satisfaction – the reasons, genuine or otherwise, are not material here. For the admirers of infantry-power, that could be a telling call to ‘sit-up’.
For a nation that is satisfied with status quo and nurtures a tentative military strategy, India is deprived of a modern military industry and constrained in defence budget. Empowerment of the infantry battalion must be a cost-effective investment. In no way overlooking the salience of all components of the army, it may yet be unequivocally stated that be it a scrap with China or dislocating Pakistan’s misadventure across the Line of Control, suppression of insurgency or in dealing with terror attacks, an empowered infantry battalion would be an effective lead arm.
India is deprived of a modern military industry and constrained in defence budget…
Indeed, infantry-predominant Special Operations launched in conjunction with its traditional steadfastness in defence and aggressive riposte may be the right recourse to halt China’s gigantic war machine should such a situation be imposed upon us.5 In similar vein, infantry-predominant operations in conventional as well as special mode would make it costly for Pakistan to poke at India now and then – without provoking a nuclear exchange of which we seem to be terrified of. There would then be no need for our government to parrot stale indignations after every incident.
Practically independent of imported weaponry and equipment, investment in tangible wherewithal of the infantry battalion would be an indigenous effort, more or less. It should therefore, make sense to the technocrats, economists and the security establishment to promote the cause of quantum – not just incremental and disjointed – upgrade of the infantry battalion. Appropriately, the issue may not be confined solely to infusion of modern war-wherewithal. The organisational structure of the infantry battalion has to be correspondingly customised to reap the best dividend. Towards this end, it would be obligatory to revise operational procedures and correspondingly reconfigure the unit, its sub-units and manpower. This would be a time-consuming endeavour but unless deliberated well beforehand and formalised, advantages of the accruals would remain stifled. In fact, history is replete with instances when oversight of the gamut of modernisation has led to worsening of battle performance. It may, therefore, be wise for the military leaders to test this aspect with due seriousness.
The greater challenge yet remains in strengthening the intangible assets of the infantry battalion, some of which have been discussed in the earlier part. Suffice to state that there are signs of those unique characteristics stagnating, or even slipping. These signs need to be registered in true context and taken seriously. Truly, building upon the intangible assets is purely an in-house competence. It does not require approvals and sanctions from any quarters but our own.6
Empowerment of the ‘power-house’ is at the hands of military leadership – and it would do us good.
- Infantry’s battle-power came to limelight in the Battle of Saint Thoma (Madras) which took place between the Nawab of Carnatic and the French Compagnie in November 1747. Here, the Compagnie’s 1000 troops, 700 of them Indian Sepoys, led by their engineer officer Captain Louis Paradis, applied the ‘volley and charge’ tactics to rout the Nawab’s 10000 strong army. Later, the English followed this tactic during Robert Clive’s siege of Arcot in Sep 1951, while its classical execution under the command of Major Hector Munro carried the day in the Battle of Buxar in October 1764.
- The Industrial Revolution favoured development of efficient Flint-lock Muskets and Cannons. The Musket enhanced infantry’s fire power, and high-technology artillery prohibited cavalry charge on deliberate defences while making it easier for the infantry to break into such defences. Of course, the cavalry and horse artillery combine came to be deployed in shaping the battle and in pursuit.
- In these campaigns, the infantry had to adapt to diverse tactics and battle drills. For example, the Burma Campaign was more of a marine warfare while in the North-West Frontier, it was a warfare of skirmishes among the rocks and ridges with occasional storming actions like the capture of Dargai Ridge in October 1897.
- Infantry battalion’s microcosmic construct is represented by its anti-armour capability, mortar platoon for artillery, pioneer section for engineers and so on.
- It is no revelation that given the relativity of strength and characteristics of the terrain, resort to special/guerrilla operations in conjunction with aggressive conduct of defence offers the best counter to aggression from China. Artillery, armour and air would no doubt play major roles in that endeavour, but still, it must be the infantry battalion at the pivot.
- An infantry battalion is easily taken to the level of near-perfection. But ever-intent on fighting, the army fights within when it cannot find an enemy. Internecine turf war within the army bureaucracy aims at preventing others rather than elevating the one, and that is a hurdle to cross. Arguably, the second hurdle is the infantryman’s own rigid perceptions.