NEW DELHI: The Indian Army’s plan to reconfigure its existing combat units into Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) is expected to be completed in four to six years. The army top brass believes the IBGs, each comprising four or more infantry battalions, tanks, a field engineer unit and signals, will provide speed, agility and seamless communication in the battlefield. Ordnance and EME (Electrical/Mechanical Engineers) will be merged to form a logistics unit. Not to forget firepower in the form of artillery.
As a senior officer noted: “Today the 155mm gun is the basic weapon in an artillery regiment with a range of nearly 40 km. The Pinaka rocket artillery has a range of 75 km, the Smerch rocket system can go as far as 90 km and then you have the Brahmos which can strike 290 km.”
But the IBGs are still in the testing stage, with the first exercise of its kind recently carried out in Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Mountain Strike Corps. The results of that exercise are being evaluated but it has underscored the point that “IBGs cannot be one size fits all”, as a senior officer described it. IBGs deployed in desert terrain may need more tanks, while those on the plains of Punjab may require addition infantry or mechanised infantry, or more engineer units to bridge obstacles such as canals.
“These terrain specific challenges will decide the configuration of the IBG,” said a senior officer. “The army has to be terrain specific, therefore the IBGs for the mountains cannot be the same as those deployed in the desert or in the plains.”
This underscores another point: in any future hostilities with Pakistan, the Indian army may not be able to advance very deep, owing not only to man-made obstacles (such as canals mentioned above), but also the risk that Pakistan may carry out a nuclear strike on Indian forces in its territory. So the only option may be to advance no more than 10-15 km on a broad front. Capturing and holding territory, especially in Pakistani Punjab, will give India leverage in the diplomatic negotiations that could follow.
“The priority is for the army to be combat ready at all times,” said the senior officer, “and this also requires us to bridge the differences between the combat, combat support and other arms.”
The officer may have been referring to the reservation among the artillery brass about the IBGs. “Nobody understands firepower better than a gunner,” said Brig SK Chatterji, a retired gunner himself, “but our sense is the IBGs may not allow for the optimal use of firepower. If an artillery unit is placed under command of an IBG, the tendency would be for the IBG commander to ensure it remains for his use even if that implies inefficient use of resources.”
Because of the long ranges of artillery, it would be possible for the guns to support battles of neighbouring IBGs. The currently practiced methodology allows such flexibility easily, and needs to be retained while grouping artillery units with IBGs.
Implicit in this is the view that most infantry and armoured corps officers are well trained in maneuver warfare, but lack sufficient understanding of how firepower can be used to win the battle.
Brig Chatterji believes artillery officers are far better equipped in this area but lack opportunities, given the constraints of automatic entry into the Army’s General Cadre – that would provide the commanders for IBG – being currently restricted to infantry, armour and mechanised infantry officers only. artillery officers do not make it to the General Cadre automatically. Such a practice is not to be found in modern armies. The issue is apparently not being addressed, but the army brass is well aware of it.