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The Indian army’s new strike corps

Five key questions that the country’s leadership must answer.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gave its approval last week to the raising of a mountain strike corps along the border with China.  The Indian army’s only “China-centric” strike corps — first mooted in 2009 — will reportedly cost Rs. 62,000 crores (about $10 billion) and will raise over 45,000 soldiers.  Reaction to the announcement has been mixed; some commentators were encouraged by the government’s move, while others have taken the view that the reaction is latent and cannot mask the very real structural challenges that India’s armed forces face today.  China’s own reaction to the announcement was muted.

Indeed, opinion was also divided among friends and INI colleagues.  However, after vigorous debate via email, the following questions were arrived at that the powers-that-be ought to be answering with regard to the new strike corps:

1.  Given the timing of the approval by the CCS, it is conceivable that the motivation is related to the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), put forward by China but received with limited enthusiasm in India.  Should India continue to negotiate the BDCA with China, additional muscle deployed along the border with China can effectively convey red lines in negotiations and compromises.  But what good is a border defense cooperation agreement anyway, when India and China have different perceptions on what actually constitutes the “border” between the two countries?

2.  Important questions need to be asked on just how India expects to build capacity for a new strike corps numbering 45,000 soldiers.  Will the divisions and brigades under the corps constitute new raising?  If the answer is a partial yes, then what component of the new corps will absorb existing formations and units?  There appears to be very little clarity on the subject currently publicly available.

Assuming there will be an element of new raising, to what extent will the accretion be on a “save and raise” basis vs. only net spend?  This is important because it carries with it long-term financial implications at a time when there is additional pressure on defense spending as a result of the country’s slowing economy.  Questions of how additional capacity will be built also need to be answered.  The Indian army already suffers from a shortage of 10,000 officers and over 30,000 soldiers in other ranks.  If additional capacity has to be raised, what will its source be?

3.  Next, how effective can we expect the new strike corps to be without a mechanized component?  What utility can mountain divisions really provide as a strike force, given the terrain?  What is the airborne component to lift and shift forces, if there is no mechanized component?  How effective can the new formation be when the infrastructure needed for the rapid mobility of men and material along the border with China continues to be woeful?

4.  Will the new strike corps be a dual-tasked formation (i.e., will it play a role on the Pakistan border, if the situation arises) or will it be a formation solely focused on the Tibetan plateau, as some media reports suggest?  Given what we know about its constituent units, how effective can the formation be in areas like Ladakh, or in plain or desert terrain along the border with Pakistan?

5.  The final point gets to the crux of the issue where India is concerned: our collective thinking continues to miss the forest for the trees on defense-related issues.  We have been unable to break away from an army and land border-centric mindset that dominated our strategic thinking 65 years ago (back then, probably with good reason).If we really are serious about developing capabilities to raise the costs of a Chinese misadventure, would the resources not be better spent on the Indian Navy instead?

India continues to complain about being strategically outflanked by China, but has not done enough to address threats in the Indian Ocean.  The Indian Navy is stretched for resources and strategic projects meant to augment its capabilities have been waylaid.    Instead, we are about to create a new corps and raise as many people as the entire Indian Navy has today without adequate consideration of deterrence already at play where China is concerned. Indeed, what is the point of India’s nuclear weapons and missiles if it continues to obsess over and dedicate asymmetric sums of money and resources towards offensive formations that can achieve, at best, limited tactical gains if a border conflict with China were to break out?

Ultimately, bolstering capabilities along the border with China will always be welcome, but the effectiveness of such an endeavor will be limited if we don’t develop the necessary infrastructure along the border,  don’t address shortages in troops and equipment and continue to ignore the growing asymmetries between the Indian and Chinese navies.

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