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Indian Army Undertakes Massive Combat Exercise in Thar

On 13 November 2019, the Indian Army initiated a large-scale combat exercise on the western end of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Designated “Sindhu Sudarshan,” the large-scale wargame comprises of 40,000-plus troops alongside tanks, artillery and helicopters.[1]

According to an Indian Armed Forces officer (via The Times of India), the drill “aims to validate the battle readiness, operational effectiveness and deep strike offensive capabilities of the ‘Sudarshan Chakra’ (21) Corps in an integrated air-land battle scenario.”[2]

In other words, a key aspect of the exercise is to test the effectiveness of India’s ‘integrated battle groups’ (IBGs), which are meant to rapidly thrust into enemy territory through a composite force of infantry, tanks, artillery, and fixed as well as rotary aircraft, among other military assets.

This exercise is also serving as the first deployment or use of the Indian Army’s newly inducted Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Rudra lightweight utility helicopters and the Vajra 155 mm/52-calibre tracked self-propelled howitzer (SPH), the latter being based on the Hanwha Land Systems K9 Thunder SPH.[3]

India’s Emerging Integrated Battle Groups

Though deployed, the IBG concept is still a work in progress. Currently, Indian officials believe it will take around four to five years to fully convert selected units into IBGs (The Economic Times).[4]

In general, IBGs will be around the size of – or smaller – than divisions, but integrate units from existing regiments. Reportedly, each IBG will be made up of six battalions, and in turn, report directly to a Corps.

Besides deploying a diverse composition of systems in one element, the IBGs will also be specialized. Be it the terrain of their operational environment, the specific threats India expects in a particular area, or the operational goals of the group, India will deploy multiple types of IBGs against its neighbouring foes.

Speaking to The Economic Times, an Indian official stated:

“If I know that my threat across the border is mechanised, then my IBG has to be equipped accordingly. If I know that when I cross the border during battle and will encounter ditches, then I will need breathing apparatus for my equipment. In another sector, if the threat is from armoured formations such as tanks, so I will need armour. We will also have to look at whether the IBG will need artillery and where can it be deployed.”[5]

Thus, a basic aim of the IBGs is to enable the Indian Army to deploy a specially suited force to each region or sector as to maximize potential success and minimize, if not eliminate, drawbacks and constraints.

For example, if a particular area cannot support SPHs, the Indian Army will not try to deploy the Vajra to that operational environment. Rather, it will save itself from the costs of trying (which could manifest through damage to the SPHs, slower movement, increased downtime, etc).

Instead, that specific IBG could draw on a greater measure of air support, especially with stand-off range weapons (SOW), such as the Rafael SPICE-series of precision-guided bombs (PGB).

Likewise, certain IBGs could be tailored towards specifically anti-armour operations, in which case, these might draw on a larger number of tanks and close air support (CAS) via the Army’s and/or Indian Air Force’s (IAF) AH-64E Guardian Apache and/or HAL Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) attack helicopters.

The variability of its IBGs benefits India in that it can likely utilize every deployed asset to maximum effect, rather than have idling systems or suffer from downtime. Likewise, this variability also means that there is no fixed method of countering them; like India’s IBGs, Pakistan’s counter or response forces would need to be just as diverse in their composition and tactical objectives.

However, the variability aside, one fixed objective across all IBGs is to mobilize rapidly and move as well as capture territory quickly. Thus, in addition to rapid mobility, relatively close positioning (to the targeted sectors) is also likely to occur, especially once India completes the first major phase of its IBG deployment by the mid-2020s. In other words, so long as India considers Pakistan a threat, the IBGs will be in relatively close proximity to Pakistan in normalcy and tension alike – the IBGs will basically be a fixed variable.

How Pakistan May Counter India’s Integrated Battle Groups

Pakistan views the IBGs under the scope of “Cold Start,” a doctrine it alleges is designed to initiate sudden and rapid thrusts into Pakistan so as to preclude Pakistan from retaliating through nuclear weapons. Thus, to render Pakistan’s apparent “nuclear threshold” useless and, in turn, force it to align to India’s terms.

The first overt mention of ‘countering’ Cold Start was in July 2017 when the Pakistan Army Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa, lauded the test-firing of the Nasr short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) as putting “cold water on cold start.”[6] The implication being that Pakistan can and would willingly fire a nuclear warhead at an IBG if it meant containing the fallout (via a miniature warhead).

The former head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, Lt. Gen (retired) Khalid Kidwai, had stated that the Army was “not apologetic about the development of tactical nuclear weapons,” and that these warheads were “here to stay and provide the third (tactical) element of our full spectrum deterrence.”[7]

However, a nuclear asset – even a tactical one – is still a deterrence asset, one meant for contingency. But foreign observers are weary of the “tactical” marker, which they believe ‘blurred’ the lines of conventional and nuclear strikes.[8] In other words, if Pakistani decision-makers believe the damage is limited only IBGs – i.e., a military target – and not civilians or non-military infrastructure, they might use the Nasr.

Unfortunately, inserting a nuclear risk-factor might not be enough to deter an attack, especially one that is isolated (and meant for more than simply capturing territory, e.g., as shown during and after the Balakot Strikes and Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort). Thus, for Pakistan, a rapidly deployable and potent counter-force would likely be necessary – i.e., its own equivalent to India’s IBGs.

Interestingly, a seminar held by the Center for Security, Strategy & Policy Research (CSSPR) held at the Conference at University of Lahore on 11 November 2019 might have alluded to as much.[9]

According to the paper summarizing the conference:

“Some participants called for an overhaul of war-fighting doctrine which should not be a static concept divorced from environmental realities, instead should be a living concept which is continuously taking account of regional threats, volatile environment and realities. At the military level, the doctrine must be a product of joint thinking, training and operational understanding to efficiently exploit the tri-service assets in pursuit of national objectives”[10]

Though a recommendation to the armed forces, the above basically captures some of the characteristics of India’s IBGs, i.e., an ability to flexibly operate in varying environments, closer cooperation – if not asset integration/interoperability – between the Army, Navy and Air Force, and faster responsiveness.

It would make sense too considering that the IBG threat comprises of multiple types of threats, including armour, aircraft, artillery, infantry, and potentially others. So, for example, if India’s IBGs draw on attack helicopters and CBU-105-equipped Jaguar fighters, it would make little sense to not have the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) JF-17s on hand to intercept those threats and, in turn, provide air cover to the Army.

Granted, Pakistan’s difficulty with generating sufficient economic resources for conventional armaments is a constraint, but one option could be to take a functional approach to procurement.

Today, it appears that each of Pakistan’s service arms largely plan and implement procurement in siloes. For example, the PAF would look at the threats relevant to its objectives, and in turn, recommend a set of purchases meant for countering those specific issues. Yes, there is likely scope for input from the Army or Navy, but in large part, the procurement appears to be isolated in its focus and goals.

However, a functional approach could be where one asks both the Army and PAF exactly what it will take for these two arms to stop up to 12 IBGs on the Indian border. In other words, what specific assets – e.g., aircraft, tanks, artillery, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems, etc – and in numbers would be necessary to directly fend-off a sudden thrust by India?

In effect, the Army would set-up its own IBGs – or potentially, re-work existing units into truly composite rapid-response and interdiction forces – with specific assets. Pakistan would not procure these assets at numbers to equip the whole Army, but only the counter-IBG units.

Thus, the overall cost of equipping the forces may not be as much as wide-scale procurement. In turn, the Army could look at purchasing limited quantities of high-end systems – e.g., new-build 155 mm/52-calibre tracked SPHs, heavyweight attack helicopters, foreign MBTs, etc – to ensure it can ably respond. Funding could be drawn collectively (from all service arms) as the objectives, at a macro-level, are shared (i.e., to prevent India from employing its IBGs, or at least, stop those IBGs and prevent escalation).

However, the risk of this approach is that it is an inefficient method of procurement. Pakistan cannot scale it across the entire armed forces, and going this route will detract from service-wide initiatives (e.g., the cost of these composite forces could mean delaying the replacement of older mainstay tanks).

One option could be to frontload a few costly imports for the initial set of counter-IBGs and, in turn, use next-generation mainstay assets built at home to equip the rest. So, for example, the Army could acquire a 100 main battle tanks (MBT) under ‘Haider,’ but only for one or two counter-IBGs; for the remaining 10 or 11 counter-IBGs, it should equip them with the al-Khalid 2.

The imports are woefully inefficient, but if anything, they can buy time for the domestic programs to take-off and, in turn, ensure Pakistan can start building counter-IBG capabilities sooner than later. In addition, the current approach of finding surplus equipment at low-cost, such as the M109L SPHs, is prudent too.

That said, to equip enough of its forces, taking a page from India’s book and emulating it by domestically producing all – or most – inputs of said forces would be prudent. In other words, Pakistan should look at manufacturing attack helicopters, tracked and wheeled SPHs, transport helicopters, etc, at home.

Leveraging one’s own currency as well as production and labour costs is the most feasible long-term way of building potent response capabilities and equipping the armed forces at-scale. Unfortunately, the cost of developing those lines is very high, not just in terms of money but time as well. However, India is now enjoying the fruits of overcoming those costs (through delays, development funding, etc) in the past 30-plus years, while Pakistan must now look up at those challenges today (e.g., Project Azm).

[1] Rajat Pandit. “Army kicks off major exercise, as border hostilities with Pakistan continue.” The Times of India. 13 November 2019. URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/army-kicks-off-major-exercise-as-border-hostilities-with-pakistan-continue/articleshow/72045159.cms

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Shaurya Karanbir Gurung. “Integrated Battle Groups on Pakistan, China borders soon.” The Economic Times. 10 September 2019. URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/integrated-battle-groups-on-pakistan-china-borders-soon/articleshow/71057789.cms?from=mdr

[5] Ibid.

[6] Baqir Sajjad Syed. “Nasr pours cold water on India’s cold start doctrine: Bajwa.” Dawn. 06 July 2017. URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1343581/nasr-pours-cold-water-on-indias-cold-start-doctrine-bajwa

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mansoor Ahmed. “Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Their Impact on Stability.” The Carnegie Endowment. 30 June 2016. URL: https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/pakistan-s-tactical-nuclear-weapons-and-their-impact-on-stability-pub-63911

[9] “Deconstructing Balakot Strikes: Pakistan’s Conventional War-fighting Doctrine & the Way Forward.” Conference Report. CSSPR-CASS Conference. The Universify of Lahore. 11 November 2019. URL: https://csspr.uol.edu.pk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Conference-Report-CSSPR-CASS-Conf1.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2rEGn18-qUM2a9du2pXIfx-s1WFQN6UYkZWfcL7nv0QRMZ9Zyj0v3H4mQ

[10] Ibid.

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