NOTE TO THE READER: The following is a necessarily brief overview of a top-tier national military force. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and are based solely on “open-source” research. This is the first of a series on national military forces that may not be well-known to the general reader.
Additionally, a version of this article was previously published online, on May 29, 2017, by this author, at the former “Military Gazette” web page (now defunct). This version has been edited and updated, and is published here with the agreement and consent of the editorial staff, as well as this author.
The modern Indian armed forces date from 1947, but trying to write even a general overview of the military history of India is far beyond the scope of an article such as this. Indeed, this article can give only the barest overview; thus, any holes that appear are unintentional, and were left out for the sake of brevity.
India did not lack for professionalism in armed forces when it gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947. Indeed, Indian forces had been fighting under British direction for well over 200 years, since at least 1774AD. Interestingly, this makes the modern Indian Army slightly older than its United States counterpart. Indian troops from across the subcontinent have repeatedly proven themselves the equal – if not the superior – to both British and European armed forces. India’s success as an independent state is directly attributable to the professionalism of both its Civil Service, and its Armed Forces, part of the latter being the subject of this article.
At the time of the Partition of India, the various British Imperial Indian forces were divided between between India and Pakistan; other than the inevitable disruption caused to organizational structures, both new countries inherited highly professional forces, as well as school structures and defense industries. As a result, Indian forces performed very well in their first tests, and ensured India’s continued existence as a nation.
Although there would be missteps later on, India’s national integrity has never been seriously threatened over the course of the last seventy years, in stark contrast to many other former European colonies, who seem continually on the brink of complete and utter collapse.
With a total of over 5.137million troops – counting Active, Reserve and Paramilitary – India possesses the fourth-largest armed force in the world, ahead of even the People’s Republic of China, and the second-largest Active Duty force, overall, ahead of the United States. Below, we will briefly glance at India’s army, and will then assess its strategic capabilities.
Comprising some eighty percent of India’s national forces, the Army is a modern force, striving to upgrade its capabilities to keep pace with the more “public” militaries, such as those of the United States, Britain, France and Germany. However, those states are not India’s adversaries – those slots are taken up primarily by Pakistan and the PRC.
India, by and large, neither starts wars – directly or indirectly – nor seeks conflicts. In the past, however, India has faced attacks from both Pakistan and the PRC; in the former case, several times.
Like most states, the core of India’s armed forces is its infantry. Indian infantry have long been regarded as among the toughest and most capable in the world. India, like the United States, uses a modified “regimental system” within its army, with regiments such as the Madras, the Gurkha’s, and the Sikh Light Infantry (among many, many more) having long and distinguished histories, but those regiments primarily provide well-trained battalions to the Army’s divisional structures (some forty divisions, in fourteen corps), as part of the seven major commands that the Army is structured into, rather than deploy as complete units on the battlefield. These divisions, except for certain specialized units – such as mountain, parachute and several special forces units – are mingled with tanks and artillery to form cohesive battlefield units.
The Army’s F-INSAS program is a development project aimed at reequipping the individual soldier with an advanced suite of combat systems. This program, modeled on the US Army’s zombie-like “Future Force Warrior” program (that has been killed and resurrected so many times, it is now hard to keep track of the various iterations), is perhaps over-ambitious.
However, the Indian Army demonstrated in 2016 that it has the intestinal and institutional fortitude to make choices that would embarrass other forces, in its acknowledgement that its 5.56x45mm INSAS rifle (no relation to the aforementioned program) simply wasn’t working. The Indian Army’s 2016 requirement is one of the clearest signs, yet, that the end of the “intermediate cartridge” ballistic dead-end is near, as the Army requirement acknowledged the need for a “full-power” (in this case, the venerable 7.62x51mm) cartridge for frontline service.
As a result, the Indian Army inked deals to both purchase and manufacture the AK-203 rifle in 7.62x39mm (a total of 670,000 – 70,000 directly from Russia, with the remainder to be manufactured under license) in Uttar Pradesh, while also purchasing slightly modified SIG Sauer 716 G2 Patrol rifles in 7.62mmNATO for more specialized units. Simultaneously, a deal for over 16,000 Israeli-made NG-7 ‘Negev’ Light Machine Guns – also in 7.62x51mm NATO – was let in 2019, with the first batch of 6,000 arriving in India in early 2021.
While arguments can certainly be made over some of the choices made in the Army’s reequipping strategy, real armies always strive to stay out on the edge of technological development, while also keeping hold of tools and doctrines that have been proven to work, before adopting newer – but untested – concepts. Truly professional forces are able to acknowledge when they have taken a wrong turn, and move forward to fix the issue…That’s a lesson the US military would benefit from remembering.
One of the challenges for the Army is its somewhat limited organic aircraft and helicopter assets. As it took the common page from other modern forces, India from the beginning separated its air forces from its ground forces. And, also like many modern armies, the result has been very spotty application of close air support (CAS) to the ground forces. Like all air forces, the Indian Air Force tries, but it is hampered in its efforts by both budgetary constraints and the associated need to focus on that service’s core missions. India is not alone in this issue; the US military discovered the problems inherent in this type of division with its own “Key West Agreement” in 1948, a confused decision that would cause delays and confusions that would impact combat operations well into the 1970’s.
While the Indian Army Aviation Corps maintains a perfectly serviceable fleet of light utility airframes, they struggle with one of the endemic problems of interservice rivalry: while the Indian Air Force (IAF) has perhaps twenty perfectly capable Mi-35 attack craft, and have purchased some 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F from Boeing, and have over four-hundred Mi-17V-5’s in service, the lack of dedicated airmobile formations within the Indian Army remains curious, if not worrisome, given that disasters have directly resulted from the lack of a massed airmobile component.
Artillery and Armor
On the brighter side, the Arjun Mk II MBT has finally matured. After a rough start to its development cycle, and serious problems in its earlier version, as well as major cost overruns and an epically long (37 years, to be exact) development cycle, the Arjun has matured into a frontline weapon that is in the top tier of combat vehicles. The only real hurdle to its full-scale deployment, as with virtually every army, is money. On the other hand, its deployment, while slow, has finally allowed India to retire its 1940’s-era T-55’s. At the same time, the Defense Ministry settled on a modernizaton and upgrade program for its Soviet-era T-72’s and T-90’s, the better to avoid too unevenly improving systems.
India’s burgeoning economy, however, has allowed plans to significantly modernize its artillery park to move forward with speed. Systems like the Dhanush howitzer, developed to replace the Haubits FH77/B units acquired from Sweden in the 1980’s; the excellent M1954 (M-46) 155mm model, as upgraded by Soltam, of one of the best artillery pieces ever built, with a maximum unassisted range of 27km/16.77mi, and an assisted range of 38km/23.61mi; rounding off the new purchases is the indiginously developed, truck-mounted Pinaka multiple rocket launcher (similar to the US ‘HIMARS‘), designed to replace the BM-21’s and ‘Smerch’ 9K58’s acquired from the Soviet Union. Something DRDO may want to look at is the EVO-105, which the Freedomist recently reviewed.
A serious problem, however, is in India’s IFV park. The ‘Abhay’ (Sanskrit: अभय, “Fearless”) IFV is still in “development hell” (although the incorporation of the 40mm Bofors L/70 gun is an inspired choice for a main weapon of this type). While DRDO has informed Russia that they intend to pursue an Indian IFV, rather than purchase the BMP-3, the Indian Army is stuck, in the meanwhile, with the abysmal BMP-2. The BMP series, generally speaking, has a well-deserved reputation as the worst of the IFV field: its limited range, cramped compartments, horrible ride and poor armor are legendary…well, perhaps “notorious” is a better term. Armor – as has been decisively proven – cannot operate without infantry support, and infantry need something more than a “battle taxi”, as good as the M113 might be. The original models of the US Marine Corps’ LAV-series is another off-the shelf option that would be far superior to the BMP-series.
India’s motorized military support is firmly anchored on three vehicles: the Ashok Leyland Stallion Mk III & IV, the Maruti Gypsy, and the Tatra 815, although the Tatra 815 is slowly being replaced by newer vehicles. These are all solid, highly capable vehicles, supplemented by smaller numbers of more specialized frames, easily the equal of other nation’s vehicle parks in capacity and reliablity.
As well, mine protected vehicles such as the venerable and battle-tested South African Casspir and the domestically-produced Aditya are entering the vehicle pools in increasing numbers, in ackowledgement of the growing threat of IEDs.
India, as is well-known, maintains a nuclear arsenal and an ongoing development plan. This arsenal is currently estimated at between 150 and 300 devices. Currently, the known weapons available to be deployed are the short-range Prithvi-I and the intermediate-range Agni-III, with longer-range land-based weapons and MIRVs under development. The K-15 Sagarika SLBM, now operational, is now deployed aboard the INS Arihant…and awaiting sister ships.
This developmental pace is surprising only to people who lack a grounding on India’s regional security situation. A nuclear deterrent is definitely something taken seriously by the People’s Republic of China. But the main focus is India’s long-time enemy, Pakistan. While the nuclear program was originally more of a prestige program than an operational imperative, increasing instability in the Muslim world, coupled to both Pakistan and Iran’s nuclear programs, as well as both 9/11 and the 2008 Mumbai attack have transformed the nuclear program into a real and pressing project: India has serious reasons to maintain a nuclear arsenal…which is a very serious range issues that need to be solved, lest they get out of hand.
Tactically, however, the main question is the true state of the Indian military’s nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) program for allowing individual troops to operate in such environments.
The Indian Army is a highly capable, well-disciplined and professional force, with a very long, and honored history. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it is capable of both making hard decisions, as well as admitting its errors, at least to a greater extent than many other top-tier forces. If the Indian Army has any weaknesses, they lay in procurement, which is something the force does not have full control over, although a critical need for a real airmobile component is its worst issue; there are very cogent reasons why virtually all modern militaries have abandoned parachute infantry as primary “first in” forces, in favor of heliborne formations.
The Army well understands that it needs to modernize its forces – too long tied into less-than-capable (to be polite), Soviet-era systems – a task made significantly easier by the increasingly close relationship to Western militaries, militaries that recognize the danger of an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan, as well as an increasingly bellicose China.
Armies exist to buy time through intimidation, for political leaders to avoid conflict. But those forces, for their intimidation strategies to work, must be capable of actually following through on their promise of ability.
Ultimately, the Indian Army succeeds in this quite admirably.