The roll out of Army’s new concept of agile Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) was forced to be delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent need of diverting critical resources towards containment efforts. Army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane assured in a press conference that IBGs will be rolled out in requisite time frame as extensive test-bedding and conceptual groundwork had already been carried out prior to pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic Gen. Naravane also advised optimisation of funds allotted and judicious utilization of funds by giving highest priority to operational needs. He further added that this could bring in a few disruptions in the defence production and procurement, but it will be a “temporary phase”.
Integrated Battle Groups or IBG is a concept developed for ensuring enhanced integration and increased self-sufficiency in comparison to the existing Army formations. This allow Indian armies to strike quicker and harder across the border. Simultaneously, it helps India in reinforcing conventional deterrence against terrorism and sub-conventional provocations. This article comprehensively defines the concept of IBG and its essence in contemporary India.
The proposal for launching the first IBG under Indian Army’s 9 corps was granted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2019. The motive behind this proposal was to restructure the 1.3 million strong Indian Army and bring in an overall force transformation to make it ‘leaner and meaner’ and ensure faster punitive and defensive operations in order to enhance its combat effectiveness.
Currently, the structure of Indian army is such that a ‘Brigade’ comprises of three ‘infantry battalion’ along with various support elements. Three-four such ‘Brigades’ comprises a ‘Division’ and three-four such ‘Divisions’ composes a ‘Corps’. These corps are organised and equipped to constitute ‘strike corps’ and ‘holding corps’ for carrying out offensive roles and maintaining territorial integrity of our international border. But the role played by these units are specified in accordance with their formation (strike/holding) and thus their operational role changes with change in formation. Moreover, various combat support elements are grouped together only during operations for combating as battle groups. As a result, their synergy and integration often fall short of their expectations.
What are IBGs?
The concept of Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) was thus crafted to enhance synergy, cohesiveness, reduction of mobilization time and increase combat effectiveness. The proposition was brought by Army Chief Bipin Rawat in one of the four studies initiated on the overall restructuring of the force. IBGs are brigade-sized, agile, self-contained combat units that have the abilities of swiftly launching strikes against adversaries in case of hostilities. They would be bigger than the existing 3000 personal strong brigades but smaller than 16000 personal strong divisions that can be easily deployed for initiating independent ground offensives against enemy. They will be capable of performing both defensive roles to withstand an enemy attack and offensive roles that involve cross-border operations. It will be headed by a major general and each unit will comprise of artillery, infantry, combat engineers, armours, air defence and signal units. Resources of each IBG would tailor-made depending on Threat, Terrain and Tasks. The resources will be light so that they be low on logistics which will help them in mobilising within 12-48 hours depending on their location.
The composition of each IBG would differ from another depending on the terrain where it is located. To explain more, an IBG operating in mountains will be constituted differently from an IBG operating in a desert. In short, IBGs will be a holistic integration involving enhanced functional and operational efficiency, facilitate force modernization, optimise budget expenditure and address aspirations. Most importantly, they will help in avoiding the nuclear threshold. The concept of IBG had been test-bedded by 9 Crops through extensive field exercises and war gaming like ‘Him-Vijay and ‘Kharg Phrahar’. It will bring in the biggest-ever reorganization in Indian Army since the 1980s. Another significant factor behind inception of IBGs is that it operationalizes the doctrinal concepts of the unofficial Cold-Start Doctrine. The planners of Indian military have been deliberating this for more than a decade.
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The Essence of IBG
The need for a new military doctrine had become acute for the Indian army as the old precepts of coping ‘deep-sledgehammer blows’ in high-intensity warfare increasingly become unsuitable in responding to rising sub-conventional threat from Pakistan in recent years. Before ‘1999 Kargil Conflict’, doctrinal plans of the Army were premised on leveraging the enormous conventional superiority of its strike corps wielding substantial artillery and mechanised assistance for procuring a decisive advantage over the enemy. Two major military exercises were undertaken by the Indian military in the 1980s – Digvijay and Brasstacks. These military exercises unambiguously exhibited India’s capability to launch joint air and land operations in the plains of Rajasthan and Punjab. The enormous offensive power exerted the pivot and strike corps had considerably strengthened conventional advantage of India over Pak – Army.
A transformation in the Indo-Pak military equations was observed after nuclearization of South Asia in 1998. Islamabad was seen to employ terrorism as an instrument to blunt the conventional edge of India. After nuclearization, risks of escalation apparently eclipsed the massive conventional advantage of India and restrained the political leadership of India from initiating punitive strikes during the 1999 Kargil Conflict. Subsequent events that was observed during Operation Parakram, more than week of time was taken by India for mobilizing and reorganizing troops into battle groups for launching an offensive into Pakistan, led the Indian army to develop a new military doctrine together with the concept of ‘Cold-Start’ which would also include rapid mobilisation of IBGs across the International Border in the shortest possible time.
Even though the notion of ‘Cold Start’ and formation of IBGs gained considerable traction in the deliberations inside and beyond of Indian Army, the authorities didn’t formally acknowledge it due to the concern of escalation that loomed largely in India’s response calculation in nuclear environment. This escalation syndrome was also a reason that deterred New Delhi from responding to repeated incidents of terrorism including the 26/11 attack. However, currently a change is being observed as government was seen to display greater political resolve in responding to Pakistan’s proxy war against India. Over the last decade, Indian government on one side expediated the long pending defence reforms and on the other vouchsafed higher priority towards implementation of new doctrinal concepts. Some important indicators that portrays changing military posture of India in dealing with emerging military challenges are – the Land Warfare Doctrine-2018 and the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces-2017. The notion of ‘composite IBGs’ for inducing larger flexibility in force application was officially endorsed through the Land Warfare Doctrine of 2018.
The logic behind this doctrine is that it would help India in reinforcing conventional deterrence against terrorism and sub-conventional provocations. The benefits can be yielded from multiple angles. To begin with, IBGs’ ability of rapidly mobilising mechanised formations stationed in the surrounding border regions can retain early attainment of political objectives in a conflict and the elements of surprise. Though critics contend that in the wake of IBGs, Pakistan has also reorganised it forward deployments and improved reconnaissance and surveillance technologies that will help Pakistan to track real-time movement of IBGs, the fact is it does not affect IBGs ability of launching multiple shallow offensives beside securing spatial advantages along a broader front. Although in comparison to heavy corps IBGs are smaller in size yet they carry substantial firepower by combing offensive components from pivot crops and strike corps. Hence, if Pakistan launches any terror strike or sub-conventional strike, it would extract a heft cost for itself on the conventional front. Simultaneously, the mountain strike crops also aim to create capabilities to deter aggressive behaviour of China along the LAC or Sino-India border.
Secondly, even though Pakistan continues to brandish its own Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) for discouraging conventional offensive of India, it is needless to say that the Pakistani menace lacks the credibility. According to most military experts, if Pakistan uses TNWs in the wee hours of the conflict, it will encourage massive response from India and outweigh the political benefits that Islamabad could secure. The concept of TNWs is flawed conceptually as New Delhi does not recognise the difference between strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. In the Indian perspective, the TNWs along with the concept of limited nuclear war from Pakistan is a unwarranted obfuscation of reality. Shri Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary of India, said that India does not differentiate between the tactical and strategic label attached to Pakistani nukes and “any nuclear trade, once initiated, could swiftly and inexorably escalate to the tactical level”. Thus, launching a TNW on the rapidly advancing Indian troops would automatically invite a gigantic response from India.
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Third, the new doctrinal concept has provided the Indian Army a historic opportunity to overcome several structural limitations such as the operational synergy within the different arms of the Indian Army and between the Army and Air force. During the exercises like Him-Vijay and Kharga Prahar, this enhanced operational synergy & mobility was quite apparent and was a clear indicator of increased capability and agility of the army to encounter the wide range of 21st century threats. According to reports, 8-10 IBGs will be deployed depending on the terrain and task specificities.
The Integrated Battle Group has been a colossal reorganisation and profound reform ever introduced by the Indian Army. This reformation is envisaged to bear the conventional power of India against military threats. The IBGs are a plausible conclusion of India’s punitive retaliation policy and gradual escalation against Pakistan as was evident from the cross-border surgical strikes post Uri attack and Pulwama attack. Post-Pulwama, India pledges to inflict unacceptable punishment to adversaries within shortest possible interval and cost becomes feasible with IBGs enabling an element of greater unpredictability to New Delhi’s response repertoire.
In particular, the concept of Integrated Battle Groups is applicable to all Indian frontiers, albeit with customisation to terrain and other operational factors. Hence, it is apparent that this concept of IBG is one of the best doctrinal innovations ever developed by India in its warfighting history that involves a decisive shift in India’s stratagem in military contingencies and future wars beside offering a lesson to other nations across the globe who are fighting the scourge of terrorism and proxy war.