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India must invest more in land forces—victory is measured in terms of territory gained or lost

Modernisation of the Navy and Air Force, which are ‘platform centric’ and operating in only one medium, is relatively easy

by General Manoj Mukund Naravane (Retd)

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asserts that humans did not tame land; rather, it is the land that tamed and domesticated humankind. Once crops were sown, a community could no longer follow a nomadic lifestyle. It had to stay put, not only to grow and harvest the crop but also to protect it from marauding animals and rival tribes. Over the centuries, with more and more investments made in land – from huts to high-rises, roads to railways, farms to factories – it has become the centrepiece of all human endeavour. Once these communities developed a sense of identity and control over a geographical space, it also became necessary to defend not only the land, but also one’s identity as a tribe, kingdom or nation. Thus were sown the seeds of conflict, which persist to this day.

This attachment to land has become so deep–rooted that every inch of it is contested – whether the dispute is between farmers or nations. More than sixty per cent of domestic litigation revolves around land issues, and at any given point in time, there are more than a dozen ongoing armed conflicts between nations over control of land.

It is not surprising, therefore, that India’s wars have all revolved over the possession of various tracts of land. These disputes over land with Pakistan and China are still unresolved and will remain the underlying factor for any future conflict. Possession or having physical presence, often referred to as ‘boots on the ground’, will always remain the first and possibly only feature of ownership.

Every Soldier Is Needed To Protect Land

The armed forces are charged first and foremost to secure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation. How they go about discharging their roles will be different. However, the outcome of all their efforts, whether individual or collective, will fundamentally always be about owning the land. GK Cunningham of the US Army War College, citing historian TR Fehrenbach’s book This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History, notes that land is the persistent place where human beings become civilized and preserve the fullness of their humanity. “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life – but if you desire to protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground….by putting [your] young men into the mud,” Cunningham wrote for the US Army War College, responding to a question on what will be the critical (or decisive) domain of war-fighting, and why.

India would do well to remember this – that we will have to put our young soldiers, our Agniveers, not only in the mud but also in the snow and sand if we have to secure our territorial integrity.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, already in its second year and showing no signs of ending, only reinforces this fact. The war being fought over a front of more than 2,500 km, with an active front line of over 1,000 km, has degenerated into battles reminiscent of the two World Wars. Gains are being measured in mere hundreds of metres, achieved at great human cost. It has also brought to the fore that the nature of war has not changed fundamentally in spite of the much-vaunted advances in the technological domain, collectively termed the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

At the end of the day, all these new technologies have only one purpose: to support and enhance survivability of soldiers in the field, whose sole aim is to hold ground, whether it’s some ‘corner of a foreign field’ or a barren piece of land where ‘not even a blade of grass grows’. Nothing much seems to have changed from the Korean War of the 20th century to the war in Ukraine of the 21st century.

Invest In And Modernise Land Forces

That being the case, India must invest much more in its land forces. There would always be competing forces at play, especially in the face of budgetary constraints. Each of the three Services — the Army, Navy, and Air Force – have their unique and important roles to discharge. Yet, there is no getting away from the reality that victory will be measured in terms of land gained or lost.

The skirmishes in Eastern Ladakh in May-August 2020 or the face-off in Yangtse in December 2022 only underscore the imperative of being able to seize and hold ground. It is the soldier on the ground who has to be made into a weapon system, capable of dealing with myriad threats ranging from grey zone to sub-conventional warfare and conventional to NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) warfare. This is no easy task, given the diversity of the terrain along our borders with Pakistan and China.

Modernisation of the Navy and Air Force, which are ‘platform centric’ and operate in only one medium, is relatively easy. The numbers required are comparatively less, but the unit costs are high, necessitating large initial investments and cumulative liabilities. The acquisition of 36 Rafale aircraft cost approximately Rs 59,000 crore, while a single aircraft carrier, without its complement of aircraft, reportedly costs about Rs 23,000 crore.

The modernisation of the Army, on the other hand, is more soldier-centric and has to cater for a whole range of equipment for the different arms and services. Each of these should be capable of operating at extreme ends of the terrain and temperature spectrum, from deserts at plus 40 degrees Celsius to snow-clad high-altitude areas at minus 40 degrees Celsius. The unit cost of the equipment may be low, but the numbers required may even be in the thousands. To elucidate, there is a need for a medium tank for the deserts and plains, capable of operating at plus 40 degrees, and at the same time for a light tank for the mountains capable of operating at the other extreme.

Modernisation of the artillery would need over 2,000 guns. With a price tag varying between Rs 10-15 crore each, this envisages an outlay of anything between Rs 20,000 to 30,000 crore, which is about as much as for a single carrier. Unfortunately, these non-glamorous operationally urgent requirements do not have the same star power and public appeal and, hence, tend to be put on the back burner.

The outcome of future wars, like the ones in the past, will be measured in terms of square kilometres lost or gained. If the balance sheet has to be in India’s favour, then the pre-eminence of land warfare will have to be acknowledged and modernisation of the land forces prioritised. Only then will we be able to achieve the vision of an Akhand Bharat.

General Manoj Mukund Naravane PVSM AVSM SM VSM is a retired Indian Army General who served as the 28th Chief of the Army Staff. Views are personal

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