India needs an Air Assault Division
The death of Osama bin Laden is likely to lead to reprisal attacks against western targets and those in India. As the roots of these attacks will in all probability be in Pakistan, military intervention may become necessary under certain circumstances. The Indian armed forces possess limited air assault capabilities, but these need to be modernised and qualitatively upgraded. The Indian army has half a dozen Special Forces battalions, the navy has some MARCOS (marine commandos) and the air force has a Garuda commando unit. These capabilities need to be substantially enhanced, particularly the ability to fly nap-of-the-earth on a dark night while evading radar detection.
General K. Sundarji, former Indian COAS, had advocated the raising of an air assault division comprising three brigade groups by about the year 2000. However, the shoestring budgets of the 1990s did not allow the army to implement his vision. Air assault capability is a significant force multiplier in conventional state-on-state conflict as well. The present requirement is of one air assault brigade group with integral helicopters for offensive employment on India’s periphery. Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, integral firepower, combat service support and logistics support units, this brigade group should be capable of short-notice deployment in India’s extended neighbourhood by air and sea. Simultaneously, plans should be made to raise a division-size rapid reaction force, of which the first air assault brigade group should be a part, by the end of the 12th Defence Plan (2012-17).
The second brigade group of the air assault division should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. The third brigade of the division should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and mountains as well as jungle and desert terrain. All the brigade groups and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air and should be logistically self-contained. The recent commissioning of INS Jalashwa (former USS Trenton) has given the armed forces the capability to transport one infantry battalion by sea. The air force has limited tactical and strategic airlift capability. All of these capabilities must be enhanced to plug gaps in India’s ability to intervene militarily across its borders when it becomes necessary to do so.
Military intervention capabilities, combined with the employment of Special Forces battalions when necessary, will allow India to undertake surgical strikes like Operation Neptune Spear – should diplomacy and covert operations fail to secure critical national interests. Such capabilities will also have deterrent value as these will raise the cost for rogue intelligence agencies like the ISI to support terrorist strikes in India. Unless India becomes the undisputed master of its own backyard in Southern Asia, including the northern Indian Ocean, it will not be recognised as the numero uno regional power, leave alone its aspirations to become a power to reckon with on the world stage. The time to start is now as India’s strategic environment is getting murkier by the day.