Army Today

Support Elements as Fighting Arms

© The Tribune - 19 June 2001

Artillery first appeared on the Indian scene at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Babar's invading army had brought with it cannons and muskets, till then not seen on the Indian battlefields, though by then guns were in use on naval vessels along the West Coast of India. It is generally believed that it was the appearance of this new weapon that resulted in the rout of Ibrahim Lodhi's far larger army. Yet some historians are of the view that the more important factor was that among Babar's troops, 90% were prepared to die on the battlefield at Panipat, while the number fired with the same spirit was much less in Ibrahim Lodhi's army. This simple fact has relevance even today and was amply demonstrated at Kargil. Be that as it may. One could not afford to overlook the arrival of a decisive weapon. Over time the deployment of artillery saw many changes, due to changing tactical concepts and advancements in technology. It was during World War I that for the first time extensive use of artillery was made. Guns of large calibre ranging from 8.25 inches (called 'Big Bertha' with projectile weight of 228 lbs) to 18 inches were deployed. The Germans produced a gun with an unusually long barrel which had a range of 100 miles and the projectile reached a height of 30 miles at its maximum trajectory. It was not so much in the calibre and range of guns that World War I relates to employment of artillery as to the mass deployment of guns and the enormous quantities of munitions delivered onto the enemy positions. Defensive positions were subjected to hours of continuous shelling and yet the defender was able to beat back attacks with crippling losses in human lives. Studies showed that it took more than five and a half hours of continuous pounding to lower the morale of the defenders. One of the major lessons to emerge from the employment of artillery during this war was that against disciplined troops in well-fortified positions, it was less than effective. In some of the battles of this war, millions of rounds were fired, and yet the attacks invariably failed.

With increased range of guns, these could be deployed 10 to 15 km to the rear, well away from the enemy, with only small OP parties (three to four persons in each party) deployed ahead in the forward defences or with the assaulting troops depending on the nature of the operation. That has, by and large, remained the pattern of deployment to this day. The addition of air observation posts and remotely piloted vehicles in certain situations, can result in redundancy of OP parties as well. This manner of deployment, well away from the enemy, makes this important component of the army a supporting arm, quite distinct from those who seek or make direct contact with the enemy and gets to grips with it, both in offensive and defensive battles and consequently are termed as fighting arms. On some rare occasions single gun may be employed to engage a target across open sights (though in mountains ATGMs can achieve better results). Similarly sappers often move with the assaulting troops to deal with mines/obstacles/fortifications and/or construct bridges while under fire. Yet all this does not qualify these support elements as fighting arms.

The very nature of the tasks and employment of supporting arms, their ethos, training, exposure and experience of their officers limits capacity to command fighting units and formations in battle. Only officers of exceptional ability, experience, exposure and performance are selected for induction into what is termed, 'General Cadre' which otherwise consists, essentially of officers from the fighting arms. There have been sustained attempts by many senior artillery officers to re-categorise artillery from supporting arm to fighting arm. General Rodrigues tried hard to bring about this shift. Based on inputs provided to him by interested officers he contended that artillery had much higher percentage of high calibre officers compared to fighting arms and therefore, by keeping them out of the circle of fighting arms officers category (General Cadre) the army was losing out on good material for higher command. He had to be provided data pertaining to officers of all arms with above average performance on a block of 11 junior command, nine senior command and 12 staff college courses, selected at random, which was indeed enlightening for him. At these courses equal opportunity is provided to all officers to compete amongst themselves and their comparative merit is assessed against a common yardstick. These courses essentially relate to employment of armoured and infantry units and formations in battle. The data showed that the category of high grade officers in infantry were 21%, armoured corps 31.1%, artillery 10.9% and engineers 10.8%. That knocked the bottom out of the argument and the plan. The acronym COAS could not be made to mean, Chief of Artillery Staff!

Artillery over the years has been equipped with highly sophisticated and lethal weapon systems and has seen much refinement with the added ability to shoot and scoot! It is the most potent supporting weapon on the modern battlefield. The Russians call it the God of War. Yet the very nature of its employment and role in battle and the distance it keeps from the enemy places it in the category of supporting arms. The core issue is of command effectiveness for combat formations in battle. Balancing this basic requirement against sops or compensation to combat arms officers in way of priority in allotment of accommodation and other benefits to make room for artillery officers for command of infantry and armoured formations, as recommended by Lt. Gen. Joshi's committee is irrelevant, illogical and the long-term deleterious effect of this policy will surely surface during war. Individual corps and regimental identity and spirit have sustained various components of the Indian Army through all these stressful years of toil and turmoil and has been a matter of, not only pride but the very raison d'etre to excel in peace and war. To term it as casteism between regiments within the army is to display gross ignorance of the very basis of regimental spirit, traditions and underlying motivation to outperform the others. As one moved up the command ladder, though some insignias of parent corps or regiments remained with the uniform, as a matter of regimental identity and pride, the thinking, perspective and actions or misconceived notions of petty loyalty no longer related to the parent corps or regiment. That has been the guiding principle and the unwritten law for the higher command.

It is currently being argued and supported by the Joshi Committee that artillery has done a great job during the Kargil operations and it warrants a reward in the form of its transition from supporting arm to fighting arm. But can such an argument hold water! Is it for the first time that artillery has accomplished its task of providing effective fire support to the infantry? However, during the Kargil conflict, the enemy had no fortified defences and had to make do with 'Sangars' which were merely piles of stones with no overhead cover (as noted in the Kargil Review Committee Report) and consequently the troops occupying these had little chance of survival or to effectively use their weapons while under artillery shelling. Even so we had to fire more than a few lakhs of ammunition to kill an estimated 700 of the enemy (perhaps 25% amongst these were killed by the assaulting troops - Kargil Review Committee figures.) Still, as always, the infantry had to take the enemy positions at the point of its bayonets. On the other hand amongst our own casualties of 500 dead and three times the number is wounded, 70% of injuries were attributed to enemy artillery fire (GOC 15 Corps figures). Own artillery was unable to neutralise enemy guns in spite of having fired over 60,000 rounds in counter bombardment tasks. Further the other cause for our high casualties was the large danger zone of our medium guns (Bofors) compounded by slow rate of advance due to height and steep slopes, thereby exposing own troops to enemy fire for much longer duration. Firing a few rounds from guns in direct firing mode can hardly justify the claim for transition from combat support arm to combat arm.

Therefore, the argument and recommendation by Joshi's Committee regarding misconceived notions of regimental rivalries etc and that the artillery's performance in Kargil operations etc merits its claim to a fighting arm status, lacks substance, logic and is motivated. Being powerless and unable to influence and manage the external environments (improve service conditions and promotion prospects to make service attractive, removing anomalies created by the Fifth Pay Commission, better deal for ex-servicemen, etc) the higher command of the army has been constantly tampering with the internal. A few examples should suffice to highlight this point. Shortage of officers was met by lowering intake standards and shortening period of training at the IMA. Insufficiency of volunteers for hard life of infantry was overcome by adopting the 'Block System' at the Indian Military Academy, rather than making entry into this arm attractive through obtaining special allowances etc. The change from the earlier system to block system has increased the number of disgruntled cadets who are being forced into the infantry and other arms/services against their choice. Unable to obtain from the government, improvement in career prospects for officers, there has been periodic juggling with the annual confidential reporting format, reducing it to a mathematical exercise. The higher command must focus on the external and insist on getting for the service what is fair and its rightful due rather than let failure and frustration on that front drive it to turn, topsy-turvy, the internal. Finally Lt. Gen. Joshi's recommendations, devoid as they are of merit and justification, will create a hiatus and dissentions in the officer cadre of the army and deliver a body blow to the existing cohesiveness and camaraderie and the confidence in the impartiality of the higher command. The adverse effect of these will definitely surface during war.

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