“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt,” Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War
Indian Army is the second-largest and the 4th out of 138 most powerful militaries in the world according to the 2020 Global Firepower report.
The pillars of Indian Army’s ‘strength’ include 7 commands, 13 corps, 18 infantry divisions, 10 mountain divisions, 4 RAPID Divisions, 3 armoured divisions, independent brigades, and a number of combat support formations. These formations include over 300 artillery regiments, 350 infantry battalions, 62 armoured regiments, and 3 “strike” corps based at – Mathura (I Corps), Ambala (II Corps) and Bhopal (XXI Corps).
India also has close to 4000 main battle tanks, 2000 armoured personnel carriers, 4300 artillery guns and 200 light helicopters.
In the last couple of years, the Indian Army has proactively developed mountain warfare and quick reaction formations which can strike and hit the enemy – hard, where it hurts most.
The new combat doctrine of the Indian Army is that holding formations engage and contain the enemy, whilst the strike formations attack somewhere else, where the enemy least expects India to hit. To give shape to this vision the Indian Army and Indian Navy have plans to set up a marine brigade.
Another new concept being evaluated in the Army is Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) that is swift and self-contained, brigade-sized fighting units. Each IBG headed by a Major General is expected to be capable to perform both cross-border surgical operations, and defensive roles in case of an enemy attack. Each IBG will be equipped suitably depending on the terrain where they are located and have their own artillery, armoured, combat engineers and signal units. An IBG operating in a desert will be differently equipped than another operating in the mountains and expected to be able to mobilize in 12 to 48 hours.
In the past elephants and horses played an important role to strike hard, penetrate and play havoc with the enemy. Indian military history is replete with lessons on the importance of tanks to crush the enemy’s will to fight. In the 1947-48 war Battle of Zojila Indian Army played a mind-game by dismantled the M5 Stuart light tanks and put them across Zozila pass where they were reassembled. This saved Ladakh from being lost because the Pakistan Army wasn’t expecting the beastly war machine at such heights. In the 1962 war, just six AMX13 Light Tanks airlifted to Chushul and Nathu La stalled the Chinese advance. Once again during the 1965 War — Battle of Phillora, Battle of Asal Uttar and Battle of Chawinda were essentially tank battles in which Indian tanks made a mince-meat out of Pakistani Paton tanks. The battle in Khem Karan will be remembered as the largest tank battles in military history in which over 100 Pakistani tanks were damaged. Once again in 1971, during the battle of Longewala and battle of Basantar Indian Sherman and Centurion Tanks decimated the Pakistani forces and made them decide to surrender than to die.
In the past one hundred years since their inception tanks and armoured vehicles on tracks or wheels have been a battle-winning factor all over the world. Not just in India, tanks have been one of the most important weapon systems that changed the complexion of many battlefields. Ever since World War I, when Britain introduced the first self-propelled armoured fighting vehicles tanks and armoured vehicles have been an indelible fixture of land warfare. The Battle of Kursk – 5 July to 23 August 1943 – proved to be a turning point in World War 2. The Germans lost just five Panzer IV tanks but left more than 200 Soviet tanks into smouldering wrecks. In what was one of the largest tank battles in history, a German SS tank commander reportedly destroyed 22 Soviet tanks in under an hour. The famous Battle of Kursk saw fierce clashes involving almost 6,000 German and Soviet tanks in France, Belgium and eastern Europe.
During the Second World War, General Rommel nicknamed dessert fox routed Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Rommel’s Afrika Corps waded through icy waters to capture 100,000 Allied prisoners in the Second Battle of El Alamein. This changed the course of the Second World War.
Tanks were invented by the British, and for the first time saw action against the Germans in the Battle of Somme in northern France on Sept. 15, 1916.
Just imagine the terror in the eyes of even the most battle-hardened German soldiers 100 years ago to see the giant machine, rumbling towards them from a distance, crushing through barbed-wire obstacles, trenches and bunkers on the way. The fact that these fighting machines were bulletproof and carried cannon and machine guns wherever they went, made it a difficult decision for the enemy to stay and die, or to panic and run.
There were a number of occasions during World War I when the Germans on the front line ran away in terror. Even the British tank men found it difficult to use the new instrument that wasn’t user-friendly. Forget the enemy even the men inside the tank suffered from the engine’s heat and noxious exhaust fumes.
Most of the British commanders who had never seen a tank before did not know how to use the bulky and huge 30-ton machines in battle. The result was that almost half of the tanks broke down before coming in contact with the enemy. Another big problem was that the tanks did not have radio communication for coordination with the infantry and artillery. But the heavy losses made the Germans develop anti-tank weapons and tactics.
Even in the post-World War phase – During the 1956 Suez War Israeli armoured units typically had the advantage, mainly due to good tactics and unit cohesion. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan made extensive use of tanks and armoured vehicles. Israeli Air Force and tanks helped capture Golan Heights in Syria before the United Nations-brokered ceasefire took effect. According to estimates some 20,000 Arabs and 800 Israelis died in just 132 hours of fighting. The Yom Kippur War proved to be another reminder about the need for armoured and infantry units to work together.
The last battle, which saw the large deployment of tanks supported by artillery and air force, took place in the 1973 Arab-Israel war on the Golan Heights in the deserts of Sinai.
Today one of the biggest questions in the minds of military strategists is whether tanks have a place in modern warfare?
The 100-year-old king of war seems to have met its match, due to deadly and relatively inexpensive anti-tank missiles (ATGMs) in the hands of infantry. In 1973, AT-3 Sagger man-portable anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) operated by the Egyptian infantry inflicted heavy losses on the Israeli armoured formations.
Tanks are best suited for flat areas like a desert, or plains but face problems to move around in mountains and jungles. This is one of the reasons why in the 1980s, the MoD in the UK reportedly commissioned a paper to evaluate whether to altogether replace the existing tanks with helicopters.
No wonder Germany, Britain and France which once had thousands of tanks in its arsenal have started cutting down on the number. The United States today has a lesser number of tanks in total than employed by the Germans in the battle of Kursk. In many modern battles which are fought largely from behind a computer screen, tanks are no longer needed in bulk quantity as before.
Tanks in all shapes and sizes
Tanks can be classified into light, medium, and heavy tanks, based on size and weight. Each of these has some strengths and weaknesses. Apart from this tanks can have a multifaceted role like laying bridges, clearing minefields, demolishing fortifications, recovery of breakdown vehicles, flamethrowing and destroying enemy tanks.
The primary objective of a tank is to act as a force-multiplier and boost the attack capability of infantry soldiers in all weather and visibility conditions. Light tanks are ideally suited for reconnaissance missions. The light tanks can prove to be a game-changer in both defensive and offensive operations.
There is a popular saying in the armed forces that tracks are for deserts, wheels are for mountains. The biggest plus point of light tanks and ICVs (infantry combat vehicles) is their safety (armour protection), firepower and ability to operate in all types of terrains. A light tank can operate as a lethal mobile amphibious platform and cover vast distances in a matter of hours.
The limitations of tanks
However, in spite of their multifaceted role tanks apparently have some drawbacks.
If the Army Chief General MM Naravane is to be believed –large main battle tanks have a limited role to play in the changing character of the 20th-century warfare. “Icons of the 20th-century warfare like large main battle tanks and fighter aircraft are on their way out,” the Army Chief was quoted as saying.
“In the five odd decades in Iraq, Lebanon, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria, armoured formations have either followed or supported the application of airpower and artillery, or else their units and sub-units have been committed in smaller tactical groupings as part of infantry – armour assaults in urban terrain,” the Army Chief said.
“During the war in the Donbass, a single-fire mission by Russian artillery destroyed two Ukrainian mechanised battalions in a few minutes in what became known as the ‘Battle of Zelenopillya’,” he added.
The logic behind this supposedly is that slow-moving tanks are bulky, noisy, and outdated war machines which are like ducks – easy to target and shoot down. Tanks can also be very vulnerable to artillery; and air attack. The noise, smoke and dust raised by a moving tank column can alert the enemy – miles away.
But in spite of all this, the writing on the wall is clear to one and all. Tanks cannot operate in isolation and have to work in tandem with – infantry, airforce and artillery in the highly complex and demanding battlefield.
All said and done tanks remain an important tactical and psychological element. They might be big and, slow but cannot be done away with, at least not yet.