The Ultimate Arm - Infantry

Indian history of warfare is heavily dominated by the infantry. History abounds with exemplary bravery of Infantry men. Infantry units have won 61 Victoria Cross, 808 Military Cross and 54 Battle Honours preindependence. Post-independence 17 PVCs, 149 MVCs, 47 Ashok Chakras and 208 Kirti Chakras have been awarded to Infantry. The magnitude of contribution in various wars conveys the indispensability of Infantry.

Issue 5 - 2020 By Lt General Dushyant Singh (Retd)Photo(s): By Wikipedia, ADGPI / TwitterIllustration(s): By SP Guide Pubns
The Battle of Saragarhi in 1897 is known for the bravery shown by Indian Infantry

“The least spectacular arm yet without them you cannot win a battle, indeed without them you can do nothing — nothing at all.”

Field Marshal Montgomery

Ancient Epoch

“I Shriman Inder Mahander Rajrajeswar Maharajadhiraj Shri Hari Singhji, Ruler of Jammu and Kashmir State, in the exercise of my sovereignty in and over my said State do hereby execute this, my Instrument of Accession...” signed on October 26, 1947 and was accepted by the Governor General of India Lord Mountbatten on October 27, 1947. Within minutes of the acceptance of the instrument of accession at 0500 hrs, on October 27, 1947, Lt Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai Commanding Officer of 1 SIKH with two companies took off from Safdarjung Airport in a Dakota aircraft piloted by Wing Commander K.L. Bhatia. 3 hours 55 minutes later landed on a rough surfaced airfield of 600 meters at Srinagar. Wave of six aircrafts air landed the troops of 1 SIKH. It was the first Indian Army Unit to set foot in Jammu and Kashmir. It is by far the fastest mobilisation of troops at least in the history of Indian Army. Even before Lt Col Dewan could regroup his unit, he was sucked into the battle with the Pakistani troops and Razakars who were menacingly close to entering the Srinagar town. What followed was a saga of grit, guts, and sacrifices hitherto unparalleled in the history of warfare. This fateful day of October 27, 1947 is remembered by the entire Indian Army Infantry fraternity as the Infantry day to commemorate and honour our brave infantry soldiers who gave the supreme sacrifice to protect our country.

The Instrument of Accession by the ruler of J&K allowed the Indian Infantry to land in Srinagar on October 27, 1947

History of warfare and that of Infantry are synonyms with each other. In the western history, Spartans and Roman Legions were essentially Infantry men and constituted the majority of the Army. During Sun Tzu era (sixth century BC) Chinese Army probably had only horsed cavalry and foot soldiers. In the Indian context, mention of Kshatriya (warriors) is found in Rig Veda written in 2000 BC. Even in Chandragupt’s Army out of the 6,50,000 strong around 6,00,000 were Infantrymen. Whichever way one looks at, the role of Infantry was much more evolved in India than anywhere else in the world.

Contemporary Era

In modern history of warfare too, the Infantry has remained the primary arm of warfare world over. The pre-eminence of Infantry can be appreciated by the scale of participation of Infantry in various wars. Infantry accounted for 1,42,962 of the 1,91,701 deaths among Army ground battle casualties during WW II. Further the Infantry accounted for 6,61,059 of 8,20,877 Army ground casualties of all types. If history is any indicator, even in the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the scale of employment and casualties of Infantry are following a similar pattern.

Pre-eminence of Mountainous Terrain Along the Borders

Indian history of warfare is also heavily dominated by the infantry. There are multitude of examples of classic battles by the Infantry. The Saga of Saragarhi of 1897, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now in Pakistan was an archetypical battle of Last Stand. Defended by only 21 soldiers of 36th SIKH Regiment (now 4 SIKH) under the fiery Havildar Ishar Singh repelled attacks after attacks by over 1000 tribal army until all breathed their last. Such was their valour that all of them were awarded the Indian Order of Merit (Equivalent of the Victoria Cross). Similar is the narrative of Rezangla fought by Major Shaitan Singh, and his C Company of 13 KUMAON in 1962. It was a do or die battle of last stand by the indomitable Ahirs of 13 KUMAON. 114 Indian soldiers out of 120 were martyred but not before, they decimated 1,300 Chinese soldiers. 57 years later once again the brave Infantrymen of the Indian Army have seized Rezangla and other dominating heights on the Kailash range by their dare devil action out-maneuvering the Chinese troops during the current face off with China. The dragon has been effectively checkmated a befitting revenge of the current Galwan clash and 1962 Rezangla Battle. History abounds with exemplary bravery of Infantryman. Major Somnath Sharma, Hav Abdul Hamid, Hony Captain Bana Singh, Captain Batra or Captain Manoj Pandey the list is endless. Infantry units have won 61 Victoria Cross, 822 Military Medals, 808 Military Cross, and 54 Battle Honours. 8,993 awards have been awarded to infantry soldiers pre-independence. Post-independence 17 PVCs out of 21 (81 per cent), 149 MVC out of 218 (68 per cent), 47 Ashok Chakras out of 83 (55 per cent), 208 Kirti Chakras out of 458 (45 per cent) have been awarded to Infantry. 2,196 Infantrymen were awarded out of 4,099 (54 per cent) awards. Infantry battle casualties post-Independence during all wars and CI/CT operations until September 2020 have been 25,387. The magnitude of contribution in various wars conveys the indispensability of Infantry.

Relevance of Infantry for India

Wars in the future will be technology driven, non-contact and in the grey zone with blurring of lines between peace and war. Should the adversary decide on conventional war fighting it will be characterised by hybrid activities ranging from cyber war, information war, non-contact rocket/missile battles causing mass destruction and casualties. Lt General D.S. Hooda, former Northern Army Commander, while agreeing with the preeminence of cyber, electronic warfare (EW), information dominance, and non-contact nature of war, cautions against overlooking the human, social, and political dimensions from warfare. Wars in the future will have to be fought in an integrated manner with primacy of technology and information dominance. However, Infantry will remain indispensable for final physical securing of objectives.

Making the Infantry Future Ready

India will remain involved in mountain warfare due to bulk of our frontiers being along inhospitable jungle terrain, hostile weather conditions, super high, and high altitude areas. Barring the stretch between Sir Creek to Akhnoor (2,300 km), rest of the LC/AG PL and the Mac Mohan Line (5,115 km) is inhospitable mountainous terrain with some of the stretches being permanently snow clad with altitudes ranging upto 5,000 m, under subzero temperatures and rarified oxygen content conditions. Brig Deepak Sinha an established Defence Expert associated with Observer Research Foundation has said that “while technology, especially ICT, Artificial Intelligence and robotics may have transformed warfare... its impact on forces deployed and required to fight in mountains has been minimal. Infantry with its all weather, all terrain mobility, survivability, and flexibility is an ideal arm suited for combat in mountainous and jungle terrain in India. The Kargil war fully validates this dimension.

Internal Security Situation

J&K conflict, NE Insurgencies, and threat of DAESH and AQ in the Indian Sub-Continent, will continue to dominate the Internal Security situation in the country demanding hybrid response including physical neutralisation of such threats especially in the border regions of the country. As on date Infantry, remains heavily committed in Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorist operations. There are 65 RR Battalions besides five Infantry Divisions deployed along the LC / IB management in Punjab & UT of J&K. Similarly, three Infantry Divisions are committed in the NE. These requirements are not going to end in a hurry.

Infantry was always sidelined in procurement of weapons and equipment, as the bigger weapon platforms of other arms and services are always on higher priority and consume the limited capital defence budget of India

Lessons from ongoing wars in various parts of the world also suggest the continuation of Infantry as the primary force in warfare. While technology was at display in Iraq and Afghanistan in the initial stages of the war as time elapsed and intensity of attacks by Taliban, AQ and ISIS increased commitment of Infantry by the US and its allies grew at an alarming pace. At one time, US had over 1.5 million boots on ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and bulk of these forces were Infantry or Special Forces. It was due to this stark reality that US Secretary of Defense in 2018 established the Close Combat Lethality Task Force (CCLTF). The aim being to enhance the “lethality, survivability, resiliency, and readiness” of the basic tactical ground combat unit — the infantry squad.” India needs to take similar steps.

Modernisation of Infantry

Being the least spectacular arm, devoid of optical publicity due to lack of large weapon platforms such as tanks, guns and missiles, Infantry has remained an understated combat entity. Moreover, it was always sidelined in procurement of weapons and equipment, as the bigger weapon platforms of other arms and services are always on higher priority and consume the limited capital defence budget of India. It is a pity that Infantry Battalions are constraint to fight a war with 5.56 INSAS Rifle. The INSAS is no match to the weapons of other countries. Fortunately the Army has taken due cognizance and steps are being taken on a war footing to address the state of affairs of the infantry.

Recommended Reforms

A Rand study has predicted that future wars are likely to be of four types, namely counterterrorism, gray-zone conflicts, asymmetric fights, and high-end fights. As per Brookings Study by Edward G. Miller, Revolution in Military Affairs is likely to take place in four major categories. The first is sensors, second computer and communications systems, third major weapons platforms and fourth are other types of weapons systems and technologies. In other words, modernisation and combat preparedness programme of Infantry must focus on developing its capability to fight in the four domains that is counter terrorism, grey zone, asymmetric and high-end fights by harnessing the emerging technologies in the next 20 year time horizon. It is heartening to note that the Army has made a 10 year plan with near term requirements being met in the first five years and futuristic capability development in the next five years. Some of the salient inductions being planned are related to upgrading the lethality, survivability, situational awareness, mobility and training. Modern assault rifles ex import, 3rd gen ATGMs, mini UAVs, RPAs, modular BPJs, ballistic helmets, all-terrain vehicles, and vertical wind tunnels are a few examples. In the next five years high end technologies such 5th generation missile systems, robotics, and AI based battlefield enablers would be the focus.

Parting Thoughts

Tri-Service joint warfare fully integrated with other components of war will be an indispensable condition to achieve victory in future conflicts. However, these wars will continue to remain infantry centric in the Indian Scenario. Moreover, only when the Infantry physically secures the objective and hoists the tri colour that victory is deemed complete. Encountering devastative enemy fire, unsurmountable terrain, hazardous weather condition, spurs the adrenaline in the invincible Indian infantry warriors to achieve the impossible – need the nation be reminded of victorious attacks by the Infantry of virtually unassailable features like Tiger Hill, Pt 4875, Tololing, Pt 5203. No other country in the world has ever achieved such a feat.


Lt General Dushyant Singh (Retd) is Ex Corps Commander 11 Corps, Ex Chief of Staff Eastern Command, Ex Commandant Army War College and Ex IG (Ops) NSG.