Infantry — The Indispensable Factor

At the culmination of any war or conflict, occupation of territory, tactically or as part of conquest, requires infantry to actually get in there. Ultimately it is boots on ground of the infantryman that will signal victory.

Issue 5 - 2021 By Lt General P.C. Katoch (Retd)Photo(s): By ADGPI/Facebook, territorialarmy.in, PRO Defence Jammu / Twitter
Infantrymen bear the largest brunt in conflicts and war, measured by the number of casualties and both physical and psychological stress

In response to the 13th round of India-China Corps Commander-level talks in Eastern Ladakh on October 10, 2021, the statement issued by PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) included, “China is firm in its resolve to safeguard national sovereignty.” Picking up on ‘sovereignty’, an Indian defence analyst went verbose on video that Ladakh is now a matter of sovereignty and that China’s war on India will be cyber, artificial intelligence, space, economic, algorithms, etc. and that the Indian Army should forget about “boots on ground”. Beijing would certainly be elated if we thin down our troops along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but think about why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has massed up troops on the India-Tibet border, moved up reserves and is developing the border infrastructure at furious pace?

Sub-conventional operations form a very important segment of war and the most important counter for this is boots on ground. Technology no doubt provides tremendous boost to proxy forces but no amount of technological advances can counter these forces without adequate boots on ground – latest example being the US-NATO debacle in Afghanistan.

With the type of hostile neighbours India has in China and Pakistan, together with unsettled borders and the illegal territorial claims by this evil duo, there is no way that India can dispense with boots on ground. Besides, Pakistan’s continued attempts of infiltration and its proxy war supported by China appears an unending affair at least till Pakistan is balkanised.

As for China, its new Border Law states, “The PRC’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is inviolable and the state shall take measures to safeguard them.” This very clearly relates to all illegal territorial claims that China has in India, Bhutan and elsewhere. The law demands that China should speed up construction of civilian and border infrastructure and while emphasising jointness it gives complete overall authority to the PLA in border areas.

China has been practicing ‘Legal Warfare’ over the past decades by ‘fabricating’ and building evidence to justify its illegal territorial claims. The new Border Law is a mischievous adjunct to China’s ‘Legal Warfare’. The important issue to note is that while the Border Law legitimises China’s sovereignty over disputed areas along the Indo-Tibet border through establishment of permanent infrastructure in these areas, Beijing’s illegal territorial claims in India are much more than what the PLA is occupying presently. Hence, China can be expected to continue its aggression.

At the culmination of any war or conflict, what will eventually matter is where your boots are finally on ground. This is irrespective of the means employed in the war or conflict through the use of ground, air, sea, space, cyber-space, electromagnetic, economic and what not. And, most importantly the boots on ground translates basically to the Infantry. Extreme amounts of firepower can be brought on to the target by air, artillery, unmanned platforms or space but this cannot find the enemy, cannot totally pin him and cannot control territory or area. Ultimately it is boots on ground of the infantryman that will signal victory.

The air power and artillery barrage may destroy over ground structures and cause some damage to underground defences too, but that means little if the enemy continues to hold the ground and can rebuild. Occupation of territory, tactically or as part of conquest, requires infantry to actually get in there. As a result it is the most important element of war. It’s easy to fly in and bomb targets, but losing men and equipment in an effort to take and hold the objective, especially in conventional war, which also requires using combined arms to facilitate resupply, Infantry is the most underrated part of the military.

That is why in acknowledgement of the above, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery had said, “The least spectacular arm (Infantry) yet without them you cannot win a battle, indeed without them you can do nothing — nothing at all.” Montgomery’s contemporary Field Marshal Archibald Wavell elaborated the importance of Infantry further and famously said, “When it was victory, the cavalier claimed it outright, the gunner boasted of his caliber, the engineer and signalman publicised their worth, but the infantryman stood silent with victory at his feet.”

The saga of sacrifices and victories of the Indian infantrymen before and after Independence are well scripted and need no elaboration.

A post on social media by a veteran says, “the word Infantry comes from the French word ‘infanterie circa 1570 AD, from an even older Italian word ‘infanteria’, meaning ‘foot soldiers’; but Napoleon called his guns the ‘Queen of The Battle’; the British coined the word as they would not name or settle for an acronym of ‘His Majesty King of the Battle’; therefore, the British termed Infantry as the ‘Queen of The Battle’, and keeping aside inhibitions of the British, in actual terms the Infantry is an indispensable factor – ‘Master of the Battlefield’.

Another explanation why the Infantry is called the “Queen of Battle” is because the queen is master in the game of chess, which is synonymous with the chessboard of the battlefield. The infantry is the main land combat force of the military during war and no-war-no-peace or peace. The Infantry has much greater local situational awareness than other military forces, due to their inherent intimate contact with the battlefield assisted with modern surveillance means including drones.

Above is vital for engaging and infiltrating enemy positions, holding and defending ground, securing battlefield victories, maintaining military area control and security both at and behind the front lines, for capturing ordnance or materiel, taking prisoners, and occupying the objective(s). Infantry can more easily recognise, adapt and respond to local conditions, weather, and changing enemy weapons or tactics. They can operate in a wide range of terrain inaccessible to military vehicles, and can operate with a lower logistical burden.

The infantryman must have good fitness levels; excellent communication skill; ability to think on his feet and stay cool under pressure; capacity of taking and following orders from superiors; ability for teamwork; self-discipline; confidence; initiative, and; knowledge of local language and customs where warranted. Communication skills are even more important in insurgency areas and interacting with civilians for winning the hearts and minds of the population, as also humanitarian relief during disasters.

There are times, especially in combat zones, where the work can be dangerous, and indeed life-threatening, and an infantry soldier must be prepared to work under these conditions in order to carry out his role. The work of an infantry soldier is predominantly conducted outdoors, such as patrols and training. As front line troops, there is a great importance on maintaining an extremely high level of physical fitness, as he is expected to carry out demanding work under high stress levels and so he must have the endurance to still do the job. This requires extreme dedication and self-discipline.

A dispassionate analysis would lead to the conclusion that the infantry lends itself also to be the most cost-effective. Infantrymen are rarely limited by terrain and are necessary to supplement almost any force. Thanks to the massive variability in infantry equipment they (as long as they are correctly equipped and trained) are almost always threat to any enemy force and can never be taken lightly with anti-tank launchers, drones and shoulder-fired air defence weapons deterring low flying jets and helicopters. Furthermore built up areas and cities, which are death traps for armies in modern combat, can only be taken and held with infantry support.

Mountains, especially high altitude, favour the defender. Pakistan has made scores of attempts since 1984 to capture our posts on the Saltoro Range in the Siachen Glacier area but has failed miserably in each of these attempts – thanks to the infantrymen. The advantages of operations in winters are: poor visibility; reduced flying dayshours for surveillance sorties on account of weather; lowered guard of defender in times of snow storms; terrain permitting, use of skis or snowmobiles for faster induction and taking detours to avoid detection, and; higher helicopter carriage capacity because of low temperatures.

Initiative pays handsome dividends in difficult terrain and difficult weather, as can be seen from the initiative taken by our infantrymen in capturing of Bana Post on Saltoro Range in Siachen glacier area in 1984 and occupation of heights south of Pangong Lake, Chushul and Kailash Range during the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh in 2020. Infantry units, their Ghatak Platoons, cluster of Ghatak Platoons in conjunction Special Forces can pay handsome dividends anywhere and everywhere.

It is rightfully said that should war between nuclear armed powers break-out and full-scale war is not the option because of tactical nuclear weapons, no large troop concentration would be safe. It is the well trained infantry especially that would be a major if not ‘the’ major shaker and mover of the war. With the increasingly aggressive behaviour of Beijing, if China goes for a limited war, President Xi Jinping would most likely test all his latest weaponry; hypersonic platforms, swarm drones, precision guided munitions (PGMs), E-bombs and the like. Mechanised forces in the open may be the first ones to be targeted. Ultimately, it is the infantry that can be counted upon to finally deliver at the objectives.

Most importantly, though in recent decades, is the shift to asymmetric and small unit warfare; with the modern battlefield dominated mostly by counter-insurgency and peace-keeping efforts. Whether or not it is effective to deploy the army is something that is of hot debate but what is not in question is that if you do deploy an army to fight an insurgency it is the infantry that will be conducting bulk of the operations.

Infantry traditionally relies on moving on foot during combat but may also use mounts, military vehicles or other vehicles. Infantry is the most easily delivered forces to ground in combat areas on foot, by vehicles, sea or air transport. Infantry can also be inserted directly into combat through amphibious craft, by air for air assault using parachutes (airborne infantry) or through helicopters in airmobile role. They can operate in a wide range of terrain inaccessible to military vehicles and can operate with lower logistical burden as compared to other forces, which is vital in mountainous terrain and high altitude areas.

The significant issues is that infantrymen bear the largest brunt in conflicts and war, as is proved by statistics; measured by the number of casualties, discomfort, fatigue, and both physical and psychological stress. The life of an infantryman is filled with sacrifices and stories of bravery and courage. From fighting enemies in the front lines at our border to rescuing citizens of the country from earthquakes, floods or conflict zones, a foot soldier’s importance in our lives is enormous. His life is a life filled with pride and dignity.

Statistics prove that bulk of the casualties in war and no-war-no-peace in the Army over the years have been caused because of ‘unavailability’ or ‘lack’ of requisite body armour and helmets. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Ironically failed to produce state-of-the-art small arms, not even a proper assault rifle. Needless to mention that with mobilisation along the entire LAC, Pakistan’s heightened proxy war, the dual front and the possibility of limited war, the infantry will be stretched and under enhanced stress.

Some steps have been taken in recent times to equip the infantry especially after last year’s Chinese aggression. But much, much more is required to be done to equip the infantry as a whole to improve the firepower, surveillance, communications, survivability, protection and mobility of the infantryman. Someone has rightly said that “Armed Forces are the last bastion of the nation; the Infantry is the first and last bastion of the Army”. If it were not for the infantry, it would have been difficult to save Kashmir from the Pakistani invasion in 1947-48.

Let us hail the Infantry and pay homage to the brave Infantrymen who have laid down their lives in service of the nation.