Tanks proved their mettle as the dominant military instrument in conflicts across the world, including Korea, Iran-Iraq and Arab-Israel.
Tanks in the Indian context have dominated the critical ‘time-space-force’ dimension of battles, attaining a decisive edge.
The ability of tanks to dominate the increasing threat spectrum is often debated, albeit by other than military professionals, and put to rest repeatedly. Tank was, is and will continue to be an instrument of military decision, spearheading a combined arms team in an essentially joint network-enabled operational environment, across the entire spectrum of conflict.
Conceived as an inspiration from the earlier avatar of horsed cavalry, tanks emerged in the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 as a function of an armoured box housing a field gun mounted on tracks to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Ever since, tanks have been at the forefront of challenging status quo in battles and a harbinger of weapon technology. Though the 20th century saw the mechanisation of transport, and warfare was the cradle and laboratory for many military inventions, none of the innovations, unlike the tank, was recognised as an instrument of deterrence in peace and an instrument of implacable military decision in war. Tanks, with their ever-evolving design and technology, are the most powerful symbol of military might of the ground forces.
The world wars saw tank employment concepts such as the ‘blitzkrieg’ by the Germans, the ‘deep battle’ by the Russians and the ‘expanding torrents’ by Liddell Hart. They represented the tank as the primary weapon system that would turn the tide and defeat armies.
The Cold War saw tanks and tank technology taking many a leap. Tanks repeatedly proved their mettle as the dominant military instrument in conflicts across the world, including Korea, Iran-Iraq, Arab-Israel and others. The conflicts in the past two decades have largely evolved with unconventional, irregular and hybrid warfare carried out by both state and non-state actors. Be it Crimea, the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Kosovo and Afghanistan, it has been repeatedly proven that ‘tracks and boots’ on ground matter. It has been accepted that a combination of aerial platforms, long-range precision fires, protected mobile firepower platforms (tanks) and special forces will be the gamechanger in future battle space.
Armoured cars were inducted into the Indian Armoured Corps before independence. They were later replaced by Stuart and Sherman Tanks. Tanks of the 254th Indian Tank Brigade (later, 3 Independent Armoured Brigade) participated in the action in Kohima to stall the ingress of the Japanese Army. With more than 11,000 dead, this has been described as one of the bloodiest battles in history. The British National Army Museum voted it as the most extraordinary fight, beating the famous ‘Battle of Waterloo’.
In the first Indo-Pak war of 1947-48, the bold and innovative employment of Stuart Tanks of the 7th Light Cavalry surprised the enemy at Zoji La, at an unparalleled altitude of 11,400 feet, repulsing their advance to Srinagar and saving the province of Ladakh. Had it not happened, the map of India would have looked different today. Later during the 1962 Indo-China border skirmish, AMX tanks of the 20th Lancers were airlifted by AN-12 aircraft. They gallantly fought alongside infantry battalions in the famous Battle of Gurung Hill at Chushul in Ladakh. Ironically, the initial active employment of tanks in India was all at high altitudes.
In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, tanks performed commendably. Tank thrusts in the Chawinda-Phillaurah sector forced Pakistan to recoil its offensive in the Chamb-Jaurian sector. Had it continued the offensive, it would have cut off the lifeline to Jammu and Kashmir. The epic battle of Phillaurah is a saga of bravery by men behind the machine. Lt Col A.B. Tarapore, commandant of 17 Horse regiment, was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. In the same war, the biggest tank battle since World War II took place in the Khem Kharan sector. Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division was annihilated, and the sector was named as the ‘Pak tank graveyard’.
In 1971, the feat was repeated in the western sector. The Battle of Basantar exemplified the spirit of tanks and tank men. Second lieutenant Arun Khetrapal was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously for his supreme courage and valour. In the eastern sector (now Bangladesh), Indian armour was again at the forefront. Led by PT-76 amphibious tanks, the Indian Army raced to Dacca in 14 eventful days in 1971.
In the 1980s, tank superiority got tested during the massive Ex Brass Tacks. In the same decade, tanks were also deployed in Sri Lanka by the Indian Peace Keeping Force. On several occasions thereafter, tanks were at the forefront of mobilisation by the Indian Army. In the Samba attack in 2013, the innovative move of tanks by the 16th Cavalry confined terrorists to a building and made their subsequent neutralisation easy.
Thus, tanks in the Indian context have dominated the critical ‘time-space-force’ dimension of battles, attaining a decisive edge.
In the words of American writer Walter Lippmann, “a nation has security as long as it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate interests to avoid war and is able to, if challenged, maintain them by war”. As far as India is concerned, we live in a nuclear neighbourhood with territorial disputes and energy and water-sharing concerns. We have the responsibility of securing large territorial waters and defending island territories, besides our national obligations in the regional and global contexts of out-of-area contingencies and UN commitments.
In addition, we live in a perpetual state of proxy war. Thus our national interests, strategic security framework and geographic imperatives remain the overarching principle of our military capability development based on a threat-cum-capability approach. We prepare for ‘state vs state’ and ‘state vs state-cum-non-state actors’ threats, while retaining the capability to adapt to the ‘state vs non-state actor’ threats. This would mandate the main battle tanks, along with a supporting family of platforms, as the backbone of ground forces. It is pertinent to note that, in our subcontinental context and future threat scenarios, India’s conventional land war fighting capability will remain relevant.
India has gone to war several times and has been on the brink of war on many occasions, including post the 2002 Parliament attack and the 2008 Mumbai attack. There are enough possibilities if our thresholds are crossed and the nation decides to unfold its proactive operation strategy at short notice. This would imply maintaining adequate combat superiority and punitive deterrence through rapid deployment of mechanised forces to preempt, dislocate and disrupt/disintegrate enemy forces for decisive victory in the western front. Mechanised forces add to the credible deterrence against any revisionist designs in our northern borders.
A reality check is indicative of the immediate environment around us possessing maximum number of tanks. It is quite evident that our neighbourhood has a large tank population, which also impacts our force structure.
The aim of war is to impose one’s will on the adversary and the art of war is to achieve victory at the least cost (of men and material) and in minimum time. Thus, the application of military instrument must target both the will and the capability of the adversary. It is this important factor for which tanks enjoy a unique and indomitable position in the battlefield. Their ability to achieve an overwhelming 24x7 tempo by providing shock action and precise lethal firepower will paralyse the enemy physically and psychologically. Is there any parallel platform that can fulfil their role on ground?
The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons has upgraded the role of tanks in a nuclear environment. Not only are they better equipped to resist a nuclear strike, but they also retain the ability to operate in zones of high radioactivity to seize, retain and, if required, exploit initiative.
Similarly, in an urban warfare environment with hybrid threats (not a tank commander’s dream), the value of a tank with enhanced survivability envelope cannot be underestimated. Today, they are the only principal means for a combined arms team to close in on the threat and neutralise it. Thus, modifications for use in urban combat conditions will make tanks indispensable partners in the war-fighting, combined arms team. With their precision fire and shock effect, tanks will remain relevant and dominant as protected mobile platforms that lead the advance for immediate response to threats.
Anti-tank weapons have become more sophisticated and dangerous. In keeping with the threats and technology, tank design is changing to get the right combination of the ‘iron triangle’ of firepower, mobility and protection. The increased lethality and accuracy of anti-tank weapons have resulted in the increasing need for enhanced survivability in tank design. Situational awareness and a networked, integrated C4I2 system to ensure decision superiority add to being a key enabler for tanks in future wars.
Tank designs are reflective of a nation’s threat perception, war-fighting philosophy and geostrategic realities. Thus, design revolves around the optimum desired blend of lethality, survivability, agility and adaptability. Tanks are being modernised to retain the technological edge through upgradation programmes with enhanced focus on lethality and survivability to operate 24x7 in all terrain conditions, and for dominant manoeuvres in the entire spectrum of conflict.
Further, the Future Ready Combat Vehicle (the Future Main Battle Tank) along with a family of armoured platforms, including light tanks, is getting the necessary institutional attention in keeping with our future operational perspective and threats. Thus, the tank of the future may not necessarily be the typical tank we would recognise today. It will continue to evolve as a dominant, protected, mobile weapon platform still called ‘tank’.
There has been discussion about attack helicopters as flying tanks. Attack helicopters complement tanks and one cannot replace the other. They are the aerial arm of the manoeuvre of the mechanised forces and integral part of a combined arms team. It is thus increasingly felt relevant that attack helicopters form an intrinsic part of mechanised forces in war and in peace. Finally, a tank is as good as the man inside it. Tanks are best employed as part of a combined arms team. So a tank commander should be flexible in mind, progressive in thought, liberal in imagination and audacious in application. Along with structural reforms and innovative tactics, tank commanders will be key to the successful outcome of tank battles.
Tanks also offer a platform for materialising the dream of ‘Make in India’. It offers scope from low-end technology to high-technology indigenisation with large numbers making a viable cost-benefit model. Today, with a vibrant private industry demonstrating technology prowess in defence sector, the next-generation tank will be symbolic of technology sovereignty and strategic autonomy. They will be designed, developed, produced and sustained in India.
In the Indian context, tanks are still the most powerful symbols and instrument of war for ground forces, across the entire spectrum of conflict. As new threats emerge, they will continue to evolve in technology and in dynamic employment, retaining their dominant role.
The author is director-general, Mechanised Forces.