Restructuring the Indian Army – Taking the War into Tibet?

There have been consistent reports over last couple of years regarding restructuring and reorganization of the Indian Army. These are aimed at making the army a ‘lean and mean’ machine as well as to improve the ability to fight and win the next conflict on eastern or western front.

A report recently carried by website, promoted by veteran journalist and defence & strategic issues commentator Nitin Gokhale, has details[1] of changes carried out by the Indian Army HQ covering multiple aspects. These span from reducing the strength of officers in Army HQ by 20% to ensure more officers are with field formations, implementation of the concept of Integrated Battle Group (IBG) in some formations to change in in Order of Battle (ORBAT) of 2 Strike Corps and 17 Mountain Strike Corps.

In this article, I analyze the plausible reasons behind change in ORBAT of 2 and 17 Strike Corps, its implication and how the same is likely to pan out. In the next part of this series, I’ll do an assessment of IBG, their likely composition, role and impact.

Growth of the Indian Army

As of 2017, the active strength of the Indian Army was slightly more 1.23 million. The army is organized into fourteen corps which between them have 41 divisions comprising of armoured, infantry, and mountain and artillery divisions. In addition to these divisions, there are numerous independent armoured, artillery, infantry and mechanized brigades as well.

The Indian Army has seen periodic expansion in strength with maximum expansion happening after the 1962 debacle. The following graph shows the number of divisions (of various types) that were added to the army since 1947. 


As can be seen above, three major phases of expansion are:

(1) Post 1947 – India inherited few divisions from the British Indian Army post independence. New divisions were immediately raised in light of Pakistan’s attack on Kashmir in 1947.

(2) Post 1962 – The 1962 debacle highlighted the short-comings in the strength of the Indian Army and led to the biggest expansion phase in its history. With the Indo-Tibet border and McMahon Line becoming active, dedicated troops were required for the northern, central and eastern sectors. Another factor was the Naga and Mizo insurgency in north-east. While some existing infantry divisions were converted to mountain divisions and shifted, new divisions were also raised.

(3) 1971-1980: This was the period when new divisions were raised to fill out gaps or rationalize the area-of-responsibility of existing formations. This was also the period when the Indian Army went from a single armoured division to a total three armoured divisions.

Recent Raisings

A geographical and operational wise detail of new divisions raised by the army over last decade are as follows:

(1) North-East

Two new mountain divisions were raised in North-East between 2001 and 2010; these are the 56 and 71 Mountain divisions. These were raised to fill out the north-east based 3 Corps and 4 Corps and rationalize their Area-of-Responsibility (AOR).

While 4 Corps already had 3 x mountain divisions, 3 Corps had only one mountain division.

What the Indian Army did was transfer one mountain division from 4 Corps to 3 Corps and added one new mountain division (56 MD) to it. This gave 3 Corps its full complement of 3 x mountain divisions. 4 Corps also got one of the new mountain divisions (71 MD) and went back to having 3 x mountain divisions.

The transfer of a mountain division from 4 Corps to 3 Corps rationalized the AOR between them. With 4 Corps responsible for western Arunachal Pradesh/Eastern Bhutan and 3 Corps responsible for eastern Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar border.  

4 Corps Transformation
3 Corps Transformation

(2) Mountain Strike Corps

The concept of a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) was finally implemented towards start of this decade when the UPA-2 government gave permission for raising of 17 Mountain Strike Corps. It is supposed to have 2 x mountain divisions apart from other assets like aviation. The 17 MSC HQ is based in Panagarh in West Bengal which is also the location of one of its mountain divisions, the 59 Mountain Division. The second division (72 MD) is based in Pathankot and from the available reports, it seems it has not been fully raised yet.

The plausible reason for placing the divisions so far apart is that 17 MSC can go either towards North-East in case of a shooting match with China or West or North in case of tensions with Pakistan. The location of Panagarh is important because it sits on the electrified trunk route of the Indian Railways. Using the railway network, 17 MSC and 59 MD can go east or west to the intended area of operations.

The map below shows the location of Panagarh and other important locations on the Indian Railway network. As can be seen, important disembarking locations like Pathankot in west (for further movement towards Kashmir or Ladakh), Laskar or Roorkee (for Central or Uttarakhand Sector), Siliguri (for Sikkim or West Bhutan or Chumbi Valley), Rangia & Tejpur for western Arunachal Pradesh and Tinsukhia for eastern Arunachal Pradesh are accessible from Panagarh through the main trunk routes.

Managing the Numbers

As the Indian Army has grown over the years, so has the component of budget related to salaries and pension. There have been calls to downsize the army by rationalizing its structure. It is this author’s belief that in percentage terms, there isn’t a large scope in downsizing the army. Mainly because of its commitments level, geo-strategic environment and the nature of terrain. All this requires a large standing army in which components are committed to their geographical AOR.

An opposite of above paradigm is China – compared to the Indian Army, it maintains a very small body of troops permanently in Tibet and along McMahon Line. In case of a shooting match with India, most of PLA troops will come from outside of Tibet.

If required, these troops will also be used in other sectors like against Vietnam. This way, China can maintain a smaller army relative to its geographical commitments. The PLA Group Armies can ‘swing’ from their peacetime locations to different sectors across China’s borders depending upon the exigency. Another factor which permits this is the presence of an excellent road and rail infrastructure. This means that China does not need to maintain ‘troops in being’ – troops will be mobilized from outside Tibet and using the excellent infrastructure, reach the required areas in lesser amount of time.

Compared to this, Indian Army has much higher number of troops permanently deployed on the border.

Having said that, there are instances of the Indian Army moving formations from east towards west. For example, during 2001-2002 Op Parakaram mobilization, two mountain divisions went west from east along with one Corps HQ. But geopolitical climate with China does play a part in this shifting. To manage its geographical commitments with need to manage absolute number of troops, what Indian Army needs is the ability to swing formations from east to west and vice-versa. An arrangement where it can use it reserve formations, traditionally employed along western sector, towards northern and eastern sector.

I think we’re witnessing the start of this exercise with the new restructuring announced recently. 

ORBAT Change

The report carried by the portal has following to say about change in ORBAT of 2 Strike Corps and 17 Mountain Strike Corps:

Meanwhile, an important change has occurred the way the 17 Mountain Strike Corps, primarily conceived for deployment along India’s northern border with China, is now taking shape. Originally planned as a three-division formation—as all Corps normally are—the Army leadership has now decided to let only two divisions (approximately 10,000 to 12000 troops) be integral part of the 17 Corps, headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal.

Accordingly, only the newly raised 59 Mountain Division, co-located with the 17 Corps HQ at Panagarh, and the Dehradun-based 14 Division will be permanent part of the Mountain Strike Corps. Other formations like the Ranchi-based 23 Division and the yet-to-be-fully-raised 72 Division at Pathankot, will now have dual tasking —to be part of western command as well as get assigned to 17 Corps— when needed.

Interestingly, the 14 Division used to be called 14 RAPID or Re-organised Army Plains Infantry Division was part of the 2 Corps. The RAPIDS (more than half a dozen of them) were formed in the mid-Eighties-early Nineties period because they comprised of two infantry and one mechanized or armoured brigades which gave the division greater mobility.

Now, an armoured brigade located at Roorkee under 14 RAPID has swapped places with an infantry brigade at Kapurthala. So the erstwhile 14 RAPID Division has been converted into a pure infantry or mountain division placed under the 17 Corps. The plan is to deploy the tweaked 14 Division in the Central Sector of the India-China border in Uttarakhand, which so far had a bare minimum presence of the Army through a sole independent brigade headquartered at Joshimath

We look at the each aspect mentioned in the above section in detail.

(1) Change in ORBAT

Ambala headquartered 2 Strike Corps, or Kharga Corps, is generally regarded as the most powerful Corps of the Indian Army and is tasked with taking the battle deep into Pakistan and/or destruction and degrading of its fighting potential. Between its organic elements, it accounts for ~500 main battle tanks and slightly lesser number of BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFC). Its ORBAT is as follows:

  • 1 Armoured Division
  • 14 RAPID (Reorganized Plains Infantry Division)
  • 22 Infantry Division
  • 40 Artillery Division (which also holds 1 x Brahmos Missile Regiment)
  • Independent Armored Brigade

You can read in detail about Artillery Divisions of the Indian Army here:

Sometime in 1987-88, Indian Army under then Chief of Army Staff, General Sundarji, created the concept of RAPID. It involves adding an armoured brigade to an infantry division. So, a typical RAPID consists of following:

  • Armoured Brigade (2 x Armoured Regiments + 2 x Mechanized Infantry Regiments)
  • 2 or 3 Infantry Brigades (typically 3 x infantry battalions)
  • Artillery Brigade
  • Support Troops

The above tweaking of structure of an infantry division gave it mobility and made is much more powerful than a normal infantry division.

The article says that 14 RAPID is reverting back to vanilla infantry division. The armoured brigade of the division, which was based in Roorkee, has shifted to Kapurthala while the Kapurthala based infantry brigade has come under 14 Infantry Division. And that 14 Infantry Division has now come under 17 Mountain Strike Corps.


For reference sake, the infantry brigade in Kapurthala used to come under Ferozepur based 7 Infantry Division, which in turn is part of Jalandhar based 11 Corps. And if the swap holds, 7 Infantry Division would now become 7 RAPID.

Shifting of 14 RAPID from under 2 Strike Corps to 17 Mountain Strike Corps and transfer of its armoured brigade to some other formation will impact the war-fighting capability of 2 Strike Corps.

It is my considered opinion that what most likely has happened is as follows. Do check the map below to get an idea about various locations mentioned:

Shifting of Armored Brigade of 14 RAPID from Roorkee to Kapurthala, thereby reducing the distance to border with Pakistan

(1) Armoured Brigade moved from Roorkee to Kapurthala:

  • A powerful armoured brigade has been moved ~ 400 km in north-western direction.
  • This shifting will cut down the mobilization time of the armoured brigade considerably and bring it within 100 km from international border as compared to 500+ km earlier.
  • Quicker mobilization has been one of the main objectives of various exercises done by the army post 2001-2002 Op Parakaram mobilization.
  • Placing an armoured brigade closer to international border allows it to respond quickly for offensive and defensive tasks along the border.

(2)  14 RAPID – ‘Swing’ Division

  • In my opinion, it is likely that the brigade will continues to be under 14 RAPID with 14 RAPID itself being made ‘swing’ division.
  • Depending on the requirement, the division can move towards west in RAPID role under 2 Corps or move north under 17 Corps.
  • When it moves west, it will pick-up the armoured brigade in Kapurthala while when deployed as part of 17 Corps, it will use the infantry brigade gained from west.
  • When moving west as part of 2 Strike Corps, it would’ve shorter mobilization time because its armoured brigade is already upfront.
  • Similarly, the infantry brigade will also move east or west depending upon the requirement. In case of trouble with Pakistan, it is likely to revert back to 7 Infantry Division and in case of trouble with China, go with 14 Infantry Division.

(3)  Kapurthala Location Advantage

  • Choice of Kapurthala is also important to base the armoured brigade
  • It sits at a junction from where the brigade can move along multiple axis.
  • It can go west towards Amritsar or south-west to Ferozepur sector.
  • Or, towards Fazilka-Abohar-Sri Ganganagar corridor, the general area where 2 Strike Corps has been known to be deployed during mobilization to take battle deep into Pakistan.
  • Another important point is that just ~30 km west of Kapurthala, at Beas, sits 55 (I) Mechanized Brigade. Between these two, you’ve a very power armoured punch

You can read a detailed assessment of strategic importance of South Punjab-Northern Rajasthan sector from Indian side and southern Punjab and Sindh from Pakistan’s side at the link below. The analysis also covers Indian Army’s broad deployment pattern during Op Parakaram. It also details how Indian Army, under General Padmanabhan, drastically changed its deployment pattern towards mid-2002 and how this bold and audacious plan literally put Pakistan Army’s pants on fire.

(4)  Central/Uttarakhand Sector

  • Article says 14 Division will be used in Central Sector or Uttarakhand which traditionally has had only one independent mountain brigade based out of Joshimath.
  • This actually is not the case.
  • Reason being, we’ve 6 Mountain Division based out of Bareilly with its brigades in Uttarakhand and Western UP.
  • 6 Mountain Division is AHQ reserve and it is triple tasked – Ladakh (east/west), north Punjab/Jammu and Central Sector.
  • For example, during Kargil War, it was sitting in Sonamarg area. Had India decided to cross LOC, this formation would’ve gone into POK.
  • Further, research by author shows that Indian Army has raised one more independent mountain brigade for the Central Sector.
  • This makes for 2 x Independent Mountain Brigade Groups and one mountain division for Central Sector.
  • So, why is 14 RAPID/Infantry Division is to be committed to Central Sector?

(5)  Attack into Tibet?

If one looks at the map of Indo-Tibet border in the Central Sector, one realizes that once you’re past the high Himalayan ridge line along the border, the terrain is still high altitude but flat. Something like what we have in eastern Ladakh between Ladakh and Tibet.

There is good road infrastructure on Tibetan side leading towards the Indian-Tibet border. Ergo, the same road infrastructure also leads deep into Tibet towards major towns in the area and which are within 100 km from the border as the crow flies.

Not to mention that the holy Mansarovar Lake complex also lies within 100 km from the border.

There are three main passes on the Indo-Tibetan border in the Uttarakhand or Central Sector. The same are marked on the map below:

The traditional Mansarovar yatra enters Tibet from Lipulekh Pass. Also, it is important to remember that the oldest boundary dispute between India and China is for a small pasture known as Bara-hoti; it lies to immediate south of the Tun Jun Pass mentioned on the map.

Other important passes are mentioned on the map. In fact, Mana Pass has a motorable road right up to the pass and in the past, civilians have also been allowed to visit the pass.

India has made considerable effort to develop road infrastructure in the border areas with roads being extended as far north towards the border as possible.
Challenge from India side is to reach the border areas. There is considerable altitude gain as one starts from the plains of western Uttar Pradesh or even lower reaches of Uttarakhand.

For example, while Dehradun (14 RAPID HQ) is located at an altitude of 1,467 feet, Mana Pass is located at an altitude in excess of 18,000 feet!

However, if the logistics of movement of men and material can be managed, than there is a possibility of Indian Army targeting to take battle into Tibet. And threaten to interdict G219 highway.

(6)  Interdict G219?

G219 is a major highway which connects the Xinjiang Autonomous Region with eastern Tibet. This road passes through the Aksai Chin region and it is the construction of this road between 1951 and 1957 which led to the conflict between the two countries. 

China had illegally constructed this road because at that time, it was easier to connect Tibet with East Turkestan or Xinjiang Autonomous Region that mainland China with Tibet. It was the need to construct and keep this vital communication axis because of which Chinese started claiming Aksai Chin region.

Coming to present, interdiction of this road, or even threat to this road can lead to serious issues for the Chinese and PLA.

Going north along this road can threaten the rear of the Chinese troops opposite Himachal-Tibet border and Line-of-Actual Control (LAC) along Demchok and Chusul sector.

It will also put pressure on the east-to-west movement of troops and materials for the Chinese. However, the question that arises is will three division worth of troops be sufficient for this task considering the geography and the opponent?

Conclusion – Managing the Numbers

  • The article by Nitin Gokhale talks about 14 RAPID and Ranchi based 23 Division becoming available to 17 Corps.
  • Other two components of 17 Corps are Panagarh based 59 Mountain Division and under-raising 72 Mountain Division in Pathankot.
  • From what I know, 23 Division comes under 1 Strike Corps (South-Western Command)
  • I think we’re here witnessing a possibility of a combination of divisions as per the deployment of 17 Mountain Strike Corps. The same are as follows:
  • For Northern Sectors (east or west) – 17 Corps HQ with 59 MD + 72 MD 
  • For Central/Uttarakhand Sector – 17 Corps HQ with 59 MD + 14 Infantry/Mountain Division
  • For Eastern Front – 17 Corps HQ with 59 MD + 23 Infantry Division

In all, lot of swing capabilities being built-in and rationalization of troops thereby reducing the need for more new raising.