“She’s the Queen of the battlefield, son”, the Old Man would tell me, with barely concealed pride.
Whenever the Old Man spoke, I would listen…fascinated. The Commanding Officer is affectionately referred to as the Old Man. In my time, most COs were grouchy, yet paternal figures. Their stories were never without an anti-climax. And here it was.
“Poor Bloody Infantry! Yes, that’s what she is. PBI.”, he ended with a chuckle and a flourish.
PBI. Yes, I remember.
The nation is busy buying weapons…billions and billions of dollars worth of some of the most sophisticated military hardware this world has ever seen. Notwithstanding the political firestorm surrounding it, the Rafale is a great fighter jet. Thirty-four ships, from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, are being built for the Indian Navy under the Make in India program. The Indian Army is on the verge of receiving Ultra Light Howitzers and the K9 Vajra. Apache helicopter gunships are around the corner. Missiles, airlift capabilities, anti-aircraft/missile shields, armed drones…the Defence Ministry is buying weapons systems like never before. There is a tremendous gap between what we need and what we have. And yes, without doubt, we need all that we are buying. These weapons systems are crucial and critical. I cannot over-emphasize how much we need these platforms. They are our final insurance policy.
But here is something you need to know about war. When the ships have sailed and the aircraft have flown, when the big guns have stopped booming the tanks have had their day, it is the infantryman who wades ankle-deep in blood, his rubber-soled shoes making those peculiar, squelching sounds. It is the infantryman who fights the last twenty-five yards and plunges his bayonet into the chest of the enemy. It is he who charges into machine gun fire. From Saragarhi to Rezang La, from the frozen trenches of Europe to the burning deserts of North Africa, from the dizzying heights of Siachen Glacier to the blood splattered rocks of Tololing, the guttural screams of the dying belong to that unknown infantryman. The Line of Control is marked with his blood.
Who is it that kicks open the door to charge inside a house full of Jihadis, each drug-crazed mind seeking heaven? Over ninety percent of fatalities that happen during combat in CI/CT are from the infantry…those coffins you see on television, which come back wrapped in the tricolor, contain infantrymen. Not all, but mostly.
Beyond the multi-billion dollar arms deals, it is the raw courage of the infantryman that keeps India safe. The blood, guts and the bare knuckled fight…that is all infantry. And this hero fights with the most sub-standard equipment known to any modern army.
Let's start from the top.
The helmet he wears is a “modification”. This means that the pathetic helmet he gets from the OFD is suitably modified using Unit funds. Then there is the patka, that “thing” that RR and infantry units in Counter Insurgency wear on their heads. Yes, it saves lives but it is still, for want of a better word, a modified ‘arrangement’.
The BP jacket is heavy. During my time, it was heavier. Soldiers would wear it on pain of punishment. I too am guilty of having discarded it for better mobility. Maybe I set a bad example. But try running with iron strapped to your chest. You will understand my point of view.
The combat dress (disruptive), which is worn across the army, is of inferior quality and doesn’t match. Get a platoon in combat dress and I can bet you will find three different shades. The backpack, rucksack and the pouches have improved over the years but compared to even developing countries, they are of inferior quality.
Boots (DMS) that are supplied by the Ordnance Factory are sub-standard. Soldiers often buy shoes with their own money. The socks…oh, forget about the socks. The list is endless.
INSAS 5.56 mm is such a disaster that the Nepalese Army refused to take it for free. The 7.62 mm MMG is older than me. The other weapons systems are either sub-standard, vintage or don’t function as they should. Take for example the fancy 9mm MP9, four of which have been issued, with silencers, to infantry battalions. Training ammunition is at a premium, mostly in two digits. First line and second line ammunition cannot be touched without written permission from someone in the stratosphere…yes, that high up.
So, infantry, the Queen of Battle and the mainstay of the Indian Amy goes to war with equipment that is not worthy of the soldier who uses it, and in a few cases with weapons he has not trained with, adequately.
The sad part is not the equipment quality and the obvious lack of availability. The bitter truth is that we have the money. Had we been a poor nation, I would have understood. The problem is that we have hundreds of billions of dollars and our priorities are misplaced.
Let us buy all the weapons that we need for our Armed Forces; the fighter jets, the ships, the drones and the big guns. But the truth is that we may never use these weapons. The last time we used fighter jets was in Kargil in 1999. But the infantryman fires his weapon each day at the enemy. He bleeds each day. For him, each day is war.
Finally, let us not forget that it is that infantryman who will give you the news that the nation wants to hear.
After killing and dying for days on end, hungry, bleeding, exhausted but not broken, it is he who will say, “Sir, the tricolor flies atop Tiger Hill”.
DISCLAIMER: All the three Services suffer from acute equipment & ammunition shortage, which is being made up post-haste. I have written this with a focus on infantry only. Old loyalties. Soldiers, veterans and serving, will understand.