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‘Perspective on Military Engineering in Indian Army‘, is an interview on Role, Responsibilities and Mandate of Engineers in the Army with Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee (Retd) PVSM, AVSM, YSM by Divya Malhotra, Senior Research Associate, DRaS. The subject interview was a part of the ‘DRaS Talks’ series.

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee (Retd) PVSM, AVSM, YSM was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers in 1971. During the course of his long and distinguished service, General Banerjee has served in all of India’s remote border areas and has participated in all operations undertaken by the Army since 1971. In the later part of his career, Gen Banerjee was the Chief Engineer, Western Army Command, the General Officer Commanding of the Madhya Bharat Area and the Chief of Staff, Central Army Command. Before superannuating after forty years of distinguished service, he was the Commandant of the Officers’ Training Academy, Chennai. He is currently Editor with Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and a Consulting Editor with the reputed Indian Defence Review.

Divya Malhotra, the interviewer, is a Senior Research Associate with Defence Research and Studies. She is working as an Assistant Professor with the School of Military Affairs, Strategy and Logistics (SMASL), Rashtriya Raksha University, Gujurat and is due to submit her PhD at the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Question 1) The role of a combat engineer is “to apply engineering knowledge and skills” coupled with optimisation of available resources for furthering the commander’s plan. While other arms have well-defined and demarcated roles, the role of a sapper remains relatively open-ended and loosely defined. This perhaps also explains why the motto of the corps of engineers is “sarvatra”. How would you explain the role of a military engineer?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

The fact is that engineering is intrinsic to warfare and the role of an engineer cannot be defined within fixed parameters. Everything that a soldier does involves a bit of engineering. Some basic tasks are performed individually while technical tasks come under the domain of the Corps of Engineers.

By definition, the job of a military engineer is to apply engineering knowledge and skills to the furtherance of the commander’s plan. And the commander’s plan could be anything.

The specific role of Engineers in the battlefield involves altering the terrain favourable to one’s own forces and creation of hurdles for the enemy forces, with the view to facilitate manoeuvre of own troops and restrain that of the enemy’s. Overcoming enemy obstacles while creating obstacles to inhibit enemy manoeuvre is a major engineering task.

At the strategic level, Engineers help in ensuring an element of surprise on the battlefield by opening difficult and unanticipated approaches to gain the advantage, ensuring speedy mobility and rapid movement of troops, camouflage and concealment of own forces and to create deception to confuse the enemy.  

This exercise of battle field shaping starts from well behind into the base areas through the line of contact with the enemy and goes beyond into enemy territory, as the need be. This explains why the motto of Engineers is ‘Sarvatra’ (omnipresent). And so, the role of an engineer remains open ended.

Question 2) The growth of any organisation is essentially linked with its ability to adapt to the changing needs and external realities. The same holds true for the Armed forces. As also highlighted in your Manekshaw paper on Roadmap for the Indian Sapper 2020, the infantry units of the Indian Army have initiated simple field engineering tasks such as laying small footbridges, and likewise, the armoured units have gained expertise in obstacle crossing. By the same logic, how have the engineers acquired higher levels of inter-domain expertise, with special reference to mobility, counter-mobility and survivability?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

Domain expertise of a military engineer has two facets: First, the technical aspect of engineering knowledge which requires military engineering training in addition to standard military training. This technical expertise is gained by a military engineer through a series of basic and advanced courses. Second, it requires multi-disciplinary knowledge and expertise in a military engineer. Unlike engineering in the civil sector where specialisation is categorised into pre-defined disciplines such as electrical, mechanical engineering etc, military engineering expertise cannot be limited to just one specific domain. A military engineer has to be a one-in-all expert. Irrespective of disciplinary specialisation, he has to be responsible for the execution of all engineering tasks in his area. For example, before the Corps of Signals was formed, the communication-related tasks were performed by military engineers.

As far as mobility, counter-mobility and survivability are concerned, we need to understand our defence policy, which in the post-independence era was to be defensive and passive in nature. Our policy at that time lacked the requisite offensive mindedness, and thus our requirement of battlefield mobility counter-mobility and survivability beyond the line of defences was very limited. That limited the role of Engineers and reflected on the Corps of Engineers at two levels: First, in terms of poor resource allocation; and second, in terms of narrow vision and closed thinking among military engineers. Due to defence mindedness till recent years, military engineers today are preoccupied with a limited business of military engineering and so is the military as a whole.

For offensive operations into enemy territories, our forces will require dynamic construction of more and newer roads and tracks, shelters, bunkers, firing trenches, bridges, water supply, destruction and demolition of enemy’s war infrastructure etc. – all in little known, green-field terrain and in quick time. All that will require higher levels of engineering skills, ingenuity and resources, and above all, the wider horizon of thinking.

Military engineering courses include training for offensive operations. Thus our Engineers have the competence, skills and training, but there are no adequate offensive resources on the ground due to our over-all defensive posturing. Over the last few years, there has been some shift in this thinking and the idea of breaking into enemy territory to prevent him from thrusting into its own territory is gaining traction. This will require an increased commitment for the Corps of Engineers. The strategy shift will also reflect in funding, allocation of manpower and procurement of equipment for the Engineers.  

Question 3) What are the various verticals within Corps of Engineers and their mandate? Within the overall efforts to enhance the Indian Army’s combat power, what changes – tactical improvements and strategic evolution – would you suggest for the Corps of engineers?

Additionally, to what extent are the engineers involved in the over-all tactical decision making?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

Engineers are classified into combat engineers, who are the first to go and last to leave, and the executor of temporary works such as field defences, obstacles, shelters, temporary bridges etc. in the battle zone. The second category is the Works Engineers who are responsible for the construction of permanent defence works and habitat behind the rear areas. The third category is the Border Roads Organisation which is commanded and controlled by the Engineers and the GREF. Then there is the Military Survey, which is responsible for the collection of terrain intelligence, building up of terrain GIS and production of various kinds of maps.

While these areas are defined, Engineers are also designated for non-combat tasks based on need – like preparation for nuclear tests and missile launch pads, and disaster relief. As discussed earlier, our defensive strategy and choice of attrition warfare have resulted in limiting the role of the Engineers. The latest example can be seen in border roads.

While for decades the Army has been pushing for the development of border infrastructure, it is happening only now due to changes in circumstances, national priorities and threat assessment.     

Engineers’ involvement in tactical decision making is very prominent. No commander can make his defensive or offensive plan without having Engineers in his advisory, reconnaissance and order groups. A commander’s decision to launch an offensive operation entails ingenious engineering solutions to tactical problems which have to be technically sound and tactically feasible.

Question 4) Post-independence, India faced threats from both Pakistan and China. The border infrastructure was not yet fully developed. The terrain was tough. As the popular saying goes, “God made terrain and permitted only the engineers to alter it”, evidently, the engineers had a significant role to facilitate the mobility of our troops and enable survival in the hostile environs. Can you elaborate on the role of military engineers in 1962 war, 1965 war and the 1971 war? How were the special operational needs addressed during this period?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

Before 1962, since no such operational need was envisaged, there were practically no mobility, offensive or defensive preparations at that time. Basically, the Engineers performed the tasks of preparing a few defences, hasty laying of mines and demolition of their own bridges in order to slow down Chinese advance with what negligible engineer resources were available. In 1962, the role of the Army, in general, was confined, as evident from the fact that out of total of 40 odd brigades, only five were actually involved in the war.

In 1965, Pakistan’s forces intruded into India and captured some territory. That was when Indian forces went into offensives to recapture and capture territories across the enemy lines – e.g. Hajipir Pass, advance towards Lahore etc. During this time, the role of Engineers came to the forefront in making temporary provisions for battle zone mobility and sustainability. Capturing of passes and crossing canals were tasks in which Engineers were involved in close and intimate support to infantry and armour operations. Engineers were also tasked with bunker and pill box-busting, demolishing bridges, mine laying and breaching, nullah and canal crossing and preparation of field defences. Engineers also flooded areas adjacent to canals to channelise Pakistani armour into killing areas without inhibiting the movement of Indian armour. What is recorded in the history as Graveyard of Patton Tanks was one of the major achievements of the Engineers in 1965.

In 1971, India went into full-scale offensives. Engineers were heavily deployed in a riverine terrain that had to be crossed with military engineering improvisations. Construction of numerous tactical road bridges, clearing safe passages through minefields and facilitating movement for troops, supplies, arms and ammunition etc. were other major tasks. Engineers also operated as part of commando and Mukti Bahini operations. The War was characterised by a number of raids into the enemy’s depth positions, which entailed the destruction of enemy assets by the Engineers. Engineers were deployed as early as June and came out as late as March 1972 since their post-war tasks involved clearing of minefields, the housing of prisoners of war and reconstruction of certain assets before final de-induction. Their involvement was so crucial to the War that some military historians call it an ‘Engineer’s War’.

Question 5) How has the organisational structure of our combat engineer units evolved over the years, in terms of both manpower and equipment? There has been increased emphasis on the notion of balanced force structuring and the need for interoperability. What is the ideal or planned scenario with respect to organisational upgrading, manpower planning, resource allocation and fiscal provisioning for the Corps of Engineers and where do we stand now?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

As far as organisational evolution is concerned, Engineers have evolved from a manpower oriented workforce and gradually adapted to newer technologies of earthmoving machinery, demolition equipment, drilling machines etc. So the role of manpower was gradually reduced, but to handle the newer equipment level of training had to be enhanced. Accordingly, the manpower orientation underwent changes; training curricula were revised and engineer units modified their organisation to suit the equipment. Evolution thereafter had to be kept in pace with the rest of the Army, which is dictated by national security policies.

Engineer force-structure, in my opinion, is not well balanced at the present. There is a fund crunch that limits our ability to maintain a well-balanced military force. For a balanced force-structure, strength in terms of infantry and armour must be supplemented with compatible capability in other supporting arms like artillery, engineers, signals etc. However, the optics of military strength becomes more important and more resources are allocated to the visible dimensions of the military – tanks, guns, ships, aircraft etc. That leads to inadequate fund allocation to supporting arms from an already inadequate defence allocation. That leaves behind lesser resource share for support arms resulting in an imbalanced force structure. That in turn leads to the in-optimal utilisation of the available combat arms. As a result of this imbalance, commanders in the field have to adopt make-do compromises that often result in more casualties, delays etc. A balanced all-arms structure thus becomes essential to overcome this.

Question 6) With the change in nature of modern warfare and shift from conventional to non-conventional warfare and rise of low-intensity conflicts, how have the role, responsibility and capabilities of engineers evolved overtime? What kind of reorganisation and modernisation would you prescribe for the combat Engineers to orient them with modern era battlefields? In this era of technology and information-centric threats, the role of Mapping and Geo-Spatial Information System becomes pivotal. What is the contribution of the Corps of Engineers in this domain, in coordination with the Corps of Signal? How does Indian capability in this domain compare with that of Pakistan and China?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

Firstly, I don’t believe in the dichotomy between conventional and non-conventional warfare. At a conceptual level, there is no such shift; conduct of warfare can never be conventional or stereotype, each war is unique. Nature of warfare may have undergone changes, but what we label as conventional, irregular, unconventional, hybrid or proxy warfare actually are but the different modern facets of regular – what is wrongly referred to as ‘conventional’ – warfare of contemporary times. When the regular fighting capability of the enemy becomes too strong, there is a rise in low-intensity conflicts or irregular warfare. Reliance on hybrid techniques and information-centric methods also rise. The same has happened in Jammu and Kashmir where Pakistan finds it difficult to fight or deter India with regular forces and adopts irregular methodology to seek its goal. This is not something new.

With the rise in low-intensity conflicts, the basic role of engineers has remained the same; however, operational tasks for the Engineers become much more widespread. This calls for improvement in mobility, communication, organisational size and equipment profile of the engineer units. Rather than full-fledged engineer regiments, low-intensity conflicts at the front-line require cells or sections of Engineers with light equipment such as light dozers, vis-a-vis heavier equipment which is better suited for regular operations.

Secondly, the Corps of Engineers is the mother Corps for Military Survey. Being a civil engineering skill, it is manned by the Corps of Engineers personnel. However, the department has undergone changes. With technological advances, reliance on army manpower for field surveys over tough terrain has reduced. Meanwhile, outsourcing to a plethora of civilian agencies has resulted in attractive but ineffective military-specific usage of survey data outside the demonstration halls.

Even as it continues to play a major operational role, Military Survey remains a low priority in the military. Allocation of resources in terms of manpower and funding remains low, thereby limiting access to the latest equipment and technology, and thus affecting the efficacy of modern military survey. The impact eventually trickles down to commanders on the ground, much to their discontent.

As far as our two adversaries are concerned, the Chinese capability in this field is much better than in India. They have a separate military survey department mainly manned by PLA’s Engineer officers, and the civilian employees are also under the Army Act, unlike in India. On the other hand, Pakistan’s capabilities in the survey domain are similar to India, but they have more open access to survey facilities. Pakistan military’s survey officers are sent abroad for training, unlike their Indian counterparts who have very limited avenues for advanced training in foreign institutions.

Military Engineering of Indian Army
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Question 7) Military experts and scholars contend that two primary manifestations of current India’s defence strategy should be “modernisation and infrastructure in border areas”. Two questions here:

a) Within the larger debate on defence modernisation, what is the state of engineering equipment and urgency to fill the gaps?

b) Infrastructure development essentially involves an increased role of engineers. Can you elaborate on this point with reference to escalated border tensions with China along LAC and in the Northeast Sector?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

The debate on defence modernisation is intrinsically linked to the national security priorities and outlook towards allocation for the military forces, and furthermore, the capacity of the forces to utilise allocated funds. The military has been kept on a starvation budget for a very long time, and the limited funds can only partially meet the requirements of the fighting arms. Better capacity to execute the needed engineer support works demands induction of modern equipment, whereas limited budget and unbalanced force-structure of the Corps, as discussed earlier, are reflected in its lower modernisation priorities within the over-all defence modernisation plans. Thus there is a huge gap between the available and required state of modern equipment. Recent tensions with China have elevated the priority given to border infrastructure and some projects and modern equipment which were on hold for years are being sanctioned for the BRO. Thus with circumstances, priorities are also re-evaluated.

With regards to border tensions along the LAC, infrastructure development has always been an important concern. But presently we were not adequately prepared for a prolonged stand-off through the harsh Ladakh climate. We need improved roads, shelters and huts equipped with basic heating arrangements, water and electricity supply, and field defences to protect the troops on the heights.

Chinese troops used to remain well behind the LAC heights but even then they were well-equipped and funded for quick infrastructure development. Besides its combat engineers, the PLA has a very large component of the second echelon engineering corps. Even if in terms of capability, expertise and skills, Indian military engineers are much better than their Chinese counterparts, skill superiority is not sufficient to counterbalance the huge resources invested by the PLA on infrastructure building. Chinese have pre-planned for the border scenarios and thus they could bridge the infrastructure gaps in a short span of time.

Question 8) Strategic goal in the future would be to project military power to prevent rather than wage war, and there is a growing emphasis on building deterrence capability. At a conceptual level, how has this change reflected in the understanding of combat power? Also, what are the ramifications of such shifts in military engineering?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

The debate about preventing and waging a war may be politically relevant but at a military level, the difference is negligible. All the outcomes depend upon what arms and arsenal you possess and the kind of military forces you have at your disposal. From a soldier’s perspective, the ability to fight a war, prevent a war or posing deterrence all are the same, and essentially depend upon the actual ability to fight, that is, our true combat power. We can’t fake on that account.

To ensure that we have optimum combat power which is worth the money spent, it is essential to have a balanced force-structure. Firstly, the force structure should be in sync with the national aim and priorities. In other words, combat power will be dictated by what the nation wants from its armed forces. Secondly, once compatibility between armed forces and political aim has been achieved, it is important to strike a balance amongst various components and arms of forces. With specific reference to the army, this implies that all arms should be given a balanced share to ensure the achievement of optimal combat power. An infantry without optimum artillery, engineer or signal support may not essentially reflect a strong army.

In the matters of deterrence and action, there are no shifts in the scope of military engineering or responsibilities of the Corps of Engineers. Like the rest of the arms, the Engineer Corps too must be compatible with the rest of the force while the entire military force must be in tune with the national aims.

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Question 9) In 2012, you had proposed a very detailed and meticulous roadmap for the Indian Sapper of 2020. In retrospect, how far have the Indian Sappers or Corps of Engineers come, and as a vision for the next ten years, what would be your roadmap for the Sapper of 2030?

Lt Gen Banerjee:

Vision for a Sapper would be a part of the vision for the Indian Army as a whole. Sappers must keep pace with changes in the Army, be it strategy, modernisation, procurement and acquisition schemes. In policy terms, the Corps of Engineers should gear up for larger involvement with the Army’s planning. The real deficiency arises from funding gaps and disequilibrium in force-structure, as elaborated in our discussions.

In terms of functionality, engineer support for irregular warfare and special operations needs to be strengthened. As the irregular component of warfare expands, engineer support for this form of warfare needs to be improved. Unlike other arms where organisational structure starts with a section, an Engineer unit has a micro classification of ‘cells’ with specific expertise and equipment profile – such as demolition cell, bridging cell, mine laying, water and electricity cells etc. All can be deployed simultaneously. Evidently, therefore, engineer units are structurally designed to meet the requirements of low intensity, irregular and special operations, though this cell-based configuration needs to be better structured and activated.

Secondly, engineer support for special operations needs to be increased. Presently, the Special Forces train their troops in basic engineering tasks and induct engineer officers on deputation. In my opinion, there is a need for dedicated engineer troops to support the execution of special operations. Like the pre-independence days, we need to revisit the history and create more engineer special-operation units and sub-units which can support special operation teams. These would be my two focus areas while suggesting a roadmap for the Sappers of 2030.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

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By Divya Malhotra

Divya is pursuing her PhD from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and is a non-resident fellow at Middle East Institute, New Delhi where she monitors Pakistan-Middle East relations. She completed BA Economics Hons from Panjab University, Chandigarh, MA Economics from Christ University, Bangalore and MPhil from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was associated with Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi as a research intern, and has visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Nepal and USA for many conferences and study. Currently she is engaged as an Assistant Professor at Mount Carmel College in Bangalore.