Coordinating on the battlefield: No time for weaponising in dribs and drabs - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 1 June 2023

Coordinating on the battlefield: No time for weaponising in dribs and drabs

India’s military can no longer afford to create a patchwork of small and relatively inconsequential systems, purchased from here and there

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 2nd June 23 

Speaking at an annual gathering of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Delhi last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh implored captains of the defence industry – not for the first time – to innovate in futuristic technologies “to transform India from (being) a follower to a leader.” Demonstrating the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) talent for slogans, Mr Singh observed that India’s population had to be converted from a “wealth consuming entity” into a “wealth creating resource.” However, it will take more than catchphrases for our defence industry to begin churning out the defence equipment needed to become Atmanirbhar Bharat – another much-used government phrase that means self-reliant.


Meanwhile the world has watched riveted as the two most recent shooting wars – Azerbaijan’s rout of Armenia in 2020 and Russia’s failure to subdue Ukraine even after 462 days of fighting – signal a major change in the nature of interstate warfare. This has surprised many, given that combat tactics have remained largely the same since the American Civil War (1861-65) and World War I (1914-18), when the lethality of automatic weapons and the ubiquitous presence of long-range field artillery “emptied the battlefield,” with soldiers sheltering behind cover or in underground pillboxes to reduce casualties. 


In the battlefield of today, survival faces a different set of challenges: Systems likethe Switchblade – a miniature, loitering, Kamikaze drone, designed by US firm AeroVironment; and used across the US military and now by the Ukrainians against the Russians. Carried in a soldier’s backpack and launched handily from a tube, the Switchblade flies to its target and crashes into it, detonating itself in a suicidal manner. Leapfrogging the Russian front lines and targeting key Russian commanders through their patterns of movement, Kamikaze drone attacks force adversaries to change their patterns of operations, reducing the effectiveness of the field force. Skilful integration binds together multiple sensors with precision weapons that employ artificial intelligence (AI) for taking decisions in real time. With North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member countries under pressure to adhere to compulsory commitments to spend 2 per cent of their Gross Domestic Products on defence, these loitering munitions are equipping Ukrainian and NATO militaries in numbers. This even as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of precision munitions steadily reduce their dependence on arms sales to big buyers such as India.


A key player in the autonomous weapons game is China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been developing unmanned systems since 2013, with Beijing incorporating them into their “in theatre” planning, backed by a sophisticated understanding of India’s cyber vulnerabilities. The PLA is believed to have mapped the strategic vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure, including the national power grid, railway and highway network, the telecom network, financial services, and the stock market. These systems include hardware that is full of Chinese components, over which they maintain complete control even after it has been installed in Indian servers. That requires India to think and plan in two realms: First, the hardware realm; but also the need for developing a guerrilla mindset that is geared for taking swift decisions. In all likelihood the next conventional Chinese attack on India would be preceded by a massive cyber attack designed to cripple Indian networks and interfere with our disaster relief programmes. Banning Chinese hardware such as 5G networks would serve little purpose; major systems and networks are the new vulnerabilities. We need to replace them.


New Delhi needs to creatively redefine this playing field. Our current equipping and acquisitions processes are focused on buying military hardware, rather than on creating new capabilities. Amongst the most imaginative and successful acquisitions is the synergistic integration of the shortened BrahMos cruise missile with the Sukhoi-30MKI fighter. This has given the BrahMos air launched cruise missile (ALCM) a deep strike capability cheaply and with available Indian technology. These Su-30MKIs can operate from Indian air bases, without crossing the border, to strike terrorist targets deep inside Pakistan. Meanwhile Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, fitted with the anti-ship version of the BrahMos, can be launched from the Thanjavur air base in Tamil Nadu against enemy warships in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal or the Northern Indian Ocean.


Such innovations must yield clear and quantifiable financial savings or capability accrual. The IAF’s often-stated requirement of 42 combat aircraft squadrons includes a large number of MiG-21 squadrons, especially tasked for air defence. But the induction of force multipliers and of platforms that perform the same job is overlooked. For example, the IAF’s purchase of 5 regiments of S-400 surface-to-air missiles has enormously boosted our air defence capability; as has the induction of mid-air refuellers and of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Yet, the IAF’s stated requirement remains 42 fighter squadrons. 


Nor has the navy revised its requirement of 200 warships, stated in its Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP), even though its capability as a fighting force is more potent today than ever before. Its heavily armed fleet includes two aircraft carriers, 16 attack submarines and 42 capital warships, which include destroyers, frigates and corvettes. In addition, 12 Indian P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft maintain vigil over the entrances from West and East Asia into the northern Indian Ocean, and they are likely to be joined in their surveillance patrols by a small fleet of Sea Guardian drones. With the navy planning on six more conventional submarines for the shallow waters of the Arabian Sea and on six nuclear propelled submarines (SSNs) for the deep waters of the Bay of Bengal, there is ample scope to reduce the surface fleet.


Meanwhile, there is inadequate discussion of the army’s manpower policies. These include beefing up our defences against China by pumping in three new mountain divisions into Eastern Ladakh and raising two new mountain divisions in Arunachal Pradesh in 2007-09. Two new armoured brigades were also moved into the China theatre. However, more rigorous debate is needed over the army’s “pivot to the North”, which is the term being used for the conversion of one of India’s plains strike corps into a mountain strike corps. This involves shifting two infantry divisions and one armoured division from the Pakistan frontier and re-tasking, re-training and re-equipping them for offensive operations on the China border. But there is little debate about the causes and consequences of this major change, which involves the re-orienting of more than five army divisions.


Also hanging fire are key projects from all three services. Since 2009, work has not progressed much on the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV), which was going to be pursued as a “Make” category project. Hence, attention is shifting to the Light Tank Project, where the participants are L&T, Mahindra Group and the Tata Group. With the Russia-Ukraine conflict bringing 155 mm, 52-calibre medium artillery into focus, the Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) is high in priority. Also being neglected is the Tactical Communications System, which was one of the “Make” systems. For all these weapons, the military must obtain strike platforms and fighting tools to serve an operational plan, such as the acquisition of F-35 Lightning II deep strike bombers to interdict the Qinghai-Tibet railroad, or to destroy PLA(N) platforms transiting into the Indian Ocean. India’s military can no longer afford to create a patchwork of small and relatively inconsequential systems, purchased from here and there. 

1 comment:

  1. Criticism Of “Coordinating on the battlefield: No time for weaponising in dribs and drabs” by Ajai Shukla

    In a first for Ajai Shukla, the present article, though on a very arresting proposition, has not been up to the mark. Firstly, he does not make a compelling case for the proposition — that India needs to coordinate on the battlefield, and not purchase discrete unconnected weapons, technologies and capabilities. Second, comes from his (unusually) partial representation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

    His “Switchblade” paragraph just isn’t convincing. It should have focused on the need to integrate the ISR ( ) aspect across the army, and preferably also the air force, which is the key to making drones and loitering munitions effective in targetting. We have more than enough drone initiatives, thank you. What we don’t have is integration of sensors, communication, geo-mapping, and GPS which will permit the forward observation officer and the drone operator as well as the command and control headquarter to decide quickly, accurately and effectively on targetting.

    The choice of the Switchblade drone as an example is poor — its the Lancets at the tactical level and the Gerans at the operational/strategic level that are devastating Ukrainian weapon systems at the front by the former and the Ukrainian war-fighting potential by the latter — which are the actually performing drone/loitering munition systems. The claims made for the Switchblade just don’t hold up, especially after the autumn of 2022.

    As is the claim that Russia has “failed to subdue Ukraine even after 462 days of fighting” — by all parameters, its Russia that is winning and Ukraine that is losing. The prospects for the future are bleak for Ukraine despite the supply of Western weapons, training, intelligence support and so on. But Shukla’s language gives the impression that the aim of the Russians is to conquer Ukraine, which any keen observer of the conflict understands is just plain wrong.

    The “China” paragraph is relevant but serves only to highlight India’s vulnerability and their preparedness to fight a hybrid conflict, which India seriously lacks. However, he is unable to tie it in with what is purportedly his main thesis, that India needs to coordinate its capability procurement. The same criticism is in a way valid for this article.

    The article beyond this point digresses into a critique of the three services, their weapon systems and their capabilities. The criticisms are valid but they do not link in to the theme. How does changing the IAF’s stated requirement of 42 fighter squadrons to less help the battlefield coordination needed. He just hasn’t explained this.

    In the end paragraphs, Shukla highlights a few projects which just aren’t getting the attention or debate they need. At the end of reading the article, I found that I felt a sensation that I never expected to have after reading his work — that the article didn’t work for me. My normal impression, that the article got over too soon and that I wished there was more, was missing.

    As a die hard fan of Shukla’s work (I click the Broadsword link every day to see if there is a new post from him), I will sadly say that this article is just not up to the high standard that he has set before.


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