Broadsword: The transformation of war - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 5 April 2024

Broadsword: The transformation of war

India has too often lost the opening battles of the wars it fought. Planners in New Delhi must ensure that doesn’t ever happen again


By Ajai Shukla 

Business Standard, April 4, 2024 


On October 27 each year the Indian Army celebrates Infantry Day, commemorating the bravura contributions of the foot-soldiers, the army’s largest fighting arm. On this day in 1947, with Pakistani tribal invaders raping and pillaging their way into the Kashmir valley, Indian infantry-men from such storied battalions as 1st SIKH and 4th KUMAON were airlifted in old Dakota transport aircraft into Srinagar airport to block the advance of Pakistani tribal invaders, who had had reached the outskirts of the city and were poised to capture the airport.


Armed with little more than raw courage, the handful of Indian troops blocked the Pakistanis at the outskirts of Srinagar and drove them back to what became the border, ensuring that the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) remained a part of India. To this day, many of the Indian border posts that guard the Line of Control (LoC) display plaques carved with the names of Indian infantrymen who gave up their lives while capturing those picquets.


While honouring the sacrifices of those Indian infantrymen, we must never forget that many of them died in vain, because the military of that time was poorly prepared for the wars it was required to wage. From the recapture of Srinagar, Baramula, Poonch, Naushera and others in 1947; to Jaswantgarh and Walong in 1962; Haji Pir Pass in 1965, to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, India’s combat units very often lost, with catastrophic consequences, the opening battles of the wars they fought. It is the job of planners in New Delhi to ensure that doesn’t ever happen again.


Analysing contemporary warfare is made difficult by the fact that the conflict in Ukraine — Europe’s biggest conflict since 1945 — features a mix of old and new. The artillery duels, minefields and trench warfare are straight out of World War I, and yet, Ukrainian artillery fire is being spotted by drones and adjusted on tablet computers, linked via satellite to the internet. Arriving at solutions requires figuring out what won’t change, what is changing fundamentally and how to apply those insights.


The war has also shown the limitations of sheer mass in warfare: If it were merely a function of deploying lots of troops and tanks, the Russians would have taken Kyiv long ago. Ukraine’s success in holding them off, initially employing handheld weapons systems such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, highlights the profound changes underway. This involves a deep study of Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific and the employment of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning.


Many scholars of contemporary war are arguing that, although about 90 per cent of the weapons being employed by both sides — including aircraft, tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers — were developed and produced in the 20th century, it is the other 10 per cent that will have a transformational impact.


Prime amongst these is the unarmed aerial vehicle (UAV), being built in numbers by both sides for filming weddings and vacations. These can be adapted to conduct surveillance of enemy positions, or to carry grenades or crude explosives to drop on enemy soldiers. At a higher level of sophistication, Ukraine has received strike drones from the West — e.g., the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, the US Switchblade 300 and Phoenix Ghost, and Australia’s ultracheap, Corvo Precision Payload Delivery System. The Russians, meanwhile, have become reliant on Iranian-made Shahed self-detonating drones and their own Lancet drones and GPA-guided glide bombs.


Drones fly slowly, are annoyingly noisy and their communications links can be easily jammed. They can be disabled with bullets, missiles or electronic jamming devices. According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, a quadcopter drone lasts an average of three flights in combat. The war is already seeing drone swarms and more are likely in the future, as China and the US mass-produce sophisticated autonomous systems. A Ukrainian official said: “There will be a new type of army. Like there is the air force and there are artillery forces, there will be drone forces. A different army within the army.”


The US Army, which believes in being ready for new types of warfare, has set up a new command structure called the Army Futures Command (AFC). As so often, it was a former military person, Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona), who inspired the AFC’s creation in 2018. At that point, the army was reeling from the cancellation of expensive, high-profile weapons development programs such as the project, which was meant to produce the next generation of armoured vehicles.


McCain was convinced that the enormity of the challenge posed by drones demanded that all the Army’s modernization functions be moved under one roof, with that organisation located far from any traditional military post. It is the job of the AFC, and its 20,000 personnel to develop the technologies and concepts that will enable the Army to stay up to speed with developments in areas such as robotics, quantum computing, hypersonics, directed energy and artificial intelligence.


The AFC’s goal is to prepare the Army for the battlefield of 2040 with projects such as the Robotic Platoon. This would involve integrating crewed and uncrewed vehicles into a single unit, so that first contact with the enemy is never made with America’s most precious weapons system, the infantryman. Instead, a human platoon would need to be made more lethal and survivable in a future fight where pervasive sensors (many of them mounted on drones) will make it nearly impossible to avoid detection.


The Pentagon does not expect to always get it right. It says: “The goal is not to get it really wrong. We want to get a 70 per cent solution, recognize what we got wrong and adapt faster than the opponent.”


For all of AFC’s brave talk of innovation, it remains part of one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies — the US Department of Defense (the Pentagon). It can develop weapons, but it can’t acquire them in bulk; that’s the job of the Pentagon’s lumbering acquisitions bureaucracy. So it remains to be seen how successful this five-year-old command will be in speeding up the US Army’s innovation metabolism. But one has to give the US Army credit for at least trying to be better prepared for war in the future than it has been in the past. The Indian Army would do well to follow that example.

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