Col Ashwani Sharma (retd), Editor, South Asia Defence & Strategic Review
‘Bayraktar Diplomacy’, a term coined by freelance bloggers Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans, denotes a subtle change the way wars will be fought in future. Bayraktar TB2, a drone developed by Turkey’s Roketsan, is capable of penetrating a dense air defence environment and then go about destroying the very systems that create the defensive umbrella, and also the war machines they seek to protect. The versatile drone can thereafter proceed to guide a number of networked weapons to engage targets which it detects without getting noticed. Bayraktar, of course only represents what many other competing platforms can do and their numbers and variety are growing by the day. But due credit must be given to Bayraktar for giving this ‘revolution in modern warfare’ a start.
Engagements in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya provided an early insight into the capabilities of unmanned and autonomous weapon systems by way of precision and disruptive effects. The stealth, reach and accuracy demonstrated by these inexpensive, yet lethal, weapons achieved total surprise and tilted the balance of power on the battlefield. Conventional military minds attributed the fate of such small scale, localised actions in Syria and Lybia to an ill-trained adversary who was an easy prey for these new predators in the tactical battle area. Major reversals suffered by the Armenian Army also somehow got attributed to poor training and overconfidence, even though Azerbaijan military proceeded to dismantle the qualitatively superior Armenians as part of well-crafted strategy based on extensive use of drones and disruptive technologies.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is now providing definite military lessons, although, on the face of it, some of those lesson s may be on ‘what not to do’ in a battlefield; Russia hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory despite being touted as the much superior military force. The reported use of ‘hypersonic missiles’, un-interceptable by any air defence system, though has definitely added a new technological dimension – indeed sparking a new weapons race among major military powers. The effectiveness of new weapons demonstrates how the future of warfare, in large measure, will continue to be determined by newer technology, putting conventional weapons, tactics and wisdom under a lens.
Engaged in an unequal war, and after initial setbacks, Ukraine has managed to disrupt the Russian offensive which was expected to overrun the country in a matter of days. Not a single military observer doubted the capability of a much superior Russian Army prior to the commencement of operations. We all believed President Putin when he thundered that Russia will overrun Ukraine in the blink of an eye. It’s not just the numbers but the quality and versatility of Russian military hardware which gave him this belief, and nightmares to Ukraine and her supporters. General Gerasimov’s impeccable reputation as a military strategist added to the fearsome military image. However, nearly seven weeks into the war, the offensive drags on with revised and limited objectives, shattered reputations, and numerous military lessons.
Logistics, terrain and weather played an important part in delaying the Russian advance; Ukraine’s tenacity and the will to fight back is worthy of praise, but the role and impact of emerging technologies on modern warfare cannot be underplayed or ignored any longer. This is the precise focus of this piece.
Mile long vehicular columns lined up on Ukraine’s highways underscored Russia’s control over the skies in the early stages of war. Photographs of armoured vehicles, guns and support echelons nonchalantly lined up in a straight line, apparently awaiting further operational instructions in a non-tactical formation displayed arrogance, even though they presented a lucrative target to the opposition. Apart from logistical issues, the majority of us took it that Ukraine had simply no military capability left to challenge Russian supremacy in the skies. This was till the reports of blown-up tanks, guns and vehicles started showing up. Warships, helicopters and aircraft were not spared either. Remotely piloted vehicles demonstrated an ability to penetrate Russian military’s Integrated Air Defence system, successfully combating systems such as the S-300, Buk-M2, Tor-M2 and Pantsir. These air defence systems were supported by modern EW systems like the Avtobaza-M and Groza-S, which incidentally became targets of this unconventional warfare. Loitering munitions, surveillance and armed drones broke into advanced air defence umbrellas undetected to wreak havoc on unsuspecting troops and platforms. Some of the attacking weapons like the TB2 would stay on in the battle area in order to direct other weapon systems on targets picked up by them, having expended their own munitions. Shoulder-fired NLOS missiles, manpack rocket launchers and loitering munitions joined the effort and delivered nasty blows. There is similar footage on the internet of Russian drones inflicting serious damage on Ukrainian forces.
In a nutshell, the status quo of conventional warfare appears to have been broken. Military technologies, platforms and the methods of their employment need to be re-examined. Wars of the 21st century and beyond are in for a total change, and this may be a watershed moment. In fact, there are a number of voices, amongst the younger generation in particular, who openly question the concept of kinetic actions and violence to resolve differences amongst nations.
Shaping public opinion, in the way war is perceived, is a weapon system in itself and indeed, it is being employed extensively in the current conflict with different narratives being spun
Some military observers have attempted to downplay the effectiveness of RPVs by disparaging the Russian military and its tactical drills. But looking at the footage widely available on the internet, there is little doubt that conventional platforms employed with 20th-century tactical battle drills are no match for emerging new technologies. It is not just battle tanks and Infantry Combat Vehicles – a larger number of multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs), artillery guns and military vehicles have been destroyed. A blown up battle tank just makes a more stunning visual impact. Fixed defences are yet another target which appear to be easy prey for precision munitions. Initial strikes by the Russian military made use of long-range vectors which did most of the damage at the start. As the war wore on, ISR means lit up the entire theatre. Anyone with a TV set or audio-visual device on internet could watch the deployed units and their movement. UAVs, shoulder-fired missiles and munitions and other relatively inexpensive weapons started to make their presence felt. The ease of use of many such munitions, which use ‘fire and forget’ seekers make their usage possible after minimal training.
There are reports of increasing defence budgets across the globe, particularly in Europe. It will, however, be interesting to see what kind of arsenal they wish to build up in the light of recent skirmishes and wars. Russia- Ukraine conflict, no doubt will throw up numerous lessons which must be studied in detail to ensure that money is not wasted in piling up irrelevant militarily hardware which is already headed towards obsolescence.
More importantly, the military leaders must be able to envisage and prepare for vastly different, tech-enabled future battlefields wherein the art and craft of war will be substantially different.
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