Sub Title : Unpredicatable, Dynamic Wars
Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2022
Author : Col Ashwani Sharma
Page No. : 12
Category : Military Technology
: August 4, 2022
Contours is our series on the changing character of war due rapidly evolving technologies and other factors like geopolitical drivers. The recent Azerbaijan- Armenia and Ukraine- Russia conflicts clearly evince that militaries need a relook at the capabilities that they wish to develop in the light of new threats and with the help of emerging technologies. The capabilities must be integrated and not acquired piecemeal
Nature of warfare is changing at a baffling pace. For the last two decades, while discussing future wars, one heard of ‘short duration, fast paced, highly lethal future wars’ at regular intervals. ‘All out wars’, ‘multi domain wars’, ‘information wars’ were other cliched terms. It was also believed that the international community will step in quickly enough to force an end to the wars which may erupt in any corner of the world to prevent unacceptable damage to the belligerents. Short duration, lethal military conflicts also shaped military planning, forcing many to reduce the requirement of war reserves. Emerging technologies have resulted in new armaments in the inventory, though their application is yet to be fully assimilated. Recent conflicts across the globe have, however, proven many of the concepts wrong. Russia – Ukraine war most of all has put paid to majority of the recent concepts. It has also validated some. The biggest lesson from the Russo Ukraine conflict so far has been the unpredictable nature of modern-day warfare. You can draw hasty conclusions at your own risk!
Conventional battles are becoming scarce. It is hard to find an example of a ‘force on force’ attack even at the subunit level. Classic operations of war, be it ‘Advance to contact’, ‘Attack across an obstacle’ or on ‘fixed defences’ are not to be seen, let alone lessons learnt from such actions. Territories have been gained and lost, military platforms have been employed and destroyed, lots of troops have lost their lives fighting in action, but yet there are’nt any classical lessons that one could draw and discuss in the schools of instruction. In fact most of the Military Schools of Instruction, particularly the ones running courses for mid or junior level officers must be avoiding any reference to the Ukraine war for want of suitable lessons emerging out of the conflict zone.
Disruptive Technologies and their impact on the tactical battlefield dominated most of the news emerging from the war zone in Ukraine. Prior to this the outcome of Azerbaijan- Armenia war was decided in favour of the former mostly due to the shock effect created by Turkish Bayraktars and Israeli loitering, Kamikaze munitions. These technologies aided by accurate ISR provided by the US and NATO to Ukraine gave the Ukrainians reasons to cheer as they defeated a number of Russian tanks, Artillery pieces and Air Defence systems. Even a Russian flagship ‘Moskova’ was sunk in the Black Sea. Taken by surprise and after suffering some serious, unexpected casualties, the Russian Army undertook corrective measures and over time blunted the offensive unleashed by NLOS, Javelins and similar munitions. Elon Musk’s LEO based Starlink provided Ukraine with safe communications. Space has firmly entered the theatre of war along with cyber as added dimensions.
Fire Assaults are a frequent affair and responsible for most of the gains and casualties. What does that imply? Increased reliance on delivery of destructive ordnance(warheads) at the target end to achieve the same effect as physical assaults would bring in at no human loss of own lives. Does that make Artillery the King of the Battle? Yes and No. Yes, because artillery’s job is to deliver warheads to the target area and it does major heavy lifting in that. No, because a large number of platforms and projectiles have made an appearance on the battlefield to supplement the effort. Tube launched munitions are only a part of the effort, which includes increasing number of UAVs, loitering munitions, autonomous projectiles, missiles and guided rockets. Battle tanks are increasingly seeking SMART and long-range munitions which can neutralize the targets through indirect fire.
Air power somehow has remained low key in the scene of action. Given Russia’s superiority in terms of numbers and technology it is a bit intriguing why the Airforce has not played a more active role. Some of the reasons that come to mind are, (i) Force preservation, (ii) Use of long-range precision missiles in place of aircraft, (iii) Russian strategy and tactics precluded a large role for its Airforce, or, finally (iv) saving it for action should the NATO forces join action at some stage. Whatever the reasons may be, a large part of the job has been performed by precision rockets and missiles which saves lives and is a cost effective measure and supporting alternative (not suggesting in any way a replacement, just in case someone misunderstands!!). The point to make is that precision rocketry and missiles can effectively take on certain targets in depth.
Fighting in Built up areas continues to be a nightmare for any military. Kiev or Kyiv (now) poses the same risks and threats that were encountered in WW II. Small contingents that flirted with the opportunity in the initial stages of the war were defeated soundly and the Russian army had to abandon the plan. Dynamics of fighting in towns and villages are such that it can take months to subdue resistance. Mariupol is another example where the Russian forces had to spend a massive amount of time, TnT and suffer casualties to capture the town. Tactical drills for fighting in such areas must be devised for specific purposes as prolonged military actions in such geographies are best avoided.
Air defence assets be it guns, radars or missile systems, are the first target in modern day battlefield. Their protection through physical means is hardly a guarantee as they are tackled by a variety of offensive means and munitions. Air defence capability is also under a rapid change. Designed primarily for enemy aircraft, Air Defence systems aim at acquiring hostile aircraft and neutralizing them at given ranges. In the last two decades missiles have emerged as a potent threat and the term ‘Air Defence’ subtly changed to ‘Air and Missile Defence’ (AMD). Time has come to add UAS to the term as a number of unmanned and autonomous aerial weapon platforms and munitions have entered the battlefield. They threaten all the AD assets as also the assets to which the AD Systems provide a protective umbrella.
Large platforms be they on land, water (or beneath) or air; fixed defences based on conventional military wisdom; or large sized engineering marvels (like bridges put together in hours) are all visible courtesy the ever increasing ISR arc which now starts with assets located in space and is supported by high speed communications through internet. Capabilities of offensive weapons in terms of speed of engagement and accuracy are well known, and proliferation of such missiles and munitions is well known. Under such fast-emerging scenarios, it is pragmatic to pause and rethink the design of future platforms and their employment. Adding numbers will only make a dent in defence budgets.
Technology in the first two decades of 21st century has evolved at a very rapid pace. Aided by AI and machine learning and ever-increasing speed of communications, it is primarily the electromagnetic domain in which maximum advances have taken place. CEMA has grown from being an irritant to major threat. Similarly, the eye in the sky has actually moved a few notches higher, physically as well as metaphorically. Space based assets are growing in numbers and their applications have changed the way militaries fight. Space has been militarized, whether we accept it formally or not. Weaponisation will be the next incremental step.
Rushing to conclusions will be a mistake, but not taking cognizance or not preparing for what lies ahead would be foolhardy. Equally dangerous is the delusion that the enemy across the border is no better. Most military reverses are borne out of the factor of surprise. Recent military conflicts amply demonstrated how militaries can be taken by surprise and made to pay a heavy price. Take the case of Azerbaijan as a recent example. Russian forces suffered heavy casualties as a consequence of surprise when UAVs, NLAWS and Loitering munitions emerged on the scene. Kargil and Eastern Laddakh incursions were cases of surprise mainly due to poor ISR.
What is certain is that militaries need a relook at the capabilities that they wish to develop in the light of new threats and with the help of emerging technologies. Military capabilities must be integrated and not acquired piecemeal. Fresh tactical thinking in ‘Ops of war’ is imperative for success in the battlefield. In the world of AI and ML, it is essential to understand how the logic works, lest it becomes detrimental to your own capability. Computers, machines and semiconductor chips after all are not human, have no emotions or instinct. They are meant to solve complex computational problems in quick time and enhance performance. Therefore, use AI, trust its mathematical and data handling prowess, but retain decision making.
Similarly develop and acquire future capabilities, but do not shed the conventional in a hurry.