Contours-III :Signature Management: A Modern day Battlefield Imperative

Sub Title : Signature Management: A Modern day Battlefield Imperative

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2020

Author : Col Ashwani Sharma

Page No. : 12

Category : Military Technology

: December 4, 2020

In the previous issue we emphasised that future wars will witness increasing use of unmanned and autonomous platforms which will necessitate greater mobility and enhanced protection for all platforms and personnel in the battlefield. Field fortifications too will have to be either ruggedized to the extent they withstand direct hits as precision munitions combined with increasing lethality leave little chance to escape.

Our magazine carried a back-cover advertisement of loitering munitions on purpose; it was not for commercial reasons as much as it was to draw our readers’ attention to the danger posed by autonomous precision munitions. A relatively low cost munition, operating on electric or fossil fuel engine for propulsion can literally stalk a target and strike at will. If that’s not enough, it can even be retrieved, reloaded and relaunched. Options therefore are numerous. It is a perpetual sword of Damocles hanging over your head in the battlefield. Stealth is passé, this is more like a sly attack. Loitering munitions could be patrolling the area without getting noticed, much like an eagle looking for its prey. Once the target is spotted it can swoop down and claim its prey, stationery or moving, with great accuracy (CEP-01 meter) and speed. If the battlefield is empty, the munition can be recovered by the base station and refitted for the next attack. How do we deal with such systems? Of course, there is an antidote for every kind of threat. As soldiers we need not despair, but we certainly need to prepare. We need to rethink the way we fight. It has as much to do with tactical innovation as with emerging technologies.

Protection and survival are rapidly acquiring a new connotation. It is a mix of mobility and signature management, with the latter being more significant. Armour protection comes next. The famous protection onion peal can now be imagined with three distinct layers. The outer and the most important layer is signature management. Should the target be detected, evasive action or mobility is the next savior. The faster you disappear, greater the chances of survival. The last resort is physical protection.

A closer look at the three successive steps for survivability:

Signature management must be built into protection systems as a primary constituent. It is no longer an add on in the form of a camouflage net or a ghillie suit. Modern day battlefield is sensor driven with different bands in the EM Spectrum providing visibility. Recent operations in Syria and Nagorno Karabakh have amply demonstrated this fact. Signatures must be hidden from IR, Thermal and visual bands, preferably in that given order, considering the characteristics and capabilities of the sensors in vogue. Signature management can be in the form of camouflage nets (personnel and platforms), Protective coatings (weapons and platforms), anti-thermal and anti-IR paints, radar absorbing paints and shapes and customized suits like ghillie suits for personnel on specialized close in tasks. Visual and sensor detection must be avoided at all costs through an attempt to merge with the background.

Next comes mobility. This factor has more to do with tactical innovation than technology which does remain an essential ingredient and a facilitator. Fixed targets must be avoided at all costs, unless it is a part of defensive/offensive position with a definitive aim of denying ground or manoeuvre to the adversary.  Such defences must be kept concealed as far as possible.  Beyond this, tenets of modern warfare dictate that platforms and personnel be kept mobile in order to enhance chances of survival. Bunching up in concentration, assembly and vehicle waiting areas are practices of the past as they present a lucrative target. They must be separated in space and time until required. Platforms and soldiers must come together only at the point of decision when operationally required. More often than not thus, it is the effect of their fire and manoeuvre which should be cleverly concentrated at the target end.

The third factor is physical protection when all else fails to protect the man or the machine or both. One good solution would be protected mobility for all troops and stores as far as possible. This is also the last mile in the quest for survival. As offensive weapons and firearms appear to dominate the battlefield and have an upper hand at the present moment, it is imperative to provide some form of protection. Modern technology offers a variety of solutions which are lightweight, tough and compact, both for personnel and platforms. Moving around unprotected in the battlefield is passé.

Protection is not limited to passive layers of protection. Particularly for platforms, protection can come in the form of add on plates of reactive armour. There is also a plethora of ‘Active Protection Systems (APS)’ which offer protections from missiles and rockets which move at a relatively low velocity. Research and trials are on for protection against high velocity kinetic energy projectiles as well.  APS is an expensive option but it obviates the need for heavy armour protection thus increasing mobility in the bargain. Going a step further, it is well within the realm of possibility to invent (APS) systems which can provide a protective umbrella to an entire column as a combat team. This capability needs to be developed and integrated with Air Defence Umbrella integral to a mechanised column.

Tank’s Vulnerability as a Combat Platform

There have been murmurs about the battle tanks viability on the battlefield. This has now turned into a debate, especially after the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and limited military action prior to that in Syria. This will continue to be debated for quite a while till we actually see a large scale armour battle between two equal and well trained adversaries. In this feature let us remain restricted to a battle tank’s vulnerability in an armed conflict.

We all know that modern day ISR capabilities have made the battlefield visible; it is no longer just transparent. In a sensor driven environment, opto-electronics have enhanced actionable real time information manifolds. Manned and Unmanned platforms carry high resolution sensors which can pick up signatures, beyond visual spectrum and range of human eye. They can also reach out in the depth areas, as far as the platform’s endurance range permits. Therefore, whether you are in air, water or on the reverse slope, chances are that someone is seeing you. For your own survival and that of your force’s one has to move with this uncomfortable assumption that you are being watched. Vulnerability quotient has gone up for all military platforms many notches higher. Be it tanks, IFVs, Artillery guns or troop concentrations, everyone can be picked up and identified. In fact, Engineering support equipment, ammunition trains and logistic columns have a much larger signature.

It is upto the attacking Generals to pick and choose the targets as per priority they attach to each set of targets. Weapon systems like UAVs, Drones, Loitering missiles, Precision munitions, tube launched autonomous rockets will find their targets in the immediate middle and far grounds with accuracy and speed. Contact battle may not even take place just as dog fights in air are becoming rare. The emerging technological situation calls for fresh approach to tactical drills. Announcing the tank’s demise may be premature as all platforms are under increasing threat including individual soldiers. In fact, a tank, with better chances of survival, given its mobility and protection, may be able to close in with the enemy and destroy him physically. As mentioned earlier, survival is key and we need to adopt modern technology. Tactical innovation is even more important.

In previous editions

Contours I. Electromagnetic spectrum is the fourth dimension in future wars will be fought

Contours II. Unmanned and autonomous platforms dominate the battlefield

Current edition

Contours III. Signature management is key to survival

Future editions

Contours IV.  Shape and future land based platforms – Armoured Vehicles, Artillery Guns and hard held weapons

Contours V.  Innovation in tactics and strategy for war

Contours VI.  Aerospace, Aerial platforms and weapon systems

Contours VII. Maritime dominance, surface & sub surface systems and platforms.

Watch this space for more