Evolution or Obsolescence?

Sub Title : The Future of Battlefield Force Multipliers including Tanks, Combat Aircraft, Aircraft Carriers and Attack Helicopters etc.

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Col Ashwani K Sharma, Editor-in-Chief

Page No. : 17

Category : Military Affairs

: March 22, 2024

Very often military analysts fall into the same trap- imagining the wars they would like to fight rather than the conflicts that are likely to transpire. Inevitably it leads us into preparing for the previous war whose lessons learnt are still fresh and weighing heavily on our minds. But technologies are changing at such a rapid pace ever since the digital revolution that it is bringing about cultural and institutional changes.

In this essay, we wish to examine some of the battle-winning platforms which have become a matter of debate primarily on account of survivability on the battlefield and to some extent due to the emergence of new technologies which offer cost-effective alternatives. We complete the discussion with our suggestions related to the Indian scenario.

Caveat: Please note that this analysis contributes to broader discourse and does not represent a conclusive stance. We acknowledge that there will be opposing perspectives, and we respect their validity.

The Battle Tank: A Strategic Advantage in Modern Conflict

The relevance of battle tanks in modern warfare is a topic of ongoing debate, as military observers and analysts took note of their increased vulnerability to low-tech and low-cost defence systems. Observers noticed Russia’s tank columns suffering heavy losses in Ukraine, in the opening stages of the war leading some to question the efficacy of mechanised warfare. However, recent events have challenged this notion as western powers rush to bolster Ukraine’s military capability and battle tanks are back in demand as the main weapon system.

In a Washington Post article from February 2023, Antony Beevor highlighted Ukraine’s increasing reliance on tanks, with Western countries pledging significant support. This resurgence suggests a renewed appreciation for the role of tanks in contemporary conflicts. Beevor proposed that Ukraine’s integration of tanks with infantry, drones, and air assets could prove effective in strategic operations. Nicholas Drummond, a former British Army officer, echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of tanks in seizing and holding ground. He refuted the idea that modern technologies could replace tanks’ capabilities, noting their indispensable role in supporting infantry and engaging enemy armour.

US Marine Corps officer Jameson Mead emphasised the unique advantages offered by tanks, including their formidable firepower and ability to influence the battlespace. He argued that tanks remain indispensable assets, providing crucial support to ground forces in combat situations.

Battle tanks have been a cornerstone of military operations for over a century, evolving to meet the challenges of changing warfare landscapes. Despite the emergence of advanced technologies and asymmetric threats, tanks remain an indispensable asset on the modern battlefield. This paper argues for the continued relevance of battle tanks, highlighting their versatility, firepower, protection, and strategic value in contemporary conflicts.

  • Versatility. Battle tanks possess unparalleled versatility, capable of operating across diverse terrains ranging from urban environment to rugged landscapes in the deserts, plains and even mountainous regions. Their mobility enables rapid manoeuvrability, facilitating offensive and defensive operations and troop support, the only platform capable of firing on the move.
  • Firepower. One of the most compelling arguments for the relevance of battle tanks is their formidable firepower. Equipped with high-calibre guns and advanced targeting systems, tanks can engage enemy forces with precision and devastating effect. Introduction of advanced ammunitions (read SMART) and fire control systems has significantly enhanced their lethality and effectiveness and makes them indispensable assets in both offensive and defensive operations.
  • Protection. Modern tank designs incorporate composite armour, reactive armour, and advanced defensive systems like APS. This level of protection not only safeguards tank crews but also enhances their survivability in hostile environments, enabling them to operate effectively amidst enemy fire.
  • Strategic Value. Beyond their tactical capabilities, battle tanks hold significant strategic value in modern warfare. Their presence on the battlefield exerts psychological pressure on adversaries, demonstrating military strength and resolve. Their ability to breach enemy defences and seize key objectives contributes to shaping the outcome of conflicts and influencing strategic outcomes.
  • Force Multiplier. The presence of armoured formations can deter aggression, project power, and shape the operational environment, thereby influencing the behaviour of adversaries and allies alike. Tanks can also integrate seamlessly with other combat arms to achieve synergistic effects and maximise operational effectiveness.

In conclusion, battle tanks remain indispensable assets on the modern battlefield due to their versatility, firepower, protection, and strategic value. Investments in tank modernisation and capability enhancement are essential to maintain their effectiveness and relevance in future conflicts.

India requires a new model of battle tank specifically designed for the unique conditions it faces, such as the high-altitude terrains that are increasingly accessible due to climate change advancements and technological progress. However, it’s not necessary to maintain the current fleet size (approximately 3,500 tanks); future operations will likely focus on smaller, diverse team tactics. Crucially, any new Indian tank must adhere to the country’s specific doctrinal approaches and the distinct nature of the terrain, areas where foreign-made platforms often fall short. Additionally, this future tank should integrate effortlessly into joint force operations, taking a lead role within the combined arms team.

Combat Aircraft: Emerging Technologies are Reshaping Combat Dynamics

Advances in military technology, including the rise of missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), precision munitions, and robust anti-aircraft systems, have dramatically altered the dynamics of warfare, casting a shadow on the traditional role of combat aircraft. Long-range rockets equipped with precision guidance now have the capability to strike deep within enemy territory, a task previously dominated by combat aircraft. Critical infrastructure such as communication hubs, logistics bases, military industrial sites, and command headquarters, which once were primary targets for Air Forces, can now be effectively neutralised by these cost-efficient alternatives.

The second major reason for this debate is advent of anti-aircraft weapons which saturate the modern day Tactical Battle Area (TBA). The formidable prowess of ground-based air defence systems acts as a strong deterrent to manned combat flights, compelling aviators to engage targets from safer, stand-off distances. Conventional unguided bombs have evolved, now being retrofitted with glide and guidance technology, allowing them to be released far from the target while maintaining accuracy.

In air-to-air combat, the scenario has similarly transformed. Aerial engagements are increasingly being decided by long-range, beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, making the once-common dogfight a rarity, possibly relegating it to the realm of video games in the near future.

Moreover, the rapid development of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MuMT) is heralding a new era in aerial operations. This innovative concept is rapidly taking flight and may well reflect the future trajectory of air warfare, showcasing the potential to redefine the airspace battleground as we know it. (Read the feature by AM Anil Chopra, DG CAPS, in this issue)

Having said that there are several good reasons why combat aircraft remain highly relevant:

  • Flexibility and Versatility. Combat aircraft offer a level of flexibility and versatility that is difficult to match with other platforms. They can perform a wide range of missions, including air superiority, ground attack, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.
  • Speed and Reach. Combat aircraft have the advantage of speed and range, allowing them to rapidly respond to threats and project power over large distances. They can conduct deep strikes into enemy territory, provide close air support to ground forces, and conduct precision strikes against high-value targets with minimum collateral damage.
  • Payload and Lethality. Combat aircraft are capable of carrying a diverse array of weapons, including guided bombs, missiles, and standoff weapons. This payload capacity and lethality make them highly effective in shaping the outcome of operations.
  • Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). Combat aircraft play a crucial role in SEAD missions, neutralising enemy air defence systems to enable follow-on operations by friendly forces.

In conclusion, while it’s true that other platforms, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and long-range precision strike systems, have become increasingly important in modern warfare, combat aircraft offer unique advantages and capabilities which make them indispensable assets on the battlefield.

What needs a reappraisal is the changing role of future combat aircraft keeping pace with the changing dynamics of warfare. That will decide the type and quality of aerial platforms needed a decade or two from now. It will also have a bearing on the armaments that the aircraft carry on board.

MUMT is emerging as a necessary evolution in combat strategies, signalling a shift towards integrated manned-unmanned operations.

Ultimately, the effectiveness, value, and strategic impact of integrating UAVs, mid to long range missiles and rockets will inform decisions on the composition and capabilities of the Air Force’s future fleet.

Large UAVs in Contested Airspace

The survivability of slow-moving, large UAVs like the General Atomics Predator/Reaper in a contested battlespace is a nuanced topic, deeply influenced by the specific context of the battlespace, the capabilities of potential adversaries, and the tactical employment of the UAV itself.

It’s crucial to understand that Large UAVs ( MALE/HALE Category) are designed with a specific set of missions in mind, primarily intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and precision strikes. These missions often require operations in environments where air superiority is assumed or can be established. However, in highly contested battlespaces or denied environments, the survivability of these UAVs significantly decreases due to several factors as follows:-

  • Radar Cross-Section: While not as large as manned aircraft, UAVs like the Predator still present a sizable radar cross-section, making them detectable by advanced enemy air defences.
  • Speed and Manoeuvrability: Being slower and less manoeuvrable than manned fighter aircraft, these UAVs can be more easily targeted by anti-aircraft systems and interceptors.
  • Electronic Warfare: In contested areas, adversaries are likely to employ sophisticated electronic warfare (EW) tactics to disrupt UAV communications and control, potentially leading to loss of assets.
  • Stealth and Countermeasures: Although some UAVs are equipped with stealth features and countermeasures, these are typically less advanced than those on the latest manned aircraft.

There are strategies and technologies being developed to enhance the survivability of large UAVs in contested spaces. These are:-

  • Electronic Warfare and Cyber Capabilities: Improving EW and cyber defence capabilities of UAVs can help counteract enemy EW efforts and protect communication links.
  • Autonomy: Increasing autonomy in UAVs could reduce their vulnerability to communication link attacks, allowing them to complete missions even when cut off from their operators.
  • Tactics: Employing guerrilla-like tactics, such as operating from dispersed locations and utilising hit-and-run attack strategies, can enhance survivability by reducing predictability.
  • Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS): Operating UAVs within the umbrella of friendly IADS can provide them with a layer of protection against enemy aircraft and missiles.

In conclusion, while the survivability of slow-moving, large UAVs in contested spaces is challenging, it is not insurmountable. It is essential to recognise that the role of such UAVs may be inherently limited in highly contested environments. Instead, their value may be maximised in scenarios where air superiority can be established or in roles where direct engagement with enemy air defences is unlikely.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance missions over large tracts of land or over the oceans using larger platforms is justifiable.

In the overall analysis, over a TBA, indigenous, low cost UAVs may be the answer, in place of expensive systems which are vulnerable to hostile action.

Attack Helicopters: Reassessing their Role

Considered as force multipliers especially in mechanised operations, Attack Helicopters were the game changers till recently. However,  when in the Ukraine conflict they incurred heavy losses as they fell prey to anti-aircraft missiles, cannons and other weapon systems, military analysts were quick to take notice. Their slow speed compounded by the need to hover while engaging targets made them easy targets in the TBA. The recent cancellation of the US FARA programme has added to the whispers questioning the viability of attack helicopters in the modern day battlefield. Indeed, with the proliferation of advanced anti-aircraft weapon systems, slow-moving and hovering helicopters can appear to be easy prey.

Threat Environment. Attack helicopters operate in an environment densely populated with threats ranging from man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) to sophisticated radar-guided anti-aircraft missile systems, tank mounted cannons and even small arms fire in low-altitude operations. The adaptability of adversaries in using these systems in asymmetric warfare has increased the risk to helicopters.

Countermeasures and Tactics. Some mitigating factors are:-

  • Stealth and Low Observability. Modern attack helicopters incorporate design features to reduce their radar cross-section and infrared signature, making them harder to detect and target.
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) Systems. These systems can jam or deceive enemy radars and missiles, significantly enhancing survivability. The use of flares and chaff to confuse enemy sensors and missiles can help.
  • Advanced Avionics and Sensors. Modern helicopters are equipped with systems that provide better situational awareness, allowing pilots to detect threats early and take evasive action.
  • Tactics: The use of terrain masking, flying nap-of-the-earth (NOE) profiles, and employing hit-and-run tactics reduce exposure to threats. Pilots are trained to utilize the terrain effectively, using it as cover from enemy sensors and weapons.
  • Operational Doctrine: Integrating attack helicopters with other assets such as UAVs for better situational awareness, and operating under the cover of electronic warfare assets, increases their chances of survival.

Conclusion and Opinion. Proliferation of anti-aircraft systems poses a significant risk to attack helicopters.  Thus, the key to their survivability lies in the continuous adaptation and improvement of their capabilities and the tactics employed. However, as the nature of mechanised operations changes and shifts towards smaller team ops, Attack Helicopters in future ops may not even find the targets they currently look for i.e. large concentrations of armour/ ICVs/guns.

Therefore, it will be prudent to reduce the number of Attack Helicopters in the inventory and rework their tactical employment and methods.

The void, if any, can be filled by armed drones and loitering munitions and precision artillery munitions.

Towed Artillery Guns

While it’s true that the advent of highly mobile, self-propelled gun systems has changed the landscape of artillery warfare, towed artillery cannot simply be dismissed as a liability or a weapon of the past. Instead, its utility should be considered in the context of specific operational requirements, cost-effectiveness, and strategic flexibility.

Limitations of Towed Artillery

  • Vulnerability: In fast-moving, high-intensity conflicts, towed artillery units can be more vulnerable due to their need to be stationary during setup and breakdown.
  • Mobility: On the tactical level, the mobility of towed guns is indeed lower than self-propelled artillery, making them less suitable for mobile or mechanised operations.
  • Logistics and Support: Towed systems require additional vehicles and personnel for transport and operation, including ammunition dumoping.

Advantages of Towed Artillery

  • Cost-Effectiveness. Towed artillery pieces are generally less expensive to produce, maintain, and operate than their self-propelled counterparts. This makes them an attractive option for countries with limited defence budgets.
  • Simplicity and Reliability: Towed artillery systems are simpler in design, which can lead to higher reliability in harsh conditions with ease of operation and training.
  • Versatility: Modern towed artillery systems have seen significant improvements in range, accuracy, and firepower. Many are now capable of firing precision-guided munitions and have integrated digital fire-control systems, enhancing their effectiveness on the modern battlefield.

Conclusion and Opinion. The question of whether towed artillery is a liability or a weapon of the past doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. It largely depends on the specific operational context and the strategic priorities of the armed forces in question. For nations engaged in conventional, high-intensity warfare, investing in self-propelled gun systems might offer the mobility and protection needed for such scenarios. However, for countries focusing on territorial defence, counterinsurgency, or where budget constraints are a significant factor, towed artillery remains a viable and effective option.

It may be a good idea to deploy ‘Towed Artillery Guns’ in areas which offer natural terrain protection, where long ranges are needed and where ammunition can be stored safely.

Balancing the Scales: The Strategic Merit of Aircraft Carriers in the Era of Steath and Precision

Recent advancements in satellite technology, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and sophisticated sensor systems have heightened the vulnerability of large assets, which can now be detected and targeted by long-range precision missiles. This technological shift has sparked a debate over the strategic value of submarines versus aircraft carriers. In the context of India, some experts also consider island territories as potential stationary aircraft carrier equivalents. Critics, highlighting survivability, question the prudence of investing in large, costly fleets like Carrier Battle Groups in an age where the elusive nature of submarine warfare could offer greater strategic benefits.

Nevertheless, it’s imprudent to dismiss the operational effectiveness of Carrier Battle Groups, which continue to be a formidable presence in contemporary naval strategy. Despite the increased reconnaissance and targeting capabilities afforded by new technologies, aircraft carriers provide distinct strategic and operational benefits that are difficult to replicate, maintaining their status as a critical component of naval power projection. Some of them are:

  • Power Projection. Aircraft carriers serve as mobile airbases capable of projecting power across vast distances. Unlike fixed airfields, which are susceptible to attack and limited by geography, carriers can position themselves strategically to support a wide range of military operations, including power projection, deterrence, and humanitarian assistance. Their ability to operate in international waters allows for flexibility in responding to regional crises and threats.
  • Versatility. Aircraft carriers host a diverse array of aircraft enabling them to perform a wide range of missions, from air superiority and strike operations to reconnaissance and search and rescue. This versatility allows Carriers to adapt to evolving threats and operational requirements.
  • Rapid Response. Aircraft carriers offer rapid response capabilities, enabling them to deploy quickly to crisis areas and provide immediate air support and force projection. Carrier groups can serve as a visible deterrent and a symbol of resolve, reassuring allies and deterring potential adversaries.
  • Command and Control. Aircraft carriers serve as command and control centres, coordinating air and maritime operations and facilitating joint and coalition cooperation. Their onboard communications and intelligence capabilities enable real-time decision-making and information sharing, enhancing overall situational awareness and operational effectiveness. Carriers can function as a mobile headquarters, directing military operations across multiple domains and theatres of operation.
  • Survivability. Despite their large size and high-profile nature, aircraft carriers are designed with advanced defensive systems and layered protection measures to mitigate threats from enemy aircraft, submarines, and missiles. Their integrated air defence systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and escorts enhance their survivability in contested environments.

In conclusion, while satellites, UAVs, and sensors have revolutionized modern warfare by providing unprecedented levels of situational awareness and transparency, aircraft carriers offer unique capabilities and advantages that make them indispensable assets in contemporary naval operations.

Their ability to project power, adapt to changing threats, respond rapidly to crises and provide command and control makes them essential components of military force projection and maritime security in the 21st century.

In far off areas like the Southern Indian Ocean, only a Carrier Force can dominate the sea lanes and counter enemy threats which are likely to emerge in the near future. Island territories closer home can work in sync with Carrier Battle Groups and provide formidable defence and security against foreign maritime threats.