India China Face Off: Need for Appropriate Weapon Systems

Sub Title : Need to enable our soldiers with the required technologies

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Lt Gen (Dr) N B Singh, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC

Page No. : 58

Category : Military Technology

: January 25, 2021

The India China face off at the LAC is not going to end any time soon. Whilst India has put adequate boots on the ground, the issue is that are we appropriately equipped to match the Chinese who have systems engineered for combat at these heights. We need to get our act together and enable our soldiers with  the required technologies

With several round of talks between India and China having ended without any consensus on the way forward, it appears that the Indian Army is in for a long haul at the LAC. It could be a deliberate pause by the PLA till next summer for ratcheting up tension later, as per the script. Experts and media have tried to decode PLA`s strategic intent and future course without much success. Media reports indicate that Galwan clashes had been planned in advance by PLA. What has to be understood is that the adversarial stance between India and China is likely to continue in the foreseeable future and hence the Indian military needs to be appropriately prepared for future contingencies. Military leaders who have been advocating a faster response on ground need to evaluate operational capabilities and the current asymmetry in national power. China has been for the past 30 years pursuing a planned military modernization with a strong focus on multi domain capabilities. It has acquired the best and most effective platforms from abroad through direct purchase, upgrades or theft of intellectual property. The graphic below sums up the investments in billions of dollars. On the other hand, the military in India has been busy rebalancing defence expenditure and cutting the tail, misconstruing what sharpening the teeth is all about.

The teeth get the edge when the concept of integrated capability readiness is adopted by planners, after carefully analyzing capability gaps in readiness levels of arms, supporting arms, engineering and logistic support in relation to planned missions. Acquisitions if any, have been a case of arming without aiming. A military force can plan missions only if it is aware how far it can jump or how long it can run. With an inventory that is 70% obsolescent and imported, an assessment of battle endurance of equipment and renewal of equipment capabilities  becomes inevitable. Consequently, barring positioning equivalent boots on the ground there is not much parity in the equipment capability and combat power that can be delivered, optics apart. A T90 spewing black smoke in the images shown on television screens reflects how strained these systems are in ultra high altitudes. The multiplier effect aimed to be achieved by deploying various systems can only be achieved if the systems are combat capable.

The Chinese military strategy enshrined in China`s National Security Law (2015) has been amplified as one of active defence; which is essentially defensive strategically and offensive at the operational level. The PLA has  embarked on what it calls informatization i.e the capability to use advanced information technology and communication systems to seize the initiative from the enemy. Their military writings repeatedly lay stress on two significant issues of battlefield agility: possessing near real time situational awareness and extracting massive equipment capability from deployed systems. Use of disruptive technologies like cyber, drone swarms, high powered microwaves, etc are other areas where operational capabilities have been customized.

It would be good if the military reviews the events of the past several months and rolls out concrete initiatives on a war footing  to develop bespoke operational capabilities for the mountains and ultra high altitudes. The Army being the most affected, needs to leverage technology in safeguarding the LAC since current early warning and remote sensing capabilities seem to be ineffective in preventing preemption. Nearly six decades after the 1962 war, the gallant Indian soldier is yet to be empowered by technology to face the PLA, for far too long he has been constrained to operate in a suite of operational inabilities-unreliable weapons, not enough ammunition to train and inadequate personal gear. It is time to adopt the Engineer`s approach to capability development i.e shorten the OODA loop, build operational capabilities by engineering custom made weapon systems for LAC.

We need to be honest with ourselves about the level of threat being faced. Yes, there is certainly a need to confront the threat, but it would be better to pragmatically evaluate operational capabilities, fill in capability gaps so that a powerful response can be given, whenever required. It is time to look at battlefield agility of forces deployed and provide means to respond quickly and effectively to unforeseen situations. We have got used to reacting to  predictable threats in a templated manner leading to high casualties; time to change track as PLA operations may be agile, multi domain and determinedly different. It will require a different posture at the LAC, reinforced with high grade, fail safe equipment capabilities. Creation of unique equipment capabilities is of the essence. Thus, an entirely new approach to acquisitions is indispensable, if integrated capability readiness is the end state envisaged. Here are a few equipment capabilities that need to be developed on fast track for responding suitably to the middle and end games that could be played by the PLA.

Small Satellite Systems (Cubesats)

One significant area where capability gaps seem to  exist is the effective surveillance of LAC/LC and early awareness (EA). At the LAC, the PLA has managed to carry out intrusions repeatedly since 2013, occupy unheld areas, bring in equipment and develop infrastructure. It is time this crucial capability gap is addressed. The current surveillance capabilities have traditionally been based on complex, multi mission satellite systems that are expensive and take several years to be built. Limited swath and revisit time add latency to this capability. Besides these are not agile enough, to react to rapidly changing security requirements. Operational requirements of the military require on demand space support and agile payloads. This can come to fruition by looking at low cost, mission specific agile payload carrying low earth orbit satellites (LEOS) which can be used for all weather day and night detection and identification purposes. Small spacecraft capitalize on the growing number of technical capabilities that are appearing in high-technology electronics industry. Increasingly, small sats are being looked upon as providing a complementary layer to high resolution satellites and  provide commanders in field with near real time inputs. Small satellites are maturing to offer agility, affordability, resilience, and high/medium resolution imagery. The Army could consider owning a constellation of highly agile LEOS with daily revisits for increased situational awareness and battlefield agility at tactical and operational levels. One possible solution that can be up and running in 12 to 18 months and provide daily revisits, is the use of four medium resolution (MR) satellites to augment very high resolution capability (VHR). Each MR satellite has a swath of 70-100 kms, that can be used inside its field of regard; this is the area that the satellite can reach by tilting off-nadir. The entire constellation would come at a fraction of the cost of a single complex multi mission satellite costing around 500-600 crores.

Automated Surveillance and  Situational Awareness System

Complementing small satellite imaging is the need to have a string of bespoke ground based unmanned surveillance systems comprising optical, IR/TI and radar imaging for giving a 24×7 situational picture of area where incursions could be catastrophic, like Pangong Tso, Depsang, Doklam, etc. Using a communication and data transfer link a real time picture can be made available at formation HQs. This measure in addition to usual  humint options can assist the Army to remain agile at the tactical and operational levels by shortening the OODA loop. It will certainly shore up force survivability and force self sufficiency, so essential for war fighting in inhospitable terrain. This system can also be effectively employed in a networked configuration along  the fence on the IB and for air and naval base security.

Soldier Systems

This is an area where the full impact of technology and modernization needs to be felt. The gallant Indian soldier has to be equipped with ultra reliable weapons and habitat that enable him to hold ground. There is a need to organize the infantry around the motorized concept so that wheeled combat vehicles not only provide  survivability and  a means of quick tactical maneuver, but also double up as direct fire support platforms with 30/40 mm cannons, missiles and mortars. In addition, some of these vehicles could have power generating, water purifying and network capabilities providing satcom systems, ammunition and supplies. Our focus has  to be towards a well protected soldier, equipped with reliable weapons, a clear view of the tactical situation and robust communications in a contested electromagnetic spectrum thus providing him a high degree of tactical agility. From assault rifles to support weapons like MMGs, mortars etc, each system must offer very high reliability, ability to fire 25 to 30 thousand rounds failure free. Soldier systems need to be acquired after painstaking usage cum reliability trials in high altitudes. Prevailing terrain and weather conditions impact operability and reliability of all weapons and equipment so much, that one year deployment in high altitudes can be easily equated to five years usage in plains in terms of capability degradation.

Light tank

The current lot of tanks and ICVs that have been placed at the LAC were designed for missions in Western Europe; primarily the race to the Rhine. The Egyptians realized that these systems were not suitable for operations in deserts in the seventies and made the shift. The Indian Army is yet to take a call on their efficacy in ultra high altitudes. PLA has fielded bespoke systems engineered for combat at these heights. Two of the most talked about systems are ZBL 09, a wheeled IFV and the Type 15 light tank. ZBL 09 reflects a revolutionary change in the employment of infantry in mountains, which will be accompanied with its own higher caliber direct fire support. Type 15 even with its derated power to weight ratio of over 20 in areas like Depsang and Demchok will prove to be more agile than the T90 and T72. These will be more like lumbering machines. It is important that the existing tracked vehicles deployed at the LAC are upgraded on a war footing with suitable altitude compensation systems, power supplies and satcom systems to remain agile. As an immediate measure, upgrading the BMP mobility and sighting systems could provide an effective solution to plug  immediate capability gaps ; being the lightest in the clan it can emerge as a versatile fighting machine that can greatly enhance the staying power of infantryman.

It would be futile to go in for panic procurement of a light tank from sources abroad, as these will not be able to operate at these altitudes, as happened in 1962 with the French light tanks that were inducted in Chushul. A mission mode project to develop a light tank (both tracked and wheeled) needs to be undertaken under DRDO with public and private partnership. Alternately, a DARPA like special force of experts can undertake the same. Wheeled tank will  greatly enhance staying power of infantry, as it is superior to tracks when tactical moves involve movement on winding narrow roads and tracks with limited off road deployment as in Sikkim and Arunachal. Being agile it can quickly get in position to launch a broadside on tracked systems in a tank destroyer role. The light tank needs to come with India specific features like high power to weight ratio, twin engine configuration, regulated two stage turbo charging, mechanical transmission, all electric drives, battery and crew heating etc. It could be fielded with the versatile 105mm gun modified for low recoil in the interim and 120 mm Arjun low recoil gun later.

Fire support

For indirect fire support, numerous weapon systems have been developed in house by PLA with greater ranges and lethality like the PCL-181 truck mounted 155mm gun system and PHL03 multiple launch rocket system. All towed artillery is being replaced by tracked and wheeled systems of 155 and 122mm calibre. The strategic intent of providing overwhelming artillery support is  clear; by some accounts, an ability to rain up to 10000 rounds per minute.

Against this backdrop, the use of towed artillery in mountains needs a revisit. Towed guns in HAA may end up in a diminishing returns cycle. The long vehicle train has obvious mobility limitations besides larger signatures. It is important to revisit the two decades old mediumization plan of Army and lay emphasis on long range operations, inherent mobility and overwhelming strike capability with precision munitions. Two systems that need to be looked at are the 155m0m 39 calibre MGS 4×4 and Garuda 105 hybrid recoil 105 mm gun developed by Bharat Forge. These are commendable indigenous  efforts and need to be supported. Army may consider taking these under its fold, facilitate system maturity and reliability enhancement, transforming these into custom made systems for deployment at LAC. Similarly, it makes sense to continue with the development of Dhanush and ATAGS 155 mm guns despite minor setbacks last summer, which were most probably due to faulty ammunition. In fact, it may be worth the effort to develop bespoke precision guided ammunition for this gun system as more than 1580 are required by the Army. This is one area where the country can become self reliant in 3-4 years besides turbocharging Atmanirbhar Bharat.

Directed Energy Weapons

A directed-energy weapon (DEW) is a ranged weapon that damages its target with highly focused energy,  including laser, microwaves, and particle beams. Potential applications of this technology include weapons that target personnel, missiles, vehicles, and optical devices. There have been media reports that the PLA has used these at the LAC to constrain Indian troops to vacate some dominating features, a fact denied by the Army. But this does indicate PLA`s intent to use such weapons once they are in a field deployable state. The Army needs to immediately commission projects to develop atmospheric shields to bend, attenuate or reflect such beams using emerging and disruptive military technology to provide the required protection to soldiers. Deep tunnelling may offer an interim solution against high powered microwaves.

Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs)

In a webinar on unmanned ground systems held in Aug 20 in  USA it was stated by one of the participants that “in 2019, Chinese armoured units conducted high-altitude exercises with unmanned systems. The multi-day exercises used remotely operated mine-clearing robots to open routes, during surrounding fire. Images and data were transmitted back to the control centre, and this information was then shared with UGVs and a swarm of quadcopters that conducted reconnaissance.” UGV is designed to perform a wide range of military missions in difficult or hard-to-reach terrain. It offers enhanced safety and operational effectiveness by keeping own soldiers at a safe distance from enemy attack. The vehicle can be configured for different roles, including reconnaissance, observation, target acquisition, communications, logistics support and casualty evacuation. AI and machine learning can supplement manoeuvre and mobility on the battlefield. One of the first areas I will recommend is a forward recce UGV for surveillance, counter drone and comint payloads.

In the Interim-Renewal of Existing Equipment Capabilities

Finally, it will be futile to expect the current set of weapons and equipment to deliver capabilities of sustained operational significance in super high altitudes, if the need arises, seeing their vintage and reliability. The Army needs to consider subjecting the existing inventory to an equipment capability assessment exercise vis-a-vis anticipated missions at LAC. Till new systems get inducted, it would be wise to subject a specific number of weapons to retro modifications, technology insertion and base reset for deployment at LAC after restoring their firepower and mobility to Like New systems. Once their battle endurance get mapped it will be easier to formulate alternate plans and GSQRs for next generation systems, after a clear understanding of mission capability gaps.

In the ongoing modernization of the PLA, it is reported that the thrust for land forces has been on acquiring equipment comparable to other militaries with capabilities to generate combat power across a wide spectrum of war fighting. There is a discussion on new concept of operations emphasizing an effects based application of combat power, degrade enemy’s capabilities and achieve operational objectives in quick time frames by producing mass effects on the adversary. Technology alone can provide Indian Army the battlefield agility to address the aggressiveness of Weiqi warrior. For the Army to emerge as a Sente and control this game of Weiqi, tailormade equipment capabilities would be indispensable, sheer human valour may not be enough.