Dr. Maj Gen (Retd) Anil Kumar Lal is a Defence Analyst who has authored many path-breaking concepts on Nuclear and Space Warfare.
The texture of the on-going Azerbaijani- Armenian conflict is a reflection of future wars. Any military thinker will be happy to analyse the invaluable lessons, which global militaries, should adopt. The constant advent of newer technologies, should logically lead towards smarter military tools and their more lethal and prcessioned weaponisation. Moreover, it is felt, that there is, even a need to change ‘Force Structures-Tactics and Operational Manoeuvres’ so as to outsmart the adversary. The art and science of war also needs to be calibrated accordingly. Military strategy cannot only be based on erstwhile mindsets of mass manoeuvre (akin to the German blitzkrieg) or of only holding ground in a defensive posture like the Maginot line in the Second World War (Line of concrete fortifications, built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by German).
Does the template of Indian Military defences in Ladakh depict a similar mind set? What lessons can India learn to adopt a process of fast track transformation by 2030? Does India require a new doctrine to match the suggested template? These need more examination and that the current on-going effort needs to be reviewed to allow for adoption of some of these lessons. There are six clear lessons for India’s modernisation drive.
Lesson 1: Does The Concept of Military Geo-Strategic Calculus Remains Relevant Today (Attacking/Holding ground physically)?
The first and foremost relevance of conventional operations carried out to capture and hold ground remains as important as it was in the first and second world war and many other wars. For instance, the Kargil war, which was fought at Great Heights above 15,000 feet, could not have been won alone by technology. Brute force of assault on an objective remains necessary. This aspect has also been proved again in the Ladakh area during the existing standoff with the PLA.Thus the combat ratio and differential superiority in the mountains has denied the PLA the capture of held Indian defences. Similarly, although, initially in February 2020, the Azerbaijani military showcased a good drone warfare performance, but its territorial gains remained limited due to lack of application of military force on the ground. However, now the situation has changed as the Azerbaijani military has captured critical positions, such as the Iranian frontier of its occupied territories, and, since then has been advancing towards the strategic ‘Lachin-Corridor’. Thus, this again confirms the relevance of conventional military operations towards the traditional war-fighting capabilities of assault, mop up and holding of territory. This is indicative that newer technologies are more like force multipliers to conventional military operations.
This factor is in India’s favour in the Ladakh standoff scenario. The holding of Siachen heights, the Daulat Beg Oldie complex and further south towards Pangong-Tso,Chusul and Demchok almost makes an impregnable defence. By PLA attacking with drones only or even by indirect fire can cause some damage only. The ground position will have to be over-run by the PLA before they can claim any success. Thus, the stalemate continues, as the PLA is incapable of physical assault. Thus, clearly, the age-old principal of the traditional geostrategic calculus remains intact as an important rider.
Lesson 2: Need for interface of sensors, electronic warfare cover, counter-drone weaponry and integration with space assets to increase combat effectiveness.
The Azerbaijani–Armenian clashes have shown vulnerability of traditional land units, both mechanised and foot infantry, in the face of Hi-Tech drone warfare weaponry driven by networked sensors, which can target men and material at, will. Similarly, Electronic and Information warfare ascendancy gives a free run and advantage in combat duels. So far, it has been documented that some 175 main battle tanks were lost to the Armenian occupation forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh battle zone. Whilst, it can be said with authority, that the era of tanks is still not over. However, what is important is to understand that the main battle tanks, along with other traditional land warfare platforms, would make easy targets for drones/Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAV) etc. unless they are accompanied by an organic composition of mobile short-range air defences, electronic warfare assets, and counter-UAV systems.
However, as seen in the Ladakh Sector, both sides are extensively using all the above mentioned meausures.Thus there is parity, even in this electronic and drones domain. This again has created a stalemate. The future Indian Army has to focus on the seamless and real time integration of these elements with the combat elements. In fact, integration with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites should also be enabled for telescoping the OODA (Observe, Orientate, Decision, and Act) loop. With the signing of the Five Foundational Pacts with the USA, India should derive maximum benefit by fast tracking ‘BECA’ for gaining real time PLA deployments in Ladakh. This can become a game changer.
Lesson 3: Integration of Air/Land-Based Fire-Support Arsenals with the Surveillance and Killer Drones, Force Multiplies the Combat Capability
The Syrian war recently fought has tested many systems in which new technologies like drones and sensors were used. Likewise, having digested the lessons from the Syrian battleground, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation now integrates Orlan-10 drones to the 152mm-class artillery. In the current on-going clashes, Azerbaijani military has shown yet another example of integration of the drone & land-based fire-support arsenals including during night fighting. The Azerbaijani artillery and indirect fire systems are presently firing in close coordination with drone warfare assets. This brings out a great lesson for the Indian Military too. The aim should be again to telescope the ‘OODA’ loop. The whole sequence should become autonomous from the sensor to the shooter in the Himalayan region catering for the changes in Trajectory of fire at such High Altitudes. The phase 2 of the PLA offensive as per their prevalent practise comprises mass scale artillery and other fire at the pin pointed targets to cause enough destruction before start of Phase 3 of ground manoeuvre. The idea is to create an edge over the PLA.
Lesson 4: Drones make good offensive weapons against low-to-mid-range air defences.
In the Syrian and Libyan battlegrounds, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drone had a successful kill scorecard of the Russian-manufactured Pantsir short-to-medium range mobile air defense systems. Apart from the game-changer Turkish weaponry, Azerbaijan has procured the Israeli Harop loitering munitions called the kamikaze drone, which carry a warhead tipped on the platform. Therefore, instead of following a weapon release system, loitering munitions dive onto their targets. It has two key features. First, it enjoys great autonomy. Second, it has anti-radiation capabilities and can autonomously home onto radar emissions.
This loitering type drone needs to be immediately procured as regards the Indian standoff situation to give edge to the Indian forces. First, because on the PLA side north of the Himalayas, the terrain is flat almost like a plateau. This will enable easier detection of the Air defence gun as compared to undulating ground/slopes on the India side. Second, some PLA missile systems will be initially deployed in tunnels/deep entrenchments. They will require a self-autonomous system like the suicidal-Kamikaze to home on to the targets.
Lesson 5: Asymmetric Deterrence and Control of Escalation Ladder.
Devastated by the Azerbaijani offensive, the Armenian side has resorted to targeting Azerbaijan’s population centres and critical national infrastructure with ballistic missiles to deter them. The side, which can control the escalation ladder of war, has an advantage. For instance, the “Intra-War” measures, which fall short of war, create thresholds below the full escalation of war. Pakistan’s proxy war against India and China’s psychological warfare form such a category. India’s ability to strangulate at Malacca as part of QUAD operations becomes a tool to leverage over the adversary who will then, not escalate the war.
Lesson 6: The Emergence of the Greyzone/Hybrid Warfare Concept
Hybrid warfare refers to power being employed to achieve national objectives in a way that falls short of physical conflict. Such warfare is conducted in the “greyzone” of conflict, meaning operations may not clearly cross the threshold of war. That might be due to the ambiguity of international law, ambiguity of actions and attribution, or because the impact of the activities does not justify a response. The PLA is trying the same in Ladakh.
The so-called integrated way of warfare is characterized by the application of joint fires within a highly integrated command and control network to rapidly destroy enemy formations and command and control nodes. The ability to ruthlessly exploit the information environment at the strategic, operational, and tactical level, thus becomes mandatory in such a cohesive and intense approach. This India should attempt to build by 2030 and beat the PLA in their own game with total allied support. This will in turn ensure the security of the Indian Himalayas as also give credibility to India’s status as the pivot of Asia, and enable global security.