The Writing is on the Wall!

This article is not about Coronavirus – COVID-19 that has shattered the world and taken it by storm.  However, to be sure, there will be significant slowdown in the Indian economy, as and when the threat recedes, treatment and vaccine are found, costs are counted and as we limp back to some normalcy. The virus will also reshape how we see the world, our region, geopolitically, geoeconomically and geo-strategically. It will be well understandable that the national priorities will change significantly, to be prepared better for the next disaster or for socio-economic development, learning from the serious pitfalls of the public health systems, health infrastructure and the health-worker to population ratios. There have also been evident lacunae in social delivery like the public distribution system, primary and secondary education and limitations of the reach of direct benefit transfers. The extent and dislocation of migrant population in India has enlivened stark national realities.  If it is so, the nation will need fiscal resources, and cost-cutting wherever feasible, to divert national resources where most necessary.  There will be significant drop in gross domestic product (GDP) and national earning due to severe downslide in economic activity, the time taken for provision of economic stimuli and economic stabilisation thereafter.  It can be simply appreciated that the defence budget, which has already been under strain, will get a focus to provide for the national effort, affecting the defence budget outlays for the fiscal 2020-21, and for the next two years assuredly. Socio-economic priorities and ambit of human security will far out-weigh the defence needs. The defence community must prepare for the same, before fait accompli descends, without notice!

This paper is hence about prudently, and as an optimal necessity, re-examining the issue that pertains to defence force management, focussing on future wars and warfare, in the light of newer geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic realities.

In delving into future warfare, there is need to refer to some recent history.  First is the Iraq War II that began on 19 March 2003. Spurred by dramatic advances in information technology, the US military has adopted a new style of warfare that eschewed the bloody, slogging matches of the past. It sought quick victory with minimal casualties on both sides, with hallmarks of speed, manoeuvre, flexibility, and surprise. It was heavily reliant upon precision firepower, Special Forces, and psychological operations, and it strove to integrate naval, air, and land power into a seamless whole. The bulk of the combat punch was provided by the Third Infantry Division, which had about 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 250 M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), which had about 120 Abrams tanks. These forces were supplemented by the British First Armoured Division, the 11th Aviation Regiment, the 101st Airborne Division, and a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.  As came to light, there was some contestation from retreating Iraqi forces; though large numbers of Iraqi troops simply chose not to resist the advance of coalition forces. Iraqi resistance, though at times vigorous, was highly disorganised.  In southern Iraq, the greatest resistance was from irregular groups of Ba’ath Party supporters, known as Fedayeen Saddam.  The most obvious was the ineptitude of the Iraqi defence.

Despite all the hype about “shock and awe,” the initial bombardment was very restrained. This bold dash towards the enemy capital left the US lines of communication exposed. Senior commanders made a decision to temporarily slow down the advance to allow their forces to get rested, regrouped, and resupplied, and to secure rear areas. The precision of US airpower is well known and almost taken for granted. Though the potency of airpower was clearly on display, the air force still did not realise the dreams of Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and other early advocates of airpower, who claimed that aerial bombardment could win wars by itself. Airpower by itself was also incapable of preventing Scud launchings.  Nor did Saddam’s regime crumble during the first few days of the bombing of Baghdad; he was neither shocked nor awed by the initial onslaught. The problem with armoured forces was that they are hard to deploy and hard to supply. (The Abrams tank weighs 70 tons and drinks gallon of fuel per half a mile.) With all its overwhelming superiority, technological prowess, and absence of a resolute enemy, it was not until  09 April that US tookover  Baghdad.  To sum up the operation, it is best to quote Lieutenant General William Wallace, Commander of the Army’s V Corps, which was in charge of all army units in Iraq, who said in an interview, the enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against! [1]

The Israel-Lebanon War 2006, is significant in many ways. Between 12 July and 14 August 2006, Israel waged war on Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and the Lebanese capital Beirut, by land, air and sea. Over the 34 days of the conflict, Israeli Air Force carried out 15,500 air sorties attacking 7000 targets in Lebanon.  The Israel Defence Force fired 1,00,000 tank and artillery rounds, and committed 30,000 soldiers.  Israel sent an armoured force into southern Lebanon, against Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and in a Shiite suburb of Beirut, known as “Security Square” and up to Litani River.

Over the 34 days of the 2006 conflict, Hezbollah rained an estimated 3, 970 Katyusha rockets and longer range missiles on military and civilian targets in northern Israel, and then it hit the densely populated port city of Haifa, forcing 3,00,000 to evacuate their homes and move into underground shelters, where they lived for the better part of a month. Hezbollah rockets killed 43 civilians and 12 soldiers inside Israel, 33 civilians suffered serious physical injuries, 68 suffered moderate physical injuries, and 1,388 suffered light physical injuries, according to official Israeli statistics. Hospitals also treated 2,773 civilians for shock and anxiety.  It quickly became apparent that this was not the traditional war between Israel and an Arab state; it was rather an asymmetrical war with Hezbollah rockets striking northern Israel and Haifa. Hezbollah’s means of attack relied on unguided weapons that had no capacity to hit military targets with any precision. It repeatedly bombarded cities, towns, and villages without any apparent effort to distinguish between civilians and military objectives.

The third reference is of 0430 hours in the morning of 11 July 2014, when a column of battalions from the Ukrainian 24th and 72nd Mechanized Brigades and 79th Airmobile Brigade were struck with an intense artillery barrage near Zelenopillya, close to the Russian border. The attack lasted only three minutes or so.  Imagery posted online of the aftermath revealed a scene of devastation and scores of burned out vehicles. Analysts noted that the Zelenopillya rocket-strike incorporated dual-purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM), mix of air-dropped mines, top-down anti-tank sub-muntions, and thermobaric fuel/air explosives to achieve a devastating effect. It was surmised that the munitions were delivered by Tornado-G 122mm MLRS, an upgraded version of the BM-21.  This three-minute onslaught of rockets and artillery commenced shortly after the drones arrived, left over 36 Ukrainian soldiers dead, hundreds more wounded, and over two battalions’ worth of combat vehicles–tanks and BMPs-destroyed. No figures were released on the number of vehicles lost, but a survivor reported on social media that a battalion of the 79th Airmobile Brigade had been almost entirely destroyed. The attack left the Ukrainian forces decimated and demoralised.

The last reference is of 27 Feb 2020, on the Turkey-Syria border.  33 Turkish soldiers were killed on that night  in an airstrike in Idlib, northern Syria, in a precision strike. Over the following 48 hours Turkish forces retaliated massively with domestically developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and artillery strikes against the Syrian regime forces in north-western Idlib.  This attack showed the successful use of a drone army against tanks and armoured vehicles, destroyed by the UAV-directed or supported strikes in an Operation called Spring Shield. Both the ANKA-S developed by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and Baykar Makina’s Bayraktar TB2 UAVs took part in the operation. Drone footage showed the destruction of over 100 armoured vehicles/ artillery guns like T-55, T-62, and T-72 main battle tanks, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, Pantsir-S1 and ZSU-23 Shilka short-range air defence systems, and 2S1 and 2S3 self-propelled howitzers. An unverified figure of as many 2,200 soldiers killed was claimed by Turkey. 

The four references deliberated above are significant as they relate to cross-border operations – Kuwait-Iraq, Israel-Lebanon, Ukraine-Russia and Turkey-Syria, and because Indian armed forces are tailored for such contestation, due to un-demarcated/contested borders. There are other noteworthy instances, like the do-it-yourself kit that blew up half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil output on 14 Sep 19. The 18 low-cost drones (along with cruise missiles), allegedly deployed by Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack the Saudi oil facilities, caused oil prices to jump more than 10 per cent in a day.

And then there are Information Warfare and drone swarms.  From 27 April 2007, Estonia was hit by major cyber-attacks lasting 22 days.  Online services of Estonian banks, media outlets and government bodies were taken down by unprecedented levels of internet traffic. Massive waves of spam were sent by botnets and huge amounts of automated online requests swamped servers. Perhaps the best known attacks were distributed denial of service attacks, resulting in temporary degradation or loss of service on many commercial and government servers. The result for Estonian citizens was that cash machines and online banking services went out of action; government employees were unable to communicate with each other on email; and newspapers and broadcasters suddenly found they couldn’t deliver the news. In Jan 2018, Russia shot down seven drones using anti-aircraft missiles while the other six were taken under control and landed by its military. Ten drones rigged with explosive devices descended over Russia’s Hmeimim air base while a further three targeted the Russian Naval CSS point in the nearby city of Tartus, according to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.  What would have happened if these armed drones had stuck their targets?  COVID-19, with its earth-shattering effect is not included as a bio-weapon – obviously, it may not be so, and that the jury is out on it.

In this amended paradigm, medieval linear defences (and strong points) yet form the bedrock of warfare for Indian Army, again resting on the premise of contested borders.  There is also extraordinary reliance on strike corps in the plains (inspite of IBGs), for the Blitzkrieg. It is apparent that armoured vehicles on the modern battlefield cannot hide. Indirect fire, particularly airpower, as also armed drone swarms, and precision guided munitions, if queued against static or exposed vehicles, could be devastating.[2] Similar can be written about infantry in dugouts, of losing importance and increasing vulnerability. And about the ongoing debate of ‘dumb’ artillery bombs, which are markedly cheaper than their ‘smart’ counterparts and the overwhelming success of precision weapons (politically and militarily).  With the convergence of artificial intelligence, super-sonics, space, cyber and influence operations – there is a markedly different scenario discernable in warfare, even in one’s own backyard.

Geopolitical competition and animosities and conflictive nature of nations, as also globalisation, have been intrinsic to mankind through its history. Pre-COVID India had fundamentally conflictive nature of inter-state relations on contested borders. There will assuredly be a new geopolitical paradigm post COVID-19, which cannot be simply compared with events like the plague of 1918.  It may dawn on the wisdom of many a nation on the futility of conflictual politics that abound, and may direct energies towards solutions to long drawn geopolitical animosities, and further towards human security and socio-economic developmental issues.

Wars and conflicts have been a historical constant, and COVID-19 is not, as yet, burying the conflictual issues of India with adversaries. However, the national call of socio-developmental will materially affect defence outlay in India over many a year.  Case in point is the strong symbolism of the 30 per cent salary cut by Parliamentarians! Defence outlay will be under-written by committed liabilities – even if rescheduled due to delayed deliveries and economic state. Indian National Security realm and the Military Strategies would need to go back to the drawing board, and the planned acquisitions will require a revamp, based on geostrategic realities of modern and future warfare.  Irrespective, if the acquisitions are tanks, artillery guns, infantry units, aircraft or aircraft carriers!

The oft quoted Unrestricted Warfare notes that “war will be conducted in non-war spheres . . . so that people’s dream of winning military victories in non-military spheres and winning wars with non-war means can now become reality.” Taking Clausewitz, “war is the continuation of policy by other means’’, imagination and vision are imperative, to accept and create other means, to achieve policy ends, even if inevitably by war!

Notes

[1] Extracted from Max Boot, The New American Way of War, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, Iraq War 2003, accessed at https://www.britannica.com/event/Iraq-War

[2] Please refer to Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling, Your Tanks Cannot Hide, RUSI Defence Systems, 5 March 2020, and comments on https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/your-tanks-cannot-hide.656387/,.  Also  Not Dead Yet: Why Modern Tanks Will Still Dominate the Battlefield by War is Boring, accessed at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/not-dead-yet-why-modern-tanks-will-still-dominate-battlefield-49327