The three months long Ukraine war has brought some interesting and important conclusions about modern-day warfare and the requirements for an adequate defence. India is the most threatened country in the world, having two nuclear-armed neighbors – one who wages a low-intensity terror war on us, while the other is prone to periodic grabbing of territory. The combined adversarial strength of the two enemies who are increasingly acting in concert with each other is probably one of the most powerful alliances in the world currently. In such a scenario, India needs to understand carefully the lessons that the war in Ukraine offers.
Wars between two capable adversaries won’t be short. They will drag down to a battle of attrition and the country that runs out of resources shall be the one overrun finally. The Ukraine war was expected to be a rapid invasion and regime change by Russia. This assumption was put paid to by the unprecedented assistance by the United States and Western nations, which helped Ukraine turn back the invading armies in Kiev sector. Then it was expected that the Russians would run out of ammunition and money to fight the war. This has been also belied by the continuous use of heavy firepower for weeks on end, showing that the Russian reserves have been much deeper than guessed. Therefore, the war is in a mobile stalemate, with some territory being recovered by Ukraine in the north every day, while the Russians gaining in the east.
It still remains to be seen, who shall run out of resources first. India on the other hand has always assumed that like 1971, the war shall be a short sharp slap on the Pakistani face and shall be over in 14 days as even the superpowers shall intervene diplomatically. This has now been shown as a failed fantasy, with neither the West nor China having enough clout to stop Russia and Ukraine from continuing this war, despite the war affecting the world economy’s recovery from Covid-19 recession.
The slow degradation of the influence of powerful nations in a multipolar world shows that India has to prepare for a long haul if it expects a two-front war. The fact of the matter is that it shall be in the interest of both China and Pakistan to continue the war till the time comes when India runs out of ammunition. Indeed, the meager bombing resources of the Indian Air Force – its munitions and missile arsenal both will be long depleted before India runs out of planes. The massive Chinese cruise missile stockpile and the Pakistani ballistic missile stocks both pose severe challenges to India’s ability to protect its military installations and its ability to control and orchestrate its side of the war.
India has not to only vastly increase the production of small arms ammunition, but also increase its stockpile of artillery shells, tank and IFV ammunition, fuel stock, cruise and theater ballistic missile stocks, surface-to-air missiles of all ranges and intermediate range ballistic missiles. At the same time, production of these ammunitions has to be increased and scaled up in future so that refilling of the stockpile is done in a rapid manner to be able to continue the war in a way that is advantageous to the country.
India should be able to prosecute its own forward movements instead of waiting for ammunition supplies as Russia had to in the thick of the battle against Kiev. It is well known that India’s stockpile of ammunition which it calls war wastage reserve does not exceed even the bare minimum 21 days which was stipulated by the army in the days after 1971, when the short swift war theory had currency among policy makers. India, if it wants to avoid the mistakes of the Russian Army, has to provide financial resources to the defence forces to stock up their ammunition and munitions and also delegate financial powers to the DMA, for purchase of any indigenous ammunition.
Another lesson that the Ukraine war has thrown up for India is the futility of depending on attack helicopters against heavy SAM (surface-to-air missile) presence. Not only have both the adversaries in Ukraine restrained their use of helicopters for attacking massed armoured formations, but also the use of the old workhorse Su-25 especially by the RuAF has been very effective in preventing Ukrainian massed counter attacks. India possesses ageing Jaguar bombers which can perform the low pass close air support role for its military formation. However, with diminishing engine strength and a sudden urge to provide air-to-air protection for bombers meant for air to ground strikes, these Jaguars are on their last legs.
Therefore, India has to replace its ground strike platforms with something new and better. There is a need to have a dedicated close air support bomber used to take out enemy armoured vehicles and tanks from the air while also having a heavy protection against IR seeking missiles through a very large Chaff and Flare system. Similarly, the bomber needs to have a very good laser targeting pod which will enable it to designate and destroy armoured targets using short range missiles from at least 10-km away.
Most of the losses of the Russian Air Force, however, have been of the Su- 25 aircraft which is logical as this war has been over in terms of air-to-air combat for a long time. India, when facing an attack from Pakistan or China, shall also have to defend large formations of the military from similar close air support planes. It will also require carrying out its own close air support against large enemy formations on both flanks.
An alternate could be to purchase second-hand Tornado jets from the UK or the Saudi Air Force, or the German or Italian air forces that have a large number of such jets about to be retired. As an indigenous alternative, the Tejas LCA can be used to provide close air support, though its slow speed characteristics do not make it very suitable for the purpose. Still since we have to make do with what we have, the Tejas Mark 1 and 1A, 2 versions can be used to provide close air support just like the F-16 does, whenever the A-10 is not available in battlefield for the US Air Force. Tejas can be tested for a large number of air-to-ground munitions, especially long-range anti-tank missiles which can be launched from a distance of 10-km or more.
Since India does not have a dedicated indigenous operational long-range anti-tank missile, it should buy or licence-build large quantities of some Israeli or US missiles of this type, and also at the same time, develop an indigenous version of it for the Tejas. Use of Tejas in the replacement of the Jaguar bomber shall allow it to flourish in a role which no other aircraft can actually perform today for the IAF.
Further, this shall allow India to readily replace its Jaguar jets, especially when in conjunction with the purchase of second-hand tornado jets. A lot of defence experts have been worried about the Tejas being less suitable for modern warfare. Use of this jet predominantly in a close air support role shall allow India to develop it as a MAX (mother ship for air exploitation) and use it to pair the CATS Warrior, Hunter and Alpha-S projects. India needs to take an immediate decision to expand its ability to take out large enemy formations from the air in order to prevent a massed strike against India.
A big learning for India has been the expanded use of artillery in the battles of Ukraine. The Russians, thanks to their huge Cold war inventory of gun artillery, have used them to cause saturated attacks on urban areas and avoid bloody close-quarter battles in cities. Use of massed artillery has been pivotal in every Russian advance and used to deter the Ukrainians from using urban areas and civilians as shields. Even the Ukrainian counterattack has largely been started by artillery attacks to soften targets and thereafter move infantry forward subsequently for the kill. India’s field artillery rationalization program (FARP) has been stuck in a quagmire with no way out.
Not only has India not procured any mass replacement of the Bofors and the older 130 mm artillery, its own indigenous program of the ATAGs has been treated unfairly and callously by Indian defense bureaucracy. After 13 years of the commencement of the FARP program, India has inducted only 145 guns from the USA, 100 K-9 Vajra Self Propelled Artillery and just one battery of 18 guns of the desi Bofors, also known as the Dhanush.
While there are two private companies who are ready to provide at least 400 guns a year combined, typical Indian bureaucratic muddled thinking has prevented the government from placing even a single order which would give the private sector confidence that the government is serious about actually using them for defence indigenization. By not doing this, not only the government has hindered the growth of a desi armaments industry, it has also created a huge shortage of ammunition for artillery and guns.
We cannot say that we don’t have money for buying artillery and ammunition. If need be, we should issue defence bonds or take loans but the requirement has to be met. Lack of fighter jets may be one thing, but lack of ammunition and artillery and basic equipment like arctic wear, a bulletproof jackets and helmets causes loss of life in war and this is not acceptable even for a country like Eritrea, forget an ambitious superpower like India.
The classical saying that artillery causes 2/3 of all the deaths and casualties in a conflict has come true once again in this war. In the Himalayas, artillery has a much bigger role in inflicting casualties against human attacks and deterring the enemy by imposing a prohibitive cost. Through long-range artillery, India has to increase its firepower to be able to defend better also to be able to attack better. The Chinese PLA has already understood this and has provided huge amounts of multi-barrel rocket launchers, artillery and even short-range ballistic and cruise missiles to their attack formations to clear out pockets of resistance when they attack India’s northern borders. India has to ensure that the artillery provision is at par with either the Chinese or if possible with the American army, thereby developing a fearsome reputation and also force Pakistan into a costly Arms Race, that they cannot match at this moment.
India has to immediately place orders for its desi ATAGs and the Dhanush while also planning for more orders of the M777 or the K9 SP howitzers to be able to equip its mountain divisions with enough firepower to ward off the Chinese attack.
A massive learning that the world has gleaned from this war is the changing nature of tank and armored vehicle warfare. The world saw the futility of the M1 Abrams in asymmetric and urban warfare during Iraq when a mighty $10 million tank was being easily destroyed by a $250 RPG at close quarters. This led to a change of tactics and armor itself for the M1 Abrams. Now, the futility of the T-72 and the T-90 tanks in massed formation has been exposed though much of it is also propaganda. The Russians have learnt, at a cost though, that the use of NLAW and Spike/Javelins can easily destroy their tanks and send the turrets flying in the air. Indeed, the NLAW has proven its ability at close quarter attacks in line of sight range, defeating everything that the old generation T-72 and T-90 had. For India, this poses two questions. One, what to do with the 4000 odd tanks that we still possess which are the sword arm of our strike power? And where do the MILAN-2T and Kornet M133 stand vis-à-vis the Chinese and Pakistani Tanks?
The success of NLAW means all Chinese and Pakistani tactics will revolve around using anti-tank weapons against our armored and RAPID divisions, forcing them to spread out and lose tightness of formation. India should, therefore, now form a stronger mountain strike division that by default has to move over longer and more distributed fronts in POK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) and COK (China-occupied Kashmir) as well as in Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. It is time to now develop smaller tanks and armored vehicles to improve the strike power of the mountain strike divisions as well as increase the squad weapon fire power using drones, LAW and automatic grenade launchers and mortars, that allow units of battalion size to rapidly clear and advance against enemy posts and force enemy formations backwards, through land based, drone-based and air-based fire power.
At the same time, it is pertinent that we research to develop a system in which small-range weapons like LAW and Javelin/Spike/HJ-8 and HJ-9 missiles or even artillery shells are countered with an effective close-in weapon system (CIWS) integrated with a low-level radar that can be used to create an Aegis-type shield for land formations. India needs to create not just individual weapons, but also a system that uses weapons, radars, drones and even satellite intelligence together to provide defensive as well as offensive firing solutions in an integrated manner.
The ongoing war has shown the world that the importance of surveillance and attack drones is not going to lessen anytime soon. Rather, the use of drones, both in number and quality, is going to rapidly increase in future conflicts. While Russian drones have been used heavily initially for surveillance so that targets identified could later be attacked by Su-25 or other jets, the Ukrainians have used drones to actually target Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. One instance of drone usage was heavily hyped by the Ukrainians when, in response to its PM’s call for help, some Ukrainian engineers and graduates rigged up drones and used them for surveillance, dropping bombs, and also as self-destructing drones. Indeed, the lack of Ukrainian preparation in conducting drone-assisted warfare proved costly to them until they got ubiquitous Bayraktar and other drones.
India has a very nascent drone industry, with interest and research picking up recently in response to renewed push by the defence ministry. This has generated multiple research projects which have thrown up a lot of micro drones. However, India’s lumbering TAPAS/Rustom projects have been either inadequate for forces’ requirements or have been in research for too long. Since their technologies became outdated, they were never brought into production. India doesn’t need the best next-generation drone day after tomorrow. It needs a proper HALE/MALE drone production line with appropriate missile program specifically designed for drones.
Indeed, the most confounding thing that Indian defence experts have observed is that while there is a Rustom program which uses propeller engines for a long duration surveillance drone, there is also a parallel CATS Warrior program which hasn’t got much to research and can be realised in 2 years if decent effort is made.
The crowning glory of confounding research should be, however, reserved for the dry Kaveri Engine, which is now being sold as the dream engine for the Ghatak UCAV, another unmanned combat aircraft in the offing. India therefore has three projects which have no end in sight, with only one or two prototypes of the TAPAS/Rustom drones in testing. India has to rapidly merge all three of its programs into one umbrella and at least cancel one of CATS Warrior or Ghatak project. Indeed, the CATS warrior can be continued as it will lead to a cheap and massed produced UAV, with a 25KN engine that can be quickly bought off the shelf from the market and be used to design and produce prototypes for testing. Ghatak UCAV using Kaveri engine can be the Mark-2 version of the CATS Warrior.
The cardinal mistake of using the LCA program to make a desi jet engine caused at least a 10-year delay in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is still in testing. Therefore, India should preferably go for already available options like Honeywell/ITEC F125 or the Adour Turbomeca 951 which is also used in the Hawk trainer jets of our air force. In case a more powerful engine is required at a later stage, the Kaveri can be tested and produced. An engine of this power rating can easily operate in an 8-9 ton aircraft and if the size is limited to say 5-6 tonnes, then the aircraft can even operate on an aircraft carrier, with a useful payload of around 1-1.5 tonnes.
India needs to probably work out a deal with BAE systems for a joint development of unmanned Hawk jets, in which probably the only work left is to have a powerful computer and transceiver that can allow unmanned operations. The BAE Hawk is a readymade jet for conversion into an unmanned CATS Warrior and can be sub-ordinated to the Tejas or the Jaguar MAX mother ships in a Combat Air Team Support role and can be used individually in a UCAV role itself. India can deliver on this project in less than two years and hopefully the low cost as well as the readymade solution will allow this product to be an export hit.
These five takeaways from the Ukraine- Russia war need to be quickly assimilated and preparations made for rapidly realising new projects that are aimed at reducing the dominant position of China. India should prepare for a long war of attrition, with newer technologies and larger arsenals that can allow it make a robust response to any act of aggression before punishing the enemy with our own attacks, making them lose territory and subsequently sue for peace. Indian defence would do well to learn the lessons from mistakes others have paid dearly for, rather than finding the cost of negligence in blood of our soldiers.
(Chiranjeevi Bhat is a journalist. His writings are focused on security, politics, distortion and appropriation.)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)