The shape of conflict in the world and in India is rapidly changing, from uniformed armies fighting declared wars using heavy weapons to asymmetric warfare against insurgents and terrorist armies using light and rapidly deployable weapons with little or no collateral damage. There is an urgent need to understand this and evolve a national threat assessment and security doctrine which must in turn form the basis for organizing, arming and training our security forces.
India is one of the world’s largest importers of weapons. At times of declining growth rates and marginal economic reforms, there is a need for the military forces in India to balance their needs with their budgets. In the absence of a comprehensive national security doctrine, can India afford high-cost acquisitions? Such large spends are being incurred without a clear map on the use of arms in diplomacy—a policy that would cover when, where and under what circumstances the nation would use force, and the possible contours of future conflicts.
Such a policy is vital for the armed forces and the police forces to develop a strategy and balanced force structure and must flow from a considered threat perception in the long and medium term, arrived at after detailed national debate. Without such a policy, arms acquisitions devolve into turf wars over fancy equipment and budgets with weapons that are very often unsuited to the realities of current conflict.
Warfare of the Future
Such a debate must commence from an analysis of conflicts current and past, both in India and on the world stage. Today no two countries are at declared war and uniformed forces are not pitted against one another in conventional warfare, arguably the last conventional war between two countries was the coalition invasion of Iraq or the brief spat between Russia and Georgia in 2008. That does not mean the world is at peace, there is more conflict on the globe today than ever before. There are wars being fought on every continent, Syria about 60,000 killed, untold thousands in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and closer to home in India.
These conflicts are labeled variously as insurgencies, rebellions, terrorist actions and civil wars; the name of course depends on whose side you are on. Importantly note that none of these conflicts are “conventional” uniformed armies arrayed in battle formation unleashing mighty forces at each other. These are asymmetric conflicts where well armed conventional forces are fighting guerrilla armies that are seldom as well equipped and more often than not losing.
Today, more than ever, India needs a comprehensive national security doctrine or policy. Based on which the structure of the armed forces should be derived. A national security doctrine flows from a public debate on the assessed threat perceptions in the foreseeable future and is the very basis for all other national policy including the structure of the security forces. India has no such policy document in the public domain the outcome of which is a incoherent development of the fighting forces. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal is an example. In January 2012 France’s Rafale bagged India's biggest-ever contract for supplying 126 combat aircraft for the air force in an approximately $17 billion dollar deal. In the absence of a comprehensive national security doctrine, can India afford high-cost acquisitions like the MMRCA? Are they the part of an overall security architecture based on the foreseeable threat. If so what is the threat we visualise so that we may use such weapons?
Wars of the future will have fundamentally different dynamics, the signs of which are already here to see. It is important to understand the characteristics of such conflict as they would have an essential bearing on the contours of our armed forces.
Such conflicts are seldom decisive and fester for years, being a constant drain on human resources and money of the state.
The mistake generally made by Governments (including India) is to presume a military solution to what is essentially a political problem. The military can only create an environment conducive to talks.In such warfare there are no front lines and no borders.
The battle is for minds of people, your own and that of the adversary. America was unsuccessful in Vietnam, Iraq (and possibly Afghanistan) because people at home lost the will to continue the fight.
Powerful, conventional weapons are generally irrelevant and advantages in technology are often quickly negated. An adversary who finds himself at a technology disadvantage rapidly switches to asymmetric warfare which is usually manpower intensive.
Generals (in this context all leaders) usually fight the previous war and lack the imagination or time it takes to evolve emerging threats. In many cases it is not politically expedient to define such looming threats.
Command and Force Structure
Having defined the nature of the threat, the country needs to have a clear policy on the force structure to handle such a threat, an attempt was made in the Group of Ministers report of April 2000, however events have overtaken the policy then enunciated and no attempt has been made to keep abreast of recent conflict requirements.
One of the vital requirements of conflict is unity in command; however turf wars and budget battles have resulted in a fragmented security force where each force is battling for its own slice of the budget pie and glory. India does not follow the integrated command system during peace or in combat. So each security force prosecutes war as they see appropriate (and possibly in a manner where they get the most glory). There are very few instances when the combat power of one force has been deployed under a commander of another.
In such cases the glory of victory is claimed by everyone and the failures blamed on the other service. A typical recent case was the spat between the Indian Air Force and the CRPF earlier this year when an injured radio operator was left behind by an Indian Air Force (IAF) crew in the jungles of Chhattisgarh after their helicopter was shot down by Naxals, but Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) commandos subsequently rescued him. Inter service disagreements over the use of the air force during the Kargil Conflict and even the 1962 war with China has resulted in the sub-optimal use of air power.
Most evolved armed forces the world over have understood this and have structured their services accordingly. Ideally the air force handles counter air operations and strategic air assets whereas each service has its own tactical and logistic air resources. This ensures that a theatre commander has absolute operational command over the three services to execute a nation’s mission.
In India this has not come into being. The navy developed its own, limited air-power capability in the 70s, and the army has reconnaissance helicopters, but no strike capability – leaving the Air Force as the dominant power. India has no joint combat command amongst the three services, leaving them all to operate in silos; each service commander fights his own war in the theatre, rendering what support he wants to or which he can spare, to the other services. In the absence of both these alterations in the Indian context, the MMRCA and other very advanced fighters certainly look like too expensive weapons to be used at the capriciousness of one Air Force Chief alone.
Considering the changed nature of warfare and the urgent necessity for synergetic air support to the ground forces engaged in such warfare, the time has come for security forces to develop their own air arms to meet their tactical needs. Besides the equipment, training and doctrine of the forces must be tailored to meet the emerging threat and possible wars of the future. The questions that then arise are that are we really working towards some national goal that has yet to be defined or is our equipment and organization policy the result of turf and budget battles.
The defence budget for F14 is 1.79 percent of the GDP, and this has come under criticism from experts who say it is not adequate in view of the present security environment. With resources getting scarcer can we afford the luxury of such wasteful expenditure?
Considering that the impending threats are likely to be asymmetric guerrilla actions where most actions are going to be fought at local levels are we equipping our air force correctly? All forces engaged in counter insurgency need to be self contained for close air support and airborne logistics, everyone cannot be dependent on the air force. In such operations helicopters and UAVs are the crafts of choice, being perfectly matched to the requirement of asymmetric warfare that we are embroiled in today.
Helicopters can provide logistics and fire to ground troops without the need for elaborate arrangements in terms of airfields and other support systems that fighters need. Helicopters have become the primary air resource in all asymmetric scenarios, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. A versatile platform it is used offensively as a weapon against armoured vehicles or enemy on the ground, troop carriers with an air assault or air mobility capability; reconnaissance and communications; and logistics including Medical Evacuation.
India too has effectively used the military helicopter since the fifties. Helicopters were effectively used in all the wars since, including insurgency in the north east. They really demonstrated their utility in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka, being the backbone of logistics and reconnaissance. The MI-25 attack helicopter, MI-8 rocket mounted helicopter, the Ranjit (machine gun mounted Cheetah) were devastating aerial weapons against the LTTE and were used very effectively. The MI- 8 and 17, the Cheetah and Chetak of the air force and army were invaluable for communications, direction of fire and logistics.
Despite its demonstrated utility in many conflicts it has taken many years for an Indian Army Aviation Corps to be formed. Even today It is very basic as in having only some light communications helicopters, the slow pace of evolution is the outcome of the turf battle where the air force wants to control all air assets. The government has had to intervene on many occasions to authorize the use of air power and allow the army to have its own attack helicopters. With different priorities, the air force acquires fighters relegating the acquisition of helicopters to a lower priority. Inadequate helicopters means reduced asymmetric air capability, a serious problem today.
Other forces, like the CRPF, too need their own helicopter capability. The CRPF's primary role lies in assisting the State/Union Territories in police operations to maintain law and order and contain insurgency. With about 220 battalions it is extensively deployed in a variety of security contingencies but has no air capability, depending on the air force or the BSF for air effort which is seldom and reluctantly available.
Helicopters are the air platform of the future; its extreme versatility allows it to be used by security forces in war, insurgency and law and order situations. But a force can only make its doctrine and SOPs if assured helicopter support is integral to its plans, today there is no such assurance.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
There are many names and acronyms for this platform including drone, unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or remotely piloted vehicle (RPV); the acronym UAV will be used for consistency. The UAV is rapidly transforming the nature of the battlefield and the manner in which asymmetric conflict is being fought. From about 50 UAVs ten years ago, the US armed forces today deploy about 7500, this is about a third of their air combat capability. Reportedly, the US forces in Afghanistan have carried out about 500 UAV attacks in 2012. About 50 senior terrorist leaders have been eliminated in UAV attacks.
Their endurance, ability to gather and process intelligence and provide a near instant response has made them ideal weapons for this sort of warfare. UAVs are exceptionally versatile, they come in various sizes, have payloads with a wide spectrum of sensors, communications and weapons and some have inordinate endurance. They do not require the complex ground support system and runways that aircraft do. But most important though is that there is little or no risk to the pilot and support staff who are mostly substantially displaced from the combat zone. Some of the UAVs the US forces use in Afghanistan are piloted from the US.
The UAV is a relatively recent entrant on the Indian firmament with the Indian armed forces operating UAVs for about the past decade. The slow pace of development of an indigenous variant has lead to them being purchased from abroad, mainly Israel. Primarily they are used for surveillance of difficult border areas and water bodies like the Sir Creek. They are no publicly known cases of their offensive use as a weapons platform in the Indian context.
The changing nature of warfare needs a fundamental relook at the way we fight these conflicts. We must avoid, at all costs, the trap of “fighting the last war”. It is necessary to maintain balance between a credible conventional deterrence capability and an effective asymmetric fighting capability; one cannot be at the cost of the other. A versatile ‘brick’ system of organization and equipment that can be suited to meet the threat is essential. Doctrine, operations, tactics and equipment must be flexible enough to meet foreseeable situations; as must be the training.
The Army has been the instrument of last resort in counter-insurgency and the deployment is only increasing. Constant deployment will blunt this weapon and must be mitigated. It is essential to give the police and paramilitary forces the wherewithal to perform the duties they are expected to without having to look over their shoulders for support from other services in order that internal conflict can be fought by them.
A realistic threat assessment, unified command and appropriate weapons are what will win future conflicts.
(The author is an expert on Defence and Strategic Affairs) Courtesy: Hindi magazine DEFENCE MONITOR