The precursor of the future 21st century wars, particularly the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 2021 over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Both countries deployed a diverse array of legacy and advanced defence platforms comprising old generation Soviet-era Scud, Tochka, advanced Iskander and Israeli LORA missiles. Drones of Russian, Turkish and Israeli origins performed reconnaissance to support artillery and other strike missions. Loitering munition (LM) attacks were able to destroy heavy ground units, including T-72 tanks and advanced S-300 air defence systems. The conflict’s use of a mix of the old and new generation weapons and platforms provided a keen insight into how modern wars will employ the growing spectrum of missiles, drones, and artillery.
The ongoing ferocious conflict between military superpower Russia and Ukraine supported by the US and EU with modern weapons, training, logistics and information is a prism into military technologies that are going to become the norm in the coming future. Both countries have deployed large number of UAV and LM on a scale massively surpassing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The use of small UAVs as munitions by the Ukrainian military has wreaked havoc on Russian tank formations, artillery, infantry units and has also been useful in personal targeting a single soldier in a trench. Each drone in the hands of a Ukrainian soldier serves as an intelligence tool, a means of adjusting fire, unit actions and a weapon. Russians, on the other hand, have made up for their lack of UAV capabilities by acquiring them from Iran. Russia and Iran have entered a barter arrangement to circumvent financial sanctions for the exchange of UAVs with advanced Russian Su-35 fighter jets.
The Russian military has also focused on using decoys, deployed jammers and electromagnetic pulse to jam the drones and their artillery fire correction systems. While UAVs have been used by the US military for over thirty years, they no longer evoke the mythical aura of a predator drone loitering in the skies, awaiting a target to meet its comeuppance. Nations such as Turkey have begun to supply cheaper and highly effective drone platforms like the Bayraktar TB2 and more advanced models to nations with an absolute disregard for missile technology control regime. The Bayraktar TB2 performed impressively for the Azerbaijani forces in the Nagarno-Karabakh war and Ukraine during the early stages of the ongoing conflict. Pakistan which has no money for food has also received its first batch of Bayraktar Akinci drones.
Russia has targeted Ukraine with hypersonic Kinzhal missiles and deployed much older Soviet era Buk-M1, Buk-M2 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems in eastern Ukraine, and KH-22 anti-ship missiles launched from Tu-22M3 long range bombers with devastating effect. The deployment of hypersonic missiles has only further exacerbated the race amongst military powers to build their own or acquire from others. India has also begun in earnest to upgrade its highly touted Bhramos supersonic standoff cruise missile to increase their speed and reach.
Nearly all modern militaries have become or are on the path to becoming network centric. Network-centric warfare, also called network-centric operations or net-centric warfare, is a military doctrine or theory of war that aims to translate an information advantage, enabled partly by information technology, into a competitive advantage through the computer networking of dispersed forces. The Chinese military which was the butt of jokes with its antiquated submarines less than a decade ago, is now a highly digitalised and indigenous military and showcases all the latest gizmos in hypersonic, drone, naval, space and stealth technologies in its weapons platforms. Yet China most recently used helium filled stratospheric airships to gather electronic intelligence over North America under the pretext of gathering weather related data. While the airship technology used in the China operation was old wine in a new bottle, the electronic intelligence payload attached to it was a case of a wolf in a sheep’s clothing.
Airships made their first appearance over hundred and fifty years ago,but in the last two decades the technology has gone through a massive upgrade in terms of materials for the envelope, electronics for mission payloads and propulsion systems based on solar and fuel cells. In 1914, the German military had several airships known as Zeppelins capable of reaching speeds up to 85 mph and carrying over two tonnes of bombs.
The manufacturing of dumb variety of munitions such as artillery shells, bombs and grenades has gone hi-tech. Artillery shells for Ukraine are being manufactured by Robots in Scranton Pennsylvania. Similarly, 3D printers are now busy printing loitering munitions, parts and components of fighter aircrafts, land-based systems and artillery systems. Technology has revolutionised military logistics, enhanced supply chain efficiencies, transportation, and maintenance. Advancements in autonomous vehicles, logistics management systems, and additive manufacturing have streamlined logistics operations, ensuring that troops and equipment are supplied even in challenging environments.
In the Indian scenario, the changing nature of warfare has certainly made an impact on Indian military planners. The Indian defence procurement policy, hitherto skewed in favour of DPSUs and foreign procurement, is now geared towards giving the Indian private sector an equal chance to rise to the challenge and prove its capabilities. A slew of startups, MSMEs and large corporates are engaged in the design and manufacture of weapons and platforms. The progress has been slow but visible.
The Indian Navy has already announced that the second Vikrant class aircraft carrier will undergo design changes to accommodate next generation platforms such as unmanned combat aerial vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Numerous contracts are being signed for loitering munitions by the Indian Military. Last year India joined the elite group of nations to operationalise its own global positioning and navigation system known as GAGAN. The DGCA has mandated that all aircraft registered in India after July 1st, 2021 will be GAGAN enabled. Armed forces have been given special powers for individual procurement worth Rs 300 crore which has been used to buy a range of advanced equipment for operational requirements during the tense border row with China in eastern Ladakh.
Integration of advanced technologies into military equipment has revolutionised warfare. Technologies have impacted ways in which conflicts are strategised, planned and conducted affecting outcome. Advanced technologies do not give a military the leeway to just rely on advanced weapons to fight a war in its entirety, as skyrocketing development and acquisition costs will make the war effort prohibitively expensive. Legacy weapons and platforms can provide cost-effective solutions, as several military operations and environments may require the use of specific weapons or platforms.
Militaries sometimes adapt, upgrade older weapons for new purposes, retrofitting older platforms with advanced sensors, communication systems, or precision-guided munitions to enhance effectiveness and interoperability. Wing Commander Abhinandan of the IAF was awarded the Vir Chakra for shooting down an F-16 with an upgraded MIG-21 Bison, an obsolete aircraft well beyond its prime. The US still fields the B-52 Stratofortress, an aircraft which made its debut well over six decades ago.
In counterinsurgency operations, where precision and collateral damage reduction are crucial, older weapons with lower capabilities may be preferred over more destructive advanced weapons. The supply chain and logistics involved in acquiring and maintaining modern weapons can be complex and time-consuming. The integration of hi-tech electronic components can become a limiting factor, lack of semiconductor production capability or non-availability of essential electronics due to geopolitical scenarios or sanctions can render an advanced weapon system defunct and useless.
In some situations, it may be more practical to utilise existing stocks of older weapons that are readily available and easier to sustain. Certain older weapons possessing unique capabilities that are not easily replicated by modern counterparts may be employed for specialised tasks, in electronic warfare, close-quarters combat, or specific operational environments.
It is important to note that while older weapons nearing obsolescence may still have a role in modern warfare, the integration of advanced technologies such as unmanned systems, precision-guided munitions, cyber capabilities, and network-centric warfare, has revolutionised military operations. The combination of advanced and old weapons showcases the need for military forces to find the sweet spot for balancing costs and operational requirements, while maintaining the required technological edge in their arsenal. One of the most important lessons learnt from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict which has now entered its 15th month, has been the negation of the theory that modern warfare will be short and lethal, as advanced weapons platforms with ability to detect, discern and engage will decide the outcome of a war quickly.
India will have to prepare for all types of warfare – short, long and asymmetric – which means it will have to rely not only on advanced platforms for an overwhelming superiority, and a decisive edge, but it should also be able to deploy a plethora of legacy weapons, if engaged in a war of attrition in the long run.
-The writer is an Aerospace & Defence consultant and a specialist in Strategic Affairs. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda