Monday, 28 November, 2022
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Protracted war has damaged global military supply systems. Time for India to step up

As the US infuses A-grade switchblade drones into Ukraine, India must initiate measures for mass production of weapons with small delivery systems.

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Nine weeks into the Ukraine War, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the war-ravaged suburbs of Kyiv and stated that war is an absurdity in the 21st century. Reality can be expected to remain deaf to such expressions of anguish as the war enters its tenth week.  Worse, the course of this war is bringing NATO closer to direct involvement with Russia through stepped up supplies of military hardware to Ukraine—which includes artillery and armoured vehicles besides anti-armour, anti-air, air-defence and cyber capabilities.

Vladimir Putin reacted and warned of a ‘lightning fast’ response to any country that intervenes and creates strategic threats to Russia. He added that Russia has instruments that no one can boast of and is going to use them if it has to. Russia stopped gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. There are also signs of Russia opening another front through the breakaway region of Transnistria in southwest Ukraine. A protracted war seems to be in the offing.

Protracted wars can disrupt supply chains of military hardware. The interconnectivity of components has permitted enlarging the geographic surface of sources. An interesting report has highlighted the supply chain issues of Russia and samples the case of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs). Some PGMs indicate the utilisation of parts from US companies. The report states that ‘most of Russia’s military hardware is dependent upon complex electronics imported from the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Israel, China and further afield’. Many components are the dual-use class.

In a protracted conflict, Russia’s dependence on China will grow and production capacity will be challenged by the need to find and retain new sources, sometimes even clandestinely. In the prevailing global political ambience, tech geopolitics gets the upper hand and in the long run, the Russian military would struggle to recoup unless China helps. Even then, the loss of western sources will not be easy to make up for. It will be interesting to view China’s stance on Russia’s demands for complete systems like what the US and its allies are supplying to Ukraine.

Also read: Is France our ‘new Russia’ – What Macron’s re-election means for India

US and its killer drones

The US has openly announced its plans for a massive infusion of weapons into Ukraine that includes drones, artillery, radars and several other weapon systems. Two US drones that have found mention in media reports are notable. The Switchblade drone operates in the Kamikaze or suicide mode. It carries a Javelin multi-purpose warhead and uses a GPS system for guidance. Its compact size and light weight permit easy human carriage and have been designed for the Special Forces while operating behind enemy lines. It can be used against fixed and moving targets, including armoured vehicles. It has two variants—Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600. Switchblade 300 can loiter for 15 minutes and has a range of 10 kms while the Switchblade 600 can loiter for 40 minutes and has a range of 40 kms. It costs around $6,000 each. Comparatively, the Hellfire missile used in many drones costs $150,000. The MQ-9 Reaper drone costs $32 million a unit and Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone between $1-$2 million per unit.

In the third week of April, the Pentagon revealed that it will be supplying the Phoenix Ghost drone that has been introduced into service by the US Air Force only in 2022. While the operational details of its range and capabilities are still classified, media reports described it as another Kamikaze drone that would be especially useful in Eastern Ukraine against medium-sized armoured vehicles, critical command and control centres, artillery positions, troop encampments and logistics installations.

Both the drones mentioned above hold promise in the conceptual battle of the small versus big in the effectiveness of military hardware on the tactical battlefield. One has to imagine several suicide bombers over the battle space diving to attack ground targets. The performance of these systems in the Ukraine War should be worth watching. The role of the Turkish drones in Azerbaijan’s Nagarno-Karabakh victory over Armenia is a case in point.

Also read: Ukraine has shown Indian diplomacy is like Indian driving—any lane, any time, US or Russia

India’s way forward

India must not wait but should instead initiate measures to develop weapons based on the idea of having small delivery systems in large numbers. The US may provide technological assistance and India could become the manufacturing base for such weapons. If technological assistance is unavailable, India should leverage the capacity of its existing national industrial base that must include start-ups and provide them with generous financial support. If successful, the low costs and large numbers can more than compensate for the larger and costlier drones and aircraft. They can also be utilised for close air support that normally involves fighter aircraft and armed helicopters. For strategic planners, there may even be scope to achieve better military effectiveness despite budget constraints.

For sure, Indian entities developing such weapon systems will have to surmount the challenges of sourcing its components and could run into obstacles of supply chain disruptions. It is a problem that India will continue to face with its diverse inventory sourced from a wide range of countries like the US, EU, Israel and Russia. Apart from attempting to indigenise components, India’s ability to source components will be shaped by its political posture in global geopolitics. Tech geopolitics as a sub-system of the larger global political structure can both directly and indirectly cause disruption. Keeping the supply chains open will have to embraced as a strategic mission and one that could involve dual-use items and clandestine supply methods.

At a conceptual level, the promise of the small-versus-the big of the modern battlefield has to explored by India’s military planners. The shifting character of war favouring small platforms over big ones can work in India’s favour if we can first decide at the Joint Services doctrinal level, the theory of application of the concept for India’s future battlefields. It will also have to be followed by structural changes. More importantly, such changes will face inter-Service and intra-Service resistance that could be overcome by military leadership by quick learning from ongoing wars and push for changes as deemed applicable to India.

It is time the Indian military explores the small versus big debate in military hardware and its promises and perils. It should be an interesting one, if the idea is explored as a sub-system in the context of global geopolitics and India’s interests. The United Service Institution (USI), India’s oldest joint military think tank, could be the ideal place to hold a debate on the subject.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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