Ukraine’s Kharkiv counter-offensive, which began on 5 September and resulted in the recapture of 6,000 square kilometres of its territory, has led to speculation of an eventual Russian defeat. Considering Russia’s immense reserves and unused combat potential, it is unlikely to suffer a decisive military defeat but has certainly been stalemated—which is nothing short of a political defeat for a superior power. If Ukraine succeeds in recapturing Kherson, the mounting men and material losses may force Russia to negotiate a face-saving victory restricted to the Donbas region and Crimea.
There have been many instances where bigger powers have been worn down and politically defeated by prolonged guerrilla wars—Vietnam and Afghanistan being notable examples. Ukraine would be a unique example in military history because history wherein a smaller nation has defeated a much superior military power in a conventional war. Apart from the constants of national will, strategy, leadership, motivation and superior training, it is the exploitation of high-end military technology that has made the difference in favour of Ukraine.
Pitched battles and close combat, except in built-up areas, have been conspicuous by their absence. The effectiveness of tanks, aircraft, attack helicopters, and artillery as major battle-winning factors has been neutralised to a great extent. The outcome of battles is now decided by Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs), delivered by aircraft, helicopters, drones and ground-based weapon systems backed by an effective cyber and electronic warfare proof Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (C4ISTAR) system. Military technology is still dominated by human-assisted artificial intelligence-enabled weapon systems. Full spectrum autonomous artificial intelligence weapon systems may still be two decades away.
In the Ukraine war, third to fifth-generation anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), drones, and man-portable air defence weapon systems (MANPADs) have made a major difference. I analyse the current capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces with respect to these weapon systems.
Anti-tank guided missiles
The tank has dominated the battlefield for over 100 years. Its technology has kept pace with second-generation Semi-Automatic Command to Line of Sight (SACLOS) guided anti-tank weapons through composite/explosive reactive armour, electronic/kinetic countermeasures and by targeting the exposed operators who have to continuously track the target. In the Ukraine war, the balance has tilted in favour of the third to fifth-generation interference-proof ‘fire and forget’ top attack anti-tank missiles like the Javelin and New Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW). Over 1,000 Russian tanks have been destroyed. These missiles can defeat electronic and kinetic countermeasures, attack the vulnerable top of the tank and do not require continuous guidance or tracking by an exposed operator.
The Indian Army has a large inventory of approximately 6,000 second-generation anti-tank missile launchers. The infantry is equipped with Milan T2, Faggot Launcher Adapted for Milan Equipment (FLAME), Konkurs and Kornet missiles. Each BMP is equipped with a Konkurs missile launcher. T90 tanks are equipped with 9M119M missiles fired through the main gun. Barring the Apache, all attack helicopters—such as the Mi 25/35 and Rudra— are equipped with second-generation missiles. All these missiles have a theoretical kill probability of 90 per cent on static targets. However, since these require continuous tracking exposing the operator and are only capable of direct horizontal attack, which is defeated by the tank’s protection system, their effectiveness under battle conditions is only 25-30 per cent. The odds favour the tank.
A limited number of third and fifth-generation fire and forget and top attack Israeli Spike ATGM launchers have been imported. Also, a limited number of Nag Missile Carriers or NAMICA—(modified BMP2) based Nag indigenous ATGMs—have been inducted into the Reconnaissance and Support Battalions. The numbers of these state-of-the-art systems are yet insignificant to make a difference.
The Indian Army is now committed to “fight future wars with indigenous solutions” based on the policy of ‘Atmanirbharta,’ or self-reliance in defence. Many third to fifth-generation ATGMs under the Nag umbrella project are under development by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Prospina is the base variant land-attack fire-and-forget ATGM with ‘top attack capabilities and a range of about four kilometres. It can also be mounted on the NAMICA. Twelve NAMICAs have already been inducted.
Helina/Dhruvastra is the helicopter launched version with a range of 7-10 km. 7-10 km. The Man Portable Anti-Tank Missile (MPATGM) for Infantry and Special Forces is undergoing field trials. The Standoff ATGM (SANT) is an upgraded version of HELINA with a range of 20 km to be used by indigenous drones. The Semi-Active Mission Homing (SAMHO) ATGM is tube-launched and will also be adapted for launch from tank guns. Indian manufacturing giant Larsen & Toubro has launched a joint venture with European multinational missile developer MBDA to create a fifth-generation ATGM.
In my view, it would take another three to five years before the indigenous third to fifth-generation ATGMs are inducted in significant numbers to make a difference. Until then, the Indian Army will have to rely upon second-generation ATGMs with effectiveness of only 25-30 per cent as compared to the third to fifth-generation ATGMs that made the difference in Ukraine.
Apart from surveillance and reconnaissance drones, Ukraine has effectively used a variety of armed drones and loiter ammunition to destroy tanks, Infantry combat vehicles, artillery and other weapon systems. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones proved to be very effective. The limiting factor of this class of drones is the very high cost of manufacture/import. Loiter ammunition or Kamikaze drones, is the cheaper alternative. The US has supplied 700 Switchblade, 700 Phoenix Ghost and other such drones to Ukraine. The cost of a Switchblade is $10,000, which is one-eighth the cost of a Javelin ATGM, priced at $78,000 and a fraction of the cost of a US Reaper drone, which costs $32 million. Even the Bayraktar TB 2 costs $5 million. Ukraine has also fielded 6,000 cheap, commercial off-the-shelf drones like the DJI Mavic 3.
India has been using Israeli Searcher 1 and 2 drones primarily for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) purposes since 2000. These were followed by the Heron—a sophisticated long-range, long-endurance and high-altitude unarmed drone. Ninety Herons are currently in service with the Indian Armed Forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has also imported a limited number of Harop Kamikaze drones from Israel, primarily for suppression of enemy air-defence systems.
So far, India does not have the classic strategic armed drone in its arsenal, though we have initiated a project to modify part of the existing fleet of Heron Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into armed UAVs. There are conflicting reports about the progress of the mega $3 billion deal to buy 30 MQ 9B Predator Sky/Sea Guardian armed drones from the US.
While there is a need for long-endurance sophisticated drones like the Predator for strategic tasks, the best bet for the Indian Army is to induct the much cheaper Kamikaze Drones or loiter ammunition in large numbers for anti-tank/equipment/personnel missions. The Indian private sector, with its software expertise, is well geared to fulfil this requirement and has been given firm orders by the Ministry of Defence to get to work. While there is a lot of sensational and speculative reporting, so far no military-grade drones have been fielded.
MANPADs have literally sent the Russian Air Force out of the skies. These shoulder-fired, man-portable missiles have been most effective against aircrafts and helicopters. Sophisticated air defence systems like the S 300/400 and Patriot/THAAD are extremely expensive and prime targets for cruise missiles. Relatively inexpensive MANPADs are difficult to detect before launch and can swarm the battlefield covering all vulnerable areas. Fourteen hundred Stinger missiles supplied by the US were the mainstay of Ukrainian air defence.
The Indian Army is equipped with state-of-the-art Russian Igla missiles and a limited number of Stinger missiles for Apache attack helicopters. However, the numbers of MANPADs are too small to make a significant difference as has happened in the Ukraine war.
It is evident that there are serious voids of third-fifth generation ATGMs, armed drones and MANPADs in the Indian Armed Forces. There is an urgent need to indigenously develop or procure these systems. For the next decade, these weapon systems will remain a battle-winning factor as has been proven in the Ukraine War.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)