After three weeks of war, it is clear that the Russian offensive has been stalemated by Ukraine. With its existing forces, it has probably been forced to reach its culmination point prematurely. The probability of an absolute victory is very low. However, after major regrouping and induction of additional forces, Russia may still force a face-saving victory.
There are many lessons to be learnt from the war in Ukraine. India has a relative capability differential in China’s favour along its northern borders and in its own favour in the west with Pakistan. The challenge for India would be to successfully utilise the Ukraine model to stalemate China without substantial loss of territory and to defeat the same model when it’s adopted by Pakistan. The exploitation of nuclear brinkmanship would also have to be factored in.
Ethical review of capabilities
It is obvious that Russia overestimated its military capability and underestimated that of Ukraine. In a totalitarian democracy, a delusional military functions in a cocoon without any oversight. The intervention in Syria was incorrectly viewed as a model for success. Russia’s military hierarchy has failed to give honest and objective advice to President Vladimir Putin.
Being a parliamentary democracy, we do have the traditional oversight mechanism, however, it has remained dysfunctional. We have been cavalier with respect to assessing our own and our adversaries’ military capabilities and carrying out reforms. Politically, our approach to national security is driven by emotional rhetoric. Rather than giving dispassionate advice, the military hierarchy has joined the politicians to mislead the nation. Failures are explained away by bombast. We do not even have a formal national security strategy.
Nuclear weapons do not allow a major war in the subcontinent and safeguard us from a decisive defeat and major territorial losses. Below the nuclear threshold, for any form of conflict, we do not have the technological military capability to defeat Pakistan or avoid a military embarrassment by China. India must carry out an ethical strategic review to evolve a formal national security strategy and transform its military, and until we do so, it would be prudent to rely upon diplomacy.
Caveat for Aatmanirbharta
As a principle, Aatmanirbharta in defence can not be challenged. The effect of the war between Russia and Ukraine — two of our principal suppliers of 60 to 70 per cent of weapon systems and spares — and the sanctions on the former have created a serious void in our capability. It would be a test for our diplomacy to get the waivers from the US. But what use is Aatmanirbharta if we do not produce state-of-the-art weapons and support systems?
Ukraine has a better defence industrial base than India by all yardsticks. Yet, its success story to blunt the Russian mechanised forces and airpower is built on imported and donated, man-portable second/third generation anti-tank and air defence guided missile systems like NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon), the Javelin, the Stinger and armed drones like the Bayraktar TB2. The induction of Switchblades drones is on the cards.
It would take a decade before Aatmanirbharta comes of age. In the interim period, selective import of high-end military technology is inescapable.
‘Man behind the gun’
Poor leadership and quality of soldiers have been the bane for the Russian military in Ukraine. Despite the best technology available, its largely-conscripted soldiers lack the discipline, motivation, and quality training to perform in battle. Ukraine has made better use of a similar system with higher motivation and better training.
Russian higher military planning violated the cardinal principles of concentration, economy of force, and logistics. It also fell victim to its very own ‘Rasputitsa’ or ‘General Mud’. Operating on exterior lines on four axes, it failed to concentrate requisite forces on any single axis for a decisive victory.
The Indian military must not be in a hurry to implement ‘the three-year duty’ concept to save on pensions. Short Service Commission for officers and Short Service Engagement for soldiers of 5 years (extendable up to 10 years) without pension but duly covered by a contributory pension scheme, gratuity, and an ex-serviceman status are more pragmatic methods. The intake through this model must be restricted to 50 per cent of the total strength.
We also need to relook at the professional military education and training of our officers and soldiers. They are tailored for the wars of a bygone era. The intellectual military education of the officers requires a radical revamp. Concepts of rapid response and cold start are contingent on the high quality of human resource.
“An army marches on its stomach”, said Napoleon, vehicles move on fuel, and weapon systems are useless without ammunition, shells, and missiles. After 72 hours of battle, the Russian army was woefully short of food, fuel, and ammunition. Logistics failed to keep pace with the battle. On restructuring its divisions into combined arms brigades and battalion tactical groups, the centralised resources of the Combined Arms Army became too meagre and lacked inherent protection. The Russian army also failed to protect its vulnerable tail from Ukrainian formations operating from the flanks and the actions of special forces and partisans.
As our armed forces restructure into Integrated Battle Groups, we must not make the same mistake. Rear area protection is as important as the battle. In the mountains and in high-altitude areas, our logistic installations and lines of communications are extremely vulnerable to cruise missiles, air and special forces actions. Logistic installations must go underground or tunnel into mountains. There is a need for multiple roads with tunnels to the borders. The protection of bridges from ground and air action and the development of alternate routes is extremely important. The logistics of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are equally vulnerable to similar action, and we must exploit it to the hilt. Special Forces, Scout Battalions based on local population and Special Frontier Force can do to the PLA exactly what Ukraine did to the Russian army.
High-end military technology
Out of the plethora of videos and photographs of the Ukraine war, there is a conspicuous absence of close combat. Attacking forces have been destroyed from stand-off ranges with high-technology weapon systems. Fixed defences invite destruction by precision guided munitions (PGMs). Small mobile teams with state-of-the-art weapon systems have destroyed the larger forces arrayed for battle.
Close combat is passé; the future is with agile units making imaginative use of high-end kinetic and information warfare technology. The PLA is already having such capabilities, and Pakistan is bound to imbibe this lesson. The Army needs to review its tactics and induct state-of-the-art weapon systems. Our tactics are attritionist, positional and focused on close combat. A radical shift is required in the way we fight.
Fighting in built-up area
Until now, our experience has been restricted to fighting in small villages as they existed 50 years ago. I do not visualise major city battles in our context. However, if the Ukraine war is anything to go by, in the next war, villages that have transformed into semi-urban areas will be developed into ‘porcupine defences’ with mobile elements operating in the flanks.
We should also exploit the defence potential of villages and urban areas close to the border. Imaginative defence works must be created in peacetime with the cooperation of the population. We must also refine our tactics to tackle such defences.
Information warfare — including cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare — has played a major role in Ukraine. The nation won the battle of perception by allowing free access to the media and exploiting it to its advantage. Its psychological warfare campaign has been excellent. Contrast it with our experience of airstrikes/air battle following the Pulwama terrorist attack and the border friction/skirmishes in eastern Ladakh. Internationally, we lost the perception battle, and even at home, to the discerning eye our false narratives looked comical at best.
The biggest lesson is how Ukraine defeated the superior information warfare capability of Russia. Ukraine’s political and military command and control largely remained intact, and so did its public electronic communications. The details are not known, but it is likely that in the last eight years, it has laid out an elaborate optical fibre cable network and proofed its communications and weapon systems against cyber and electronic attacks with the help of the US. We need to follow suit. Our information warfare units lack cohesion and do not have the requisite capability. The sooner we remedy this, the better it will be.
Militaries that prepare for the last war invariably come to grief. Sadly, we have been busy doing just that. The Narendra Modi government and the military must study the Ukraine war in detail and re-energise our national security and transformation.
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. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)