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Russian fiasco in Ukraine and the future of warfare

The performance of the Russian military is of particular consequence to Indian forces which use weaponry similar to all that has proved ineffective in Ukraine. To draw the right lessons, India must invest in the tools of new age warfare, its Defence spending must prioritise emerging technologies over legacy platforms, and its forces must transition to digital combat

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Requiem for tanks? A graveyard of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed at Bucha, Ukraine

A Watershed of Many Sorts

The ongoing Ukraine Conflict has many useful lessons to offer.  While it may be facile to come to early conclusions, it is certainly worth the while to reflect on key issues. The sweep, of course, is vast: The crisis has seen a revival  of   geo-politics, it could lead to a marked fragmentation in the international system, it may significantly diminish Russia, it could propel the Rise of China further – the possibilities are numerous. There are valuable lessons for deterrence; the crisis also underlines the fact that ‘Nuclear Matters.’ The Intended Short and Swift War (now turning into a long slog) has shone fresh light on the salience of the Instrument of Force in the Calculus of Power. It has important takeways for Other Theatres of War, both in the Strategic-Military sphere as also the Operational Paradigm. So, the Ukraine Crisis is indeed, ‘A Watershed of Many Sorts,’ with seismic and systemic implications.

The Americans have for very long, been cognisant about the need to re-balance speedily to the Indo-Pacific. The envisaged pivot, however, first got caught up in Afghanistan and the Middle East and is now entrapped in Europe. China is sure to make the most of the elongated reprieve to close the gap with its foremost competitor. The conflict has pushed the International System towards further fragmentation – a unified push back against Russia as also a visible re-grouping of the Global South against the Global North, will broaden the gamut of opportunities and challenges for India’s strategic autonomy.   

The crisis has underlined several realities in the hardball of International Politics. One, the possession of nuclear weapons matters - Putin’s nuclear signaling has been a major factor in preventing the West from intervening militarily. Two, the threat of Economic Sanctions (even when so severe in effect, so as to be equated with weapons of mass destruction), does not deter physical aggression.

The debate about the Art of War and the Utility of Force in modern times, has also been brought to a conclusive end. From assertions that the days of full-fledged conflict are over (larai nahi hone waali has also been the refrain in India) to a pronounced accent on Grey Zone Manoeuvres, we have now seen the return of All Out Force. Putin, quite unwittingly, may have also questioned the validity of Rupert Smith’s widely-regarded hypothesis regarding war no longer being an instrument of decision in international affairs and the waning utility of large scale tank manoeuvres in modern   warfare.  With the Instrument of Force returning centerstage in the Calculus of Power, wise nations must return to the development and nurturing of a Ready, Usable, Calibrated, Smart, Technologically-Enabled, Joint Force in their arsenal, one with parallel competencies in competition (grey zone) and conflict (all-out wars). Such an instrument is the best and surest guarantor for peace.

Putin was winning the War in Ukraine, till he chose to cross the Rubicon on the twenty fourth of February 2022. With relative successes in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, the Russian Military was proving to be a rapidly Learning and Adaptive Force. The Gerasimov Doctrine was working well and Putin seemed to be winning without fighting. His problems began when he chose to win by fighting. While the Russian Military has had successes in the South and the East, it has suffered major reverses in the North; the Battle of Kyiv has certainly gone the Ukraine Way. Moscow’s successes in Melitopol, Kherson and Mariupol, however, will not only give Russia a critical land bridge to Crimea but could potentially turn Ukraine into a land locked, economically crippled, rump state. The successful targeting of the MOSKVA by Neptune missiles is significant – yet the Russian Black Sea Fleet remains formidable. It continues to pose a grave threat to Odessa, in terms of a siege or an amphibious landing behind Ukraine lines. Russian successes in the South and the East could also lead to the encirclement of approximately 44,000 elite Ukraine troops in Donbass. That may prove fatal.   

The Operational Paradigm 

So, grey zone (little green men) coupled with information manoeuvres are one thing; full-fledged combat is quite another matter. The Russian Armour Juggernaut had sent a chill down the spines of  Western Block Armies during the Cold War; Russian tank hordes, it was similarly estimated, would crush Ukraine – in tank numbers, Russia outnumbered Ukraine 6:1. As to why,  the Russian Military – this gargantuan Army of firepower with a lot tanks, with a formidable reputation as a combat machine  pretty adroit in the mechanics of the Airland Battle, should unravel so dramatically in terms of deliverance of either Airpower or Operational Fires or even Manoeuvre, is something of a mystery. Military Power needs a live context to express or test itself – it cannot be assessed on the basis of proficiencies in grey zone, its finesse in leveraging the information space or on the basis of paper inventories. When asked to perform real world manoeuvres in the context of Ukraine, the Russian Military, despite enjoying a 10:1 advantage over Ukraine in terms of defence spending,  has indeed fallen short.

There could be several reasons, each a lesson in itself: The absence of a Theatre Commander till very recently – the battles being planned and remotely controlled from Moscow; the fact that the Army was heavily conscripted (50 per cent); poor leadership - the lack of an NCO Corps; that many of the strategic assumptions were misconceived-– the Russian top brass conceptualised the ‘special military operation,’ merely, as a larger piece of the 2014 operation, premised on the belief that there would be little opposition, not much violence - the Russian military would only have to help the Ukrainians ‘liberate themselves.’ The scale of the resistance and therefore the complexity of the military operation was neither sufficiently understood nor adequately assessed. The lower rank and file was made aware of the operation a mere 24 hours prior to launch - there was inadequate planning and preparation. There were logistics gaffes: Russian tank columns running out of gas; unprofessional, open communications that were prone to easy interception. All signs of gross neglect and decline in the Russian War Apparatus.

The Ukrainians on the other hand, had prepared and trained hard since 2014. Their defences have been dogged and organized in depth. The mobilization of reserves was swift, the tactics imaginative. Value targeting by Ukraine has been of a high order, leading to the loss of as many as eight Russian generals. We have seen a lot of innovation from Ukraine, in terms of tractor brigades, adapted workshops and defence businesses to keep the war machine going. In the battles so far, we have seen neither the famed Russian recce-strike fire complexes delivering (heavy artillery to shatter cities and break resolve is very different from targeted firepower that takes out adversary combat positions with surgical precision) nor the classical manoeuvre that the Russians so pride themselves in. Russian air power has been largely absent – SEAD and DEAD have been underwhelming at best. The Russian Air Force still seems to be treating Ukraine as contested air space – their tactics, the fact that they continue to fly in low, suggests that the Ukrainian Air Defence Network is still intact. Combined Arms Warfare, equally, has been poorly executed.

The  Aerial   Reconnaissance   Unit   of    the  Ukrainian  Armed     Forces (AEROROZVIDKA) on the other hand, has demonstrated technological wizardry of quite another level. It has, for instance,  leveraged    the Starlink  Terminals (offering high data rates for stable communications enabled by an LEO satellite configuration) provided by Elon Musk on a tweet by Vice Prime Minister Fedorov, very effectively for Drone   Strikes against the traditional Prima Donnas of combat: tanks,    artillery,   air   defence   and other  Russian combat instrumentalities. Starlinks were used to connect thermal vision   devices  atop   the   drones  with    artillery    gun   positions: On an average, as  many   as  300   information    gathering missions  were flown  by day, with follow-up Drone Strikes   at    night  (since drones   are  difficult to  sight by night). Starlink Terminals have become so potent they are now the focus of Russian counter-attacks/air strikes. Starlinks have also been remarkably agile and fleet footed to  meet   the dynamic challenges of  the battlefield. New software updates have lowered power consumption to make discovery difficult and evasion easier, while concurrently enabling the bypassing of jamming   transmitters. The terminals have also been used by President Zelensky for very valuable strategic communications to influence multiple target audiences: global councils and legislatures to shape  public opinion; domestic populace to strengthen the street resolve; and the warfighters to boost troop morale. 

The role of Drones, yet again, has been seminal. Russian Tank Columns that came close to Kyiv City and the airport were ambushed and stalled by Drone Attacks. Commercial Drones were used effectively as eyes and ears to ascertain what was going on in the next village and along the next kilometer of the road.  Drones saw Russian Artillery preparing for strikes and warned civilians to shift to safer areas. The Bayraktar TB-2 Drones proved to be extremely utilitarian in targeting Russian tanks, artillery, SAM launchers and logistic columns - the last named proved particularly effective since lack of fuel and spares led to the abandonment of a large number of armour pieces by the Russians. The Puma (recce drones) – Switchblade (loiter) Combination of two-man teams allowed the engagement of Russian tanks from a safe distance of 5-6 kilometres. Tanks with four-man crews inside were near hapless before these drone assaults. Tanks, heavy artillery and aerial platforms (the Prima Donnas thus far on the battlefield) have proved to be rather ineffective before a suite of small and emerging technologies (Loiter, Drones, Javelins, Stingers, EW and Jammers). The abundance of Javelins in the Ukraine Theatre (nearly 500 Javelins have been fired each day of the war in Ukraine) saw the anti-tank system being made available to Regulars, personnel of the Territorial Army, Irregulars and even Civilians – this has taken a heavy toll on Russian armour with upwards of 300 tanks losses (T-72s and T-80s) so far. ERA panels have not proved very effective either.  Softer vehicles have suffered even more grievously.  

The ‘Tank Moment’ in warfare, therefore has been challenged yet again – this time by a lethal combination of anti-tank systems and a variety of drones. It has perhaps given way to the ‘Drone Moment.’ The Ukraine Conflict gives as enough evidence, not to make any assertion, but to at least ask the question.  

Key Takeways

The performance of the Russian Military is of particular consequence to the Indian military – given the fact that a significant part of our inventory is similar. It may be wise to carry out a thorough audit with regard to operational concepts/tactics, techniques and procedures as also equipment   performance. 

Many of the takeways for India, can be extracted very naturally from the flow of operations – they are fairly obvious. The ones with greater salience merit re-iteration and deeper reflection. 

We need to enhance our defence spending. While organizational re-structuring (Chief of Defence Staff/Department of Military Affairs), the exhibition of a new normal in our strategic outlook (Balakote, Kailash Range) as also commendable steps to re-invigorate our acquisition system (Military-Academia collaboration, Start-Ups, etc) are very welcome initiatives, our defence spending needs a re-look. In doing so, we may consider prioritising emerging technologies over legacy platforms. 

We need to revisit the equipping and leveraging of our tank fleet. Upgrades in mechanized warfare by way of fused sensors, drone integration, active protection systems and sophisticated situational awareness measures must be embraced on an urgent basis. Legacy tank platforms, being of limited utility must be discarded. 

The potency of our airpower to penetrate a very strong Chinese AD umbrella in the Western Theatre Command (WTC) merits realistic examination.  

Drone in modern conflict do seem to be the future. DMA must conceptualise and drive the induction of drones and related technologies into the three services, as part of a well thought out, integrated enterprise. Concurrently, transition of the Indian Military to Digital Combat, is long overdue and must be effected with speed. 

There is a strong case for injecting private sector talent, agility and technological competencies not only into our capacity building/acquisition system but also into our warfighting structures: Speed,  agility and precise combat delivery will be the natural   outcomes. 

Aatmanirbharat in Defence Initiatives must be coupled with a resolute diversification of our stocks and spares. There is a need here to draw a distinction between new acquisitions and stocks/spares – we have done a great deal to diversify new acquisitions – we need to do likewise with respect to our stocks and spares. Concurrent addressal of critical operational gaps through select imports will also be prudent.

A glaring deficit in most recent conflicts has been a conceptual/expectation gap between the political leadership and the military brass. A Comprehensive Exercise of Scenario Evaluation/ Validation by the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, National Security Adviser with the top military brass to bring about congruence in thought and combat preparedness followed by a Tri-Services Wargaming  Exercise  is an absolute necessity. 

The Theatre Commands need to be set up with alacrity - unity of command and integrated operations need to be institutionalised. 

We need to move away from Demonstrations/Operational Discussions in sand model rooms to upscaled, live exercise with large formations and troops, ala, DIGVIJAY or MAYFEVER Exercises of the past. Orchestration of Large Scale, Joint Formations is a stupendous challenge – that is one of the principal lessons from Ukraine. Testing our own preparedness in the stated dimension is now a strategic imperative.   

In terms of doctrinal focus, what should the Indian Military do: Should it focus on Strategic Competition, Grey Zone, Limited Wars or All-Out Conflict? Well, the simple answer, budgetary constraints notwithstanding, is that we need to be equally proficient in Competition and Conflict. Yes, we can do a lot more by way of Smart Asymmetric Balancing of Adversaries and Threats through optimisation, organisational re-structuring, budgetary prioritization, technology leveraging, et al, but wide spectrum preparedness is inescapable.    

We may also like to re-visit the metrics of our nuclear posture. From the conceptual underpinnings (transparency or ambiguity) to smarter vectoring (China’s FOBS poses fresh challenges), there is a need for fresh ideation, even possible re-structuring. 

Portents For The Future

To the extent that the Russian assault on Ukraine was launched with the tacit nod, if not the explicit nudge-and-wink of China, it points to the enlarging contours of a ‘friendship without limits’. The Russian spearheading of a Sino-Russian pushback against the USA, seems to suggest that for the moment at least, China is a winner. In the future too, China will gain possibly from high-end Russian military assistance as also by way of supply of critical hydrocarbons.

As far as India is concerned, our diplomatic skills will be put to severe test in navigating the Sino-Russian clinch, especially since our Northern Adversary is quite hellbent on diminishing its closest peer competitor (India). The fragility of the junior partner (Russia) in the Sino-Russian Partnership in terms of its ability to extend military aid/assistance is not in doubt today, but could be challenged at some point in the future. The performance of Russian equipment in Ukraine, in terms of combat delivery, too, has been far from encouraging. While the skills of the MEA in navigating these diplomatic challenges is not in doubt, the surest guarantor will be a well-heeled and well-oiled Indian Military Machine. Skillful diplomatic manoeuvre, albeit one undergirded by sharp military capacity should be the foremost consequence/lesson of the Ukraine conflict. To resource our critical military capacities, should we need to widen our options, there is little doubt that our interests will trump our beliefs. 

The Americans do seem to have regained some of the credibility that they lost on account of the poorly planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Short of sending troops/shedding blood, the American contributions in Ukraine have been profound: training, advice, liaison, mentoring, provisioning of military hardware, communications, providing situational awareness, helping in target designation, providing critical force multipliers, diplomatic cover, in demonstrating Trans-Atlantic leadership as also in rallying the world. The commitment seems to be deep and one for the long haul. That should be very re-assuring for India: Were we to leverage our growing Defence Partnership with the USA smartly and engage in the QUAD with sufficient wisdom and skill, we could acquire a great deal of strategic-military heft  to buttress the sinews of our combat apparatus.   

Amidst the many strategic uncertainties, if there is one certainty, it is this: the outcome of the Ukraine Conflict - how well or badly Russia fares on the battlefield - will have a significant bearing on Russia’s own stature, the international order, as also the trajectory of India’s great power relations. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Lt General Raj Shukla (Retired)

The author is one of India’s foremost military strategists. He retired recently as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Army Training Command (ARTRAC)

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