Books | Outdated Lessons

The art and science of war needs a relook. An extract

Pravin Sawhney

Recalling the lesson he learnt in the staff college over thirty years ago, Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa, who retired on 30 September 2019, told his audience at the virtual session of the Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh in December 2020 that, ‘In the mountains, 3:1 ratio of PLA soldiers would be needed to dislodge Indian soldiers from heights.’ He was answering a question on why despite the advancement in technology, it was necessary to hold the heights on Siachen glacier, a site where India and Pakistan have been facing-off since 1984.

As chair for the session on the PLAAF in the wake of the Ladakh crisis Dhanoa said that a possible war with the PLA, while being intense, would be limited in time and space. What’s more, India will be able to hold its own against China. Since the crisis in Ladakh started in May 2020, Dhanoa was the first service chief (albeit retired) to make this claim.

The reason for Dhanoa’s assertion was the belief that in the mountains there can be no real victory, only a perception of victory. According to him, ‘China cannot take Leh and we cannot take Lhasa, hence each side could interpret a win for itself.’ In this interpretation of victory, holding of heights and the IAF would both play a critical role, he said.

‘We were taught at staff college that an obstacle had to be covered by fire and held by troops; otherwise, it does not remain an obstacle since the enemy could negotiate around it. To overcome the obstacle, the enemy needs to concentrate to attack it en masse. This is when you do heavy attrition on them, and the air force does this best,’ he told the audience.

According to him, the IAF will have to operate in conjunction with the ground forces and cause attrition which the PLA, given its risen geopolitical profile, will not be able to take. Thereafter, ‘It’s perception of victory.’ Taking a cue from him, a two-star retired air force officer on the panel expostulated that the Indian military was prepared for contingencies involving two limited fronts, and not extended fronts, against Pakistan and China.

But this thinking arising from a thirty-year-old education cannot hold good for all time to come. In military sciences, even one year ago is old. In addition, the scope of the war—whether it would be limited or full scale—will be determined by the military objectives of the stronger side. In this case, the PLA.

Curiously, most Indian military officers, both serving and retired, seem to be referring to the same playbook. In an interview with me in December 2020, the then COAS, General Naravane had said roughly the same thing. According to him, given the standard attack ratio of 3:1 with 10 per cent accepted casualties in the mountains, it would take the PLA up to 3,000 casualties to dislodge an Indian brigade (3,500 men) holding a height. Even with state-of-the-art-technology, the PLA will have to deploy boots on the ground to capture any ground.


Air-Land Battle

Naranave and Dhanoa are not the only military experts to think like this. The Indian military continues to follow the warfighting concept that the US propounded in the 1980s. Called Air-Land doctrine, it was unveiled in 1986. It laid emphasis on gaining initial success by the clarion call of ‘win the first battle’. Placing excessive importance on tactics, the Air-Land doctrine divided the enemy area into tactical—for fighting battles and engagements—and operational—for dealing with major operations and campaigns. ‘There was an inflexible relationship between the commander’s mission and military art: Tactics were meant to win battles; operations to win campaigns; and strategy was designed to win wars. From a critic’s perspective, the doctrine was designed for a show of force at the beginning of the campaign since it lacked rationality for three-tier spatial division of the battlefield.

In this two-domain engagement, the army’s core competency lies in combined arms operations where the infantry, artillery, and armour fight together as one single unit with greater effect. The IAF’s core competencies are range, speed, flexibility, and lethality with precision weapons. Since the army and the air force fight with their core competencies in their domains of land and air, they have their own war concepts based on terrain, climatic conditions, and response time. Fighting their separate campaigns, the army and the air force don’t need jointness. Only coordination is needed. Unfortunately, even this has not happened so far. According to a senior IAF officer, ‘Twenty two years after Kargil (the 1999 Kargil conflict), the army and the air force still do not have the same radio frequencies or map grids critical for coordinating joint strike missions.

As an aside, Chinese leader Mao Zedong had enunciated the combined arms operations in the 1956 military strategy called ‘Defending the Motherland’. This landmark strategy said that mobile forces (guerrilla forces) would be replaced by regular forces capable of adopting ‘positional defence’ for fighting on a fixed front. This would disallow deep penetration of the enemy forces.

An excessive focus on tactics had three fallouts: commanders at all levels became risk averse and unimaginative; they paid little attention to optimizing military art, that is, how to exploit technologies with new war concepts; and the operational level became all elements at the tactical level with quantitative rather than qualitative difference. Moreover, in the Air-Land battle concept—which the Indian Army and the IAF follow even today—the sensor to shooter loop was simple. It was included within a weapons platform. For instance, a tank commander or a fighter pilot would identify and understand emerging threats, decide what action to take, and then engage it by firing a missile, bomb, or gun. Such operating system followed line-of-sight principle where the human eye can see the threat. Since tactics was the focus, networking or operational systems were never considered seriously.

For all professional militaries, the US-led 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) was a Military–Technical revolution (or revolution in military affairs) which led them to reassess their military strategies based on four questions: existing threats; who to fight if there is more than one threat; what kind of war to fight; and how to fight, or the war concepts. The Indian military leadership continued with its Air-Land battle doctrine with the focus on attrition. The PLA announced three military strategies in 1993, 2004, and 2014. It also released a White Paper called ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era’ in July 2019 highlighting the importance of AI backed war.

The Soviet Union, the adversary of the US in the Cold War, always treated tactics as almost a side issue. Their OMGs were designed to achieve significant and decisive deep penetration into the enemy’s operational defences. They paid special attention to deep air offensives with use of airborne, airmobile, and air assault troops. Penetrating the enemy’s depth had the potential to unravel his entire defences. Fighting at the operational level made commanders bold, imaginative, and risktakers. The Soviet military believed in vertical troop strikes, integrated fire assaults, and far-reaching raids by OMGs which created rough equivalent effects of nuclear weapons with non-nuclear capabilities. It would not be misplaced to say that the US military came to appreciate the importance of fighting at the operational level from the Soviet military. The Indian military did not learn this war lesson.


Air-Land Battle on Steroids

The US-led Desert Storm against Iraq was America’s moment of glory. Armed with new technologies, an exceptional war concept called Network Centric Operations (NCOs) and supported by an embedded media, the Gulf War generated ‘shock and awe’ across the world.

However, the NCOs, which were Air-Land battle on steroids, were imperfect. Based on US battle networks—what the PLA calls operational systems, and the Russian military calls reconnaissance-strike complexes—the NCOs, which were at the heart of the US’s stunning air campaign were untested, and stand-off precision guided munitions that won the war were a small percentage of the total ordnance. The majority were dumb bombs dropped by the US Air Force on Iraq.

Operational systems are software networks that move information across the sensors to shooters or to the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. They consist of sensors, shooters, and software medium for automated information flow between the two. An ideal operational system should have all sensor information move across the systems’ networks to all shooters. This helps the kill chain, a three-part process comprising understanding of situation, deciding on what to engage, and acting to destroy it. By aiding humans with ‘a more effective kill chain—achieving better understanding, making better decision, and taking better actions—an operational system is at the heart of the war outcome.

Sensors that are not directly networked with shooters slow down the kill chain since more people (sitting in operating centres) and time would be needed to pass information to the desired shooter. Or, if one sensor is networked with a specific shooter using a rigid and inflexible network, it would become one loop within the operational system. Many such loops would comprise the operational system. Such an operational system with many rigid networks if attacked could render the whole operational system inoperative. This, in essence, is what the PLA’s systems destruction warfare is all about. The networking in Desert Storm involved three physical war domains of land, air, and sea, while satellites in outer space provided situational awareness and navigation of guided weapons. Outer space had a support role; it was yet not a war domain. A war domain gets created when opposing sides build capabilities to contest, confront, and combat in new physical or virtual space.

For instance, in 2022, cyber, outer space, EMS, and near space are war domains for the PLA, but not for the Indian military since the latter lacks combat capabilities in them. The PLA added ‘near space’ as a war domain in December 2021 after it successfully demonstrated its Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) test in August 2021. The PLA had in 2020 added hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles to its inventory to strengthen capabilities in ‘near space’. Having fewer war domains than the PLA is the Indian military’s major operational shortcoming.

Thus, as of 2022, all operational systems or battle networks with a digital backbone had four common interconnected grids: 1. A multi-phenomenology sensor grid that ‘looks deep’ and continuously surveys the battlespace in every operating domain—space, air, sea, undersea, ground, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum. 2. C4I grid makes sense of the sensors grid, determines the course of action from available options, and assigns target destruction task to the third grid. 3. An effects grid that applies the kinetic and non-kinetic effects ordered by the C4I grid. 4. A sustenance and regeneration grid designed to sustain operational systems network in combat and regenerate losses or damages.

Pravin Sawhney
Aleph Book Company, Pg 376, Rs 999

Call us