Smart, as well as loitering, munitions are shaping the battlefield
Col Mandeep Singh (retd)
In 2016, the Russian defence ministry unveiled the Derivatsiya-PVO self-propelled anti-aircraft gun capable of firing smart munition. The field trials of the Derivatsiya were completed in 2020 and one of the munitions developed for the gun system was a laser-guided smart shell which can manoeuvre using folding fins towards the target.
With a range of 3km, it was specifically developed to take on drones and attack helicopters and would have been effective in countering the drones in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict but like many systems developed by Russia, it proved to be a non-starter during the war. Added to this are the reports coming in of fast depleting Russian inventory of smart munitions and their alleged high failure rate. All this does not present a very rosy picture of Russian smart munitions capabilities. But Russia is not the only one to struggle with development and fielding of smart munitions and even after decades of the operationalisation of the first smart munition, there are only a handful of nations with this capability.
First developed during the Spanish Civil War when the Germans experimented with radio controlled or wire guided munitions to strike ships, smart munitions came into their own during the Vietnam War when the laser guided munitions were used with telling effect by the United States. One of the oft repeated references to the early use of smart munition is of the destruction of the Thanh Hoa Bridge during the Vietnam War. Between 1965 and 1972, the US conducted 869 bombing raids against the Bridge. All 869 attacks failed, and 11 aircraft were shot down in the process. When a new bomb was used in May 1972, the bridge was destroyed at the first attempt. The advantages of using smart munitions were obvious and by the 1990’s the United States had developed enough types and numbers to use them with telling effect during the Gulf War.
The Smart Munitions
The smart munitions in vogue today can actually trace back their lineage to the late 1980s when the United States started refining its Air Land Battle concept wherein smart weapons were identified as one of the key components needed for future warfare. These weapon systems would enable the army to carry out precision deep attacks, provide the capability of simultaneously engaging multiple targets while enhancing fighting capability and survivability. Smart munitions formed the basis of these weapons systems as these munitions were to have the self-contained capability to search, detect, acquire and engage targets.
Theocratically smart munitions were one of three classes of precision guided munitions, the other two being guided munitions and brilliant munitions. Guided munitions were characterized as one-on-one munitions that required an operator in the loop to function. At the next developmental stage were the smart munitions that operated autonomously. They had the self-contained capability to search for, detect, acquire, and engage targets but had minimal capability to discriminate among target classes or target types. They were designed for the ‘many-on-many’ situation where a number of munitions are directed into an area known to contain numerous targets.
As these systems developed, the lines separating the ‘smart’ and ‘precision’ munitions have blurred as most munitions are now expected to deliver on both counts. From air launched smart munitions to ‘smart bullets’ for the infantry, these munitions are now increasingly being fielded by all services though air forces use them more than surface forces primarily because the target sets vary and there are many challenges in developing and operationalising them. However, smart artillery munitions especially top attack munitions are now widely being developed for different artillery calibres with varied ranges. One class of these munitions are the cargo rounds that were developed for engaging hard targets such as armoured fighting vehicles (AFV). The cargo rounds have a large number of small sub-munitions fitted with a small high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warhead to penetrate the vulnerable, lighter armoured upper surfaces of AFVs but as the sub-munitions can have a high dud rate they can limit the manoeuvre of follow up forces. The other class of smart munitions are the top attack munitions e.g., GIWS SMArt 155 and the Bofors/Nexter BONUS.
SMArt is a German munition and each SMArt 155 carries two top attack sub-munitions, each having a heavy metal explosively formed penetrator (EFP) warhead. The BAE Systems Bofors/ Nexter BONUS also carries two sub-munitions but they are parachute retarded at the rate of 45 metres per second and have a search area of 32,000 square metres each. The other smart munitions include the Raytheon Excalibur 155mm M982 PGM, Katana family of 155mm PGM and the Russian 152mm 2K25 Krasnopol guided weapon system (GWS), the latter being in service with the Indian Army.
China has invested in PGM of which GP 155 and GP 155A with a maximum range of 20km and 25km respectively are laser guided projectiles with HE warhead. For 122mm artillery systems China has developed the GP122 with a maximum range of up to 14km. These are more of ‘precision’ than ‘smart’ munitions as they do not have in-built target seeker capability. Similarly, the new generation tank launched munitions are PGM rather than ‘smart’. One of the few tank launched smart munitions was the XM943 Smart Target Activated Fire and Forget (STAFF) smart munition programme of the early 2000s.
A smart infantry munition, the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) system is one of the few systems that is being carried forward by the United States. The technology involves optical sensors in the nose of the bullet and fins capable of adjusting the bullet’s flight path in the tail. The optical sensor apparently homes in on a spot illuminated by a laser designator.
The aforementioned examples are just a handful of smart munitions in service but in spite of their increasing use, their development and fielding face a number of challenges such as reliability under field conditions, efficacy against new threats and ease of operation and maintenance.
Much has been written about the performance of smart munitions in the Gulf War, but a careful study shows that their performance left much to be desired. A report of the General Accounting Office (GAO) of United States stated that claims made by the United States armed forces about the weapons used in the air war against Iraq were ‘overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data or unverifiable.” Even after the Balkans campaign, the Defense Science Board Task Force noted that “there is currently no comprehensive approach—empirical observation or otherwise—to determine and document operational combat failure rates of US munitions. The available data is inconsistent, largely anecdotal, and often from questionable sources.’ In such a case it is difficult to determine the true reliability rate of the smart munitions. This aspect is important as in absence of reliable data it is often not possible to determine the reliability of a smart munition.
Related to this is the assessment of the munition’s capability to resist likely countermeasures and doing so at a reasonable cost. At times, use of simple decoys have fooled the smart munitions. During the Gulf War, Iraq had deployed thousands of dummy tanks and artillery procured from an Italian company before the war. The smart munitions were not able to distinguish them from the actual equipment. A realistic assessment of the kill rate achieved by the smart munitions remains elusive. During the Balkans campaign the same problem persisted as a report in New York Times mentioned that ‘Bombs Are Smart. People Are Smarter’ as the Serbs used phony ‘tanks’ and other ground decoys to misguide the smart munitions. If the smart munitions cannot distinguish between real targets and decoys, then they are not smart enough.
The counter-measures are not limited to use of decoys and camouflage. Advanced air defence weapon systems can effectively engage almost all aerial platforms including smart bomb while soft-kill systems can scramble radar and GPS thereby rendering the smart munitions ineffective. Lasers and high-powered microwaves are becoming practical weapons against incoming missiles. The assumption that smart munitions will always get through, leave aside hit the target, is not correct in face of advanced counter-measures.
This has a cascading effect on the number of smart munitions required for an assured kill. As enemy countermeasures improve, the number of weapons required to assure a hit increases exponentially. This pushes up the number of strikes required to be carried out and increase the vulnerability of platforms used to enemy defences. It is almost a re-run of legacy strike missions.
Similarly, a smart munition may be able to take on legacy equipment but may not be very effective against newer weapons systems. Or a larger number of munitions may be required to neutralize a target. This makes the smart munitions costlier to use. And they cannot be used against all targets.
Even if available in adequate numbers, the simple economics makes no sense in using smart bombs for all missions. It was thus not very surprising that over 90 percent of the bombs used in Gulf War were of dumb variety.
The challenges involved are not only of performance but of maintenance and operations also. The smart munitions need to be maintained, stored and handled by technicians and operators who may not be very well qualified. While the top of the line munitions and weapons may be handled by well qualified operators, a large part of the munitions, even smart munitions, will invariably be handled by average soldiers. The systems need to be such that they are not very complex to maintain, test and operate. The systems should be accident proof with adequate safety features built in. Balancing these requirements is important.
Another aspect is the complexities involved in gun launched munition, be it artillery of tank munitions. They face greater challenges as compared with the air launched smart munitions as the latter are generally larger, have slower launch speeds thus offering less design challenges.
The main challenge in designing a gun launched munition is making them “G-survivable.” A typical gun launched smart munition experiences accelerations greater than 30,000 times the force of gravity (9.8m/s2) and leaves a barrel with a spin exceeding 3000 revolutions per minute. The munition fitted in a casing small enough to fit inside a gun barrel needs to withstand temperatures exceeding 250°C as it is propelled by a highly variable power source. For reference, the Excalibur smart munition mentioned above is fired at 14,000 Gs. The smart munitions must endure extreme G stresses, have a high-density package and withstand the thermal challenge. The biggest technology challenge across the board is the gun-hardening aspect.
In case of smaller calibre munitions, the challenge is greater. The smart bullet is .50 calibre and it needs to pack in the guidance system within itself and yet operate reliably. Newer missiles have reduced in size to 50mm in diameter but programs like MADFIRES are driving to 30mm diameters which creates ~24-25mm internal diameter to put electronics into. One can assume that 20mm may be in the future as well which will drive an increased need for miniaturization. With the average of smart munitions getting smaller, this problem will only get tougher. This challenge will get accentuated in the new generation smart munitions when the rail gun launched munitions enter service.
The tactical challenges are no less interesting, the main being of matching munitions to platforms and targets. A choice between smart platform dropping dumb munitions or a dumb platform with smart munitions may not seem a very complex problem but the ability to penetrate contested areas and conduct “stand-in” strikes that kill multiple targets per sortie will depend not only on the munition but also the platform used. A stealth platform can penetrate deeper and thus carry large payloads of smaller munitions vis a vis a non-stealth platform that will need to carry outside the adversary’s defensive parameter and thus be able to carry fewer munitions (being larger munitions with integral power plants). Coming to a workable mix of both – smart platform with dumb munitions and dumb platforms with smart munitions – will remain a challenge especially for forces with tight budgets.
The Numbers Game
The cost factor also comes in play when deciding the inventories of smart munition. How much is enough and what scales of holding, tests and periodic firings are to be laid down. This is critical as seen during Operation Vijay emergent procurement of ammunition had to be resorted to by India as the Army realised the need for Krasnpol ammunition.
Coming back to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Though all states have their unique challenges, the Russian and Ukrainian experience is of special interest because of their rapidly depleting stock of smart munitions and commonality of weapon systems with India. The Russian Army had gone in for a modernisation programme post 2008 but even then, reportedly the world’s second most powerful military does not have much to showcase as far as its smart munitions are concerned.
Ukraine on the other hand is being sustained by military aid from other countries but is also facing a similar problem of depleting stock of munitions especially the new generation missile systems. Ukraine has indigenous PGMs also but its supply has not kept pace with the demand. The supply of advanced weaponry by the West has not been able to keep pace as the expenditure far outstrips the supply. There are reports that the inventory of some weapons with United States is dangerously low because of supply to Ukraine and will take years to recoup.
While the smart munitions have been effective and have taken a toll but the sheer numbers still favour the Russians. While the exact numbers of munitions given to Ukraine are not known, the numbers of Stingers and Javelin can give a guesstimate of expenditure and efficacy of these munitions. United States has transferred almost 25 percent of its holding of Stingers and will take about five years to build back its stock for its own war plans.
Similarly, Ukraine has received about 7,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles and the United States is left with only 14,000 of its own. The rate at which both are being used the real fear is whether the Russians will suffer enough combat losses to ensure a stalemate before Ukraine runs out of its munition stocks. To put this in perspective, Russia has 2800 active tanks and an additional 13,000 armoured vehicles. Open-source intelligence indicates that the Russians have lost about 1300 armoured vehicles of all types. Not only it has enough armoured vehicles to support its operations, it has another 10,000 older tanks in storage and a similar number of reserve armoured personnel carriers. It is important to understand this numbers game as there is a limit to which the smart munitions can be depended upon to take out all targets.
The Way Ahead
All states have their own challenges and even with commonality of weapons systems, the Russian or any other template cannot be used by India to define its own needs for smart weapons. A system that works well in a given environment may not be the right choice for us, however good the munition may be, unless it meets our specific needs.
The basic dictum to follow is to identify and define own threats and end goals so that the type of smart munitions required for furtherance of the war plans can then be identified. This should include the entire spectrum of plausible future conflicts and not be restricted to ‘hot war’ scenarios alone.
Prioritise. Not all systems need to be smart. The add-on kits to make the dumb bombs smart should be exploited more to keep the inventory costs low. During a hot war it may be difficult but the usage of smart weapons should be regulated to the extent possible so that a smart munition is not wasted on a target that can be destroyed by a dumb bomb.
Mix of ex-import and self-developed systems may have to be resorted to, notwithstanding the Atmanirbhar push as it will not make economic sense to develop all types of smart munitions until the ecosystem is so well developed that it is financially viable to self-support itself by exports.
There is a need to involve private sector in development of indigenous technologies and capabilities for producing smart munitions.
What was only in the realm of comics and fantasy is already a reality. Smart bullets that change their trajectory in flight, loitering munitions as they float in wait and hunt their prey, shells that know where to hit the target for maximising the lethality of a single shot are all in service today. As the technology of warfare evolves it is important to stay ahead of the curve, as a failure to do so would mean imminent defeat in a future conflict.
This has been learnt by Russia the hard way. Even after three months of fighting, the objectives elude Russia, and it cannot declare victory. A major reason is the lack of an advanced technological base in Russia that is essential to support the modern armed forces. To win a war even overwhelming numbers do not guarantee a win unless supported by the capability to carry out smart precision strikes.
Relying on ‘dumb’ munitions will only use up a lot of effort and money without giving the desired results. Look at World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Only about 7 percent of all bombs dropped achieved a hit within 1000 feet of their aim point. Only in the Gulf War and the Balkans did the smart munitions start making an impact but in themselves smart munitions are not enough to ensure success as their inventory must balance the range, size, speed and survivability to maintain a long-range strike advantage in a cost-effective manner. To do so, the smart munition challenges need to be addressed which may seem simple and dumb but unless they are carefully considered and factored in, they only end up making the supposedly smart munitions dumb.