On the modern battlefield, mobility is as critical as firepower
Brig. Ravi Palsokar (retd)
Mobility has always been a decisive and battle winning factor. The advent of tanks in the later stages of World War I introduced a new dimension in mobility. While tanks were in their infancy in that war, the intervening war years brought about a revolution in the development of mechanisation and tactics of mobile forces.
Since the end of World War II, technology has advanced by leaps and bounds and many advancements are still in the offing. Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Locate, engage, destroy—this basic task has always been the keystone of offensive forces on the battlefield, irrespective of the advancement of technology. The essentials remaining the same, the soldier requires mobility, firepower and protection. Tactics may require modification, but basics do not change.
The aim of this article is to examine this premise and related factors. As always, modern battle will require combined arms teams backed by logistics, intelligence, training and coordinated staff work. The human factor will always remain central. Soldiers will need to be highly adaptable, correspondingly trained and technologically competent.
Mobility has both offensive and protective functions. It is crucial in crushing the enemy, while letting your own troops survive and fight. The battle tank and the personnel carrier/ infantry combat vehicle perform these functions admirably.
Our country’s borders encompass a vast variety of terrain. Our warriors (soldiers, sailors and airmen of both sexes) often operate in vastly different milieus. This demands high levels of co-ordination and specialised training, to make soldiers more versatile. Many different factors need to be examined, such as the historical background and developments (the legacy factor), geographical imperatives (constant requirements), organisation and adaptation, and training to suit varying requirements (the future needs factor). All this will have to be backed up by staff operations, logistics, training and cooperation within the Service as well as with other Services.
One could look at mobility and protection in a narrow sense. However, operations backed by competent staff work and sound logistics enhance the fighting capability of the force and add to its protection, in the broader sense. This applies particularly to mobile operations.
Tanks were first used in an offensive role in the First World War in the battle of Cambrai, in France (November-December 1917). After a few initial gains and surprises, little was achieved – due to various reasons. After the war however, two individuals did much to focus on the tanks as a way to break the stalemate of static trench warfare. The two were Capt. B.H. Liddell Hart and Col. J.F.C. Fuller.
Initially, there was lukewarm response in Britain to the employment of tanks. Considering that Britain was the country that had invented the tank, this was a curious omission. The efforts of the pioneers, however, did not go unnoticed and an experimental tank brigade was formed and exercised on the Salisbury plains in full glare of publicity. Liddell Hart as the military correspondent of the London Times wrote extensively on the development of such a brigade, its organisation, tactics and tasks. The interesting fact is that while the British Army was not particularly interested, these developments and the writings of Liddell Hart and Fuller were keenly followed by Generals of the German and Russian armies. Recall that the Treaty of Versailles in January 1920 had imposed stinging restrictions on the German army which was smarting under the sanctions and was looking for ways to reduce the effect of limited strength that had been imposed on them. The tanks and their employment as offensive weapons appeared as the answer they were seeking to compensate for their deficiencies.
It is common knowledge that the German blitzkrieg (lightning war) at the start of the Second World War swept everything before it. The Russians brought their own military genius to the concept of mobile warfare by sheer aggression and a lack of concern for casualties and by the end of the World War II, not only had Germany been decisively defeated but all the armies had placed the tank as the mainstay of their mobile forces. Since then, there have been improvements and the modern tank owes much to the development by various countries. There have been numerous wars since the end of the World War II and India too has used its tanks extensively in all its wars, mainly against Pakistan. It is worth noting that since May last year, some of our most modern tanks (among other weaponry) as well as aircraft are now poised on our Himalayan borders with China at impossibly high altitudes.
The Development of Tanks and Personnel Carriers
The need for tanks and infantry to act in close unison is now well established. It was always not so. History has numerous examples when armour was held up because the supporting infantry has not been able to keep up or has not been considered to be required. What the combined arms team necessitates is for the infantry to have matching mobility and units to have seamless coordination, so that the battle is fought as an integrated unit. However, before discussing this vital point, we need to review the development of tanks—their armour, firepower and mobility. And by corollary, the anti-tank measures that have evolved simultaneously.
The heavier the gun on a tank, the heavier its chassis. And the more powerful its engine. But heavy tanks are less manoeuvrable in adverse terrain and weather. The solution is to find a middle path. Post-World War I, different countries prioritised the trade-off between firepower and mobility to suit their requirements. The British have always preferred a heavier tank with a more powerful gun whereas the Germans, seeking nimbleness, have sought a lighter tank and correspondingly lighter gun. There is no real solution to this. The US Army has a mixture of both, but that means more expenditure, which many nations cannot afford. Countries like India which are dependent on weapon imports have been compromising between their actual need and what is affordable.
Most modern tank guns and anti-tank weapons like missiles can penetrate any known armour. This suggests heavier armour, which increases tank weight, proves counterproductive. But there are differing views on this. Innovations like composite armour or removable add-ons or shaping armour try to increase the chance of a ricochet after a projectile hits. The type of projectile makes a difference too. Kinetic or shaped charge or a core projectile that penetrates and explodes.
While these are technical matters, what a soldier wants, is the ability to move and hit while remaining protected. A tank cannot be a mobile pill box.
Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) development has followed a similar trajectory. The first vehicles were really just protective personnel carriers. Battle taxis so to say—which except for mobility, provided little protection. And bar the add-on machine gun, no firepower. Infantry had to dismount before engaging the enemy. A modern ICV however, has small arms protection, a light gun or an anti-tank guided missile for engaging enemy tanks and ICVs; machine gun/s for protection and portholes for the infantry inside to use their personal weapons whilst on the move. All this comes with matching tracked capability to move with the tanks. Some tanks and ICVs also have the ability to cross a water obstacle either by flotation or by use of snorkels.
Thus, we can have infantry armoured combat vehicles with anti-tank capability, missiles and guns as well as comparable mobility with the best of tanks. This can also come equipped with increasingly capable night fighting devices. It would appear that a perfect machine cannot be very far from what is available. Obviously, this last is not true, because other factors such as enemy capability and ingenuity, task, cooperation with other arms and services; and above all – the nuclear threat, all impose limitations which need to be catered to. The point worth emphasizing is that protection is not just a factor of equipment but also the manner in which it is used as part of operations.
It is not enough to equip mobile forces without providing them the necessary support. This simple fact is often overlooked or is not given adequate importance. Start with staff work. The best of plans made by a competent leader may be frustrated because of inadequate enabling staff work. A simple example should suffice.
A mobile column, once tasked, has to have sufficient independence to carry out its task within the boundaries laid down for it. Often coordination will be required between more than one column and neighbouring formation, which can only be done by the concerned staff. Battle once joined is always unpredictable and on a mobile battlefield, the commander may well be forward with one or other column. If the staff is well trained, they will take decisions without constantly looking over their shoulder and waiting for the commander’s orders. Staff training should and must provide for such eventualities.
The next is logistics. A mobile battle will always be heavy in the usage of resources, ammunition, fuel and casualty evacuation. Repair on the spot may not always be possible and a cumbersome logistics system will impose uncalled for restrictions and delays. Considering that all mobile columns will consist of combined arms, the logistics requirements will spiral. A well organised battlefield logistics system will ameliorate such needs. Casualty evacuation is a particularly sensitive issue. Much as one may lay down and practice handling and treatment of casualties, in actual fact the human (emotional) response predominates, and morale depends on such simple yet essential factors.
Communications is another enabling factor. There was a time when weak communication channels throttled the passage of information. Today the situation is reversed. Network-centric warfare has resulted in information overload. It is difficult enough in low-intensity warfare. Not everyone knows how this will pan out in high intensity operations, where every arm and service are involved. The differentiating line between information and intelligence will presumably, become more blurred. Advanced powers will likely use ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to sift all information and convert it to actionable intelligence. This is presently uncharted territory and requires serious exploration.
The modern soldier will be handling progressively complex equipment and will have to be trained accordingly. Think of this in the mobile warfare context, with increased mechanisation and computerisation. The ordinary jawan will require specialised skills. So, what basic skills should a prospective recruit be enrolled with and how should his/her training be organised? Today we have the armoured corps and mechanised infantry forming the core of mobile forces with supporting units of other arms and services. The traditional infantry skills, much in demand on our borders in the north, as well as to deal with terrorism cannot be denied. Are mechanised and traditional infantry skills separate, or can they be interchanged exploiting the versatility of the infantry?
We have been through this cycle before when armour and mechanised infantry were compartmentalised. It is time to put this bogey at rest. Experience tells us that even on the modern battlefield, at the cutting edge, it is an amalgam between hi-tech and low-tech skills. Look at Afghanistan—the mightiest power on earth could not defeat the Taliban. The point being made is that modern fighting skills are becoming more complex, and versatility on part of the soldier is increasingly essential.
This brings into focus the need to revisit the entire gamut of training in all three Services, both for the officer entry as also for those below the officer rank. It is a moot point whether it is cost effective and necessary to take in cadets straight out of school and train them, including technical training. The same applies to the non-commissioned entry requirements. ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’, is an oft-quoted axiom, but we need to look at the question of training, basic to advanced, in a more holistic manner than has been done so far.
Modern Requirements of Mobile Warfare
So far, we have only looked at the equipment and skills required for optimum application of firepower and mobility as well as protection. It is time to look at the doctrinal aspect. Looking back over the last seventy-five years, we have seen that as modernisation has taken place, the emphasis has shifted from purely defence of the borders to acquiring offensive capability.
The General Sundarji years saw mechanisation of the strike forces on a scale not matched previously and these changes were sought to be tested in two major exercises, Brass Tacks and Chequer Board, the former for the plains and the latter for the mountains. Leave aside the political ramifications and fallout of these exercises, what they surely did was to introduce new thinking in the army in particular. Indeed, some of the lessons drawn may not have matched the grandiloquent aims drawn out, but change had been introduced.
Subsequently, there has been the introduction of Cold Start doctrine. There is little public discussion of the effects of this doctrine, but it is a work still in the making and all this has been done given the challenges repeatedly posed by both of our adversaries. Does this have anything to do with soldier protection? Indeed, it does. Because successful introduction of new technologies employed in up-to-date doctrine should surely serve to not only make the soldier more efficient but also to protect him.
No mention has been made so far about operating in a nuclear environment. This is deliberate because such operations, as they have been visualised so far—are dependent on innumerable uncertainties. The only takeaway one can consider is that both tanks and ICVs are able to operate under locked-down conditions and thus limit exposure to radiation. This is a separate subject by itself, and it is difficult to conjecture likely scenarios leave alone practising for them.
The main thrust of this article has been that mobile warfare is characterised by speed of action and requires troops to have mobility, firepower and protection. This is provided by mechanisation viz. tanks and ICVs. Mechanisation has seen rapid developments over the last few decades. The article emphasizes the fact that the characteristics of mobile forces are enhanced by a number of enabling factors which contribute equally to the success of operations. Ultimately it will be coordination, cooperation and skills of the soldiers that will carry the day. In sum it will require total effort.