WRONG LESSONS FROM NAGORNO-KARABAKH
1. The concept of narrative engineering and creation of opinions and assumptions on what you see or more importantly what you are shown is a norm. Information Warfare capabilities are gaining traction as this key arm of influence. If one were to judge the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict solely based on the coverage that’s come out of it, one may ascertain that this is the end of mechanised forces, and the same has been corroborated and the fear reinforced by armed chair experts and military intellectuals who have had no idea as a tank or ICV commander on the basic battle craft of the tank or the ICV. Choosing a fire position and moving from one to another is not even the task of the commander but of the driver.
2. But then as the old adage goes ‘seeing is believing’ and to fuel this very idea, an apparition has been created. “We were witnessing the usual war porn,” of course since time immemorial huge machines going up in flames and turning turtle was what all war movies were about. The challenge for the discerning eye however is not to draw the wrong lessons when we see these untrained, ill-led militaries that are not very professional with their handling of the vehicles that may have never moved out of a garage for years and years; all of a sudden are rolled out and these drones blow them up. The epitaph on the tomb stone of mechanised forces has been written in hurry even in India as if there were people ready with the chisel and hammer to carve it into the tombstone. This may be at our own peril, to conclude from this conflict that the mechanised force’s days are numbered, however, is a serious error. From the videos in Nagorno-Karabakh it is evident that un-armoured vehicles and dismounted infantry are faring no better, even those dug into positions with camouflage screens. Indeed, the lack of protection means they will likely fare worse since there are more kinds of munitions that are lighter and easier to employ that can kill them. Besides the vulnerability of any vehicle, the ability to inflict persistent attrition upon an adversary does not change the fact that land warfare is about taking and holding ground, and the ground will still ultimately need to be assaulted. Once committed to an assault on defended positions, mechanised forces remains critical to rapid success with acceptable losses. The challenge is to get a combined arms formation within striking distance without it having suffered heavy losses before entering the direct fire zone.
3. Surely there are lessons to be learnt from this conflict but we can’t afford to be selective on what we choose to learn and what we ignore as it suits our prejudiced views and coloured vision of the single service or single arm primacy in the battle space, we can get on every roof top and shout our throats hoarse about integrated theatre commands and synergy amongst arms and services, the fact that we have been selective in our lessons learnt process from this conflict in Caucuses is indicative of our biases and convoluted vision. However the tirade notwithstanding and if viewed dispassionately there are lessons and that too far reaching. Mechanised formations must disperse to avoid being engaged by area-of-effect munitions at reach. This makes protecting them from UAVs and air attack more challenging, requiring the integration of short-ranged air defense (SHORAD) across tactical units, along with EW; specifically electronic attack capabilities. This means a move away from camouflage towards hard protection, able to sanitise areas of the battlefield of enemy ISTAR assets. This does not prevent detection, however, since finding UAVs and engaging them will require radars especially at night; which implies the need for emissions detectable by enemy EW.
4. A broader shift in mindset is required as to how combined arms maneuvre functions. Infliction of attrition against enemy ISTAR must be prioritized to degrade the enemy’s sensor picture to a point where they will struggle to distinguish decoys from real targets. Deception, saturating the electromagnetic spectrum and other active rather than passive means will be needed to protect the force as it moves into contact battle. Once in contact the traditional tactics and capabilities of the crew and drills of troop leaders and platoon commanders will remain relevant. A critical challenge to be worked out is how to transition from a dispersed approach to a concentrated attack, there would be no classic forming-up, radio control would be key to arraying the forces to a position of advantage. there will be a significant vulnerability to artillery, anti-tank guided weapons and other threats. This is a key area of focus in developing robust tactics.
5. Complexity in application of Mechanised forces will also depend on the terrain in which a foe will choose to do battle. The element of asymmetry and the adversary‘s desire to avoid the superior firepower, organization and technological advantages of the Mechanised forces will drive them to seek means of levelling the playing field. One obvious method will be to op in an environment that negates the technological advantage — namely Urban Areas and Hilly Terrain. Dense human terrain will severely accentuate the complexity for both commanders and troops. Pressures such as societal tolerance to fratricide, timelines, collateral damage, force preservation and demand for precision engagements, will make combat exponentially complex. Therein is an inherent paradox for Mechanised forces of knocking down doors or knocking down buildings with fire power. However, challenges like this transition is ultimately resolvable through tactics and the employment of systems of technologies highlight how the debate over future capabilities needs to shift. The challenge is not whether mechanised forces are obsolete, but how a system of capabilities can be fielded and trained that gets the force to where it needs to be, with enough combat power to achieve the desired result. It is the system, not the platforms, and the balance within that system that we need to get right.
7. Without real time and cogent intelligence, Mechanised forces applied as a vector would be like a blind boxer wasting energy flailing at an unseen opponent. The best way to gain intelligence is through ELINT and IMINT prior to launch of operations; however, human intervention once committed would exponentially accentuate the situational awareness. Importantly intelligence gathering is best done when troops dismount and this requires a cost versus benefit analysis between force protection and intelligence acquisition. In order to ensure that the dismounted troops are well supported it may be prudent to provide them with technology enablers which would allow them vision beyond the proverbial hill. The idea that more troops on ground, lead to better outcomes is plausible but this idea needs to be iterated with the primary driver of forces employment. Larger number of boots on ground does create persistent presence but exposes them to drone attack which is emerging as the tour de force of elements fighting an asymmetric battle. The how, when and where of boots on ground would be the ‘tipping point’ of any execution at tactical level.
6. A new system of combat and balancing of capabilities critical to the future of combined arms operations must also go further than articulating how to blind the enemy’s sensors. It must also outline how to reverse the calculus and impose comparable challenges on the enemy. Here there are more difficult structural questions to be resolved. The Indian Army has to invest heavily in tactical UAVs, because such UAVs should become organic across the force. Each formation needs to develop a community of excellence to challenge thinking, develop new tactics and inform other units about the implications. UAVs as a capability integrated throughout the force promises to encourage combined arms employment and similar challenges might be ironed out about counter-UAV and EW systems attached organically to maneuvre elements. The answers to these questions can only be found through experimentation. In that sense while the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh highlights some key deficiencies in Indian Armed Forces; SHORAD, EW, tactical UAVs; the answer cannot be a series of binary trade-offs between platforms.
7. Mechanised forces are playing a diminishing role in favour of infantry centric formations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has further fuelled such an obtuse narrative. For many, the initial view may well be that Mechanised forces have little or no place in modern conflict, these are flawed arguments relying on tenuous assumptions of Armenian mechanised force as the benchmark for capabilities which is a rather low datum line. Our TTPs may need revision and fresh SOPs need to be formulated from the acquired experience from recent conflicts. An institutional view needs to be taken on what it takes for Mechanised forces to be relevant, efficient and coherent as a combined arms grouping in entire spectrum of conflict. This would mandate an ab-ovum look at doctrines, tactics, training and logistics but surely it’s not the time to read the eulogy of mechanised forces yet.