Because of the high density of air defence weapons in the tactical battle area, air forces the world over are advocating that battlefield air interdiction, that is, the engagement of targets deep' inside enemy territory, would provide greater payoffs than close air support missions. The problem of enemy air defence weapons can be overcome by evolving a coordinated suppression of enemy air defence plan employing artillery, attack helicopters and air and ground-based electronic warfare platforms.
In offensive operations during limited war, both in the mountains and the plains, absolute reliance will need to be placed on fire assaults based on the 100-gun concept. The enemy defensive position to be captured by an infantry battalion will be annihilated through relentless pounding by five to six artillery regiments, all of them 155 mm medium guns of the Bofors variety, firing a mix of high explosive ground burst and air burst ammunition, bomblets and grenades. Small quantities of terminally homing PGMs will destroy bunkers, pillboxes and weapon emplacements. Multi-barrel rocket launchers, like the Russian BM-21 and Smerch and the Indian Pinaka, firing pre-fragmented high explosive warheads as well as PGMs, will be employed for counter bombardment to destroy enemy guns and mortars and ‘to attack the enemy’s tactical headquarters, command posts, surveillance centres, communications nodes, logistics installations, transport columns, forward helipads and ground control. stations for RPVs or unarmed aerial vehicles.
The enemy’s mobile reserves will require special treatment through heavy concentrations of medium artillery guns and MBRLs, combined with FGA and attack helicopter strikes, so as to render them incapable of contributing to the enemy’s defensive battle. Long range weapons platforms such as the Smerch MBRL and Prithvi SSMs (if conventionally-armed SSMs can be fired without risk of escalation to nuclear war) will be employed to degrade the combat potential of the enemy’s strategic reserves. The suppression of the enemy’s air defence weapon systems in the tactical battle area will be another increasingly Important task of the artillery.
India’s experience during the Kargil conflict in 1999 aptly highlighted the key role of artillery firepower in decimating enemy positions and reducing casualties during an assault on enemy defences. As the modernisation of the Indian artillery picks up pace and new PGMs with immensely accurate destructive potential are introduced into service, artillery will increasingly become an even more reliable force multiplier and battle winning factor. However, surveillance and target acquisition devices and communications equipment must not.be neglected. Without these key enablers, the artillery’s performance cannot be optimally exploited.
As brought out in the Strategic Defence Review carried out recently by the United Kingdom, “air power will be a crucial factory… on most battlefields…There will be a premium on ‘stand off’ precision missiles which can be launched at (ground) targets from long range”. The concept of Air Land battle would become more relevant on the Indian subcontinent as revolution in military affairs technologies gradually come to the forefront. Synchronised, simultaneous ground and air strikes would be needed to achieve the greatest impact. In War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Alvin and Heid Toffler have argued, “Deep strikes by the air force would be needed to knock out the adversary’s command centres, logistics lines, communications links and air defences. This, in turn, would require the closest integration of air and ground forces”.
The US army believes that “the success of both offensive and defensive operations can depend greatly on massing air power at decisive points … Close air support enhances land force operations by providing the capability to deliver a wide range of weapons and massed firepower at decisive points”. Because of the high density of air defence weapons in the tactical battle area, air forces the world over are advocating that battlefield air interdiction, that is, the engagement of targets deep inside enemy territory, would provide greater payoffs than close air support missions. In Air Power in Modern Warfare, Jasjit Singh has written: “In the tactical area at least, the defences appear to have gained the upper hand, leading many serious experts to advocate reliance on means other than tactical air power”.
Boost to morale
However, the importance of close air support to the land forces must not be underrated, not the last because it provides a psychological boost to the morale of ground troops to see the enemy getting a hammering from one’s own air force. In fact, the US Field Manual on Operations makes the point that “the air space of a theatre is as important a dimension of ground operations as the terrain itself”. The problem of enemy air defence weapons can be overcome by evolving a coordinated suppression of enemy air defence plan employing artillery, attack helicopters and air and ground-based electronic warfare platforms.
India is unlikely to be confronted with a Kosovo-type situation in the foreseeable future. Nor is there is a likelihood of repeated air strikes such as those launched by the US against Iraq and recently in Afghanistan, or those frequently launched by Israel against suspected terrorist hideouts on Palestinian territory and in Lebanon. As such, the IAF will be called upon to strike ground targets primarily in support of operations during a limited ground war in close vicinity of the LoC or the international boundary and it is these ground strike capabilities that need to be further developed and honed.
Like artillery fire, there is now an inescapable need for immediate air support to also be “on call” so that it can be delivered in real time. Even for pre-planned air support, it is unrealistic for the General Staff to plan 24 hours in advance. Such air support should be available to a commander in the field at two hours notice — the usual response time for reacting to emerging situations. If attack helicopters were considered the “fourth squadron” of a combat group in the 1980s, the time has come for dedicated close air support assets to act as the “fifth squadron’, so that fleeting opportunities can be optimally exploited.
Ideally, the IAF should be equipped with a specialised, dedicated ground strike aircraft of the A-10 Thunderbolt or SU-25/39 variety. These aircraft are relatively slower moving, enable greater precision to be achieved in aiming, can carry several tons of payload per sortie, including air-to-ground precision strike ; missiles and bombs, and can take a lot of damage from the enemy’s air defence weapons.
IAF aircraft earmarked for ground strikes must be increasingly armed with precision strike munitions. Free flight 1000 Ib and 500 Ib bombs cannot be
dropped with the accuracy necessary to destroy individual bunkers, pillboxes and armoured fighting vehicles. Modern jet aircraft flying at supersonic speeds and constrained by the threat posed by handheld, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles such as the Stinger and the Unza, cannot be expected to achieve the precision necessary to hit protected targets. Only laser-guided and TV-guided bombs with standoff capability and fire-and-forget air-to-surface missiles can provide the necessary reach and accuracy.
Maximum Indian casualties occurred during initial assaults on the icy mountaintops occupied by regular Pakistani soldiers before the artillery had built up and was able to concentrate 100 guns on each target in turn. Sustained, accurate and high-volume concentrated artillery firepower eventually paved the way for an Indian victory by completely decimating enemy defences and enabling the infantry to assault virtually unopposed. Tiger Hill and many other objectives were finally re-captured with casualties. Air strikes by the IAF also achieved significant results and helped to weaken the enemy’s resolve. The battle winning utility of ground and air firepower in limited wars was established beyond doubt.
Future adversaries will undoubtedly seek asymmetric means to damage India’s national interests. Asymmetry has two main forms. The first is systems asymmetry or dissimilarity between the capabilities of two forces such that the enemy force is markedly inferior in weapons systems, force structures, organisations, command and control and surveillance systems, training and morale. The use of PGMs by the Coalition forces during the Gulf War is an example. The second major type of asymmetry is qualitative (155 mm guns to the enemy’s 105 mm howitzers) and quantitative over match (100 MBRLs to the enemy’s 10). Favourable asymmetries in firepower can De best generated by the combination of actions and systems to create complementary and reinforcing effects that pose an insoluble dilemma for the enemy.