The relentless march of technology in military warfare must be accompanied by a doctrine, which aids and governs their utilisation. The use of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence in warfare is a foregone conclusion but it is too early to say whether human interface will be totally replaced by machines.
These were among the other observations that military experts made while taking part in a panel discussion on ‘shaping of modern conflicts with niche technologies: Russia-Ukraine conflict and beyond’ on first day of the Military Literature Festival that kicked off in Chandigarh Saturday.
The MLF, which is in its sixth edition, was inaugurated at Sukhna Lake by Punjab Minister for Tourism Anmol Gagan Maan. The festival is being jointly organised by MLF Association and Western Command of the Army.
Setting the ball rolling, Maj Gen Harvijay Singh (retd) of Corps of Signals, who was also the moderator for the panel discussion, said the Ukrainians using switchblade drones and kamikaze drones was one of the highlights of the ongoing conflict.
“Communication systems used in the conflict were integrated with civilian systems and allowed parallel communication lines to operate. By mid-June Ukrainians were delivered HIMAR. Later, in November, the Russians struck back with their own technology and have been hitting targets of infrastructure and energy. But one notable point is that both sides were lacking in electronic warfare capabilities,” he said.
He added that gas and coal reserves will be critical even if there is a mild winter in Ukraine in coming months. “The Russians were grounded in mud in February. We will have to see if winter pulls them out of the morass,” he said.
Taking part in the discussion Maj Gen Rajesh Pushkar, an armoured corps officer who is currently serving as GOC of an Infantry Division in Western Command, opined that war should be last instrument of state craft. “We need to understand why this war took place. It started in 2014 with irregular fighting taking place between Russians and Ukrainians”.
He added that the Blitzkrieg type of thrust of the Russians failed in the initial days of the special operation launched by them.
His co-panelist Brig Saurabh Bhatnagar Bengal Sappers, who commands an Engineer Brigade in Western Command, said the industrial revolutions have shaped the contours of the conflicts and wars.
“We are in the fourth industrial revolution as on date. The key technology is the silicon chip — something which has grown in processing power and shrunk in size. Certain magical technologies have come in. Autonomous machines, advanced robotics, 3-D printing… and material making invisibility possible. Synthetic biology is also a reality today. These are no longer in realm of science fiction. We have seen just a glimpse of them in Russo-Ukraine war,” he said.
On whether machines could replace boots on the ground, Brig Bhatnagar said machines are going to take over hazardous tasks and roles which may raise ethical questions. As technology becomes cheaper, these may empower non-State actors too, he said.
Col Ashwini Sharma (retd), who commanded 74 Armoured Regiment, said, “The wars have changed but the principles of war have not changed. Technology has changed the way we fight. Technology can today help you compress geography and time limit. This current war was started with a air land offensive. The Russians could not sustain momentum and exploit the advantage they had gained initially,” he said.
The technology was inducted into the Russia-Ukraine war by Turkey, NATO and even Iranians, said Col Sharma, who is also chief editor of South Asia Strategic Review. “The war is going back and forth. Mere technologies cannot win you wars. You need to have a doctrine and then find technologies which can help you achieve that doctrine. The Russian army did not have a clear military aim and which is why they are floundering,” he said.
Maj Gen Pushkar went on to clarify that Russia did not go for a air-land offensive. “They launched a land operation. It was not a failure of military operation. It was a politico-military blunder. Just 60-70 battalion groups entering a country and trying to change regime was a blunder,” he added.
Maj Gen Harvijay interjected that many Russian troops thought the Ukrainian troop movement was an extension of the Belorussian exercise being undertaken by them and only when they were fired upon did they realise that they were in a war and started surrendering.
Brig Bhatnagar said it is very difficult to say now technology will finally shape the battlefield. “The real impact of these technologies will be seen in future when these are meshed into tactics. There are certain trends which point us towards the direction where technology is taking us. Supersoldier is not science fiction anymore. China and US have these. Ukrainians have bought off the shelf radio communication interceptors which they used to intercept Russian chatter to great effect,” he said.
Maj Gen Harvijay raised the question of ethics in using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in battle. Brig Bhatnagar answered that by saying that if the stakes are high enough, “it will be a very very tempting option” for commanders.
Commenting on use of drones in the ongoing conflict, Maj Gen Pushkar said these were first used by Israelis in the Yom Kippur war. “In March 2020, the Turks brought in their Beyraktar TB2 drone and stayed out of Air Defence (AD) Range. They destroyed several tanks and vehicles within a span of two hours. In the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, 75 per cent of equipment lost by Armenians was due to Azerbaijan drones,” said Maj Gen Pushkar .
He added that drones are a very cheap form of attack. “A drone with a small payload can also cause great damage. Russians were put on back foot by Ukrainian drone attacks in first phase of war. In second phase of the offensive, the Ukrainian drones were brought down by Russian AD systems. In Phase 3, the Russians used Iranian drones which are causing upto 30 per cent destruction.
Rainbow drone/ mini satellite drone, laser systems, birds being trained in counter drone operations are some of new developments. Getting out of AD umbrella is a crime. It is a shift in superpower domination. You are hearing of Turkey and Iran in this domain. We need to compress the time and go in for these niche technologies. We need to upgrade our AD systems. Radar to detect drones. A lot is happening,” he said.
Col Sharma was of the opinion that India should first enable infrastructure and then induct such systems. “It should be organic growth and induction rather than getting swayed with these weapons,” he said.