Predicting the future of the battlefield is both an art and a science. The conflict of the modern world would be based on conducting multiple conventional surgical strikes that shall include the deployment of Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs), Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs), and other Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) over Vital Areas (VA)/ Vital Points (VP) of the adversary(s) such as airfields, electric grids, military warehouses, bridges, Etc. followed by the intervention of ground forces while continuing to eliminate strategic targets through precision warfare.
Against this backdrop, India needs to focus on deploying a wide variety of Surface to Surface and Air-to-Surface guided munitions. This includes cruise missiles, long-range guided artillery, deployment of cost-effective SRBMs on large scale as well as Air-to-Surface weapons such as very heavy guided bombs, Ground Launched or Air Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs), killer drones, long-range missiles having loitering capabilities with optical guidance, Anti-dam bombs, multi-purpose bombs, satellite plus laser-guided bombs, smart cluster and glide bombs, swarms to evade enemy radars and other systems with an emphasis on mountain warfare in Indian scenario.
The shift towards greater digitization of the battlefield with the introduction of a variety of C4ISR technologies along with unmanned systems, Battlefield Management Systems, precision munition guided by Inertial Navigation Systems (INS), Geographical Information Systems (GIS), space-based Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) capabilities to manoeuvre munitions towards the designated target, the space-based assets now form an integral part of Precision Warfare from Target Detection, Target Assessment, Target Acquisition to Post-damage Assessment. Further, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Deep Learning, Data Analytics, and Cyber-Electronic Warfare (CEW) capabilities are all making the battlefields sensors driven rather than force-on-force attrition.
The space-based assets now form an integral part of Precision Warfare from Target Detection, Target Assessment, and Target Acquisition to Post-damage Assessment
The Challenge is to Make the Dumb Munitions Smarter
However, most of the modern PGMs are expensive, also some of them have short inventory life and tend to field smaller payloads than the equivalent weight of unguided mutations. Therefore, the importance of multiple bombardments based on unguided bombs also cannot be overlooked which will provide help to induce psychological pressure on the opposing forces as experienced in the Kargil War which led to reducing the morale of the adversary’s forces to sustain.
Here the challenge is not to make unguided munitions suspended from the modern battlefield but rather make them more meaningful in the age of precision warfare, where they would provide designated target destruction based on quick and effective battlefield calculations. Unguided bombs based on UCAVs can be a cost-effective solution. Therefore, having UCAVs and bombers in the inventory of IAF is in India’s interest.
Make unguided munitions more meaningful in the age of precision warfare
Exercising Target Acquisition
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd.) points out that a critical issue for attention is the need for high-altitude air-to-ground firing ranges for the fighters to practice weaponry. As a nation, India has not been able to solve this problem for 30 years. During the Kargil war, it was realised that the Indian Air Force (IAF) had never practised air-to-ground firing at those heights. Yet, it was found that Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs) can take out individual bunkers. In fact, the LGB attacks became the game-changers and greatly helped accelerate the war to an end and also saved many Indian casualties due to reduced Pakistani resistance.
The primary purpose of target selection was to undermine the enemy’s will to resist; the backup was to reduce the enemy’s capacity, Major Fairchild and other bombardment instructors at the erstwhile US Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) stressed that “it is essential to analyse our particular prospective enemy in each case—arrive at a true and exact estimate of its vulnerability, and then concentrate our attack on those vulnerable elements whose destruction will have the greatest cumulative effect in two respects. First, on the morale of the civil populace, by applying pressure to them through the dislocation of their mode of living and by making life under war conditions more intolerable . . . Second, but perhaps not less important, by destroying their capacity to make war.”
The advancement in precision warfare doesn’t mean that only military targets would be undertaken in the course of a conflict given the Civil-Military Integration (CMI) at several levels a lot of focus will be given to targeting civil utilities having strategic significance ensuring achieving dual objectives of inducing civil stress towards the governance hence trying eroding moral of the population as well as systematic targeting of war-waging capacities of the adversary(s).
Focus on China’s Precision Warfare Capabilities
The capability gap between China and Pakistan has now forced India to conduct strategic policy orientation keeping in view the greater challenge posed by the growing Chinese military and economic might. The China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) standoff capabilities will likely further advance as new technologies mature, with stealthy cruise missiles and more advanced guidance systems expected to emerge in the years to come. The U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) told a Congressional committee in 2017 that China is developing long-range cruise missiles some capable of reaching supersonic speed, Chinese has already pursued a test program that has had 20 times more tests than the U.S. has. India also needs to invest in several new weapon platforms, leading to the innovation of mutation development in India.
NORINCO, China’s leading state-owned defence undertaking stated that it has developed Massive-Ordinance-Air- Blast (MOAB) Bomb capable to be delivered by its Bomber H-6K. China has developed GB-6A subsonic stealth cruise missile like its American counterparts JSOW-ER uses a stealth glide bomb (the GS-6) for its fuselage, attaching to a turbojet engine. At about 13-16 feet long, it would likely weigh one ton with a 500 kg warhead with a range of about 600kms.
China has been working diligently on producing its own supersonic cruise missiles after the failed YJ-1/C101 and HY-3/C301 series. Based on the open-source analysis, China developed a sea-skimming CX-1 Anti-ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) with a 290 Km range similar to the BrahMos missile. Inspired by the Tomahawk cruise missile of the US, China is also developing YJ-100 a missile based on the CJ-10 Land Attack Cruise Missile (L ACM) which may have a range of 800kms and can also be launched from the H-6 bombers. China is also may have operationalised CJ-100/DF-100 Cruise missile with a reported range of about 2,000 to 3,000 kilometres, capable of carrying both conventional or nuclear warheads.
Missiles like YJ-100; YJ-18; DF-21D and the newly developed DF-26 Anti-ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), Air launched YJ-12, CX-1, CJ-100 and Hong Niao (HN) series missiles can enhance China’s A2/AD capabilities at the South China Sea and beyond. Unlike the Indian scenario, Chinese missile development is largely influenced by maritime operations. Western sources have also confirmed that China is developing 2 versions of Air-Launched Ballistic Missile (ALBM) and H-6K may be suited to launch such missiles.
China is working on Stealth Bomber called H-20 which can make a debut in the year 2025 and has a combat range of 12,000 Km. It is believed that it can carry 12 CJ-20/KD-20 ALCM missiles which have a strike range of about 1,500-2000 Km. China already deploys H-6 bombers based on Soviet-origin Tu-16 of various configurations in its fleet. The future battlefield will not be limited to one area as the new precision systems are coming up at a rapid pace which will enlarge the envelope of the battlefield that would try to take battlefield across the borders deep into the adversary(s) territory trying to cut down lines of communications to the forward areas. Hence, in this manner, the modern precision strike capabilities in terms of accuracy and reach have also challenged the concept of a limited war under local conditions by reducing the difference between tactical and strategic armaments/weapons.
According to US National Air and Space Intelligence Centre’s report on Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threats issued in 2013, “China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development programme in the world.” Over time, China’s ballistic missile technology has become highly accurate with its SRBMs like B-611M, DF-12, P-12, DF-11A, SY-400, DF-15, DF-21, DF-11A (new) and even the LACM CJ-10/20 all have the CEP of 30m or less, meaning there is a full probability of hitting the designated target with just 2 missiles.
Ballistic missiles like DF-15, DF-16 and Df-21C have a CEP of 5-10m meaning even one missile fired would have a very high probability of hitting the designated target especially short-sight targets like roads, railways, runways, ammunition, and petroleum facilities, oil, and lubricant storage and bunkers, ground-based air defences, electrical power grids, and field logistics centres etc. The simultaneous attack by the above missiles could prove to be lethal. China now has a singular C2 infrastructure for precision warfare under the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF).
The Science of the erstwhile Second Artillery Corps of the PLA articulates, “During future joint combat operations, Second Artillery Corps will not merely act as the main force in providing nuclear deterrence and nuclear counter-strike power, but will also act as the backbone force in conventional firepower assaults.” The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly known as the PLA 2nd Artillery Force (PLASAF) until 2016, is responsible for the PLA’s land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles.
Many experts believe that the PLARF makes the largest ground-based missile force in the world, with an estimated 2,200 conventional ballistic and cruise missiles in the service. The elevation from Second Artillery Force to PLARF—that is, elevation to a full-service equivalent to the army, navy, and air force—is indicative of China’s increased reliance on missile forces at the operational and strategic levels. The number of conventional missiles in the PLARF arsenal could increase in the time to come. India is also working on developing a missile force at par with the three services for conducting conventional missile strikes.
Precision warfare has also challenged the concept of a limited war under local conditions by reducing the difference between tactical and strategic weapons
India Needs to Take Quantum Jump in Missile Numbers, Range, Speed and Variety
When it comes to SRBMs with CEP less than 30m to effectively hit short-sight targets there are only three ballistic missiles operational that is Prithvi-III, Shaurya, and Agni-1 missile other than the BrahMos cruise missile in the inventory which has short-range of 290 Km. Extensive use of the above three ballistic missiles for the conventional roles would significantly reduce India’s two-front warfighting capabilities which make India’s capabilities to render counterforce targets very expensive when compared with China which has an estimated 1,200 SRBMs in the inventory with the majority of them having more or less 30m CEP. However, most of them are presently employed covering the Taiwan strait.
Therefore, it is essential that India focus on the speedy development of cheaper SRBMs providing an opportunity for maximum production. India must ensure the speedy development of Nirbhay, Brahmos (ER), Pranash, Pralay, Agni-1 P like missiles in this regard, especially for tactical-level engagement. Air Power would be paramount in order to erode PLA’s logistics and warehousing capacities near the border which uses long lines of communication but counterforce targeting always require a greater number of missiles in the inventory. Some analysts argue that the use of ballistic missiles is more economical as compared to bombers and UCAVs.
India will require to develop cruise missiles which can hit targets at 3,500Kms at a supersonic and hypersonic speed which can allow India to target mainland China at least from the Eastern length of the country such as from the Bay of Bengal region. In contrast, China requires very limited-range missiles to hit New Delhi since Delhi is not even 400 km from LAC. While Chengdu itself is 750-800 Km from LAC where the Western Theatre Command headquarters is located, the Theatre Army Headquarter of the PLA is in Lanzhou.
For Effect-based Operations (EBO) and to display higher fire-power capability the US is working on the “Rapid Dragon Palletized Weapon System.” Rapid Dragon is the name for the USAF’s program aimed at acquiring the capability to launch long-range missiles from cargo pallets dropped out of the back of cargo aircraft like the C-130 and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft. The pallets carrying missiles are dropped down from the cargo plane’s ramp mid-air, after which the parachutes slow their fall. An electronic control box on each pallet releases the missiles one after the other. As per the programme, the C-17A transport aircraft could carry four boxes of nine AGM-158B cruise missile pallets, while the MC-130J transport aircraft can load up to 10 according to the pallet/missile, as seen in the image below.
India will require to develop cruise missiles which can hit targets at 3,500Kms at a supersonic and hypersonic speed
Winning The Hypersonic Race
Long-range missiles can be more accurate and effective only if capable of midcourse programming and an active terminal seeker warhead. The US intelligence sources confirmed that PLA conducted 2 hypersonic tests in November 2017 of a new “Hypersonic Glide Vehicle” or HGV, named DF-ZF, capable of conducting precision conventional strikes around the globe. China is officially known to be equipped with two hypersonic missiles: –
- Dong Feng-17 (DF-17): a Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) equipped with an HGV. It is capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons and has a reported speed of Mach 5-10. With a range of 1,800-2,500km and a launch weight of 15,000Kg.
- DF-ZF HGV: It can travel at speeds between Mach 5-10. The DF-17 was created to work in tandem with the DF-ZF. DF-ZF is said to be scheduled for operation by 2019-2020 while the DF-17 Ballistic missile made a debut in the 2019 parade marking the 70th Anniversary of China.
DF-17 was probably carrying DF-ZF HGV which itself has a range of 2000 Km. The HGV weapons reportedly have an achievable speed that is 5-10 times that of sound (precisely up to 7,680 miles) and are able to hit anything across the globe in under an hour. Chinese military specialists claim that the DF-17 (hypersonic ballistic missile) was one of several iterations of glider systems developed by the PLA, including the DF-ZF which has been through at least 7 tests. Multiple HGV warheads could be used with ballistic missiles such as D-17, D-21, DF-26 and DF-41 which have a range of at least 12,000 Km.
Long-range missiles can be more accurate and effective only if capable of midcourse programming and an active terminal seeker warhead
Future Chinese cruise missiles are likely to branch off into two families, one optimized for stealth, and the other focused on hypersonic flight. China is already investing large amounts of money into hypersonic engines and stealth technology; stealthy cruise missiles would be used to achieve operational surprise as hypersonic missiles would run past heavy enemy defences. Other advancements would likely include electromagnetic attack technology, data links and distributed sensors/networks and improved AI to autonomously hunt targets in a denied environment.
India also has a dedicated plan to develop a hypersonic cruise missile (Brahmos-2 K) and HSTDV (an unmanned Hypersonic Scramjet Demonstration Aircraft) comparable to DF-ZF. India also needs to work to build active and passive defences against hypersonic weapons. As part of the passive defence against hypersonic trajectories, A Chinese scientist named Qian Qihu was provided National Science Award 2019 for developing Underground Steel Great Wall (USGW) to be a set of defensive installations set deep under mountainous terrain at an undisclosed location somewhere in China capable of withstanding a missile hit 5-10 times of speed.
As an example of active defence against the hypersonic trajectories, the American Missile Defence Agency (MDA) is undertaking two main projects to develop defences against hypersonic weapons: the Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI)—a missile designed to intercept a hypersonic weapon in the middle (or “glide”) phase of its flight path and the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program—an effort to develop space-based sensors to track and potentially support the intercept of a hypersonic weapon. Northrop Grumman received a $153 million contract from the MDA in 2021 for the Phase IIB portion of the HBTSS program and is on schedule to deliver the HBTSS prototype this year 2023.
The number of conventional missiles in the PLARF arsenal could increase in the time to come
DEWs: The Next Level of Precision Warfare
Countries like US and China are also working on various High-Powered Microwave (HPM) systems, China is testing a laser system that can probably replace the HHQ-10 short-range surface-to-air missile system, implying that the laser-based system may have a range of about 5 km. Russia is reportedly developing airborne HPM and laser capabilities intended for the sixth generation of Russian fighter jets.
While Lockheed Martin with U.S. Air Force (USAF) Research Laboratory is developing a mature high high-energy laser weapon pod. The fibre laser is called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD). Laser Cannons is already deployed on some US Navy ships and Boeing is pursuing the CHAMP (Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile). Lasers are invisible to the naked eye and can destroy targets at the speed of light with unmatched precision. The DEWs can strike repeatedly giving them a near-endless supply of ammunition and can be the foremost active defence against the hypersonic missiles and other trajectories. The combined use of DEWs and Cyber Electronic Warfare capabilities could be able to hit the adversary’s C4ISR systems well in advance.
DEWs and Cyber Electronic Warfare capabilities could be able to hit the adversary’s C4ISR systems well in advance
The Policy Brief first appeared in IADN Strategic Focus magazine, January 2023 Issue.