On September 27 heavy fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Azerbaijan’s breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). Since then a number of videos have flooded social media with both sides claiming successful strikes against opposition armoured forces and militias in civilian garb.
Azerbaijan has been accused of using cluster bombs in the ongoing conflict in the region, which is an area held by ethnic Armenians. The use of cluster munitions has so far been documented in the city of Stepanakert, the capital of NK, where a large number of Armenian civilian casualties have also been reported.
Cluster munitions scatter hundreds of bomblets or sub-munitions over the target area. These bomblets when released over the target destroy indiscriminately, and about five to twenty percent of the bomblets remain unexploded thereby creating another lethal land-mine-like danger for the survivors.
The indiscriminate use of these weapons by Azerbaijan over civilian areas has drawn international outrage. Cluster munitions are banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), a treaty signed by 110 state parties and 13 signatories. However, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia are signatories.
A marked change in war tactics
Closer to home, while artillery barrages and rocket duels are not expected to be the norm in the ongoing standoff with the Chinese, the use of drones and fire assaults by airborne munitions is a live possibility. With almost 60,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and additional heavy equipment deployed on the other side of Line of Actual Control (LAC), India is keeping a close watch on these deeply destructive events.
The chief of air staff air chief marshal R K S Bhadauria has gone on record stating that drones alone cannot win battles, but are nevertheless important to building up of tensions. This is exactly a text-book situation for China in the ongoing stand-off.
In the Azerbaijan-Armenia fighting the tactics being used by both sides – the use of drones – points to a new kind of lower-cost air warfare. The cost of drones makes them a much-preferred option vis-à-vis extremely expensive modern fighter aircraft since 30 or 40 drones can be acquired against the price of a single such aircraft.
This kind of warfare has long been regarded by experts to play a minor role in interstate wars as drones are vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons. However, in localised smaller military engagements – like at the LAC – they do play a vital role as has been seen in Eastern Europe.
When Turkey launched an attack on Syria in February 2020, it used Turkish Byraktar TB2 and ANKA-S drones to destroy hundreds of Syrian armoured vehicles. In the present attacks, there are reports of the use of the Harop Israeli made loiter munition – a Kamikaze drone – capable of cruising independently for hours over the intended radar or high-value target for hours before smashing into it.
The added propaganda advantage of the drone is its ability to film, record and transmit the actions and target destruction for use by the rival forces to gain ascendency in the psychological battle, which is ubiquitous in the present stand-off.
The large deployment of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles in the open and rugged terrain of Ladakh by both sides also brings to the fore the vulnerability of these armoured units and detachments to sensor-based targeting by smart munitions. The heavy-armoured Armenian losses seen in the ongoing conflict and the Syrian losses early this year demonstrate the destruction of tanks despite being dispersed, dug-in and camouflaged.
This is possible as the adversary will use ground-moving target indicator radars to identify and apply firepower in the localised battle areas. The deployment areas available to both sides in Eastern Ladakh along the LAC are by now well registered by both sides, and a trained operator will pick up unusual cross country manoeuvres, distinctive spacing and off the road locations of armoured vehicles. Similarly Indian headquarter locations and painstakingly-built logistic dumps are prime targets. The need to develop effective countermeasures needs no elaboration.
The Indian defensive positions and areas of Helmet, Mukhpari and Renchin La that Indian ground forces have occupied in a quid pro quo to the Chinese occupation of disputed areas along the LAC are particularly vulnerable to the use of drones and cluster munitions.
The absence of international observers and agencies at these desolate and inhospitable locations to report or verify such use can also be exploited by a devious Chinese leadership to inflict heavy damage on India. The fact that neither India nor China are signatories to CCM is a prime factor adding to the vulnerabilities of the ground forces to drone and such cluster munition attacks as a clear and present danger.
Given the heights at which these positions are (16000 to 18000 feet), it would literally be an uphill task to move overhead protection stores and equipment to build strong bunkers and field defences for the forces. Suitable defensive measures and adequate protection for troops deployed on the barren mountain slopes will have to be catered for.
In preparing for a drone and cluster munition threat a sound air defence plan and effective counter-strike equipment will have to be deployed to be able to interdict and destroy drone or cluster munition fire assaults by China.
Drones presently being used for tactical reconnaissance and over the ridgeline surveillance have a limited loiter time over the areas of interest. The proposal to use mini aerostats and tethered balloons for continuous and deeper scanning of the areas beyond the LAC merits immediate attention, besides the need for quickly building a deterrent capability to drone and cluster munition attacks.
India’s diplomatic engagement with China
At the Quad Ministerial Meeting at Tokyo on October 6, external affairs minister S Jaishankar, heading the Indian delegation, along with Australia and Japan, did not mention China in any reference either to security threats or other pandemic-related issues. The only direct mention of China was made by the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, which immediately drew a prickly response from China.
Observers point to the adoption of “diplomatic kid gloves” by India in dealing with China despite the occupation of disputed territories by the PLA. This makes a much stronger case then for the defence forces to be able to protect and thereby secure our areas of the LAC with similar arsenals to create a deterrent in case of aggression short of open war by China. The repeated military-level talks should not lull decision-makers into complacency as there is a high probability of the dragon biding time to strike.
Expedite the procurement of military technology
Lately, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has made frequent announcements regarding approvals for procurement of military equipment and weapon systems, and an impression of a bristling armoury being made available to the defence forces has been projected.
In reality, the process of procurement for defence equipment in India is rife with too many hurdles (11 stages) of stringent checks and additional bureaucratic manoeuvre, resulting in most of these announcements in the final reckoning being just that – mere announcements bearing no fruition.
Use of the Fast Track Procedures (FTP) has been invoked more robustly by MoD since June this year, and FTP must be utilised to build capability as an effective deterrent to the emerging threat.
The MoD has meanwhile announced its intent to sign a $3.3 billion (Rs 22,000 crore) deal with the US to acquire 30 General Atomics-produced MQ-9B Guardian drones and has immediately purchased six Reaper medium altitude long endurance drones. The urgency of these procurements, though minuscule, is definitely a recognition of the new dimension of warfare that is likely to arrive on the borders.
Major General Amrit Pal Singh (Retd) was Divisional Commander of an Army division in Northern command and Chief of Operational Logistics in Ladakh (2011–2013). He has experience in counter-insurgency operations in J&K and conventional operations in Ladakh, and is a co-author of a book Maoist Insurgency and India’s Internal Security Architecture.