Death by Drones: Exposing chinks in the enemy’s armour

October 21, 2020 12:56 PM

Conflict has a strange way of connecting contradictory issues; the Armenia- Azerbaijan war in the Black Mountains has timed itself with a debate raging in the UK regarding the future of the tank.

Officials in Azerbaijan claimed that the town of Terter and areas in the Gubadli region came under Armenian shelling early Saturday, killing a teenager. (Representational image: Reuters)

By Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh

Conflict has a strange way of connecting contradictory issues; the Armenia- Azerbaijan war in the Black Mountains has timed itself with a debate raging in the UK regarding the future of the tank. Simultaneously, Indian and Chinese tanks are part of the face-off in Eastern Ladakh, while Pakistan is in the process of modernising its fleet by acquiring the Chinese VT-4 tank, the first 24 of which have recently been received. Across the Atlantic, the US Marines are downsizing their tanks due to the effect of precision strikes. Can these issues be linked? And what are the lessons that can be drawn from the armour attrition taking place in Nagorno- Karabakh?

From the day the tank was introduced in 1916, its utility has been questioned. A platform that is heavy, difficult to design and produce, and needs highly skilled manpower to operate. It has had the unique ability of spurring advancements in weaponry used to defeat it, be it anti-tank weapons, missiles, mines, attack helicopters and aircraft. In addition, technology has developed reliable and robust command and communications which has ushered in a new era of destruction from drones, sensors and EW.

Arguments regarding the ‘sunset’ of the tank range from, the changing characteristics of the battlefield, exorbitant costs of production and maintenance, vulnerabilities, increasing focus on a sub peer enemy, delivery of firepower by aerial means, lack of strategic mobility, complexities of terrain, and its ineffectiveness in mountains and urban built-up areas. Apart from this is the necessity of a high level of integrated training required by the crew manning this destructive predator.

While significant improvements have taken place in firepower; (most guns are now 120mm or 125mm, with advanced fire control systems); breakthroughs in armour protection traditionally focused on the classical frontal arc, appears to have plateaued. An anticipated 360-degree threat has its limitations, as an increase in the weight of the tank, (Challenger 2 is 74.8 tons), has multiple effects apart from increased maintenance requirements. However, new technologies could change this paradigm. Further, upgrades of a tank during its lifespan often leads to an increase in weight often without the commensurate upgrading of the engine and running gear, resulting in a reduction of the power to weight ratio.

Videos are now being uploaded on the internet showing the carnage inflicted on tanks by drones, documenting their hits in the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There have been hyperinflated claims with each side claiming over a hundred tanks of their adversary being destroyed. The Azerbaijani videos show Armenian tanks moving in the open and being attacked from above. This destruction from an unmanned, cheaper form of airpower was earlier witnessed when Turkey launched an offensive in Syria in February.

The strikes against tanks and its filming by Azerbaijan seem to have been by the Turkish armed drone Bayraktar TB2. This is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicle capable of being remotely controlled carrying precision-guided MAM-L (Smart Micro Munitions). Azerbaijani’s are also reported to be using Israeli ‘Harlop’ loitering munitions also known as ‘kamikaze’ drones designed by Israel Aerospace Industries. This is an anti-radiation drone, primarily used for destroying enemy radars as part of operations to suppress enemy air defence (SEAD). Israel’s Aeronautical Limited and Azerbaijan’s Azad Systems, (near Baku) are cooperating to produce Aerostar search drones and Kamikaze Orbiter 1 and Orbiter 3, “Zarba” drones. These drones were acquired last year and their use has been inspired by Turkey’s innovative drone attacks in Syria and Libya. The Russian short-range air defence system Pantsir S1 shot down several of these in Syria and Libya, but the drones are also reported to have destroyed several targets in turn. Are these weapons fundamentally changing the manner in which this war is being fought?

No doubt some chinks in the armour have been exposed; nonetheless, we need to be cognisant of the environment they were operating in to draw the right conclusions, first of these is the lack of air defence cover and the gap between the abilities of the opposing forces to handle sophisticated equipment with technical capabilities that far outweigh their skills and tactics. Some experts have also pointed out that the air defence systems in Nagorno- Karabakh are old and that the radars are not that capable of detecting drones’.

In a conflict between two adversaries equally matched with technology, equipment and training, slow-moving armed drones would easily be taken down by anti – aircraft weapons and there would be electronic jamming of radars and sensors and radars. But using them in counter-insurgency operations, against irregular forces, which lack adequate air defence weapons has led to their significant successes.

The end of the tank was also predicted in the 1950s; when the threat was from ATGM’s, and there was talk about replacing the tank with a lighter platform with missiles. These platforms were more vulnerable due to their reduced protection. In the Gulf Wars, tanks moved with speed preceded by both air and artillery fires while bringing about the degradation and destruction of the enemy. However, subsequent to that their utility was again questioned due to their limited employment in counter-insurgency operations.

Yet, the fact remains that if the aim is to be able to constantly create criticalities for the enemy in all phases of operations, you need the tank; and I am not falling back on the adage that refers to “the necessity of a dinner jacket for a particular occasion”. The perfect system in the modern complex battlefield is an armoured formation which is based around a tank. The truth is that the tank cannot fight alone and needs to be part of a “ combined all arms team” consisting of mechanised infantry, self-propelled artillery, air defence support with matching mobility, attack helicopters, surveillance and armed drones, surveillance, electronic warfare ( EW) and matching logistics. This mix of weapons has to be a tailor-made package, based on the visualized threat and terrain, the components of which must complement each other.

Tanks in the Indian context was last used against a peer enemy in 1971 and against a sub peer enemy in 1987. Currently, they operate in all types of terrain including; deserts, semi-developed, developed and mountainous. The subtleties of their employment differ. However, to guard against similar problems, a multi-dimensional protection of this platform against both aerial and ground threats is imperative.

Eastern Ladakh including Depsang, where armour is presently operating, needs to have an adequate Air Defence and EW umbrella which the enemy cannot make vulnerable by rendering radars ineffective. There is also the need to utilize the manoeuvrability of Attack Helicopters and drones for surveillance and targeting. Indian T-90s and T-72s deployed in these areas with a 125mm gun far outmatch the Chinese light tank ZTQ-15 with its 105mm gun; they also have the advantage of being designed to operate in extreme sub-zero. Vulnerabilities and ineffectiveness, however, increase unless they operate as part of a combined arms grouping.

However, in these altitudes the limitations of aerial platforms such as drones due to their problems of operating in high wind speeds and Attack Helicopters due to the reduced payloads and operating ceilings also exist. The payloads reduce in the summer compared to the winter.

The way to deal with aerial precision, attack lies not in the elimination of a potent weapon platform such as the tank but by degrading the threat. The measures for degradation can be aerial or long-range vectors, in addition to anti aircraft missiles and guns. Electronic jamming of enemy’s radars and sensors effectively blinding them will need to be done to overcome the modern battlefield transparency. But prior to that, you need to have your own Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) elements operating. The essence is the ability to ‘sense and strike’. The next issue is force packaging which has been mentioned earlier and must include, ISR, Air Defence, Air and EW.

The value of any asset on the battlefield from the simplest digging tool to the most sophisticated aircraft carrier lies in its being used and supported correctly. There is a need to align technology with training and tactics. Change is a constant, hence the changing face of the battle-field needs to be recognized and our approach to fighting a war revamped to keep pace with it.

The key lies in the ability and speed of this force to come together at the right place, at the right time, with the right information and the required momentum to be able to inflict significantly destruction while achieving domination of the battlefield by its shock action. Balancing the respective components of this combined arms force with the skills and integration of its crews is where the future lies.

It is important to bear in mind that while a drone, aircraft, or attack helicopter, may be able to destroy a tank, record the hit, and upload it on social media platforms; they cannot replace the tank unless they supplement the role it was assigned for on the battlefield. Hence, the simplicity in its concept of firepower, mobility, and protection, and the complex balance of this iron triangle has ensured its longevity. Tanks will remain the most potent weapon system on the ground and their presence or absence on the battlefield will continue to remain consequential to the outcome of the battle. Heavy metal still rocks the charts!!

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)

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