The real Agnipath: Key capability enhancement

This capability enhancement and transformation must be in sync with the evolving threat, changing organizational structure and modernizing capability.

All this has to be executed within tight time frames and systemic limitations.
All this has to be executed within tight time frames and systemic limitations.

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

‘Agnipath’ duly tweaked will come to stay. It is also apparent that current deficiencies in manpower will not be made up. The DNA of the Indian Army will transform – reduced manpower, reduced experience,and reduced age profile. The ‘Real Agnipath’ lies in the consequential transformation in capability enhancement and modernization that is necessary to maintain operational balance. This capability enhancement and transformation must be in sync with the evolving threat, changing organizational structure and modernizing capability. All this has to be executed within tight time frames and systemic limitations.

China’s slowing economy, the drag of its zero covid policy, its growing external isolation, its focus on Taiwan, and internal issues, will inhibit it from embarking on any misadventure along the LAC immediately. China’s demographic decline and rapidly ageing population will turn it pacifist in the long run. However, in between, its overall exponential military buildup and superpower ambitions, indicate a high probability that it is likely to enter into an armed conflict with India if its designs in annexing Taiwan are not realized. Manpower reduction, onset of ‘Agniveer’ induced turbulence and insignificant capability development might just persuade China to believe that putting India in place by land grab has a high chance of success. Its buildup of long-range missile systems, air force infrastructure and conditioning of troops to fight high altitude battles highlights this thinking. In my estimate the Chinese threat will be most potent between 2025 and 2032.

Till about 2026, there will be no drag on the capability of the Army. The operational turbulence of ‘Agnipath’, will begin to manifest fully thereabouts. By then the Indian Army would also have shed about 1.5 lakhs personnel. That is on the cards whether one likes it or not. Logically, if such a substantial reduction in manpower is imposed on the Army, its ‘Boots on the Ground’ Mentality and approach must change. Hence,any reduction in ‘Manpower’ must be offset by ‘Firepower’, supported by ‘Information’ and ‘Cyber’ capability enhancement which can deter and dissuade China from its aggressive intent.An imbalanced approach could lead to a national disaster.

What is more important is that this capability enhancement has to be in place concomitant with Agnipathrollout. However, our procurement process and capability development track record does not inspire confidence. Things must be put in place, through clarity of thought, and purposeful tweaking of the ‘LTIPP’ for tangible outcomes. Otherwise, we will neither be ‘here’ nor ‘there’. The thinking that ‘New and Modern’ systems will be available in time or give us results might not work. The changing manpower profile suggests that brand new platforms need to be inducted with great thought. Building On existing platforms, maximizing available expertise, and incorporating optimal technologies gains importance. An ‘ends, ways, and means’ approach, in tight time frames at least cost, in each of the domains is mandatory.  Most importantly, all ideas should be completely indigenous and well within current Indian capability. In this article, the focus is on key capability which needs enhancing.

‘Long range’ firepower must credibly deter Chinese misadventures. ‘Ferocity’ of firepower mustdeal severe blows in case of even a minor conflict. Ability to ‘dominate by fire’ areas astride the Western and Eastern Highways and other Chinese communications along the LAC will be critical. The only weapon system available to be able to do so partly, at this point of time, is the Extended Range (ER)Pinaka, besides Brahmos and Air. However, to convey credibility, the numbers of Pinaka platforms has to increase substantially. More importantly the reach of the Extended Range Pinaka will have to be increased with Ramjet Technology(doubling the existing ranges is feasible). Increase of range through conventional propulsion has reached its limits. Induction of any ‘new’ longer range conventional propulsion system has severe limitations of mobility and will need long timelines of design, development, production, and induction. In any case, a system (already in service) with an ability to fire rockets of different ranges (37, 80, 200 km) is a more sensible option.

Turning to conventional tube Artillery. The development of the ramjet projectile by IIT Madras is progressing satisfactorily. It needs to be spurred along with a greater degree of coordination, control, and commitment. It also needs ‘out of box’ thinking and cost-effective solutions to achieve desired degree of precision. This revolutionary technology when realized will be unique to India and extend reach significantly. Range enhancement will be marked in guns with 45 calibre and above. Hence induction of Dhanush will have to be accorded priority. Alongside this, Vajras modified for High Altitude will have to be inducted in greater numbers. There is scope for induction of more M777 ULHs into service. This light, battle tested, versatile weapon will be of ‘gold’ value in mountains. Now that we have experience with this weapon, we need to go in more with a caveat. USA and BAE must be persuaded to produce it indigenously on a JV basis. The strategic partnership with the USA needs to be leveraged.

The need for a light tank was felt way back in 2020.  The Vajra Chassis,already enabled for high altitude, is the ideal platform to be converted into an indigenous tank.Discussion with various knowledgeable people on this resonates with my thoughts. 50% of the tank is readily available! In less than one year we can close in and have a tank going into production if we have the clarity, desire, and purpose to do so. The reason I am re-stating this is that fissiparity of thought and divergence of opinion induced by ‘interested’ parties is considerable in this program. In any case any Russian option in the light of the Ukrainian war is only manic thinking. To put it in perspective, we have very few options left. Luckily the residual option fits our bill eminently.

The next capability enhancer is ‘Information’. Increase in firepower reach has to be matched by extended situational awareness, targeting and fire control ability, and strike assessment capability. Hence surveillance capability well into Tibet is paramount. With counter drone systems being put in place, the days when drones could fly with impunity deep in enemy areas is decreasing. One must expect a dense anti drone environment and high UAV attrition rates in Tibet. It leads us to two paths – drone and counter drone. Firstly, while rotary UAVs will continue to evolve for short range purposes, the main capability enhancer is the long-range long endurance UAV combined with space platforms. We need to have an indigenous long-range low-cost expendable UAV. Which means a plastic air frame and low-cost payloads based on off board image processing rather than air frames and optics of prohibitive costs. This approach will reduce costs dramatically. When I presented this idea two years back at an ATB seminar, I encountered a dismissive attitude.  Any progressive military thinker will embark on this as an attractive option. The other option is to continue to pursue the ‘Rustom’, which has been on the verge of ‘just finishing development and about to be inducted mode’ for the past twenty years and be happy!The second path is to put in place a comprehensive anti-drone system. It is time the Indian Army took it seriously with a holistic systems approach.

There are two other issues which need to be looked into. The Information networking systems in place (ACCCS and BSS) or those in pipeline (OIS) are based on outdated hardware and software. RELOOK. Otherwise, they are a waste of time, money, and effort. Secondly, all recent conflicts have indicated irrefutably that Sensor-Shooter links need reinforcement. Indian Army has gone in and effected a sensor-shooter divorce. If this is not reversed, we will be in big trouble. Reduced and inexperienced manpower, ineffective firepower and lack of in-depth surveillance are recipes for future disasters, loss of sovereignty and self-image as a rising nation.

Cyber warfare is the silent killer in future battlefields. It is well known that it has not lived up to its billing in battles so far. This will only propel people in this business to reinvent themselves and reapply technologies to better purpose. We need to develop our capability at core level. A defense cyber security organization without adequate cyber specialists is like ‘Hawa Mahal’. We are in that stage today. Lot of people in this field had approached me and said “sir with you in IIT M, can’t we do something about it?”. Sure, we can. All one had to do was to commence a purpose oriented MTech course in Cyber Security. Incidentally this is beyond ‘Agniveer’ territory. There is no other way. It is feasible within the existing structures and arrangements between IITs and Armed Forces. A pilot course can commence as fast as in the next academic semester in IIT M and then proliferate to other IITs. In a matter of two years, we could have a production line of cyber security professionals and consequential increase in capability. It needs simplistic and holistic thinking and vision. Three years back we worked out a proposal. I took it to the IDS. I was told‘We know what we are doing. We can consider giving you some small projects if you are looking for funds.’ Thank you for the tea…I walked. Last week an officer spoke to me “sir with you in IIT M, can’t we do something about it?”. Déjà vu! The Army has remained where it is. The offer is still open if the Army wants to fill its hollows. I still do not want funds. I am confident that the Director IIT M will be happy to recommence the initiative.  We can work things out. Up to the Army.

There is one other parallel capability, which we need to build – ‘Narrative Creation’. That future wars and geostrategic parleys will be creatures of ‘Narratives’ at national and forces level is saying the obvious. Gen Ata Hasnain in his article has brought this out beautifully and has suggested the outlines of a way forward. It is high time that a Narrative building apparatus is put in place and fleshed out. We have the ingredients and capability. Unfortunately, our strategic communication and narratives lead to our people burning trains and buses. We need to actualize the inbuilt potential into a positive mode. In a matter of a couple of years, we can be well on our way. Failure to do so is to be swamped by Chinese and Pakistani influence operations.  

There will be many who think I am an impractical dreamer. So be it. However, all that I have stated is within indigenous capability, within rules and regulations, in realms of feasibility, in the time windows available and will enhance our operational preparedness significantly. It is also based on successful experience and not shooting in the air like the Taliban on a victory parade.  It needs different thinking. It needs commitment, involvement, and motivated investment. There is no other way. In any case, the traditional methods have pedantically failed.

I am also aware that many are ‘katti’ with me due to my ideas on ‘Agniveers’. That has been brought home to me by hardline ‘Agniveer’ supporters who have called me ‘myopic’, ‘insane’, ‘senseless’ and more. My ideas can be trashed and dismissed. That is ok. It does not matter a fig. However,what you cannot trash is the salami slicing Chinaman who continues to sit on our territory across Depsang and Demchok. He will enlarge it at the slightest opportunity. What you cannot trash is that the Indian Army has been in a capability cul-de-sac for long. If you need meaningful capability development and transformation, to evict the Chinaman from Depsang one day, you need different capability and thinking. One does not need Sherlock Holmes and his investigative ability to remark ‘elementary my dear Watson to come to such a conclusion.’

(The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs at gunnersshot dot com. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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