‘In a war there will be kills on either side’

‘There is no such thing as ultimate survivability.’
‘It’s all comparative — who outperforms, who uses tactics, who optimises technology to the best is what makes the difference.’

“The Indian Army’s tank commanders are outstanding and non status quoists. They continuously evolve with changing character of warfare,” says Lieutenant General A B Shivane (retd), former director general of the mechanised forces who commanded the 50 armoured regiment during Operation Parakram.

“Tanks in restricted spaces will be vulnerable to close range hand handled anti-tank systems. Any professional army must accept this and overcome it by innovative tactics,” he tells Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih in the second part of a detailed interview dismissing those who are announcing the death of the tank in modern warfare.

  • Part I: ‘Russia’s 19th century tactics in 21st century war’

Concerns have been raised by some military observers about whether tanks are becoming ‘obsolete’, especially in the background of the Ukraine war where Russian tanks suffered significant losses.
As a veteran tank commander, what are your thoughts? Are analysts being hasty in assuming that the days of the tanks are over?

If you look at the global firepower index, India is number five in the holding of tanks at 4,614. Russia is number one, United States is number 2, followed by North Korea, China and India. Pakistan is 11th.

Similarly, armoured vehicles also have a huge inventory. That’s the reason that the global armoured vehicle market valued at about $17.57 billion in 2020 is projected to reach 27.83 billion in 2028 and is projected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate ) of 6.36% between 2021-2028.

If it was time to write the obituary of the tank, why is the market growing and not stagnating?

As long as war exists and warfare evolves, tanks will continue to adapt, evolve and transform to overcome future threats and prevail in war.

Every army realises the importance of tanks.

Having said that, we also need rebalance. The army needs both tanks and anti-tank systems.

What lessons are there for Indian tank commanders from the conduct of Russian tanks in Ukraine since our army perhaps is overly dependent on Russian tanks?

We have a very professional armoured corps and mechanised forces. We have a School of Armoured Warfare and Armoured School of Technical Training. These institutes provide a continuous process of analysing, evolving adapting to changes in technology and tactics.

We are constantly training in operating in high altitude, built-up areas and restricted terrains.

Our tank commanders are outstanding and non status quoists. They continuously evolve with changing character of warfare.

We have to learn lessons, not only because we have Russian tanks but also draw larger lessons for the employment of tanks in the future battlespace.

Traditional tank versus tank battles are increasingly exceptional in the 21st century. Yet tanks and mobile protected platforms will find a predominant place across the spectrum of conflict, including in a nuclear environment because tanks have the equipment and systems to move through a nuclear infected area.

Their optimisation will be a factor in understanding deployability, employability and capability.

Secondly, anti-tank platforms will continue to hunt the tank especially in marginal terrain and built-up areas. Yet modern technology, innovative tactics and superior training will prevail over such challenges.

As in the past, in the present and the future, the quality of equipment alone cannot ensure success — doctrine, structuring, strategy, training, motivation and astute leadership are very important.

Thirdly, tank design has evolved to contemporary lethality, agility, survivability and reliability.

The threat spectrum has also expanded from the erstwhile 180 degrees frontal arc to 360 degrees. There are anti-tank mines that can blow at the bottom and top attack ammunition which makes it vulnerable from all sides. But then you have counter measures like active protective systems, signature management which are adding to survival.

Survivability is an all encompassing, multi-layered, multi-tiered and multi-faceted concept that needs complete holistic understanding.

All these technologies must have an indigenous character.

Fourthly, tanks must be employed as part of combined arms. In the inclusive team warfare, each arm complements and addresses the limitations and vulnerabilities of the others.

Hence, it requires integration and synergised application. Unless we see mechanised force as a combined arms concept, we will be dealing with each entity separately.

Of course, this has to be supported by strong intelligence gathering.

Fifth, we must move from an arm centric mindset that exists in the Indian Army. Instead of a separate armoured corps, mechanised infantry directorate there should be a mechanised force directorate which not only includes tanks and mechanised infantry but self-propelled air defence, self-propelled artillery, attack helicopters and integrate these elements. That is the need of the hour, but I’m afraid we have a long way to go.

Sixth, one size fits all solution does not work across alternatives. We need a mix of medium and light tanks. Similarly, there’s a need of a mix of track and wheel platform. Fortunately, the Indian Army has realised that and is inducting light tanks and wheeled armoured vehicles.

Seventh, urban and hybrid warfare is here to stay. Tanks in restricted spaces will be vulnerable to close range hand handled anti tank systems.

Any professional army must accept this, and overcome it by innovative tactics. In a combined arms team, there are times when tanks support infantry and vice versa.

The Israeli Defence Forces experience in Operation Protective Edge demonstrated that the capability of the main battle tanks are likely to be more critical and relevant in a hybrid environment, than they have been during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How can our tanks negate the threats and dangers from drones, AGTMs and unmanned systems?

The top attack systems like the fire and forget version of the latest anti-tank missiles or the drones pose a serious threat.

We have to adapt to the challenges, look at the threats realistically and evolve to the next generation systems.

One aspect is technology; the other is tactics to encounter threats.

Today, technology permits you to overcome evolving challenges. You have to look at survivability so that a tank is not seen, targeted and killed. We need to look at technologies to gain intelligence, technologies in camouflage, concealment and signature management.

Technology destroys incoming threat in the air, either by inherent systems like Active Protection Systems, or air defence. We have seen the evolution and the modernisation of the short range air defence system and recently seen a demo of the Iron Beam that uses lasers to destroy drones.

There will be new technologies to kill and diminish such threats in the air.

These technologies have evolved and are evolving.

The second thing that we need to do is to supplement the tactics. Play your strengths against the enemy’s weakness. You can do a soft kill by electronic warfare measures; spook them, prematurely destroy them, and manoeuver your tanks to your advantage, etc.

There are many combat and grouping tactics, in terms of optimising anti-drone capabilities which will help in overcoming these threats which are not unsurmountable.

In a war there will be some kills on either side. There is no such thing as ultimate survivability. It’s all comparative — who outperforms, who uses tactics, who optimises technology to the best is what makes the difference.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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