What the Indian Armed Forces can learn from the Russian experience in Ukraine

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By Vishnu Nair

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has intrigued and at the same time surprised a lot of military affairs watchers from across the world. It has also caught a number of eyeballs from India whose armed forces operate significant quantities of weapons, platforms and equipment similar in make or technology to the ones deployed by the Russians in Ukraine.

The Indian Armed Forces have got a lot to watch out for and grasp from the experience of the Russian military, their deployments and losses so far in the conflict.

The learnings should start with the extreme importance of standoff precision guided munitions and launch platforms, especially armed drones and cruise missiles. The Russians started their opening bout on Ukraine on the 24th of Feb with a volley of Kalibr land attack cruise missiles and also deployed multiple types of armed unmanned aerial combat vehicles in a combined effort to seek and destroy Ukrainian air defence batteries, early warning radars, airbases, aircraft hangars, communication infrastructure, fuel and ammunition depots.

However, the attacks were not effective enough by disable the Ukrainian Air Force (which continued to deploy its own aircraft and drones) or destroying all Ukrainian bases and cut off their access to supplies. This was possibly due to the inadequate number of PGMs deployed for the effort. Which in turn could be a consequence of the lack of their availability in good numbers thanks to several years of Russian airstrikes in Syria.

This lack of enough standoff PGMs forced Russian fighter aircraft and attack helicopters to fly low and close to their targets to hit them with short range rockets and unguided bombs making them vulnerable to Ukrainian surface to air missiles, especially shoulder fired Infrared guided MANPADs.

These are difficult to seek and hunt down in SEAD missions since they could be easily carried around by infantry, SF units or even ragtag paramilitaries in large numbers. This led to a significant number of capable Russian aircraft including Su-30SMs, Su-34s, Su-25s and helicopters like Mi-24, Ka-52, Mi-17 etc getting shot down with their crew KIA or captured. The above reasons could have led to the sagging of morale among the Russian Air Force crewmen and the decrease in the number of close air support sorties flown by them to exercise caution.

The Indian Armed Forces, especially the Army and IAF severely lack in standoff PGMs. Despite being the worlds 4th most powerful military with a large defence budget, India doesn’t have any operational long range subsonic cruise missiles (Nirbhay long range cruise missile still not opeartional) or armed drones available to be deployed in large numbers. This is a critical deficiency and is quite worrying if India gets pulled into a conflict with China or Pakistan in the near future. Hence their induction needs to be worked upon on an extremely urgent basis.

The Russian Army hasn’t fared very well either. The lack of PGMs and the subsequent inadequate availability of air cover left their ground forces incredibly vulnerable. The Russian infantry and armoured columns managed to push into areas of interest in Ukraine but failed to hold on to them successfully due to the lack of proper logistics supply chains as a result of intense Ukrainian attacks on their trucks carrying fuel, ammo and food supplies. Inadequate air cover, poor mobile air defence capabilities (many of them destroyed by Ukrainian drones), lack of their own Armed Escort Drones and non-existent Active Protection Systems led to a loss of a huge number of T-72s, T-90s, BMPs etc (the same equipment is the mainstay of the Indian Army armoured corps). Most of which were almost sitting ducks to hits by ATGMs like Javelin and NLAW and drones like the Bayratkar TB2.

The Russian Navy lost one of its flagships, the Guided missile Cruiser Moskva to a couple of newly inducted almost unheard-of anti-ship missiles launched by a country that at present doesn’t even have a properly operational navy of its own let alone it being comparable to the huge Russian fleet. This speaks volumes about the risks to large, expensive, naval surface assets even in a one-sided conflict. Something for the Indian military establishment to ponder over amid talks of spending billions to induct a 3rd aircraft carrier while most of the Navy's operational submarines – including the Kilos and Shishumars are over 3 decades old and slipping into obsolescence.

This is when the sinking of the Moskva has proved that in the event of a naval conflict, a modern AIP equipped stealthy submarine armed with state of the art cruise missiles and heavyweight torpedoes is likely to be an asset that’s way more threatening to the adversary (due to difficulty of detection) and will be way less vulnerable and cost effective than any destroyer, carrier or cruiser in the world. Thanks to high plausibility of concentrated anti-ship missile attacks by the adversary in the event of even a limited battle in the high seas.

The Indian Navy needs to improve the capabilities of its submarine fleet. More investments should be made into the induction of modern cruise missile-armed AIP submarines instead of large surface combatants.

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