Intense Tactical Battle Area
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 May , 2022

From many military lessons which ongoing Russo-Ukraine war can offer for study, perhaps the most noticeable is the increased range, accuracy, lethality and sophistication of the weaponry being used in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). At the start of war,the survivability of Ukrainian forces looked hopelessly dim in front of the sheer mass of the Russian armed forces. As the conflict lingered on and the military aid from the NATO nations chiefly from US, UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands and neutral countries Sweden and Finland to Ukraine poured in, the one-sided conflict turned into a stalemate with Russian side accruing major casualties and losses.

Proliferation of man-portable anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles and drones has altered the conventional norms of engagement of a TBA. The fighting elements of the Russian army are organized on the lines of tactical battle group concept wherein armoured regiment and motorized rifle infantry battalion form various task-oriented groupings. Track or wheel-based support elements provide combat and logistic support to the combat groupings.

The combat grouping has proved to be tactically disadvantageous on many counts. Apprehensive of getting bogged down in the thaw (Rasputista) that occurs in the Ukrainian countryside during February-March the Russian commanders chose to advance on the road axes instead of moving cross-country.Another mistake which proved very costly to the Russian army has been their fixation with built-up areas. Almost on all fronts the mechanised columns got embroiled in fighting in built-up area (FIBUA), where Russian army is still fighting.

As compared to Russia, Ukraine was acutely aware of its asymmetry in tanks, infantry combat vehicles (ICV), armoured personnel carriers (APCs), fighter jets and helicopters. It decided to saturate the TBA with anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles.Anti-tank missiles like FGM 148 Javelin (US), Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) (UK), Panzer faust 3 (Germany) and AT4 – 84mm rocket launcher (Sweden) and surface-to-air missiles – FIM 92 Stinger (US), Starstreak (UK) and Sterla (Germany) were provided in large quantities by NATO member countries. Foreign trainers imparted training to the weapon crews in Ukraine and Poland (only time will tell whether these foreign trainers themselves  manned these weapons!!). Some reports also suggest that the serving special forces’ personnel from various countries masquerading as volunteers are also fighting alongside the frontline troops.

Russian mechanized columns strung out on a road or bunched up near a city circle fellprey to tank hunting teams lurking in the folds of the ground and ruins of the cities. To begin with Ukrainians also used indigenous anti-tank weapon Stugna P anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) – a bulky tripod mounted but effective system. This ATGM has not only killed tanks, ICVs and APCs but also claimed to have downed a Kamov 52 Alligator helicopter out on close air support mission.

Two anti-tank missile systems that have wreaked havoc on the Russian armoured columns are Javelin (US) and NLAW (UK). Both missiles are capable of carrying out either ‘direct’ or ‘top’ attack on the target. Russian tanks embedded with reactive armour tiles (Russian ‘Kontact’) received a top hit from the warhead programmed to seek the target overhead.

To counter the recoil, the anti-tank missile systems have a back blast, i.e. a triangular area from the breach end of the weapon which should be open, cleared of men, inflammable material and debris – necessitating that it is fired from open spaces. The NLAW overcomes this handicap and it can be fired from the confined spaces. With some precautions the Javelin can be used from confined spaces too. This characteristic has enabled Ukrainian army to use these missiles inside built-up areas. In a top attack there is no chance of survival and vulnerability of tanks from the top attack warhead has become a real concern for the Russian army.

Similarly, proliferation of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) on the frontline and in depth areas has put a caution on the Russian air force. Notable amongst these MANPADS are Stinger (US) and Starstreak (UK), which were given to the troops after initial training. Smitten by initial losses, Russian fighter jets and helicopters seldom venture out in the TBA for supporting ground troops. The deployment of the Russian Spetsnaz (Special Forces) and airborne formations forces (VDV) during the conflict through air insertion has been restricted to a large extent due to this vulnerability.

Another weapon system which exploits the third dimension of the TBA is the Switchblade (US) miniature drone which can loiter, select a target and crash its war head on to it like Kamikaze pilot. The US has provided Switchblade drones to Ukraine after training the drone pilots in US. Deployment of man-portable, short range armed drones will enhance the battlefield awareness of the troops and their responses. It will further increase the vulnerability of the armoured columns in TBA. The Bayraktar TB2 drones (Turkey) are already causing lots of attrition on Russian military assets.

Though Russia has not acknowledged its losses and casualties,but the reports in Western media suggest that it has lost staggering numbers of tanks, other armoured vehicles, aircrafts and helicopters in war due to these man-portable weapon systems.

Anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles are considered poor man’s weapons of choice against a superior side. A missile costing little over USD 20,000 can destroy a five million dollar tank or 80 million dollar fighter jet. So, the proliferation of missiles in TBA, especially when the war is creeping towards the hinterland makes a good option to contest the adversary.

Commonality of the equipment profile of India vis-à-vis Russia holds a military lesson for the former. The vulnerability of the tanks and ICVs from ATGMs capable of staging top attack can be exploited by our adversaries. Chinese ATGM HJ 12 is comparable to Javelin, which can be deployed by China and Pakistan against us.Similarly, future conflicts with our adversaries may witness a spurt in use of MANPADS too.

With the induction of fire and forget type ATGMs, we may have to reevaluate our anti-tank organization at battalion and company level. The wire-guided missile systems are passé. What is needed is a fire and forget type missile with direct and top attack capability with shorter flight time. At company level the 84mm rocket launcher, despite its anti-personnel and illumination role may have to be replaced with NLAW. Drones need to be inducted at battalion and company level to enhance surveillance capability and situational awareness and also ability to engage targets.

Inexpensive light man-portable weapons are effectively taking on expensive Main Battle Tanks, ICV’s, Attack/Armed Helicopters, Fighter aircraft, Missile cruiser and armoured fast coastal patrol boats! Are big, sophisticated and heavily loaded weapon platforms, whether on land, air or sea battle winners in future wars? That is the moot question.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col US Rathore

has commanded 17 Maratha Light Infantry. He is a defence and security analyst.  

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One thought on “Intense Tactical Battle Area

  1. Indeed! Sir!

    India 🇮🇳 needed to Revamp, it’s Strategy in future Warfare!

    Well, Presented & very interesting article!

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