There is a growing trend in the military to go in for complex weapon platforms without a careful examination of the real effects these high-tech wonder weapons will have on the battlefield. The claim that more technically sophisticated weapons will defeat and run over any type of opposition, has been proven hollow by the recent experiences of the most modern military. Since the last several decades, there has been an attempt amongst weapon manufacturers to load weapons with electronic systems and chips that were supposed to reduce the human element in warfare and enable weapons make their own decisions. This approach presumes that the infantrymen, pilot or sailor handling the platform is incapable of doing his job and requires a programmable logic controller. There are talks of electronic tank, autonomous vehicles and electronic battlefield. War is supposedly becoming a contest between machines and it is claimed that the superior machine will prevail. All these claims have proven to be empty in the war against terror where a collection of irregulars wielding small arms and improvised explosives have forced the mightiest military to withdraw.
However, despite this, proponents of high technology continue to claim that high-tech will solve all problems thus justifying the need for more complex systems. One of the prime activities at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is the acquisition of weapons, their manufacture and upkeep. The Defence Budget has provisioned 1.52 lakh crore for capital acquisitions for the next year and stipulated that 68 percent of the amount is set aside for indigenous procurement. It has been experienced that during acquisitions, the two most important aspects of formulation of Qualitative Requirements (QR), Testing and Evaluation (T&E) of weapons and equipment is not given due attention. Consequently, a few years after induction, serious performance and maintenance issues surface. This article aims to revisit the T&E process specifically, highlighting best practices to make the process of trials effective and realistic. Simply put, the major shortcoming of QRs is the attribute-centric orientation instead of a strong focus on performance. For T&E, it can be summed up as absence of realism and a grab-and-go organisational alchemy to accept the tall claims of suppliers. It needs to be remembered that post the Cold War, these high-tech tinker toys are being developed mainly for export or employment in a specific environment, which may not be similar to ours.
In the life cycle of a weapon system, there are primarily two types of tests i.e. developmental and operational. Earlier, when most systems came through import, user and maintainability trials alongside limited technical trials were carried out as the system had already undergone developmental trials. However, with the government firmly setting the gun sights, ‘Make in India’ will be the preferred course. Thus, it is important that appropriate attention is paid to the T&E cycle to get more bang for the buck. Developmental tests are highly controlled, engineering tests that are carried out by the Development Agency (DA) to ascertain if technical parameters and specifications that had been framed are being met with. Operational tests are carried out by the military to test the battle endurance or operational tempos in a realistic operational environment and associated maintenance requirements. These are normally done at the end of the development cycle and represent the final prototype that will enter production. In the 1973 War, Israel lost 300 tanks in the initial stages and suffered a large amount of burn casualties in tank crews while using Western tanks. It took up the design and development of its own tank, Merkava, with special features to eliminate and minimise casualties. Consequently, in the 1982 Lebanon war, there were hardly any ammunition-related casualties. Post the Gulf War, it was acknowledged by the United States (US) Army that during Desert Storm, many soldiers’ lives were saved as a result of the Bradley live fire testing.
It is generally experienced that a few years after introduction, most imported systems end up with reliability and maintainability issues which adversely impact operational availability. The down times are high since expensive spare parts have to be sourced from abroad. Maintenance issues are generally not resolved and soon morph into more complicatedand less recognisable problems. Commanders are reluctant to report such issues in their tenures where they want to present an impression of all on track. In this environment of zero error, truthful reporting gets relegated. It is important that a Post Deployment Review of all weapons is carried out, two to three years after deployment, in order to carry out assessment of actual performance in relation to planned missions. This will help identify performance capability gaps and vulnerabilities which can get addressed .The soldier on the ground has to be assured that all platforms deployed in his support, will come out all guns blazing 24×7 without critical stoppages. This cannot happen overnight in the un-paralleled adverse terrain conditions at the Line of Actual Control/Line of Control (LAC/LC) and needs deliberate planning and action.
System test, evaluation and validation requirements are established during the design and development phase of a new weapon system. Comprehensive tests are needed if the system design is new; many unknowns exist and risks are high. All these tests are aimed to bring in system maturity and stabilise system readiness. Type 1 testing is done in early phases of development when engineering models, software, service test models are built. These are performed in the DA’s premises by engineering technicians. Testing may entail measuring a performance parameter, accomplishing a remove/replace plan or accomplishing a servicing requirement. It is during this phase that design changes can be incorporated. Type 2 testing usually refers to activity linked to preliminary clearance of the system for operational use and could include a vast array of tests. These are carried out on prototypes similar to the configuration to be deployed; but have not yet been fully cleared. Testing schedule may include performance tests, environmental and structural testing, reliability trials, maintainability assessment, personnel test and evaluation, software and technical data verification. These tests are done in the supplier’s facility where user personnel are present as observers or even participate in testing. Design changes are incorporated through a formal engineering change procedure.
Type 3 testing is accomplished by the user at an operational test site whether on land, in the air or at sea. Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) related to operational and technical support functions are measured and verified for compliance. These tests, though not representing the actual operational tempos, are designed to provide a close approximation. User and Maintainability trials comprise these. It is important that firing trials are not conducted as staged fire power demonstrations. Combat vehicles, specially tanks and ICVs, need to be tested for vulnerability against actual weapons of the adversary since fire and explosion in a tank are the most dreaded consequences of a hit. Type 4 testing is carried out to get a further insight into some specific areas such as changing the mission profile to assess the impact on total system effectiveness or life-cycle costs. This gives an opportunity to assess a system’s true capability and may also throw up capability gaps thus establishing the need for upgrades. Accelerated user-cum-reliability trials were designed towards this end but have been dispensed with by the military. It is due to this that the Indian Army is loaded with legacy systems.
User trials generally take a lot of time and some well-meaning changes are desirable to accelerate the pace and content of trials. It is important to lay a balanced emphasis on key aspects of performance such as survivability against enemy weapons or the ability of own weapons to defeat enemy targets. The practice of accepting the claims without a realistic assessment of true capability can impose high risks. General James Cavin, in his book “On to Berlin”, has recounted how he had to bury fifty young men near the village of Gela in Sicily in 1943, as their new bazookas had failed to stop German tanks. Many young men paid the ultimate price of being given weapons that were not comprehensively tested. It is important that existing methods to determine the lethality of weapons and vulnerability of soldiers are reviewed, bringing in realism and true capability assessment. An office of Director Capability Evaluation (CE) could be established under the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to build institutional memory, usher in best practices and accelerate the tempo of T&E.
The Arjun tank is often criticised for its excessive weight despite the fact that in mobility and firing trials, it has performed equally well if not better than others. What should have been a proud moment for the team of designers who had architected the tank or worked on the indigenous 120mm gun, was masked by the furore created over excessive weight, without understanding that the tank had been designed around a survivability philosophy. Also, considerable weight got added due to its Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA). Controversy exists on the actual efficacy of ERA to provide protection to tank crews. An incoming round is expected to initiate the explosives, causing plates to fly, disturbing the incoming round and preventing penetration. The reactive forces have to be absorbed by the tank and crew. The larger the incoming round, the more would be the explosive needed, which could cause the hull to cave in on the troops inside. In addition, flying splinters could very well cause fatal injuries to foot soldiers. There could be a total blackout of the COTS electronics on board. Most countries possessing ERA knowhow, have not adopted it for conventional combat. Arjun, with its Kanchan armour, does not need an ERA jacket. Up to a certain point, the armoured envelope protects, then it turns on the crew. The seven M1 Abrams that had survived direct hits by T72 tanks during Operation Desert Storm, clearly demonstrated the survivability of heavy armour. ERA put on Ajeya needs live testing to ascertain its vulnerability. In any case with its limited effectiveness against explosively formed penetrators, the combat usefulness of ERA needs to be revisited.
In the case of the Sig Sauer assault rifles that have been imported by the Indian Army, one hopes that essential inputs on system maturity and readiness have been provided by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to support his claims. It is important that a PDR is done to ascertain the durability of the weapon and the likely degradation of equipment capability due to deployment, usage, age or equipment stress in HAA. This PDR will help evolve engineering practices to restore weapon capability and operational effectiveness besides providing performance-related inputs for future QRs. One of the prime reasons for the slow pace of development of indigenous 155mm guns, be it Dhanush or ATAGS, is the absence of performance inputs from previous combat operations such as wars in 1965 and Kargil, on durability metrics for the tube, breech and recoil mechanism, fire control and sighting system and overall survivability; thus precluding added efforts towards system maturity. In its absence, focus gets diverted to less significant attributes such as weight. If the ballistic performance and tactical mobility are good, extra weight can be shed in the stride as system matures. Critics of these indigenous efforts need to realise the painstaking efforts associated in designing platforms from scratch and the designer`s dilemma between weight reduction and recoil management. The development of ATAGs and Dhanush could be accompanied by development of ammunition based on Insensitive Munitions technology to guarantee personnel safety and strategic assurance.
Moving forward to the hi-tech, anti-tank missiles and other Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) that are being acquired by the military. In pursuit of autonomy, the man is being separated from the machine by adding complexity to weapons and spiking costs. The tall claims that laser guided munitions, fire-and-forget missiles and such other smart munitions could hit the targets 90 percent of the time, may not be totally correct. In any case, their efficacy during trials in an open desert terrain on a sunny day, where targets are clearly visible, cannot be replicated in high altitudes with its own terrain and weather conditions, limited ranges and increased clutter.
Any projectile that can be guided till impact has a higher chance of a kill. The hit percentage of Beyond Visual Range missiles, another claimed wonder weapon was around 30 to 35 percent during the Gulf War as per studies, that too on Iraqi jets that were fleeing to Iran. All in all, it needs to be accepted that due to the fog of war, counter measures from a capable adversary, the percentage hits of PGMs may not be something spectacular to justify the huge investments. Field handling damage that mostly goes unnoticed, can impact performance and lead to significant seeker failure. Such grassroots level inputs during QR formulation can go a long way in developing combat effective indigenous systems.
There is also a shrouded vulnerability of possessing weapons that are available with our adversaries. This is being overlooked by planners. Today, the bandwidth to deliver surprise over an expanded battle space has increased covering cyberspace, EMS and NBC. It has become increasingly feasible for adversaries to develop counters to known capabilities. Dependence on foreign systems has facilitated this, as specifications are already known. Counters get developed as they no longer have to wait for systems to be used to learn how to counter. This fast tracked cycle of measure/countermeasure/counter-countermeasure can add new surprises in future conflicts. The PLA could employ many layers of surprise as it has the technological means to do so. PDR can help identify such vulnerabilities and initiate prophylactic measures through adoption of technology.
The military’s T&E process needs optimising by bringing realism, focusing on actual combat usefulness rather than attributes. System vulnerabilities, the impact of enemy hits on crew and platform should be assessed. PGMs need to be tested for consistency in actual environmental and target end conditions and firing trials should correctly bring out the target end impact. We need to design and develop indigenous systems to provide high levels of performance and reliability by formulating performance-centric QRs. The military has to learn to accept indigenous systems with slightly scaled down KPPs which could be enhanced as per firm timelines. The obsession for high-tech “Wunderwaffe” from abroad has to be jettisoned. We need systems that are failsafe and simple to operate, balancing cost and complexity. It may be good to adopt an LAC-centric T&E of platforms, keeping in mind threats in the future. All this will require knowledge, data and institutional memory. Director CE could be the nucleus to begin this process. As this office builds up expertise and pragmatic knowledge, time frames will get reduced.
One can no longer base a security strategy around the belief that sheer numbers of men and firepower from complex wonder weapons from overseas will deter aggression. We need to evaluate the threat of a two-front war (regular and irregular) realistically and create better, more specific, focused policies and strategies with reliable platforms, technology and battle procedures. For doing so, we have to put forth a long term strategic plan for indigenous capability development to maintain operational ascendancy and prevent repeated surgical but strategic ingress at the borders.