The Ukraine war has witnessed huge amounts of hardware attrition on both sides. Ukraine has suffered heavily in terms of destruction of infrastructure, power plants, industries and human lives. Russian manpower and hardware losses have been heavy. Since a large portion of the Indian Army’s inventory is of Russian origin, it is important to get insights into the performance of these platforms as well as their vulnerabilities. One factor that stands out clearly is that weapons designed to meet the doctrinal needs of any country cannot be deployed as such in another operational environment. Soviet weapons designed for the ‘Race to the Swift’, utilising mass and momentum could not withstand the combined might of advanced surveillance, communications, remote targeting and unmanned platforms. The knowledge of platform vulnerabilities by Ukrainian engineers allowed exploitation of capability gaps and destruction of a large number of platforms. This point needs deep examination since the PLA not only has deep insights into Russian systems but also possesses the capability to deploy newer weapons including super weapons capable of providing overwhelming operational overreach.
The war in Ukraine has a predominantly technological dimension witnessing innovation, adaptation, surges and depletion of inventories (Figure 1). A fact that emerges is that around 50 per cent of the platforms could have been regenerated with a well-engineered repair and recovery plan. Russia is finding it difficult to replace daily frontline losses. An important finding is that the performance benchmarks of equipment achieved were much lower than those claimed. Besides age, usage and obsolescence had an adverse effect on reliability and equipment capability. This issue assumes critical importance in our context where vintage platforms are being deployed in much harsher terrain and weather conditions that could adversely impact residual useful life. Figures 2 & 3 give out equipment capability degradation with age and usage.
Most systems except mechanical like running gear, chassis suffer wear, tear and fatigue with usage and time. Degradation is accelerated due to extreme weather and environmental factors prevalent in high altitude. Engines end up giving half the engineered life, lubricants degrade, digital systems develop latency, and missiles go awry, hence the need to not only preserve equipment capability but also look at levers that drive strategic readiness for long drawn operations.
Force Regeneration- Repairing Equipment in Theatre
A number of areas of planning and conduct of operations have been tested in this war, one being the integrity of technical maintenance before combat and restoration of damaged equipment in the stride. Going into history in 1973 Israel was struck by a massive strategic surprise which sent it scrambling to hold back the Arab military both in Sinai and Golan Heights. Israeli armour that moved out to launch counter attacks was met with swarms of anti-tank missiles. Israeli losses were staggering, that shook its military to the core. In the first three days of the war, Israel had lost 400 tanks and 44 aircraft that rose to 109 by the end of war. Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had 840 damaged tanks, half of these were restored. Of the 236 damaged aircraft, 215 were returned in a week`s time. Maintenance excellence was the prime factor that compensated for the quantitative disadvantage. Being dependent on Western weapons, Israel had to turn to the US for supplies but these came in late.
In the war in East Europe, Ukraine too has not only restored its own platforms but has also excelled in repair of captured Russian equipment. This was done despite Russia having destroyed a large portion of the military industrial complex at Kharkiv and Kiev. Figure 4 shows the speedy decline of combat power with each passing day of combat assuming a modest attrition rate of six per cent (red line). With a high repair capacity and in situ force regeneration, combat power can be restored and pulse availabilities maintained above 80 per cent (green line). This can be augmented by restoring reliability of platforms through peace time interventions like medium and base refits.
It is worth mentioning that forward repairs to tanks and guns was possible because the IDF had integrated CFR in its operational plans by creating suitable repair centres under the Bar Lev fortification. The Ukrainians too have moved around 20 per cent of their refurbishment resources to civilian facilities which continue to support the war effort. These examples reinforce the operational significance of tactical engineering support, a subject that finds few supporters in the Army. MRO issues are generally swept under the carpet, considered as unnecessary gold plating. Closure of advance base workshops and the ongoing attempt at privatisation of the Army Base workshops (courtesy Shekatkar Committee) substantiate these arguments.
Role of Game Changing Technologies in Ukraine War
The hi-tech war in progress in Ukraine is once again reinforcing the fact that technology and engineering drive operations. The use of space, artificial intelligence, drones and smart munitions has caused heavy attrition to Russian platforms. With Western nations pledging newer platforms and munitions to Ukraine, this war is gradually becoming an incubator to evaluate the multiplier effect of technology. A lot of mention is being made of AI, quantum computing, ML, robotics, change and detection. The Ukraine war is turning into a laboratory to test and hone the effectiveness of space-based systems, autonomous systems, aerial and under water drones, and AI-enabled warfare. Many such game changing technologies could get deployed in any conflict in this sub-continent, hence the need to be forearmed to stymie any technological surprise by the adversary.
The Role of Technical Competence
There appears to be a strong linkage between technical skills/competencies of maintainers and crew and mission outcomes. Poor maintenance is reflective of shallow technical skills of crews which leads to ineffective utilisation of modern weapon platforms. For example, the Egyptian`s inability to leverage mobility of tanks in the bridgeheads established across the Suez Canal and using these to protect the infantry lodged inside the bridgehead, created a vulnerability which aggravated further as war progressed and the Egyptians lost more tanks which they could not regenerate. A scholar, Zahlan, in “Science and Technology Gap” has very aptly explained the connection between operations and maintenance.
“A combat leader who does not feel in perfect command of his tank and feels insecure about even a small portion of his weapon will be unable to meet the rapidly changing conditions of actual combat. An Army that that feels it possesses the complete ability to design, maintain and adapt its weapons has a new sense of self confidence. The rapid and complete repair of weapons, the clever and original adaptation of devices, the close relationship between the engineer, the combat leader and soldier; all lead to this desired effect.”
Moving forward to the current conflict, the staying power and improvisation demonstrated by Ukraine provides another example of how superior technical competence has played a decisive role in causing heavy attrition to the adversary; initially by regenerating abandoned platforms and later, by quickly assimilating the complexities of Western weapons. The shock effect produced through effective employment of Javelin, Bayraktar drones, HIMARS, glide bombs, GPS guided shells, has shaken the confidence of the adversary. The Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft was found to be effective against Iranian origin attack drones. The Patriot system is reported to have shot down a hypersonic missile! The sinking of Moskva, Russia`s Black sea flagship using Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missile is an excellent example of exploiting known vulnerabilities of the adversary’s platforms. It is reported that Russian military industrial complex is finding it difficult to assemble the required number of tanks to replace the losses at the frontline due to supply chain dependencies. Hence, it is relying on recapitalised T62s and T55s to meet the requirements.
Before the war, the majority of analysts expected Ukraine to capitulate in a few weeks. There are many weird tricks which the Ukrainians may have relied on but the most notable one will always be a very competent adaptation and absorption of technologies, innovative employment of abandoned platforms and a high tempo of combat force regeneration. Slipshod maintenance practices and technical clumsiness of crews can hamper sound weapon employment. Any institutional disregard to MRO practices can inhibit commanders to gainfully employ brigade and division sized forces in battle. The Ukrainians seem to have used the strong foundation of tactical and technical competence to restore own platforms and effectively utilise diverse foreign platforms to their advantage. An understanding of how much focus a military places on maintenance practices sheds light on how a military will be able to improvise and adapt as it fights.
Maintainer Capability (MC)
MC is a suite of industrial and engineering capabilities distributed across a theatre of operations and are specific to the extent of repairs permitted at a specific echelon. Broadly categorised as O(Organisation), I(Intermediate) and D(deep or base) levels, these can be generally understood as Close Support (CS) and Deep Support (DS). CS is positioned in close proximity of the fighting force and includes recovery resources while DS is positioned rearwards. When MRO issues are not considered as an indispensable part of operational capabilities, it results in a rapid decline in equipment capabilities. A great deal of preventive maintenance time is spent in checks and changes of expendables, track tension checks, verifying electro optics and checking which parts are wearing. If this is not done regularly, the result could be the coming apart of operational moves just as the Russian advance towards Kiev. One important lesson that has emerged is that Russian maintainers could not repair battle damage at the front, having outsourced the overhaul. Deep Support skills and resources are essential to restore battle damaged platforms.
Life Cycle Capability Readiness
Militaries have to give a specialised focus to equipment readiness by going in for the concept of Life Cycle Capability Readiness (LCCR), an indispensable element of strategic readiness. This will ensure that a systems view is taken of all acquisitions. All activities related to equipment readiness, be it provisioning of spares, conduct of engineering support (CS and DS), upgrades, equipment capability assessment, gap analysis, inspections, measuring operational readiness, up keep of WWR needs to be carried out with a view to sustaining a predictable mission capability. Weapons platforms must deliver 24×7, an equipment capability at par with the capability possessed at the time of acquisition. Say, if a tank had a mean kilometre between failures of 350 km and mean rounds between failure of 200 rounds or an assault rifle possessed a MRBF of 15,000 rounds, it should be able to deliver near similar capability throughout its service. Here emerges the need for reset, refit and technology insertion.
A systems view is essential if complex weapons platforms are expected to come out all guns blazing when the need arises. Figure 5 gives out how LCCR synchronises all engineering support activities along with technology insertion to retain capabilities from Cradle to Grave (C2G) and carry out new acquisitions with next generation capabilities. Both DS and new acquisition should aim to enhance war fighting capability by rolling out/acquiring New Model with New Life.
The Way Forward
Albert Einstein had said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It is time for 21st century thinking to transform the military. India faces an adversary with enormous Comprehensive National Power (CNP). In addition, opening of another front to the West just as the Syrian action at Golan Heights, is a possibility. The PLA has both qualitative and quantitative advantages which have to be considered. In its effort to seek technological parity with the US, it can well achieve technological dominance over India. It requires a creative technology driven strategic readiness plan to stymie this possibility. The military has to be far more nimble in its responses .Some issue worth considering are:
- Strategic Readiness. SR in military terms is the ability to architect, manufacture, maintain, and balance the combat capabilities to provide the operational overreach to the military across multiple domains. It flows out of CNP which is a composite measure of economic, demographic, military, diplomatic and industrial and technological capabilities. It encompasses activities like capability centric design, development and acquisition, LCCR, technology insertion, supply chain stabilisation i.e. all material advantages needed to retain a long term operational capability. It is important to deploy simpler equipment in larger numbers to enhance resilience of the force. This can provide the strategic assurance to the war fighter that weapons provided are reliable, well kept and will be restored at the earliest. It will enhance morale and motivation and positively impact mission outcomes.
- Forward Sustainment Bases (FSB). Time to consider establishment of FSBs in Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal at suitable locations to act as firm bases to sustain equipment capability during combat and support CFR in the tactical battle area. FSBs could play a crucial role to sustain force ratios during prolonged operations with adequate stocks of ready to fight spares and deep engineering support skills.
- Technology Insertion. Upgrades using new technologies should become a best practice to retain operational capabilities. Over a 50-year life cycle, it is important to insert modern sub-systems and plug capability gaps seen during deployments and exercises. The Ukraine war has shown how outdated platforms prove to be ineffective, fail frequently and cannot be restored easily due to supply chain latency.
- Readiness Based Sparing (RBS). It is important to graduate to RBS method of spares provisioning as against the current system. Consumption based methodology has generated a huge amount of dead inventory. Scarce resources cannot be squandered on inventory that is unwanted or untraceable at times. Recently, the Pentagon has reported losing $85 million worth of parts for the F-35 fifth generation fighters that were stocked. Adoption of RBS can lead to procurement of limited readiness-linked spare parts. Handing over spares provisioning to the maintainers could have an all round positive impact. Like the medics controlling provisioning of medicines and surgical accessories, time to empower maintainers and hold them singly accountable.
- Digitisation. In order to obtain the real time status of equipment capability and technical resources, it is important to go ahead with automation projects that could analyse data to measure operational readiness, residual equipment capability, life cycle costs and provide inputs to prepare strategic readiness plans and budgets.
- TOT Absorption. Transfer of Technology has to be a hard bargain to fill in the technological gaps using the leverage of main contract. In our context, it was left to a bunch of PSU managers to take a call on TOT. Consequently, even after several TOTs on combat vehicles, guns and missiles, the country remains dependent on foreign OEMs for spares and LRUs. A hard-nosed audit of TOT absorption by military engineers is a must to ensure strategic assurance and platform readiness over the life cycle. The current state of uncertainty of supply chain can slide any force towards hollowness within a few days of war.
- Outsourcing. The war in Ukraine has reinforced the importance of technology. Consequently, there seems to be a mad rush to procure remote and autonomous systems through emergency procurement. Alongside the advantages of new gadgets, come a pack of potential problems areas such as sensors, cameras, antennas, circuit boards, mostly COTS hence frail. These are prone to sudden failures due to blown fuses, software glitches, bugs and enemy action. Thence comes the requirement of forward repairs. If contractors are brought into service platforms, major issues of strategic readiness can surface during prolonged high intensity conflict. Expecting military engineers to begin deep repairs of computing devices, power management systems, armaments damaged in battle, when during peacetime these have been placed off limits and given to contractors, is preparing for defeat ab initio. In high intensity conflicts, the military needs to repair platforms at a matching pace to sustain tempo of operations Becoming too trusting of contractors has its own pitfalls. Deploying civilians in the battlefield has legal, commercial and financial problems. A balanced approach is called for.
- Integrated Readiness Command. The setting up of a tri services IRC consequent to the creation of integrated commands could be considered to provide a specialised look to strategic readiness. This will provide a unified approach to equipment capability development of common platforms, and promote standardisation and life-cycle readiness.
The biggest lesson to be learned from the Ukraine war is the effective employment of game-changing technologies to cause massive destruction of military hardware. Technical competence in the recovery of damaged equipment and its repair in the stride have played a key role in enhancing the staying power of Ukraine. The large array of weapons platforms deployed at the LAC is silently undergoing degradation due to Age, Usage and Deployment effects with each passing year. It is critical to keep these in a Ready to Fight condition 24×7. It needs painstaking effort of the maintainers and support of commanders to bring in a capability-centric practice to operational readiness. Russia’s reliance on course grained measure of garage availability and its diversity of platforms has imposed severe limitations on its forces. It has caused undeniable geo-political losses and placed its military on the backfoot. Thanks to its investment in strategic readiness, Russia still has a chance of winning. A pragmatic approach to equipment capability development and its upkeep is indispensable to respond to emerging threats in the region.