Part 1 : Preamble
Part 2 : Effects on Firepower in the Himalayas
Part 4: Fire & Move and Historical Evolution of Firepower
In the previous part I had outlined the shifting balance between ‘Fire and Manoeuvre’ in our battlefield environment and traced the historical evolution of firepower in the Indian context. Before I get down to examine the operational employment and the key tenets of firepower in the Indian Context, it is necessary to examine a popular perception. The perception is that dumb artillery shells are passe and precision is the only game in town. Nothing can be further than the truth. Precision is a fickle and costly girlfriend. Usually unaffordable and unpredictable in a crunch. It is those dumb reliable shells that cause benumbing violence which sort out the enemy and break his will to fight. The trick is to increase the reach of these dumb shells and make them accurate enough at maximum ranges by going back to the future. It needs out of the box thinking with application of robust time tested methods duly energised by simple technology. It needs application of traditional gunnery in a contemporary mode. The fire and forget aspiration is ok up to a point. ‘Fire and forget’ is too complex for a variety of reasons. We need to think anew. Our experience needs to guide us to a new and effective balance between the guided and unguided. More about it later.
Operational Evolution and Development of Indian Firepower
Operationally, firepower was traditionally used to neutralise enemy or keep his firepower down. It was largely a supportive role to Infantry and Armour. This resulted in classifying Artillery as a ‘Combat Support Arm’ due to short-sightedness of some sections in the Indian Army. In the absence of the devastating effects of firepower in peacetime training, undue emphasis on manoeuvre warfare was being placed during sand model discussions and wargames. This was compounded by Indian Army’s extended and widespread commitment in CI operations and small scale operations. The combination of extended Counter Insurgency and imaginary manoeuvre warfare took its toll on military thinking. The LOC ceasefire only reinforced the lopsided thinking process. Firepower was relegated to side-lines or taken for granted. This has stunted the growth of firepower in its entirety in the Indian Context. No wonder the CDS feels that IAF is a support service. In reality, this thinking finds positive echoes in large swathes of the military planners. Two instances however stand out which have kept firepower relevant and have constantly reminded the military leadership that ‘firepower’ matters when everything else fails. The first instance relates to the Natu La – Cho La incidents of 1967 when heavy fire assaults were carried out on Chinese positions in retaliation to unprovoked firing and heavy causalities to own troops. The Natu La incident, largely unsung till recently, was the first time that India used massed firepower – direct and indirect, to pummel Chinese defences to inflict thrice the casualties and degrade bunkers in a telling manner. Artillery played a huge role in that short but sharp operation. The lessons of that successful and surgical ‘firepower’ were never developed into operational theory or doctrine. That is indeed a national pity. The second instance where ‘firepower’ was a proven battle winning factor was during ‘Op Vijay’ in Kargil. Much has been written about the role of artillery and firepower in the operation. However India Today’s description of the role of artillery in ‘Op Vijay’, (sixteen years later) is the best fit – The Kargil conflict once again established beyond doubt that artillery firepower plays a major part in achieving victory on the modern battlefield. Accurate artillery fire reduces the enemy’s defences to rubble. Sustained artillery fire gradually wears the enemy’s resistance and ultimately breaks their will to fight. By systematically degrading the enemy’s fighting potential before a physical assault is launched, the artillery helped to reduce the casualties suffered by assaulting infantrymen. Throughout the offensive phase of Kargil conflict, artillery was called upon to respond to emerging situations and it did so with alacrity and telling lethality. The infantry battalions involved in the fighting were the first to acknowledge the immense debt of gratitude that they owe to their artillery comrades. This was acknowledged by many Pakistanis themselves who were at the receiving end. Even as per them it was Indian Artillery which turned the tables. After that, Artillery firepower progressed from a ‘neutralisation and suppression’ outlook to ‘destruction and degradation’ practices as range and lethality exponentially increased. Further, the role of own firepower in supressing enemy firepower and interdiction of the battlefield has increased with time. This aspect is also not fully understood or recognised. When nations avoid wars such aspects are forgotten. They will resurface in battle. People simply forget and cannot comprehend the violence, shock and awe which Artillery firepower generates. In a multidomain scenario of short and sharp contestations ( termed by the Chinese as ‘local wars’), as against prolonged wars, this assumes importance. The ability to impose your will on the adversary rests largely with the Artillery in such situations. The next level of employment of firepower lies in exploiting its ability to deter adversaries from any misadventure. It needs greater thought and will be dilated upon later.
Key Tenets of Effective Firepower
Battlefield domination by firepower will be guided by time tested principles of war – selection and maintenance of aim, cooperation, concentration, flexibility, economy of effort, surprise and so on. For all this to happen, there are a few prerequisites which will determine the capability of firepower, which will have to be put in place for realistic effect. These prerequisites are reach, effectiveness, protection, speed and simplicity.
The quest for reaching out further is primal to any requirement of firepower. The idea has always been to hit the enemy before he can hit us. The neo modern term is ‘standoff’. The commander can think deeper and wider through ‘standoff’. Extending ranges enhances capability of not only shaping but driving battlefields in depth. It penetrates enemy A2AD systems. Increasing ‘standoff’ through long range precision firepower is a leading trend universally. It is with good reason that the US Army’s number one modernization priority is the Long-Range Precision Fires Program. It provides them with long-range and deep-strike capability, considered to be critical to winning in a fight against peer adversaries like China and Russia. It is also predicted that ranges of engagement are expected to increase by 50% to 100% across most platforms by 2040 as per a Royal United Services Institute paper. China lays large emphasis on long range engagement with missiles – both in the land and maritime environments. The name of the game in multidomain operations is ‘standoff’ and ‘non-contact’. In this context it is important to understand the impact of range on the battlefield. Longer range increases the depth of engagement, area of influence, and mutual support. Consequently, it also decreases the number of delivery platforms and reduces logistics. However there are many provisos attached to increasing reach. Increasing range of tube artillery through the ‘gun propulsion’ route is reaching its limits. The scope to increase range of guns remains only in ramjet technology. That is a difficult technology to harness in highly spinning gun projectiles. When that is done, there will be a revolution in firepower application. The side that is successful in this field will dominate the battlefield. The other option is to increase ranges of engagement through rockets and missiles. In all cases, increasing ranges of engagement has certain implications. As ranges increase, accuracy and consistency decreases to impose penalties on effectiveness of firepower. As ranges increase, weapon systems become more complicated and heavy. Hence issues related to cost, deployability and survivability will come to the fore.
Firepower must be effective in battle. Effectiveness is a function of many variables. The first and foremost variable is ‘lethality’ of the warhead. The warhead is the true weapon of the gunner and it must be lethal enough to create the desired effect for the envisaged task. Hence any ammunition system with a plethora of warheads will dominate. While, warhead technologies are evolving so as to achieve specified effects, the search to maximise the effect / area with minimum effort is an ongoing quest. Next, firepower must be ‘accurate and consistent’ to be effective. The combination of lethality and accuracy will determine the kill probability. Here it needs to be understood that firepower must be both dumb and smart. Dumb firepower sprays an area and is vital to achieve a widespread effect in area targets. Dumb firepower is very cheap and reliable with long shelf life. On the other hand, precision firepower is needed to destroy pinpoint/ high value targets specially when collateral damage is unacceptable. The trend is to go in for active seeker munitions to autonomously course correct and zero on to the targets. Precision is a high technology area and will remain an expensive proposition. The costs get compounded by shorter shelf lives, reduced efficacy due to aging and unreliability of ‘precision’ technologies in the battlefield. The cost ratio between dumb and smart ammunition is likely be in the region of 1: 10/20. Overall, the debate is not whether dumb or precision is better, the debate is what to use and when. Both are needed in an appropriate mix. A corollary to this is that ‘gunner wisdom’ tells us that greater damage is caused when more number of small shells are fired as against lesser number of big shells. The devastating lethality of showering an area with submunitions from a carrier shell is far greater than the effect of the whole shell itself. The ‘big bang’ theory rarely works on the battle field. However it is not as if the big bang is not needed. When hardened defences are to be broken, it is only the big bang that will work. That was proved conclusively in Kargil. Getting that firepower mix right for the desired effect is acme of a good gunner!
An important aspect of effectiveness is placing the ‘right amount of firepower at the right place in the right quantum for a desired effect’. This involves surveillance through battle field transparency, target acquisition, precise targeting, communication, observation and task execution. This is a complex process which can be achieved by force multipliers/ battlefield enhancers. This process is largely neglected and is not being given due attention in the Indian Army. A good combination of long range and effective firepower enables forces to control and interdict the depth battlefield. When combined with airpower, the effect is devastating on an unsuspecting enemy. These ‘out of area’ unseen effects either prevent the near battle or will give an out of proportion advantage to own forces during contact battles or will promote manoeuvre. The out of area unseen effect is very important in ‘conventional deterrence’ which is the name of the future game evolving in the Indian operational and strategic contexts.
‘Mobility’ enables concentrating firepower at the right time and place in the right quantum. We can only prevail if we can bring firepower into the equation earliest. The old dictum that ‘guns must never be kept silent’ should never be lost sight of. Hence firepower must be mobile. Mobility of firepower is achieved at tactical levels by ‘shoot and scoot’, at operational levels by sidestepping and reinforcement, and at strategic levels by airlifting , either as underslung or on board loads in heavy lift helicopters or heavy transport aircraft. While the gun or the rocket system may be transported with relative ease, it is mobility of ammunition which is the killer and the bigger challenge. Resultantly, there is a need to pre-plan and pre-place ammunition in appreciated quantities so that it is constantly available. That leads us to the fact that infrastructure to hold ammunition reasonably forward with good land communication arteries is the key to getting firepower to ‘be on time’. In the case of rocket artillery , adequate arrangements must be made for their hides, preparation areas, launch sites and getaway positions.
Firepower is a scarce resource. Nothing boosts own morale than own guns booming. The enemy will do his utmost to silence our ‘guns’ to keep them off his back. Hence our firepower must be protected. ‘Firepower protection’ can be achieved by dispersion, intelligent use of ground and strong local defence. That is basic to any gunner. However in this manned/ unmanned era, third dimension aerial threat should not be discounted. Further, net centricity implies that the cyber angle must be covered. Use of decoys is an unexplored option in the Indian context. India needs to seriously think of this against China and feed them misinformation to enable them fight their ‘informatised’ battle.
Firepower is most effective when it is ‘simple’ to handle and easy to deliver. More often than not, this is lost sight of. Further, technology complicates issues. The best technology is that which works in battle and not necessarily the latest or most sophisticated one. In the Indian context, firepower systems must work in the given terrain conditions. Complicated systems with too many interdependencies often fail. A simple system, with adequate fall back options is the way to go.
Firepower is not a standalone system. It needs enhancers….that will be in the next part…. need
 Shubajit Roy, ‘18 Modi-Xi Meetings, Several Pacts: Killings Breach Consensus, Dent Diplomacy’, The Indian Express, 17 June 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-china-standoff-diplomacy-lac-incident-mea-6462195/
 Ashraf Wani, ‘Bofors Power Proved in Kargil War’, India Today, 25 July 2016. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kargil-winning-the-battle-with-bofors-331307-2016-07-25
 Dr Jack Watling, The Future of Fires, Maximizing the UKs Tactical and Operational Firepower, RUSI Occasional Paper, 27 November 2019, https://static.rusi.org/op_201911_future_of_fires_watling_web_0.pdf Accessed on 30 June 2021.