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Interaction With John Helmer on Ukraine War

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar, Madras, with John Helmer, Moscow @bears_with

The Indian Army has had more warfighting experience than the other world Powers on battlefields similar to the conditions of the Russian Special Military Operation against the NATO lines in the Ukraine. The Indian generals have also won more victories than the others with the combination of heavy artillery, tanks, infantry manoeuvre,  and air power now engaged between Russia and the US and NATO allies.

The Indian Army has had more warfighting experience than the other world Powers on battlefields similar to the conditions of the Russian Special Military Operation against the NATO lines in the Ukraine. The Indian generals have also won more victories victories than the others with the combination of heavy artillery, tanks, infantry manoeuvre,  and air power now engaged between Russia and the US and NATO allies. 

Coming out of this experience is a deep reserve of analyses and discussions, some of them open and public, by Indian officers who are now retired from active duty but who continue to advise and teach, and assist in the lessons which the Indian forces believe they must learn facing hostile states to the north and the west, as well as insurgency threats inside the country, and spilling over the eastern border. 

To begin to understand how the Indian military views the war in Europe, Lieutenant General P.R. (Ravi) Shankar (lead image, right) has agreed to answer a series of questions. Shankar retired from the Indian Army as Director General of Artillery in October 2016.  Last July, he wrote a comparison between the Kargil War, won by Indian forces against Pakistan in May-July 1999,  and Russian operations in the Ukraine beginning on February 24, 2022. 

 “Artillery is winning the war for Russia at this point in time,” Shankar wrote.   “Similarly in the period May-July in 1999, artillery won the war for India by pulverising Pakistani defence to smithereens in Kargil. The Indian artillery fired over 2,50,000 shells, bombs, and rockets during the Kargil conflict. Most of these were fired in an approximately 10-15 days period of intense fighting. 9,000 shells were fired on Tiger Hill alone when it was regained. During the peak period of assaults, on an average, each artillery battery fired over one round per minute for 17 days continuously. The Pakistanis were simply and overwhelmingly OUTGUNNED!  Such intense firing was seen only after the Second World War. After that war, it is only now in Ukraine that such intense firing is being witnessed. In fact, the Ukraine and Kargil wars bear a similarity of the Gunner stamp on the battlefield.”

“The importance and value of artillery has been reinforced manifold in the Ukraine war. The terrain conditions during the Kargil War in the Himalayas were almost like the muddy ‘Rasputitsa’ conditions in Ukraine.”

Shankar graduated from the National Defence Academy Khadakvasala, and from several higher Indian staff colleges and the US Navy’s Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey. Over his 40-year career he held many high command, staff and instructional appointments in the Army, and led Indian planners in the modernization of domestically produced artillery, including 155mm gun projects like the Dhanush howitzer,   the ultra-light M777 howitzer,   and the K9 Vajra;  as well as rocket and missile weapons such as the Pinaka,  and the BrahMos .  

Following his retirement, Shankar became a professor in the Aerospace Department of the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras. 

Follow General Shankar at his websiteand Twitter.

The following question-and-answer text is published without editing or comment. The pictures have been added for illustration of text references only.  

Q. How do you assess the effectiveness, pro and con, of the reverse-linear Russian campaign against the Ukrainian electricity generating plants and power grid? 

In modern day warfare, the concept is to use non-linearity and simultaneity. This achieves concentration of force and ensures overwhelming local superiority and surprise at a point of decision. This can trigger disintegration of cohesion in the enemy. In turn, it sets up the stage for further strategic / tactical manoeuvres which then have a better chance of enforcing victory. Reverse linearity is an oxymoron. Conceptually it is still ‘linear’ in the reverse direction. Linearity in any direction is a scalar quantity. Non Linearity is the vector! That is the missing factor in Russian operations. In reality, the Russian Forces have done everything similar to the allied bombings of Germany or German bombings of London in World War 2. While they created widespread mayhem, they left the frontlines and combat power of opponents intact. In the absence of the frontlines being tackled simultaneously — they have remained intact in this case also —  all that has been achieved is extensive collateral damage. This further leads to alienation of the Ukrainian population. In the eventuality, when the war culminates, political peace will remain distant. It has not contributed to anything significant. 

Indian long-range artillery firing against Pakistani positions during the Kargil War, May-July 1999.

Q: The daily Defense Ministry bulletin from Moscow has been indicating steady removal of HIMARS and M777 units from the battlefield, and neutralization of the US-supplied counter-battery radar units (AN/TPQ-50). Who has had the better of this contest so far, do you think? Why? 

The DefMin bulletin from Moscow regarding steady removal of HIMARS and M777 units from the battlefield, and neutralization of the US-supplied counter-battery radar units (AN/TPQ-50) is an unverified claim. Such exaggerated claims of successes have been made by both sides in this war. In my opinion, one cannot even make an educated guess since all parties in this conflict have mounted an information campaign which furthers their purposes and obscures the reality. Ultimately, he who holds the frontline successfully will be the better ‘one’ in this contest. The near static nature of the frontline conveys a lot. 

The US Army’s AN/TPQ-50  Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar supplied to the Ukrainian forces.  

Q. The Battle of Mariupol/Azovstal revealed the very large numbers of NATO officers at middle to senior rank directing Ukrainian operations; the case of Canadian general Trevor Cadieu  indicates even higher ranking concentrations at the rear, especially of North Americans — Kiev, Lvov, Poland. If the war so far is the best they can do, what have been their successes, what have been their mistakes or failures? 

In my opinion, non-Ukrainian armed forces staff (officers/men) would be advising the Ukrainian armed forces on a variety of issues. They could be from NATO or anywhere else. They would be providing advice and fundamental know-how on operational matters, training, logistics coordination, provision of intelligence,  force coordination and so on. This would be particularly necessary since the Ukrainian Armed Forces are in battle with equipment from a plethora of nations. My guess is that NATO experts would also be advising the Ukrainians on force integration. So far the evidence of NATO personnel being directly involved in fighting has not surfaced. However, despite all drawbacks, the success of the military cooperation and assistance to Ukraine is evident in one way. Russia has not been able to make headway as desired and Ukrainians are holding out. It is also very evident that NATO is waging a proxy hybrid war against Russia. 

Q. How do you think the Pakistan General Staff and the Chinese General Staff would answer the same question in applying the lessons to India? 

An interesting question. The Pakistani and Chinese GenStaff will endeavour to draw lessons from this method of collusive action through extra territorial channels. They will attempt to apply it against India. Their aim will be to bleed India the way Russia is being bled by the USA and NATO. The chances of such a scenario occurring in the Sino-Pak-Indian context will be driven by other dynamics which include terrain and nuclear issues. However, unlike Russia, India has a huge advantage. If China attempts anything like what Russia did, India will be free to use the length and breadth of Tibet in an asymmetric and hybrid manner. This will be detrimental to the Chinese militarily. More importantly, it will open up a political vulnerability to which China is most sensitive.

Q.  How do you assess the refusal of the Russian side, with air superiority, to cut off the Polish border corridors for resupply? Do you see this as a political decision, or a military mistake? Or is it at the strategic level what you call a “firepower ambush” — drawing the M-777, HIMARS, and other weapons systems eastwards, beyond their effective supply lines, in order to destroy them? 

Air power cannot cut off or seal the flow of men, materiel and weapons across borders. If nothing is allowed to be brought into Ukraine, Russian forces will have to seal off the border physically. They have not been able to do that. I do not think the Russian Forces have the capacity to do so. Further, there is a chance of conflict escalation beyond Russian control. I do not think Russia wants that! In the absence of any proof of extensive destruction of M-777, HIMARS, and other weapons systems by Russian forces, the question of a ‘firepower ambush’ does not arise. In any case the Russian military has shown a rare strategic ineptness and tactical weakness which is very surprising. Russian military planning has been unimaginative and pedantic, to say the least. 

Q. How do you assess the likely impact of the numbers of German, US, British and possibly French tanks? Would you respond by direct interdiction before they reach the eastern front, or would you accelerate the operation to inflict defeat on the eastern Ukrainian lines making tank deployment east of the Dnieper River moot? 

I doubt if Russia will be able to interdict their move into the battlefield. In my opinion, the German, US, British and French tanks which are being given to Ukraine Armed Forces (according to the reports), will enable strengthening of their defensive posture to hold the frontlines better. They will not enable Ukraine to carry out any major offensive against the Russians. However local offensive actions or exploitation of a window of opportunity cannot be ruled out. 

Q. Given what can be guessed about the near-term, what effect on the Russians do you think deployment of the new tanks would have in “defence” lines between Lvov and Kiev or as Blinken called them recently, “manoeuvre” 

If the tanks are used intelligently in a defensive manner, it will be difficult for the Russians to make deep advances or wide manoeuvres. 

Q. How do you assess a NATO “manoeuvre” plan if Russia, not US-NATO holds air superiority? Is such “manoeuvre” possible, do you think, without air superiority? Accordingly, is US-NATO supply of F-16 and French fighter jets inevitable as the war continues? 

Since the NATO is not in battle, the question of NATO manoeuvre is an academic one. 

Q. If you see Russian strategy to be firepower ambush, attrition at rear, and encirclement and destruction of remaining Ukrainian forces in the Donbass area, what potential do you see for the Russian military to move on to the offensive using the deep battle/penetration doctrine, including reyd tactics of their Soviet predecessor? 

To clarify the issues: firepower ambushes and spoiling attacks have been carried out by Ukrainians against Russians. So far the Russians have been executing a battle of attrition very effectively. However, they have not been successful in encirclement and destruction manoeuvres like the Soviet army of yore. Next, attrition has limits. Unless it is combined with manoeuvre, battles or wars cannot be won. One expected the Russian military offensive to be based on the deep battle/penetration doctrines of the famed Operational Manoeuvre Group tactics.  However, so far the modern Russian Army has given a very poor account of its manoeuvre capability. I do not think the Russians are going to have, or be given, a free run. 

Illustration from a recent US Army study of Russian maneuvre tactics.  

Q. Do you think the kind of logistics requirements for a multi-direction general Russian offensive, central, north and south, can be concealed and the offensive launched fast enough with blinding by Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), so as not to repeat the preliminaries of February 24, 2022?

 I do not think that the build-up of large forces can be concealed in this era of extensive battlefield transparency. So the question is academic. 

Q. In your recent interviews, you have highlighted the Indian weakness and lack of preparation for long war logistics, ammunition production and supply, and surge capacity — how do you assess the US-German and NATO capacities revealed so far? This recent and unusual piece by the Japan-owned Financial Times  attempts to explain the US arms supply situation at present.  Note the New York City and German stock markets appear to be much more negative towards the major arms makers than the media.

Lack of preparation for long-war logistics, ammunition production and supply, and surge capacity is not a matter of Indian weakness alone. It is universal and applicable to almost all armed forces. One cannot stock up ammunition for a long war that might never materialise and keep maintaining such high levels of weapon and ammunition inventories. No nation can afford to do that. Armed forces all over the world will have to rethink their war-fighting capabilities and how to prepare their nations for war in the light of this experience. It will also give the politicians a lot to ponder as to whether they are prepared to lead their nations into such long drawn-out wars which sap national energies. Capabilities can be built up even if they do not exist, however, the greater issue is of political will to do so.

8 responses to “Interaction With John Helmer on Ukraine War”

  1. Just fantastic General. Excellent questions asked here. I’ve been waiting to get such a take from you on this conflict. A neutral voice particularly one I can trust in a highly contested commentary space is most welcome.

  2. Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan Avatar
    Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan

    Sir, excellent responses. One word on tanks. With a bare 2-3 months of raining, the Ukrainians may not be able to exploit the full potential of the M1 Abrams or Leopard or Challenger. They are used to Soviet/Russian tanks that are vastly different from these Western MBTs.

  3. Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan Avatar
    Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan

    Opps, read Training for ‘raining’

  4. Good Morning

    Q. How do you think the Pakistan General Staff and the Chinese General Staff would answer the same question in applying the lessons to India?

    An interesting question. The Pakistani and Chinese GenStaff will endeavour to draw lessons from this method of collusive action through extra territorial channels. They will attempt to apply it against India. Their aim will be to bleed India the way Russia is being bled by the USA and NATO. The chances of such a scenario occurring in the Sino-Pak-Indian context will be driven by other dynamics which include terrain and nuclear issues. However, unlike Russia, India has a huge advantage. If China attempts anything like what Russia did, India will be free to use the length and breadth of Tibet in an asymmetric and hybrid manner. This will be detrimental to the Chinese militarily. More importantly, it will open up a political vulnerability to which China is most sensitive.

    **** The above is a good answer. Further I may add now DBO also on full form which is an added advantage to us.

  5. “one cannot even make an educated guess since all parties in this conflict have mounted an information campaign which furthers their purposes and obscures the reality”

    I wonder if the YT channels below will give you any more clues. They cover daily movements. The problem for a defence enthusiast like me is there are no weekly summaries. It’s very down in the weeds

    Military Summary. Dima’s channel. He’s Belorussian
    https://www.youtube.com/@militarysummary/videos

    Theti Mapping
    https://www.youtube.com/@Theti/videos

    Weeb Union. New one I found from Denmark
    https://www.youtube.com/@WeebUnionWU/videos

    Defence Politics Asia. This one is from Singapore
    https://www.youtube.com/@DefensePoliticsAsia/videos

  6. Sir, imho, the issue is with non-Russian observers trying to 2nd guess the Russian objectives from their own perspective. If the objective is to win spectacular ground battles/blitz-krieg/hollywood special effects, etc … then yes the Russians seem to be bogged down. However, General Surovikin has very clearly and repeatedly stated the objective is to draw out and grind down the Ukrainian and their Western sponsors war fighting capabilities methodically, In this the Russians seem to be most successful and are willing to spend as long as it takes grinding away. In addition to this the Russians seem to be making the most of the opportunity to field test their new technologies and evolve new methodologies around these.

    1. Much agreement with you here. I notice western commentators seeing things through their own lens. Imposing what should happen and when it doesn’t misinterpreting the situation. One HIMARS missile is $100k, a Russian artillery shell in comparison is $20. Cannot afford to miss with the HIMARS.

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