Putting our missiles to the best use The Statesman 20 Feb 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



Putting our missiles to the best use The Statesman 20 Feb 2024

          In September 2021, General Bipin Rawat, then CDS, had announced that India was contemplating establishing its own Conventional Rocket Force (CRF). Last year the government confirmed its intent to create CRFs. The process of determining the structure of this organization would currently be underway between the three services. Inputs indicate that the force is likely to be a tri-services command on similar lines as the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). This may not be the right approach.  

The intent of creating CRFs are multi-fold. Firstly, it is to reduce asymmetry with China, which possesses a similar organization, secondly is to enhance capabilities for non-contact warfare and finally act as both, a deterrent and a means of retaliation to strikes on Indian soil. A classic example on employment of missiles as a weapon, in the Indian context, was post the Balakote strike when India compelled Pakistan to release Wing Commander Abhinandan unharmed, by threatening to launch a collection of missiles against its strategic assets, in case it refused to do so.

The effectiveness of missiles has been proved in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict, where both sides have employed every possible type of conventional missile to inflict maximum damage on the adversary. These are weapons with immense destructive power which can be launched with pinpoint accuracy thereby limiting collateral damage, while keeping operations below the nuclear threshold.

Missiles are ideal for suppressing enemy’s air defence systems, post which air power would be effective. Apart from being cost effective in destroying the enemy’s war waging potential, they also have a major psychological impact on the population. It is well established that future warfare would witness excessive employment of missiles.

Wars would commence with missile and rocket strikes on choke points, air defence systems and air bases, communication centres, artillery gun positions as also logistics and ammunition dumps intending to isolate forward troops located in their well-prepared defences. Troops along the forward line would subsequently be tackled.

For any operational commander, the capabilities of the CRF deployed in his theatre should be such that it enables him to influence the battle at longer ranges as also shape the battlefield to suit his plans.

From the above it flows that the CRF would be intended largely for land-based targets. Hence it should not be an all arms force akin to the SFC, but under the army, responsible for land operations. Simultaneously it could also be employed for engaging targets which the air force seeks, including air bases, radar installations and the like. In a period when the armed forces are discussing jointness, integration and theaterization, individual services possessing their own CRFs are meaningless.

Another factor to be considered is the high cost of procurement, storage and maintainability of long-range vectors. Added is their limited shelf life. This is another reason why individual services should not attempt to create their own missile forces and a common CRF cater for needs of the three services. 

Thus, reports mentioning that the air force and army are both procuring Pralay missiles implies duplication in every form including expenditure, manning and training. If the armed forces cannot coordinate employment of long-range vectors at the operational level, where jointness would be better managed, then the very concept of integration and theaterization needs a reconsideration. 

Some of the rockets being maintained by the CRF may be similar in nature to that of the SFC. China has maintained ambiguity in the form that its People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) employs both, nuclear and non-nuclear missiles. The PLARF is the fourth arm of the Chinese armed forces and controlled directly by their Central Military Commission.

To follow the same pattern is an option but that would imply duplication or the CRF being an extension of the SFC. Further, it would restrict its exploitation by commanders on the ground as their employment would need strategic clearance.

Segregating the CRF from the SFC would also authenticate India’s ‘no-first use’ nuclear policy. Hence, the CRF should cater to non-nuclear missiles and be available to the operational commander in his planning and conduct of battle.

Since the SFC maintains missiles which are both nuclear and non-nuclear there is a need to consider which range of missiles should remain with the SFC and which with the CRF. Ideally, the CRF should possess missiles which can influence the operational battle as also be readily available to the commander.

Missiles intended for strategic targets would involve a far higher level of clearance to engage and hence should remain under the SFC. Once the demarcation has been established it would be possible to determine the number of tailormade units of the CRF which would need to be raised to meet different operational requirements of the forces (depending on which front they are to deployed). Once they are segregated in employment, determining the size of warheads would not be a difficult decision.

The next issue is differentiating between artillery rocket forces and the CRF. Ideally, the artillery should possess the ability to influence operations at the tactical level. Hence, artillery munitions, including rockets, should be upto a maximum of 100 Kms. This implies that the Pralay, Nirbhay and Agni series of missiles with conventional warheads can be considered to form part of the CRF, while the artillery continues with its guns extending to the Pinaka rocket system.

Within the army, it is the artillery which has the experience of operating rockets and missiles. It also has command and control structures capable of integrating a variety of detection and post-strike damage assessment sources. Further, it currently handles existing BrahMos missile regiments. Hence, raising CRF units as part of the artillery would enable exploiting existing expertise as also reducing training costs.

A major benefit for India is that its missile development and production program is fully indigenous. Thus, once the structure of the force, type and range of vectors is determined, further development in this field would gain clarity.

The armed forces need to look beyond the horizon and work in unison establishing common CRFs for joint operations. The intent must remain to cut costs, reduce duplication and exploit existing expertise. Different structures and equipment profile of CRFs for western and northern theatres are essential.