Strategic lessons from the Ukraine conflict The Statesman 28 Feb 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Strategic lessons from the Ukraine conflict The Statesman 28 Feb 2023

          In 2017, Manohar Parrikar, as the defence minister, reduced India’s ammunition holding from 40 to 10 days on the premise that future conflicts would be short, intense and swift. This was a follow up of a CAG report which stated that Indian ammunition supplies can only sustain a war upto 10-15 days. A substantial hike in revenue expenditure in this year’s defence budget appears to be to increase ammunition holdings beyond current levels. This was just one of the many beliefs which have been dumped in the dustbin with the Russo-Ukraine war completing one year with no sign of terminating.

          There are other lessons which merit attention. Most important being that wars can be fought below nuclear thresholds for prolonged durations, especially when one of the participants is a permanent member of the UNSC, employing veto to any insistence for a ceasefire. Calls from global bodies can be rejected or ignored with no consequences. Further, a major power would be unwilling to stop operations prior to achieving objectives, as it could dictate loss of face, prestige and international standing.

Global support to the weaker nation can be expected mainly to stem and embarrass the adversary, rather than on ideology. Direct involvement by allies or even partners would be unlikely as it could expand the conflict drawing them in, implying proxy wars is possibly the new future. In such scenarios, chances of early peace are unlikely. Assistance would remain below designated redlines of the stronger adversary.

Ultimate gainers would be global armament industries, which push governments to get involved. The war is also an opportunity to test weapon systems for the global armament market. Loss of innocent lives can always be justified. Sanctions remain the only tools to be employed, while ensuring they do not impact nations imposing them. This is how future conflicts involving China, against any of its adversaries, would play out.

Land has historically been the root cause of any conflict and will continue to be so. Thus primacy will remain with the army with other services creating an environment for ensuring defence or capture of territory. Since land is involved, war can rarely come as a surprise. There would be indicators especially in this technological age where adversaries are monitored 24X7 employing multiple means, though the warning periods may be reduced. This implies that plans and resources to counter the adversary must be in place, especially where borders are unsettled, and the scenario volatile. 

          No single service is capable of ensuring victory or creating conditions for victory. This is more pronounced in the Indian scenario where the land dispute involves inhospitable terrain. While air and land power will be directly involved in the conflict, sea power will ensure that the adversary is prevented from opening a third front as also resources needed to prolong operations are denied to him.    

With the advent of missiles, formidable air defence systems and cheap drones, all based on rapidly evolving technology, the role of airpower will undergo a change. Its employment will have to be dovetailed with other aerial weapon platforms to obtain maximum leverage. As accuracy of missiles increase, their employment will become a new normal as infrastructure destruction would gain precedence, intending to compel the adversary into accepting unacceptable terms and conditions. There will always be a decision dilemma on engaging targets by missiles or airpower.

Missiles and drones would be essential to suppress enemy’s air defence systems prior to employment of air power. The days of air superiority and air dominance appear to have passed. Simultaneously, missiles and specialized UAVs, such as loitering ammunition, have short technological lifespans. Hence, they will need to be domestically manufactured and at an affordable cost to ensure that they are frequently upgraded. Technology will dominate the battlespace.

This brings forth the requirement of developing domestic armament industries. Foreign supplies can be impacted during operations as also nations aligned to the adversary may adopt delaying tactics in continuing supplies during hostilities, necessitating adequate stocks being maintained. Allies and alliances will be an advantage, especially if the adversary is a competitor. India can expect large scale global support in any conflict with China and lesser in a conflict with Pakistan.

Apart from a technology dominated battlefield, informational and cyber domains will act as force multipliers. Public morale and global perceptions can be influenced by an organized informational campaign, while cyberattacks can impede the adversary in multiple ways including damaging his economy and critical infrastructure. Both these tools must be effectively employed.

As war prolongs, the world moves on. War news will remain global headlines for some time, subsequently relegated to back pages. Only nations involved will remain concerned. Global bodies will regularly demand peace, but their calls will be ignored. The aggrieved will seek regaining of its territory, while the aggressor will continue till its objectives are met. Global concern would remain only till nations overcome economic dependency on warring nations. Europe appears to ignore the conflict now that it has overcome dependency on Russian gas as also Ukrainian wheat.      

For the aggressor, military power ascendency, better economy and a stronger industrial base are no guarantor for victory, as Russia has witnessed. The scenario can be reversed with support from allies, will of the people, strength and determination of its leadership. An experienced army, as India’s, can reverse the scenario rapidly. Training and equipping is therefore a must and should never be ignored. Threatening employment of nuclear weapons will remain unacceptable. A grinding war, as is currently enfolding in Ukraine benefits Ukraine while is punishing on Russia.

The Russo-Ukraine war has already cost the globe in excess of USD 70 Billion, with thousands dead and millions displaced. Can we afford another one?

While wars are unnecessary, they will remain a reality for nations seeking to change status quo believing they possess the authority and power to do so. Leaders secure for life, such as Xi Jinping and Putin, will attempt to amalgamate perceived territory, hoping to go down in history as the greatest leader the country has ever witnessed. Nations in their periphery must be prepared for aggressive actions, not ‘if’ but ‘when’.