Thursday, October 10, 2013

PLA Rapidly Acquiring Precision Guided Munitions: Time for India to Enhance Capabilities

Brig (Retd) Vinod Anand, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

Of late, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been adding to its precision capabilities in consonance with its doctrine of fighting a ‘local war under conditions of informationalisation’ which had evolved from its earlier doctrine of fighting ‘local war under hi-tech conditions’.

Learning from the world wide experience of other militaries, the PLA has imported and then indigenously developed technologies that have provided it an edge over not only the armed forces in the region but also helped in closing the technological gap between its precision capabilities and those of the U.S. defence forces. Though India is known for its information technology prowess, yet it is China that has made rapid strides in information age warfare capabilities.

PLA has been studying the use of precision munitions since ‘Operation Desert Storm’ of 1990-1991. In that Operation, only nine percent of overall ammunition was precision guided and its usage increased to 35 percent in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the circular error of probability (CEP) was only a few meters; or as claimed by the US forces it was around one ‘bomb length’. The use of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) then had climbed to 68 percent versus 32 percent dumb bombs. Improving the accuracy of weapon systems has been the cherished ambition of military scientists. Looking back, in World War II, the CEP for an air-delivered bomb was 1000 meters; in the Korean War, this was improved to 300 meters and by the time of Vietnam War, it had progressed to slightly over 100 meters. Now, the CEP could be in a single digit only.

Combined with its acquisition of precision capabilities, PLA has also been paying significant attention on joint warfare concepts that in many ways would be able to exploit long range precision assets and provide the PLA forces flexibility, agility, economy of effort and concentration of effects. Such effects, at times, at the target end could be much more than a sub-kiloton nuclear weapon.

PLA conducted a "Joint Teaching 2012 Queshan" (Lian Jiao-2012 Queshan) exercise which tested the concepts of joint firepower strikes. Achieving long range precision has been one of the crucial elements of such strikes. The success of joint precision firepower strikes would depend upon many contextual factors like command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) network which would involve seamless integration of both ground and space based assets. PLA in the last decade or so has made tremendous progress on C4ISR capabilities which would naturally give an edge to its evolving precision capabilities.

In addition to developing long range precision strike capabilities through improving the accuracy of a variety of its ballistic missiles (including the much talked about anti-ship ballistic missile DF-21D), cruise missiles, air to surface missiles and air to ground to precision munitions, the PLA has paid most attention to developing artillery delivered munitions which can undertake a wide variety of missions. For instance, it has developed smart munitions that are terminally guided or those which can sense the target through a variety of sensors fitted in the munitions. It has acquired capabilities equivalent to the western/American Cannon Launched Guided Projectiles that can carry out top attacks on enemy’s armour. Last year, the PLA daily had reported a break through ‘in its technology that senses a target and deploys a destructive projectile to break through armor, immediately followed by a cluster of sub-projectiles to wipe out whatever the armor was protecting’. Thus, with a single gun, the Chinese artillery could destroy a large number of tanks. This needs to be kept in mind especially when it comes to the tankable areas of Ladakh. Precision capabilities would also enable the PLA to destroy well fortified Indian bunkers with one or limited number of rounds.

China’s defence industry has also developed 120 mm mortar ammunition with a seeker that can provide a CEP of 7-9 meters. Though these munitions are not as precise as those of similar U.S. and Israeli munitions, yet these provide value for money as GPS guided precision munitions are more expensive. Chinese have also fitted these seekers to their 122mm, 152mm and 155mm howitzer munitions. Further, almost all the forward observers are provided with laser guidance units for achieving precision hits at the target end.

PLA’s Multiple Rocket Launching Systems (MRLS), which are part of its field artillery, have been fitted with precision guidance systems that have improved dramatically the artillery’s long range precision capabilities.

NORINCO (China’s North Industries Corporation) has developed PHL03 (Type 03, also known as AR2 in its export name) 300mm MRLS with a range over 100 kilometers for the PLA. The PHL03 copies the Russian 9K58 Smerch that had been supplied to the Chinese earlier. It incorporates GPS/GLONASS and instead of the rocket being guided, the sub-munitions are guided. However, it is the improved version AR-1 MRLS (dual caliber) with a range of 220 kilometers that has rocket guidance system which gives it precision capabilities. When deployed suitably on Sino-Indian border, it can really cause havoc all along the depth and breadth of a Corps Zone by attacking vital installations, communication HQs, logistic nodes and even air fields and aviation bases with its long range and precision capabilities. What is worse is that China has supplied Pakistan with MRLS A-100 which has a range of around 100 kilometers though it is not clear whether precision guidance capabilities are available with this version.

Precision weapons substitute mass for effects. The advent of sensors that provide accurate target intelligence coupled with precision guided munitions (PGMs) has led to “effect-based operations” gaining predominance for a speedy conflict resolution, with minimum collateral damage. The use of PGMs also satisfies one of the fundamental principles of war – an economy of effort. They enable concentration of effects from widely (geographically) dispersed forces. Since a lower number of ordnance or weapon platforms is required to achieve the same effects at the target end, they enable reduced signature of own forces for adversary’s sensors to detect.

Because less number of ordnance and munitions are required, they also contribute to reduced logistics tail thereby increasing the agility of a force. And since logistics have a great impact on strategic planning, it stands to reason that the PGMs would also have an important bearing on planning at strategic, operational and tactical levels. They can be quickly brought to the battlefield for generating force levels equal to or more than a force equipped with dumb bombs. PLA in its teachings about precision strikes (‘Precision Operations’ published by National Defence University, Beijing) emphasises on benefits of such operations as reduced collateral damage, improved combat effectiveness, efficiencies in force employment, restricting the scale of conflict and affecting the enemy psychologically.

India has limited number of PGMs in its armoury, especially so with the artillery. We need to increase our inventory of PGMs not only for the artillery but all across our navy’s and air force’s holdings. Some Krasnol PGMs were used by the Indian Artillery in Kargil operations; the IAF used laser guided bombs against the Pakistani positions during Kargil conflict with telling effect. The former Indian Army Chief General JJ Singh had stated in September 2007 thus: “My focus has also been in making full use of precision guided ammunition and firepower rather than manpower”.

In air-land operations or tri service operations, the benefits of PGMs can be jointly exploited to reinforce and complement the unique characteristics of each Service. Increasing inventory of precision weapons in IAF and surface forces would enhance the force multiplier effect of the existing weapon platforms. This would be very relevant in the short duration conflicts when speed, shock action and accurate long range fires become essential to achieve worthwhile objectives in a reasonable timeframe.

When force has to be used selectively, in the backdrop of possible international intervention, then it is imperative that force be wielded in a manner so as to achieve political aims through short, swift and precise military operations. This logic finds expression in PLA’s War Zone Concept and its doctrine of ‘Active Defence’ where pre-emption is considered as part of defensive operations. In the Indian context, a larger inventory of PGMs along with associated infrastructure becomes more relevant for the execution of our Joint Doctrine. Further, precision attacks from standoff distances would enable the air support to be provided in close vicinity of land forces as the chances of collateral damage would be much reduced and there would be inherent protection provided to one’s own attacking aircrafts.

Similarly, increased inventory with land forces of integrated battle groups would add additional punch to their arsenal and may reduce requirement of air support. Armed helicopters with fourth generation missiles, cannon launched guided projectiles and such other devices, including air defence missiles and even multi-barrel rocket launchers with PGMs, would enhance the joint and integrated effort required for attaining military goals in a short and intense conflict.

Therefore, the PGM inventory of the Indian armed forces needs to be augmented in a fast track mode. The employment of precision weapons also mandates that we have precise information. Thus, we need to develop a matching intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network dovetailed with shooters and decision makers’ grid with real time response capabilities.

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