Mobility is defined as the ability of forces to move freely and rapidly over the terrain of interest, generally hostile to accomplish the combat objectives. Mobility, regarded as a vital component of the modern battlefield, is the ability to deliver weapon systems or combat units to their objective quickly, which can make a difference between defeat and victory.
Armies around the world have massively increased their mobility over the last one hundred years. A weapon platform’s gross vehicle weight (GVW) and its footprint (area of the tyre or track impacting the ground) determine the resultant ground pressure that is exerted on the ground. Lesser the ground pressure, the more mobile is the platform. It is a common saying that tracks are for deserts while wheels are for mountains. The Indian Army still prefers to use tracked combat vehicles (TCV) in the mountains in place of wheeled combat vehicles (WCV). A rethink of this issue may be worth it, taking into account the large array of wheeled combat systems that are getting added to the inventory of our northern neighbor some of which are on display during the current standoff.
The evolving battlefield of this century will necessitate the employment of self-sufficient, distributed, and dispersed maneuver groups from several directions to secure a breakthrough and allow a rapid build-up of forces ratios. There will be an increased focus on smaller, signature controlled forces, with a small footprint supported by precision fires. New threats demand a novel approach and a different set of capabilities. Operational capabilities are shaped essentially by two factors, viz. own war fighting doctrine and significant changes in the adversary’s capability. On the future battlefield, if you stay in one place longer than two or three hours, you will be dead. With enemy satellites, drones and sensors constantly on the hunt for targets, force survivability will be a challenge. The adversary`s capability is something that requires a deeper analysis, especially in terms of what it intends to achieve at the LAC and how.
In the ongoing modernization of our northern neighbor, it is reported that the thrust for land forces has been on acquiring equipment comparable to other militaries with capabilities to generate combat power across a wide spectrum of war fighting and a special focus on high-quality human resource to carry out remote multi-dimensional maneuvers and special operations using a host of breakout technologies in areas such as nuclear deterrence, power projection, cyberspace, space, and electromagnetic spectrum operations. There is a discussion on the new concept of operations emphasizing effects based application of combat power to neutralize key nodes, degrade enemy’s capabilities and achieve operational objectives in quick time frames by producing mass effects on the adversary. The substantial buildup of equipment; guns, light tanks, rocket systems, wheeled combat vehicles near LAC in Ladakh is reflective of this change. The transformation of armored and infantry units as combined arms brigades is nearing completion, as are doctrinal changes on the employment of ground forces. There is a growing focus on extracting increased equipment capability from weapon systems deployed on the ground, a significant operational necessity in mountains and high altitudes. One of the most talked-about systems is the ZBL 08 series of WCVs with close to 25 variants. It reflects a revolutionary change in the employment of Infantry in mountains, which will be accompanied by its own higher caliber direct fire support. WCVs will certainly prove to be more agile than 40 /50-tonne tanks in mountains.
The general impression is that tracked vehicles offer low ground pressure and hence are more mobile. However, in several contingencies, WCV performs more effectively such as riverine, islands, mountains & high altitudes, obstacle-ridden terrain, and built-up areas, where the lateral move of TCVs is restricted. WCVs are superior for missions that require tactical moves involving more than 70% road moves and limited off-road moves as in mountains. For vehicles requiring a high level of tactical mobility like 60-70%% off-road, WCVs are competitive with TCVs up to 25-30 tonnes GVW. Above this, WCVs become complex and big sized shifting the advantage to TCVs, as the slip increases in WCVs causing it to get stuck in soft terrains. TCVs end up tearing roads and could block vital lines of communications in mountains in case of failure during approach marches. Tracks get dislodged easily, are difficult to repair, and have a shorter life. If a track gets blown off by an IED the TCV is immobilized, however, WCVs can still travel 40-50 km with blown up tires. In mountains and high altitudes moving equipment heavier than 25-30 tonnes may not be of great operational significance from the agility point of view. These would be more like lumbering machines at the mercy of the adversary`s aircraft, drones, and precision fires.
Modern AFVs are impressively mobile as can be seen during demos, exercises, and parades. But keeping them that way is a back-breaking activity. Ask any EME technician or a tank crew. Moving 40 – 50 tonnes of armor around in mountains and high altitudes is not easy, it puts a lot of stress on the tank`s mobility system, implying that TCVs need a lot of maintenance than an average automobile. A lot of time is spent by technicians and crews fixing engine issues, track pin breaks, track sheds, and faults in the mobility system, the operational implication of which is lesser no of TCVs being available after a road march in any operation. This will adversely impact the combat power of the formation. WCVs are capable of self-deploying over long distances and the crew arrives in the operational areas relatively less fatigued, while TCVs look for tank transporter for deployment, making them vulnerable during moves. In 2004 in Iraq, after a 27-hour road marches in the Strykers, a quick reaction force under Gen Petraeus reached the site in a ready to fight condition because of the comfort provided by the dynamic suspension of the Strykers. Simply put, when unrestricted mobility is not a key performance parameter, wheels offer an inherent advantage over tracks, if the move is majorly going to be on roads and trails by enabling a rapid response force to deploy rapidly, hence the distinct importance of wheels in mountains.
The unprecedented deployment of tracks in Eastern Ladakh should be taken as an opportunity to reassess the efficacy of tracked combat systems in mountains and high altitudes. In all probability, the deployments are likely to continue through the winter and it is when the weather turns hostile that there is a need to measure the sortie reliability these systems will be able to offer. Unfortunately over the last three decades, with an extreme focus on counter-terrorism operations, equipment maintenance protocols related to complex systems got sidelined so much that it became fashionable to question every technical requirement of the maintainer’s fraternity. The past two decades have seen regular actions, often unilateral to curtail maintainer capability. The current winters can provide a testbed to validate those actions. It would become evident to all if such actions taken at a time when the threat of conventional war appeared to be low, was in the overall interest of the Army.
WCVs are far more reliable and 50% faster than a TCV in general. They are more maneuverable on roads/ tracks and mountains where cross country moves are limited. TCVs are closer to the ground and hence more blast energy is transmitted to the hull. In Iraq and Afghanistan IEDs with 5-15 kgs of explosives produced minor damage on WCVs. Even a 40 kg IED flipped the WCV, but the crew walked out safely, thanks to the V- hull bottom. With brake steering transmission technology, WCVs can even execute skid steer, which is very handy while operating in built-up areas. High agility is the hallmark of smallness and lightness and 4×4 and 6×6 WCVs fulfill these to a large measure. Good tactical mobility also requires protection, i.e. challenge of moving under fire.
EMPLOYMENT OF WCVS
WCVs are better in moving large masses of troops over long distances thus facilitating rapid deployment. Due to the non linearity of the battlefield and the likelihood of long-range precision fires, survivability of Infantry assumes great importance, and herein comes the WCVs. In the context of war fighting up North, the need for light ground forces riding on wheels comes into prominence, for rapid response or intervention in the initial stages of preemption. Such light units of Infantry should be able to deploy in less than 4-6 hours. They are more appropriate than the traditional mix( 2.5 tonnes based) for patrolling and domination of large stretches of land, because of the wide weapon mix that can be carried. It is time to jettison soft-skinned trucks for troops movement at the LAC, lacking survivability. Future technological breakthroughs can give WCVs combat power exceeding today`s standards. Technologies like soft recoil and rail gun could compensate for weight loss, rather than overcompensate it. It would be feasible to develop a sub 30 tonne wheeled tank in the future for the northern borders as compared to 40-45 tonne TCVs of today. One major advantage of WCVs is the lean engineering support and logistics footprint needed to support them. WCVs offer a host of operational advantages in mountains wrt to agility, adaptability, firepower, reliability, operating and maintenance costs, and even protection. Those contemplating deployment of TCVs using tank transporters in mountains need to recheck their stance as it is unlikely to work during wartime. In the aftermath of the current standoff, there is a need to kick start a truck modernization program wherein a family of WCVs 4×4, 6×6, 8×8 in varying roles are developed for employment in mountains and high altitudes.
INDIA SPECIFIC PERFORMANCE PARAMETERS
Needless to mention that such a family of WCVs will have to be engineered with India specific features by our innovators. It needs to be centered around a duty cycle of 70-80% moves on-road/ mountain tracks and balance off-road moves with ascents and descents involving heights between 15000 to 18000 feet. Though the Stryker was designed around a duty cycle of 20 % road only and 80% cross country moves, it ended up being used for 80% road moves in Iraq. Indian WCVs will have to have some unique technical features like derateable powerpacks, CV /mechanical transmissions, battery heating, solar battery charging, electric drives, cold start, retarders, EMP-proof electronics, two-stage radiator, dual start, etc. Also, these must offer the following specific advantages from the systems engineering point of view:-
- Modularity ( crew, armament, mobility modules)
- Reliability and durability
- High combat pulse availability
- Indigenization and Localization
- Low costs
- Through life system readiness
- Amenable for civilian use like disaster relief, peacekeeping, border management, etc.
The ongoing deployment of combat systems by the Army must be taken as an opportunity to reassess operational capability gaps and identify long term system requirements for conventional war fighting. It has become evident that possibly the real test of the Army`s war fighting abilities may happen up in the mountains and not the plains and deserts as envisaged earlier. Mere organizational changes and forward basing of formations is not enough to bring any lasting upgrade in war fighting capabilities. A massive revamp of mindsets and orientation, with an equitable focus on soldier and equipment readiness, is needed because of the large scale changes that have come in the PLA. It has to be supported by core operational capabilities that remain mission capable 24×7, 360 degrees. Army has to adopt the mantra of Integrated Readiness of all its components. The development of a family of wheeled combat vehicles along with customized weapon mounts could be a starter, as mobility is a fundamental principle of war.. It is sure to turbocharge defence manufacturing activities in the country, generating enough activity for system integrators, system houses and MSMEs, besides providing the Armed forces with bespoke weapon platforms proudly Made in India. It can be a befitting start to Atma Nirbhar Bharat – Made in India, by Indians, for India.