The Indian Army and the US Army are slated to conduct high-altitude military exercises between October 14–31, in Ladakh not far from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where an active military stand-off is underway between India and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). As part of the 15th round of the Yudh Abhyas joint military exercise, India will showcase strategies and tactics the army uses in high altitude or mountain warfare. Similarly, the US Army will also showcase its technologies that can be deployed and used in mountainous terrain.
US Technologies for Indian Use
One of the critical areas is communications technology which is likely to be effective in high-altitude mountain terrain. For starters, the US Army has already started the process of introducing new Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) technologies for application in high-altitude environments. Take the case of the US Army’s Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (A-ISR) system—an air-borne platform, which is also known as the Airborne Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare System (ARES), which recently underwent demonstration tests in the Indo-Pacific. While the latest evidence suggests that it is still in the stage of technology demonstration, it will not be long before it is subjected to full-fledged operational deployment.
In April, the ARES was despatched to the Indo-Pacific for operational employment. The ARES is a business jet-based technology demonstrator which will assist in real-time intelligence collection and processing. From the standpoint of intelligence collection, the ARES helps meet the trinity of elements— Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED). Even if the ARES system is only a technology demonstrator, and not ready for operational use, let alone sale, its capabilities could be showcased to the Indian Army when the Yudh Abhyas joint exercises happen later in October this year. Beyond the ARES system, there are other technological capabilities the US Army could demonstrate.
High Aerial Platforms
In what the US Army calls “a passively denied environment”—which involves natural impediments created by mountain features such as valleys and mountain folds forming natural barriers against Radio Frequency (RF) and communication relays—technologies are being tested to develop means by which soldiers, deployed for action in undulating mountain terrain, can communicate with senior commanders who are distantly located.
To overcome the obstacles presented by these geological features of mountainous environments, the US Army is in the process of testing the “Aerial Tier Network” consisting of a swarm of drones. These drones are designed to relay downward, and receive signals and communication upward from the ground permitting the signals to “hop” over obstructions and thus enabling communication between soldiers across a rugged mountainous battlefield, such as between two valleys separated by a mountain ridgeline, using a network of High Aerial Platforms (HAPs).
Lack of effective communication is likely to be extremely disruptive to the conduct of military operations to the extent that soldiers could not only lose contact with each other but also fail to coordinate and synchronise responses to enemy action in the absence of signal relays. Loss of contact between dispersed infantry fighting units across mountainous terrain could, and will, generate opportunities for the enemy to execute ambushes, disrupt the movement of troops and bring in reinforcements.
As of today, communication relays or transmissions occur via satellites. However, satellites have weaknesses in that they are vulnerable to jamming and could be destroyed using counterspace capabilities, kinetically or non-kinetically, such as Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and Pakistan which pose an unrelenting threat to India can be tackled using HAPs, as they offer more flexibility in ways satellites cannot. Since the modern battlefield is sensor heavy, supplementing satellite communications through HAPs makes sense for tracking and locating enemy positions, directing fire accurately using artillery guns, and enabling close cooperation between infantry units and armoured units deployed for operations in high-altitude terrain.
If precision firepower is to be effectively applied against highly dispersed targets in rarefied atmospheric conditions—which is a key characteristic of high-altitude terrain—leveraging high-altitude technologies that the Americans are likely to showcase will at least be helpful, if not a vital imperative.
High-altitude Technologies and Mountain Warfare
From an Indian standpoint, these high-altitude technologies will help the army integrate them into its operational strategy and tactics in the domain of mountain warfare. To be precise, technologies developed by the Americans geared for mountain warfare might not be immediately available, but the US Army’s demonstration will give the Indian Army a window into what to expect and how these technologies may find application in the area of mountain military operations. It will also allow the Indian Army to compare the performance of its own ISR capabilities for high-altitude operations relative to the US.
The US Army, for its part, may gain experience from the Indian Army’s decades’ worth of knowledge and experience in high-altitude warfare. However, the Americans are certainly not amateurs or greenhorns in this regard. Years of fighting the Al Qaeda terrorist group and the Taliban in Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous regions have given American ground forces a substantial amount of experience.
These technologies could supplement India’s own efforts in this area. As the latest reports suggest, India is in the process of acquiring swarm drones to meet ISR functions for mountainous terrain military operations. The Indian Army is expected to acquire two swarm drone sets, developed by a duo of start-ups based in Bengaluru, to cater to the ISR and communications needs for its ground units covering armoured, artillery and infantry forces deployed in Eastern Ladakh. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) will help the Indian Army with communication relays, surveillance data, and intelligence about enemy force movements and deployment patterns involving concealment and deception, and also help with synchronising armoured, mechanised and infantry-based defensive and offensive operations. However, it is unclear what Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities these drone sets possess for action across the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS).
Any military confrontation between India and China will occur in a dense electromagnetic environment. Without significant EW capabilities in the Indian Army’s order of battle, Suppression of Enemy Defence (SEAD), Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Support (ES), and Electronic Protection (EP) are all crucial to dominating the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS), or at least at a necessity to prevent the PLA ground and air forces dominating the EMS. If China were to dominate the EMS during a war with India, it will deprive India of situational awareness, communications and guidance for the army’s weapons systems. The US Army is in the process of integrating the Multi-Function Electronic Warfare – At Large (AFEW-AL) pod most likely mounted on an MQ-1 Gray Eagle drone. The Indian Army would be well advised to urge the Americans to showcase this capability in the forthcoming Yudh Abhyas exercise.
Notwithstanding Washington’s quest and preference that the Indian Army source technology from the US, down the line, India could also develop some of these technologies indigenously without significant external assistance. Nevertheless, for now, the effort should be to evaluate and determine the extent to which American technologies are effective and relevant in meeting the unforgiving demands of mountain warfare. Despite the Indian Army’s swarm drone acquisition, they ought to reserve judgment and await the American demonstration, which might reveal complementarities as well as strengths and weaknesses with its own swarm drone deployments.
(This article first appeared in the ORF.)
Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.