India’s Coming ‘Rocket Force’

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India’s Coming ‘Rocket Force’

The idea of an Integrated Rocket Force is a clear signal that India is wholeheartedly embracing the era of “non-contact” warfare in a joint force environment.

India’s Coming ‘Rocket Force’
Credit: Indian Navy

In September 2021, India’s Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, stated that India was looking to set up a “Rocket Force” of its own. This announcement was in many ways a belated recognition of a stark asymmetry that currently exists in the China-India military balance – the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has the ability to mount a major conventional missile strike campaign against critical Indian military and civilian targets with New Delhi’s response options being limited in comparison. Such a missile strike campaign could inflict tremendous pain while remaining below the nuclear threshold. Naturally, the long standoff between Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that began in summer 2020 has catalyzed New Delhi’s intention to appreciably reduce, if not remove, this asymmetry.

However, an Integrated Rocket Force (IRF) is not being advanced merely to serve as a deterrent to preemptive surface-to-surface (SSM) missile barrages or to trade salvos with the PLARF if it comes to that. In general, it is reflective of a worldwide trend toward exploiting strategic standoff strike opportunities against enemy centers of gravity such as command and control posts, air defense sensors and sites, force concentrations, staging areas, and logistics nodes presented by relatively hard to intercept ground-launched vectors. No longer are road-mobile SSMs seen as redundant or ineffective for prosecuting targets at strategic ranges – even by air forces.

In fact, the Indian Air Force (IAF), though engaging in “missiles vs aircraft” debates with the Indian Army (IA) in the past, has nevertheless operationalized SSMs of its own over the years. The IA, on its part, is now convinced more than ever of the need to enter the “deep battle” or strategic interdiction domain given what it sees as a change in the traditional stages of conflict. No longer will there be a gradual escalation to the launch of vectors such as ballistic missiles, instead it is the “rear” that is likely to be engaged first with such weapons. As India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, put it while speaking at a Delhi-based think-tank in August 2021 about emerging conflict scenarios:

Even while troops at the forward defended localities (FDLs) are all primed and in a state of high-alert, it is the command and control centers, airfields, depots, and strategic communication nodes in depth that take the first-hit from standoff vectors with precision targeting. Swarms of low-flying autonomous drones breach or overwhelm the air defense cover in the second wave, targeting the artillery guns, missiles bases, and tank concentrations. Rocket and missile attacks from standoff distances join battle to degrade conventional capabilities and soften the targets. Operations will unfold in “reverse linearity,” with the FDLs being the last to be addressed, if at all.

While talking about actual recent conflicts such as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Naravane further observed:

One key lesson that emerged was that the concentration of aircraft, ships, and other forces to reinforce each other’s combat power made them sitting ducks. The tendency to converge to fight makes you vulnerable to the precision fires available to the adversary. There is, therefore, a need to aggregate fires rather than platforms.

Indeed, the IA may not be able to count on air support early on in a future conflict. Rather, the IA’s own long-range precision vectors may have a key role to play in enabling both offensive and defensive air operations. Essentially, the announcement to set up an IRF is a clear signal that India will use SSMs in both mass and precision during the course of a limited war and is wholeheartedly embracing the era of “non-contact” warfare in a joint force environment.

Ultimately, the growth of India’s own missile development and production ecosystem has enabled its military to envision a Rocket Force. As the chairman of the Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO) Satheesh Reddy recently put it: India has “complete ‘Atmanirbharta’ [self-reliance] in the missile technology.” This statement is certainly true for ballistic missiles, with everything from solid-fuel rocket motors to inertial navigation systems (INS) to system-on-chip-based on-board computers and actuators being available from domestic supply chains. It will also be true for subsonic cruise missiles once the MANIK small turbofan engine currently being tested attains maturity through the Indigenous Technology Cruise Missile (ITCM) program. However, technology development remains to be done in the realm of liquid-fuel ramjet engines and even control systems for supersonic cruise missiles similar to the Indo-Russian Brahmos. Both hypersonic glide vehicles and scramjet- powered hypersonic cruise missiles are also under development at the moment.

Even though technology is not a constraint to building up a rocket force, debates about an eventual IRF’s composition in terms of the mix of vectors and the size of its inventory across categories are still active. In terms of the mix, there will be a question as to whether rocket artillery systems capable of prosecuting targets at the outer limits of operational ranges (less than 300 kilometers in the Indian military’s conception of things) should be put under its control. Also, a section of the bureaucracy remains skeptical about investing beyond a point in what it sees as “fixed assets,” i.e. vectors that it believes can only ever be used in a major war (as opposed to fighter aircraft or main battle tanks). Indeed, it is precisely this outlook that has to date served to keep India’s ballistic missile inventory limited, with existing ballistic missiles having a nuclear role only.

Issues related to co-mingling with nuclear armed assets may also arise for particularly long-ranged vectors until hypersonic systems become available. Then there is the matter of training and actually standing up the IRF. Once the IRF matures, issues related to deterrence stability, especially with respect to Pakistan, may have to be addressed.

The Aggregation Principle

While the broader reasons for creating an IRF – such as the need to create a symmetric counter to the PLARF and embracing standoff warfare – are readily understood, the question arises as to why India is opting for a separate “Rocket Force” type structure. After all, ground-launched vectors capable of strategic strike already exist in the Indian arsenal, albeit distributed across various services. That, however, is precisely the point. The idea behind the IRF is to consolidate these capabilities under a single command and control structure for optimal exploitation in a joint force environment, rather than leaving them scattered across services and subject to individual service plans. Any IRF requires both mass and precision and aggregating existing assets from the three services would serve that purpose in the immediate.

Given that theaterization remains a work in progress, it is probably felt that prizing the relevant capabilities out from service-based silos would be the best way to promote the development of strategic standoff strike as a discipline within the Indian military. This would prevent inter-service rivalries from stymying the development of a proper doctrine for employment while fostering greater inter-service dependency. After all, an IRF would require the IA’s logistics while leveraging ISR inputs from the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) until its own integral capabilities in these realms mature.  Rather, the emergence of the IRF’s own network, which would be connected with that of the three services, could serve as a lodestone for deeper jointness in the Indian military. Such jointness would also extend to the realm of procurement, since the IRF would seek to exploit economies of scale in terms of orders for both strike vectors as well as ISR assets such as satellites.

Such views are echoed by former DRDO Chairman V.K Saraswat (currently a member of NITI Aayog) who observed to this writer that a separate IRF would “lead to economies of scale, evolution of a suitable doctrine of employment and aggregation necessary for massed fires.” An old proponent of an IRF-type entity, Saraswat believes that an IRF could truly catapult India into the era of non-contact warfare.

The Potential Force Mix

However, this aggregation principle will in all likelihood remain limited to ground-launched vectors. The IN, it seems, believes that it is more of a platform-centric force and will not relinquish control of its vessel-borne land attack cruise missiles (LACMs) to any IRF. Similarly, it is unclear whether the IAF would be willing to do the same for its own air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Such systems will likely remain dovetailed to the doctrinal rubric of these services. While the IRF per se could get control of future long-ranged ALCMs carried by IAF fighters, the service would be loath to cede control of any of its multirole fighters itself. Naturally, having control of the vector but not the platform that launches it may reduce the usefulness of the former to the IRF.

With the IN unlikely to cede control of its ship-launched long-range vectors, one can safely rule out the long-range land attack cruise missile (LRLACM) under development, which is meant to be carried by its principal surface combatants, from the IRF mix. On the other hand, coastal batteries armed with the Brahmos anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) may feature in the IRF. So too will future land-based long-range ASCMs derived from the subsonic Nirbhay cruise missile and even anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), which are also under development. These types of systems are likely to feature heavily in any future anti-access/area denial architecture set up by India in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Be that as it may, the IA’s and the IAF’s own existing Brahmos regiments will also become part of the IRF.

But the Brahmos, though highly accurate and capable of prosecuting even time critical targets when equipped with a MMW seeker, is also made up of a lot of imported content. While in recent years, India has indigenized the INS,  airframe, booster,  and even the front-end seeker of the baseline model, the control and propulsion systems of this missile continue to be Russian. Moreover, owing to the terms of the Indo-Russian joint venture that builds the Brahmos, these subsystems will continue to be imported for the baseline Brahmos. The imported content of Brahmos in turn serves to make the missile a tad expensive. The missile’s 200 kg warhead also make it ill-suited for attacking large area targets.

Although four Brahmos regiments with a hundred missiles each are currently in the IA’s inventory and an undisclosed number with the IAF, any future IRF would ideally like to have in its ambit a much cheaper ballistic missile of similar range with a much larger warhead. Such a missile called the Pralay, which according to sources boasts a range of 400-500 km and can carry at least a 700 kg warhead, has already been developed by the DRDO, although it is yet to be tested. The Pralay leverages advances in domestic solid rocket propulsion technology, on-board computing, and guidance systems to deliver a large explosive package despite being relatively compact in size. Two Pralays will be carried on a truck-based launcher than can navigate even mountain roads.

Induction of the Pralay will free up Brahmos units to prosecute fleeting targets as well as those where collateral damage is more of a concern, while larger area targets such as logistic nodes and force concentrations will be attacked by the Pralay. Apart from the Pralay, the IRF may have in its ambit the Prahar 2/Pranash SRBM as well. Although the SRBM is an operational range system, the IRF will likely claim it from the IA’s Artillery Corps on account of its guidance package, warhead size (200 kg), and the fact that its maximum range far exceeds the limit to which a traditional IA formation headquarters has the ability to “see,” “plan,” and “execute.” It would be interesting to observe whether any IRF looking to build itself up quickly would also lay claim to future artillery rockets of 250-300 km range that are under development and can be launched from existing Pinaka multi-barrel launchers.  If the IRF does that, then the old issue of whether it will get hold of the vector but not the launcher will likely arise.

Even the Pralay SRBM, though an attractive proposition, would be barely of strategic range. And while it can provide mass on account of being cheaper than the Brahmos, there is apparently a need for systems that can prosecute targets 1,000-2,000 km away. In order to impose prohibitive costs on the Chinese leadership and push them toward conflict termination, India will have to create the ability to launch precision conventional attacks on targets deep inside China. It is here that the IRF is expected to rely mainly on a pool of LACMs. While a 800-km range Brahmos is currently under development and may be extended further, the  mainstay will be the Nirbhay Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) variant, set to enter IAF service in sizeable numbers in the next few years. Interestingly, it is the IAF rather than the IA that is likely to be the first operator of a subsonic GLCM.

GLCMs, however, will not obviate the need for longer-ranged ballistic missiles (until new generation hypersonic systems become available) than the Pralay that can be used for conventional purposes. Such ballistic missiles would be able to reach their targets much faster, deliver a larger warhead and will be more difficult to intercept. After all, an IRF concept of operations will necessarily involve presenting the enemy with a varied missile defense challenge in terms of trajectories, speeds, payloads, and guidance packages. An obvious candidate complementing GLCMs would be the medium-range canisterized road-mobile Agni-Prime, tested recently.

Naturally, if systems such as the Agni-Prime also end up being allocated a conventional role, issues related to pre-launch ambiguity and entanglement would become sharper, since this system is meant to join India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the custodian of the country’s nuclear deterrent. While no country in the world has the technology to definitively distinguish between incoming nuclear and conventional warheads, Pakistan’s ability to differentiate between different kind of ballistic missiles launched at it is unclear as far as Indian planners are concerned. This is a key reason why the Pralay’s testing had been kept on hold till recently, since Indian nuclear planners were still wrestling with the deterrence stability issues systems like the Pralay – and,  by extension, an IRF that uses it – might present. However, the PLARF threat to India, which is any case is co-mingled, has eliminated such self-constraining views. Pakistan’s own development of nuclear-armed short-range rockets such as the Nasr  alongside operational range MLRS means that India will not exercise asymmetric restraint anymore.

Now even as issues related to the actual mix of systems that will be put under the control of the IRF are resolved, debates about the extent of the mass it should gain would also have to be worked out.  Mass is of course the key to the deterrent value of an IRF, because it credibly signals the ability and willingness to employ the systems under its ambit. During the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, it has been proposed that both sides refrained from using the SRBMs in their possession due to these being prize assets. The IRF would naturally build mass and for this traditional bureaucratic bean counting in India will have to be overcome.

Of course, “mass” will not merely be a function of adding capital assets. Just as important would be the need to create a technically sound and dedicated group of cadres equally well-versed in the identification, planning, and execution of operational and strategic standoff strikes. It is believed by DRDO insiders that a dedicated cadre for the IRF drawn from the three services will take three to four years to develop. It is further expected that the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) would have expanded sufficiently by then to obviate any dependence on GPS or GLONASS to remove accumulated errors from the INSs onboard Indian missiles.

With a mature IRF in place, India’s adversaries will naturally start worrying about whether New Delhi would be in a position to implement a conventional counterforce mission against their nuclear forces. Such worries will probably be particularly acute in the minds of Pakistani planners. As such, there is a growing need for India, China, and Pakistan to engage in dialogue to reduce the risks that the standoff era will bring forth. India, it seems, wants to do this from a position of strength by standing up a credible IRF.