The above quote by Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), went into the lyrics of the song “The Black Superman,” made famous during the Muhammad Ali and George Foreman World Heavyweight fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974. The tactic employed to support his statement was nothing new and was in fact, as old as cunning warriors and hunters of the pre-historic eras, who used it to great effect. It is also, unwittingly, also employed by predators in their quest for food. The primary aim was to take the enemy by surprise, using stealth and knowledge of his movements and pattern of activity. To achieve success it was also necessary to isolate the chosen target, if the adversary was in large numbers, the essence being to tweak the ratio in one’s own favour. Or, in other words, offset the asymmetry prevailing. It could be termed as an off-shoot of what came to be known as Guerrilla Warfare.
Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and strategist, in his ‘Art of War’ was possibly the first proponent of guerrilla warfare. Common amongst the raiding nomadic tribes in Europe and Asia, hit and run tactics, feint retreats and sudden counter-attacks, were highly successful against regular armies, clearly denying them the advantage of their superior numbers.
“Whenever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived — they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible centre which could be attacked.” (Prussian Officer – Peninsular Wars)
Closer to contemporary studies of military history, the daring operations by Wingate’s Chindits in the Burma campaign of WW II proved lethal as did the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against Soviet forces, the Mukti Bahini in the liberation of Bangladesh and the Taliban in Afghanistan. A familiar pattern of irregular warfare (emerging term for tactics employed in insurgency and terrorism activities) has reared its ugly head in India with the Pakistan state-sponsored terrorist groups in J&K and the home-grown Maoist insurgency in the rural belts of MP and adjoining Orissa, stretching into West Bengal.
Insurgencies could take on various hues and different methods employed to attempt and achieve what they believe, whether it be ideological, nationalistic or religious. In the generally grey spectrum of activities, which have no finite definition, terrorism is probably the more offensive form. With the idea to achieve visibility for their cause, their leverage is, strangely, the media. Capitalising on their hunger for TRPs with stories and debates which can be provocative, the media, in short, plays into their hands. The difficulty in identifying and isolating the insurgents puts pressure on the local population as well as the security forces. The ensuing atmosphere makes success difficult to define while the quantifiable resources utilised by security forces are obvious to all. Whatever be the case, the success of most operations, especially those involving stealthy hit and run elements, relies heavily on intelligence inputs. In counter insurgency operations (CI Ops), possibly the best intelligence input will be HUMINT which can identify the protagonists and more importantly, their leadership, for the security forces to target. Various types of sensors and techniques have been employed, as sensor technology evolves to penetrate the cover and concealment of insurgents.
Air Power is one element that can provide a relatively low-risk, high-visibility response option. However, since air power tends to escalate existing levels of operations, the use of force needs to be weighed against the strategic effect it may have. Thus, prudent use with effective targeting will go a long way to promote acceptance. It must also be clearly understood that the prime advantages/strengths of air power cannot be employed in CI Ops and it’s capabilities and limitations, under the circumstances, recognised. The greatest asset air power provides is reducing the sensor to shooter time, thereby giving the insurgents / terrorists minimal time to extricate and disappear. While the nature of operations in irregular warfare dictates that low speed fixed wing aircraft and / or helicopters would make the most effective platforms of choice, the proliferation of UAVs with assorted sensor (and shooter) capabilities and with ever-increasing endurance/’on-station’ time, have offered the one big factor needed for effective intelligence gathering — persistence. The ability of RPAs/UAVs to stay aloft for long periods, cover large swathes of territory employing sensitive and penetrative sensors while carrying certain armament loads, has give a huge fillip to the employment of air power in contemporary CI Ops. Providing accurate targeting with minimal collateral damage will not only sway the media favourably but also the population which may be putting pressure on the government to withdraw from the confrontation. The Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) is a game changer and its efficacy has been proved in Operation Enduring Freedom, tracking down the al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, especially their leadership, with unwavering persistence. While one can never compare cost-effectiveness or the exchange ratios in real/monetary terms, the psychological effect and the set-back for the insurgents could be immense.
As the operating environment becomes more complex, either because of terrain and camouflage or insurgent activities in urban areas, perhaps the answer lies in the ‘swarms’ of drones that have emerged in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) matrix. Fed with requisite inputs, the ‘swarm’ of miniature drones, armed with a mixture of sensors and lethal armament, operating autonomously, could search out, identify and ‘take-out’/’assassinate’ the insurgents and their leadership. It certainly provides the most low-cost option in the foreseeable future. Rapid response to evolving threats and a huge reduction of sensor to shooter loop are the most important factors in such campaigns and they are best provided by air power. Combining attributes of traditional ISR on one stealthy data-linked platform armed with advanced PGMs, information age air power will provide desired effects. Add the drone ‘swarms’ with AI and a possible solution seems to be in sight. It is the resurgence of “Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee”!
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinctionHe has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.