Lt Gen. P Ravi Shankar, former director-general, artillery, on the need for India to fill the gaps in its rocket artillery and train at high altitudes

Delhi: On April 19, China’s military newspaper, People’s Daily, carried a report confirming the deployment of what it said was 'a regiment of an advanced long-range rocket launcher’ to the Himalayas. The report came two months after India and China disengaged troops after a 10-month long standoff near the Pangong Lake in the Kailash Range. To understand the significance of this deployment, India Today Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan spoke with Lt Gen. P. Ravi Shankar, former director-general, artillery, who spoke of the need for India to fill the gaps in its rocket artillery and train at high altitudes.

What do you make of the report in the PLA daily about the deployment of a new rocket system in Xinjiang?

PRS: The report says they have deployed a new weapons system as a deterrent against India, and that an artillery brigade has carried out firing drills. It also says that it has precision strike capability, a multiple launch system with more than 100 km range and entered service in 2019. One of the experts quoted in a South China Morning Post report says that only long-range MRLs (multiple rocket launchers) are powerful enough to act as a deterrent to India. The Indian troops are also increasing military deployment along the borders. About a month or two back, there were reports that China has extended its map grids well into India, which means that they can acquire and strike at targets on our side.

Based on recent reports, these MRLS are either the 280 km AR- 3, the PHL-03 MRL with 12 launch tubes for 300-mm rockets (range 130-160 km) or the standard A-100 rocket launcher which is very similar to the Smerch which that we have.

PRS: These rocket systems will operate from bases--maybe air bases--where there is intrinsic air defence protection. If they get out of these ‘hides’, they will be vulnerable in open terrain. We must not get perturbed by this news. They are using missiles to fill the void in their air force capabilities. Clearly, what they are doing is posturing, ‘deterrence by punishment’. We need to respond to this with ‘deterrence by denial’.

How do we do this?

PRS: They can target Leh from Hotan (in Xinjiang) using the 400 km range version of the rocket. But if they use the 160 km variant, they have to come onto their G-219 highway passing through Aksai Chin. This means that the whole system will get exposed. They will deploy in a hide, stage forward to shoot and scoot. But in doing so, during entry or exit, they can be detected. And they can be vulnerable after firing. A rocket fired at this altitude will be visible from miles away. They have many vehicles like an ammunition loader etc. which means they have to deploy astride a road, they can’t go far away. So what we need to do first is keep them under surveillance, then hunt them down with our special forces or trans-border patrols. We need to have dedicated surveillance capability. This means our sensor-to-shooter links have to be of a very high order, including communications and procedures which we don’t have now. Deterrence by denial should be our motto, ideally using the extended range Pinaka MRLs.

What should be our response?

PRS: The Smerch, which is a 300 mm rocket, has a range of 90 km. The indigenous 214 mm Pinaka also has a range of 90 km. It also has an extended range version. Guided Pinaka rockets can go up to 100 km. Using ram jet-propelled rockets, in a couple of years, we can go to 200-250 km. But we need to increase numbers and we need to use it all along the LAC. If you have a range of 100 km, then you can control the entire area of the G-219 (China National Highway 219) because they have to come astride the highway. If you deny them the G-219, then they are confined to firing from Xinjiang. As the saying goes, more small shells do greater damage than few large shells. Pinaka is great equipment that we have; unfortunately, we aren’t exploiting it enough.

When you say not exploiting it fully, how many regiments of Pinaka do we have? How many are on order?

PRS: Right now, we have four Pinaka regiments, six are under order. The problem here is that at one point in time before the Chinese threat appeared, we had authorised 22 regiments...we wanted 22 regiments (a regiment has 18 launchers and each launcher can fire 12 rockets). Now, when the threat has gone up, we have reduced it to 10 regiments. This needs a rethink. Especially in light of these new deployments. Compared to the (Russian) Smerch, the Pinaka is dead cheap. Plus you have the capability to expand the range.

The fact that they have deployed rockets and not missiles, does it imply they are looking at a threshold? These are two nuclear-weapon states we are talking about.

PRS: They are reaching the threshold between non-nuclear and nuclear. When such a weapon is fired, you don’t know if it is nuclear or not. Anything over 155 mm, you can put a nuclear warhead. You’ve gone beyond the zone between tactical and nuclear. We are going into a zone of ambiguity. Which is why our strategy of ‘deterrence by denial’ has to be very strong. Through this, the escalation dynamics come in. I’m not saying they will do it, but that’s how they will posture.

We have fought a war in Kargil in the last two decades haven’t we done anything to improve our firing capabilities in the high altitudes?

PRS: As far as guns with ranges at high altitudes, we have no problems. But we don’t have firing ranges for longer-range systems. Unless you have ranges for longer-range systems and fire them and test them, you will not know. If we don’t test our rockets at high altitude, we are in trouble.