Right Tactics - Wrong Technology

1999

The insurgency in Kashmir is almost ten years old, exactly. To the Indian army, the victor of the largest number of counter insurgency operation in the world, ten years is not a long time. Armies that wish to beat the terrorists militarily and then win the hearts and minds of the people must be prepared for the long haul. The experiences of the soldiers in Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Punjab and Kashmir makes the Indian army's theories on counter-insurgency respected and sought after, among international professionals. But while the big battalions were struggling with the country's internal enemies over three decades, military strategy and military technology have not stood still. There is hardly a book on higher military doctrine published in the world today that does not speak of 'jointness' - military jargon for tri-service planning and execution of all operations.

The strikes by the IAF on the foreign mercenaries were conceptually long overdue. If the country's enemies can be killed from the air, it would be foolish not to do so. Since no territorial transgressions are involved, there are also no air space violations to worry about. But, is the country's air-power ready to fight the mercenaries with the best technology available in the market? It would hardly appear so.Jointness is not merely overcoming the psychology of single service ambitions, by ordering another service (in this case the air force) to participate. It means that each service surveys the environment in peacetime and modifies its acquisition plans to participate effectively when the time comes. For instance, Kashmir is the coldest state in which our armed forces have fought militants. There is no better terrain to field downward looking infrared sensors to detect 'hotspots', particularly by night. This requires night-flying helicopters in mountain terrain - a qualification that pilots can aspire to only after specialised training with night vision equipment. The news that army air corps helicopters returned to base with bullet holes is clear indication that the mercenaries are firing visually at day flying helicopters - that our armed forces do not 'own the night'.

Hidden somewhere in the narrative are encouraging signs of offensive action - that the military objective is to surround, kill or capture the 300. In the terrain that prevails between Kargil and Dras, converting this objective into military action probably calls for placing troops behind the mercenaries with night flying MI -17s and MI - 26s. This presupposes an exact geographical knowledge of militant presence, a piece of intelligence that is more likely to be brought in by either heloborne infrared sensors, or by UAVs (Ultra-light aerial vehicles). This again presupposes that the army, the army aviation corps, the UAVs (under the artillery) and the IAF are operating on the same maps, with the same accuracies provided by the alobal positioning system. The IAF must certainly be 'brought in', but to a professional, dropping iron bombs and firing unguided rockets from Mig- 21s, 23s, 27s and MI - 17s on militants perched atop 10000 foot peaks does not constitute a meaningful use of air power. It is clear that the air force is responding in the best manner possible to an SOS received quite recently. But having done so, some serious, and extremely urgent thinking is necessary. Of course the Indian army will prevail in the end, it always has. But can't we induct the best technology and save hundreds of lives over a decade by raising the exchange ratio? Instead of our soldiers fighting an endless supply of international fundamentalists, wouldn't it make more sense to kill lots of stateless terrorists with impersonal technology? Some very hard questions need to be answered. Are the forces in Kashmir using digitised maps with GPS lock-ins? This technology is available today in any BMW car, off the shelf for a few hundred dollars. Can the army and the air force pin- point the presence of militants on the peaks on a digitised map, having located them with infrared/UAV/high frequency radar? Can troops be landed to cut off the militants retreat by night flying helicopters? In the USA, these question would probably be asked by a congressional committee; but our parliamentary committee on defence has been a toothless bunch of joy riders for decades, so only the press can ask these questions.

South Asia is well known to foreign observers as the home of declaratory policies - in other words, hot air, and little action. So before the debate on the use the air force becomes just that, i.e:- use the air force/don't use the air force, it needs to be channeled into a question of killing mercenaries with the right weapons and sensors - Not 'pushing them back' as our prime minister would have it. The Indian message has to reach not only the ISI, but the little villages in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and the Sudan that volunteering for Kashmir is a one-way ticket. Converting the entire army or the entire air force to information warfare is a major task and can wait. The shooting war in Kashmir is the place for it all to begin. For five years now the Indian armed forces have conducted seminars and workshops on the ongoing revolution in military affairs (RMA). There has been no country in the world which has had as many opportunities to institute the changes required by the revolution as India has. The RMA essentially gives one side the ability to wage small or large wars at distant or nearby places, at little cost and with few casualties. The revolution must be used, because the lives of the militants are not worth the lives of our soldiers. Kosovo may be politically unjustifiable, but that is the way to fight a high-tech air war against people against whom the burden of casualties are to be placed.

- Rear Admiral K. Raja Menon (Retd.) in New Delhi

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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