Over the weekend, the most happening thing in the country was the simultaneous Diwali, in the metropolises of India and at the Line of Control (LoC)/International Border (IB). The former was a happy one with benign lights and sounds while the latter was deadly. Lots of people were hearing the term fire assaults for the first time and social media was demanding to be informed more about this phenomenon. Surgical strikes are passé and fire assaults are in. It is the Indian Army, which in these days is setting the pace for gaining new knowledge.
So here is most of what you would like to know.
What is the LoC and how does it differ from the IB; good to know that. It is a delineated line in a disputed area (although India does not consider J&K as disputed, it is only contested) along which the armies of the claimants are deployed in eyeball to eyeball contact without any no man’s land. The LoC runs well east and south of the actual international boundary and is the alignment along which the conflict of 1947-48 came to a halt, thus creating Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK - often referred as Azad Kashmir, or AK, by Pakistan). Later, after 1971 and the Shimla Accord, it was delineated under the Suchetgarh Agreement. Unlike the IB, there are no boundary pillars (BPs) delineating the LoC. However, there are a series of mostly difficult to discern landmarks such as boulders, trees and nullahs, which have undergone change over the years.
The Indian and Pakistani armies are in an eyeball contact in their various pillboxes and posts all along the alignment, but at places, terrain constraints may separate the two, by two or more kilometres. It is an environment little known to the outside world; here the notion of ‘Grabbers, Keepers’ exists. Translating this into reality, it means that any side grabbing a piece of ground for a tactical advantage gets to keep it unless forcibly evicted (recall Kargil 1999). It is the classical extended form of defence where some key defended localities are held in strength and a few others in the vicinity to support them. There exist gaps, which are patrolled and dominated by fire and in the context of infiltration, ever since 2004 there exists a continuous LoC fence, which is manned 24x7. The gaps are, therefore, no longer existent but the deployment is in penny packets as the LoC itself is hugely manpower intensive, due to the sheer nature of terrain. I can visualise eyebrows being raised with the inevitable question – technology, can’t it replace manpower? The answer is always yes, but the constraints of the LoC terrain cannot easily be imagined. Secondly, the deployment of technical resources is expensive and the nation is unwilling to spend on it unless it increases the defence allocations. Test bed technology demonstrators set up in 2003 are yet to see the light of day.
The IB sector manned by the Border Security Forces (BSF) is a little different. Pakistan does not recognise it as the IB. It calls it the working boundary, denoting that it is not permanent, while for us it is a resolved boundary with nothing contentious. The Army only occupies contentious boundaries, where the threat to territory exists. Only in war will it move up its forces to ‘tactically’ occupy the border even as the BSF continues to man peacetime border outposts. The word tactically means that deployment may not be bang on the border but such that a planned defensive battle can be fought or an offensive can be undertaken. Manning every inch of territory is irrelevant for that.
That brings us to the real subject, fire assaults. Well, you can use troops to physically attack, destroy and evict the enemy but you will suffer high casualties in the course of doing that. The option of not crossing the LoC exists and could also be a politico-diplomatic term of reference from the government of the day for specific purposes. Yet, if the enemy, including the terrorists, connive to cross the LoC and target our posts and the smaller detachments along the fence and gaps there has to be retribution. After the surgical strikes the expectation would be that the Army crosses over each time there is a contingency. That is tactically not possible and there are other options, which the Indian Army is very successfully adopting in the last few days. One of them is fire assaults.
Fire assaults were often used prior to 26 November 2003, and also in some selected areas in later years; areas such as Nangi Tekri in the Rajouri/Mendhar sector, where infringements have been the order of the day. A fire assault involves the optimum employment of mix of weapons of choice, from small arms and machine guns to mortars, missiles, artillery and direct firing artillery guns over a fixed/flexible duration, with the specific aim of causing destruction and casualties in a given area. The fire assault plan has an allocation of heavy ammunition with timings and sequence of employments as felt necessary and caters for the neutralisation against enemy weapons, which will be used as response.
These fire assaults can be absolutely deliberate or pre-decided and employed during contingencies. The important things are to ensure that the firing is not without aim and the punishment is sufficient for the enemy to pay a penalty for his rash actions. It also presupposes adequate overhead, frontal and flank protection for own troops when they are subjected to the response. The surprise factor is most important in this and the ingenuity and experience of the local commander will come handy in planning, execution and catering for contingencies. Surprise can be obtained and ensured by ingenuous choice for deployment of direct firing artillery guns, roving artillery, use of missiles from concealed locations and misleading the enemy on the deployment of force multipliers.
My recount of an incident in 2008 may help understand the importance of fire assaults. A particular area on the LoC had not been frequented by my troops for some time. When I ordered that the area up to the LoC be dominated to avoid the ground being considered by the enemy as his, the local unit sent a small detachment to a temporary location to dominate the ground by day. On the third day of such deployment a Pakistani sub unit under a young officer attempted to evict them by day using a ploy of white flags while dressed in track suits. It led to a brawl with exchange of fire. One of my men was killed but the presence of mind of the light machine gun man saved the day as he opened fire and killed seven Pakistanis on the spot. The rest ran to their post. The Commanding Officer (CO), a phenomenally fit officer, rushed to the area by running and climbing at a height of 13,000 feet. He took charge and recovered the body of our brave heart. Then he asked me what his orders were. I gave him my decision, which was exactly the methodology currently being followed in the last few days. I directed him to destroy the erring post of the Pakistanis from which the officer and his men had emerged to engage our men and any other which interferes with our actions. But I lay the term of reference that the LoC would not be crossed by him or his men.
The brave heart CO was true in his commitment and professional to the hilt. He used the firepower of his unit, no artillery to prevent escalation, and employed heavy weapons in a most ingenuous way the entire night. By morning, pictures sent to me through multimedia displayed exactly what I wished; the flattening out of the Pakistani post, which incidentally was on a lower slope so at much disadvantage; there were many casualties. Not one man from our side crossed the LoC. The next day the radio intercepts revealed the chaos on the Pakistani side with questions and allegations being raised about who was responsible for sending the officer across the LoC in this unconventional suicide mission. Our moral victory was the sighting of an olive green Pakistan Army helicopter on the next afternoon which landed at the brigade headquarters. It took the Brigade Commander away as the only passenger; the Commander was removed from command.
Before the ceasefire came into effect in November 2003, fire assaults were common, particularly in the Poonch and Uri sectors. The Bofors medium gun is extremely useful for such fire assaults and its USP is the surprise that one can obtain with it. The issue which differentiated the Pakistani fire assault from ours was the unpredictability and ingenuity. Our officers, men, porters and animals all joined into the effort and ideas from different sources, higher and lower, were absorbed. Plans were hardly ever repeated.
The other aspect, which soldiers with lesser experience need to remember is that without first ensuring your own protection, never undertake fire assaults. Such protection does not come easy. It is a measure of your appreciation of ground, the amount of backbreaking effort you will undertake to shell proof your own defences and even lowly ambush sites which may be in the open. The moment you reveal a weakness of yours, remember you won’t live to regret it. Senior commanders on visits to posts must always have the corner of the eyes trained to observe flaws such as this, baffle walls and quality of frontal protection. I once made the mistake of assuming that one of my key guns was well protected, without physically visiting the detachment. The gun was blown by an accurate missile strike from the other side; mercifully casualties were superfluous.
In an era when the common understanding is that ‘surgical strike’ is the only term in the lexicon of the Indian Army the public may feel surprised to keep learning and absorbing more terminologies, which form part of military vocabulary. ‘Fire assault’ is not the least of them.
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