Moral Ascendancy on the Line of Control With Artillery Firepower

When I volunteered to command an infantry brigade on the Line of Control, I could not have imagined that my training and experience in the practical application of artillery fire would be put to the acid test. To be called upon to practice gunnery skills in the challenging high-altitude mountainous terrain of the Greater Himalayas was an immensely satisfying experience. Accurate artillery fire was the primary instrument that enabled us to aggressively dominate the Line of Control (LoC) in the Gurez sector during Operation Prakaram (2001-03) and helped us to achieve absolute moral ascendancy over the enemy. It was a privilege to have been given an opportunity to practice the art and science of gunnery during a period that was critical for national security. Finding innovative solutions for old challenges and keeping the Gunner flag flying was a matter of immeasurable professional fulfilment.

Innovative Artillery Shooting

As the reader is aware, our adversary across the LoC fires on our posts for a variety of reasons. We not only return the compliment, but also aggressively dominate the LoC by not allowing him the luxury of carrying out any movement by day in his forward defended localities (FDLs). We normally do this by employing long-range infantry direct firing weapons, including the new generation weapons that have conferred a major tactical advantage on us. Artillery fire assaults are generally undertaken only in retaliation to enemy artillery fire. These are seldom launched immediately to merely neutralise his FDLs and are mostly fired for effect at a time and on a target of our choosing so as to inflict maximum punishment and material damage. However, due to the rugged mountainous  terrain, delivering accurate artillery fire assaults is far from easy.

 

As was witnessed during Operation Vijay in the Kargil sector, the ridgelines along the LoC in northern Kashmir have razor-sharp spines and the mountaintops are usually small knolls or ring contours. All around the enemy’s FDLs on the rugged mountains are steep escarpments. Each target comprises eight to 10 bunkers (permanent steel and concrete defences) spread over approximately 50 by 20 metres or less. Any attempt to engage such a target with all six guns of a battery results in complete frustration for the OP officer. Even efforts aimed at taking a “battery concentration” shoot are usually frustrated as the dispersion zone of individual guns ensures that at fire for effect the rounds miss the target most of the time. This happens even though the guns have been adjusted on the target and no matter how much care has been taken in selecting a line of fire to suit the lie of the ground.

The answer lies in completely avoiding battery-level engagements with indirect fire on small pinpoint targets on high mountaintops during the euphemistically called no war-no peace (NWNP) scenario unless these are absolutely necessary. Instead, selecting soft targets in the valleys and on gradual slopes that can be engaged more effectively is more paying. Also, since such targets seldom consist of hard bunkers, they suffer far greater damage with a lesser number of rounds. The psychological impact of their destruction is also much greater in the minds of enemy commanders. As far as the FDLs are concerned, these are best engaged with direct firing guns deployed well forward and more about them a little later.

The soft targets in valleys and along road axes include battalion and, sometimes, company HQ, gun and mortar positions, administrative bases, supply, FOL and ammunition dumps, bridges, living barracks and office accommodation. The challenge in engaging them accurately is that they are seldom under direct observation from the OPs. Predicted shoots, no matter how carefully planned, seldom deliver the desired results in the mountains because of the well-known constraints of terrain and the vagaries of the weather. The aim is and must always be to make each round count – HE shells exploding on tall pine trees are no big deal. Hence, the real challenge in the Gurez sector was how to “arrange” for observation where none existed. Through a bit of lateral thinking, we hit upon a sound method to engage such targets by a process of what I have taken the liberty of calling a “semi-observed” shoot. I am sure all Gunners manning OPs on the LoC will be able to use this method effectively. 

We reasoned that by co-relating the ground and map with readily available satellite and air photos, it should be possible to effectively engage targets that are not directly visible. Careful study of satellite and air photos available at the brigade HQ led to the deduction that in some cases the OP officers should be able to see, if not the target proper, at least the spur or ridgeline ahead (short) of it or the one behind (over) it. We selected two major targets – both battalion HQ – and sent the satellite and air photos up to the OP officers in the FDLs. We asked them to carefully co-relate terrain features on the ground with those on the photos and identify prominent objects around the battalion HQ. As the targets were at an OT (observer to target) distance of about eight km, we gave the OP officers a twin telescope each that we had borrowed from the BSF battalions. Both the OP officers reported that they were able to recognise several features on the ground and match them with the photos. They also successfully identified these features on the map and selected suitable ranging points. 

From here on it was simple. We followed the well-known but little used method taught by Lt Gen T P Singh (Retd) as Commander, Field Wing, School of Artillery, Devlali, in the late-1970s. The plan was to range on to a known point clearly identifiable on the ground, map and satellite photo and then give a single target grid correction to open with fire for effect at the target. The correction was accurately worked out from the satellite photo. Of course, due precautions had to be taken to ensure that the ranging point was selected with care. For example, it must be approximately at the same height as the target, otherwise the results would be quite unpredictable. Both the battalion HQ were successfully engaged with punitive fire assaults. During fire for effect, the order to “sweep and search” was given as an added precaution.

 

By all accounts, the results were devastating. In one location, black smoke continued to emerge for many hours. Quite obviously, some war-like stores had been set afire. Pakistan Radio went to town about some inadvertent damage caused to a few civilian houses in a nearby village during ranging. The net effect was that the enemy had been hit accurately and hurt badly. For several weeks after these fire assaults he chose to forswear the use of artillery fire against us while he licked his wounds. Our gallant infantrymen were naturally pleased at this turn of events. 

Pistol Guns on Mountain Tops 

During the Kargil conflict in 1999, the Gunners had set exceedingly high standards in direct shooting and brought this neglected aspect of the art of gunnery once again to the forefront. In our own small way, in the Gurez sector we tried to enrich the experience gained in Kargil and make direct shooting a permanent part of the gunnery lexicon. As mentioned before, we realised that indirect fire on enemy FDLs was not delivering the desired results because of the terrain configuration. Roving guns could be employed at some places but the average distance to the enemy FDLs was six to eight km. At this range, direct firing guns, particularly 75/24 Hows, could not be expected to destroy bunkers due to the relatively larger zone of dispersion and the low remaining velocity. Hence, we decided to take 75/24 Hows up to the FDLs as close to enemy posts as possible. 

Carrying guns manually up to own FDLs at heights of about 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) on foot tracks over some of the most rugged mountainous terrain in the world, directly under the enemy’s nose and within range of his direct firing battalion support weapons, was a Herculean challenge. But it was a challenge that was met with steadfast determination and unyielding muscle power by the dedicated Gunners of our direct support regiment, supported by soldiers from the infantry battalions. They built sleds, improvised pulleys and adopted other innovative techniques to take the guns up – inch by tiring inch, night after night without let up. Soon the bunkers were built, the guns were deployed, ammunition had been ferried up and the enemy had a real surprise in store. Never before had the Indian Mountain Gun been employed with such devastating effect.

 

The next time the enemy artillery attempted to interdict our road and opened up on our posts at random, as was his wont, we did some in-your-face shooting. Results: two guns employed, about 30 rounds fired, two bunkers reduced to rubble, one damaged. The enemy went berserk. He opened up with all he had – mortars, rocket launchers, MMGs, HMGs – the works. There were quite a few anxious moments. But, mercifully, there was no damage. For many days an eerie silence prevailed on the LoC but soon our adversary was back to his errant ways. He opened up again – this time targeting the gun bunkers. But the bunkers withstood his weapons and our guns repeated the dose – more Pakistani bunkers went down. Soon we succeeded in conditioning the mental response of our enemy. Every time he fired, we brought down a bunker or two and he watched with helpless rage. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the linkage between his firing and our response with direct firing guns was established in his mind and he gave up completely. Game and set to the Gunners – the match remained to be decided. 

A new tactical development in another sub-sector where the enemy dominated, led us to employ the 105 mm IFG in the direct firing role. The CO selected several well-concealed gun platforms. In one of them, only the barrel protruded above a big boulder. In another, the gun was deployed just behind a crest line. In yet another, the gun was deployed on the road itself, with a river on one side and a steep escarpment on the other. Only the top of an enemy post, with eight bunkers, was visible above an intervening crest line at a range of about eight km. The CO and I took community shoots and had the personal satisfaction of having destroyed a few enemy bunkers – while enemy mortar bombs were falling all around us. 

Many lessons were learnt and many new facets of application of fire emerged during these shoots. We discovered that the IFG range table does not list angles of projection for ranges below a certain limit in higher charges like Charge 4 and 5. We improvised by extrapolation – and kept our fingers crossed! We observed ricochets at unbelievable angles of impact and were forced to switch to lower charges. With experience, we found that Charge 3 produced the best results with IFG even at six to eight km range. The 75/24 How is suitable for direct firing up to about 1,000 metres. As it has a small shell, it takes three to four direct hits to actually destroy a bunker. Beyond this, the dispersion zone and the vintage of the gun’s carriage combine to create unacceptable inaccuracies. The WP smoke ammunition of this gun is a potent weapon for playing havoc with the enemy’s defences. 

On several occasions the enemy hoisted white flags, presumably to evacuate his wounded after a bunker had been hit. Naturally, we honoured his obvious plea for a temporary reprieve but, given his “rogue army” tag, we wondered whether he would reciprocate in a similar fashion. The Gunners have many more arrows in their quiver and will continue to orchestrate Shiva’s tandava nritya on the icy mountaintops across the LoC. As long as the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation continues on the LoC, the guns and mortars of the Regiment of Artillery will the primary means available to infantry brigade commanders to dominate the LoC and achieve moral ascendancy over the enemy. On target, on time, every time.                                                    

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.