Operation Vijay: Artillery’s crowning glory

The Artillery Journal | Aug 4, 1999

The guns of the field artillery fired audaciously in the direct firing role under the very nose of Pakistani artillery observation posts, without regard for personal safety. Artillery OPs were established on dominating heights on the flanks of the intrusions and sustained artillery fire was brought down on the enemy continuously by day and night, thus allowing him no rest and steadily chipping away at his morale.

An Undiluted Firepower Triumph

Operation Vijay in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) during the Summer months of 1999, was a joint infantry-artillery endeavour to evict Pakistani soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) who had intruded across the Line of Control (LoC) in large numbers. The intruders had occupied un-held high-altitude mountain peaks and ridgelines and entrenched themselves in hastily constructed sangars in the Dras, Mushko Valley, Kaksar and Batalik sub-sectors (Figure 1). Initial attempts to dislodge the well-entrenched intruders were unsuccessful as the assaulting infantrymen were continuously exposed to withering fire from automatic weapons and enemy artillery and suffered heavy casualties. It soon became clear that only massive and sustained firepower could destroy the intruders’ sangars and systematically break their will to fight through a process of attrition.
Thus began a unique saga in the history of the employment of artillery firepower in battle. To turn around Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, never in the history of modern military combat, had so many infantrymen depended so heavily on the overwhelming might of the guns, howitzers, mortars and rocket launchers of the artillery for deliverance. The officers, JCOs and other ranks of the Regiment of Artillery who participated in the Kargil conflict wrote a new chapter in the Regiment’s history and added substantially to its glorious traditions through their unique blend of professional excellence, indomitable courage under fire and untiring dedication in serving the guns.
The Directorate General of Artillery at the Army Headquarters, New Delhi, appreciated that maximum available firepower would need to be requisitioned before infantry battalions could launch physical assaults to regain each position. Formation commanders emphasised the necessity of destroying the enemy’s prepared positions through coordinated preparatory bombardment to reduce the combat potential of the posts and to break the enemy’s will to fight. As such, while additional infantry battalions were being moved into Kargil sector and the troops were acclimatising, additional artillery regiments were inducted from all over the country to achieve a preponderance of fire supremacy.
The artillery units also utilised this time interlude to prepare main, secondary and alternative gun positions, to carry forward survey and to register targets. Plans for high-intensity fire assaults were drawn up by the FDCs and were coordinated in conjunction with infantry battalion and brigade commanders. Counter bombardment (CB) and counter mortar (CM) plans were made and fine-tuned. Maximum use was made of air photographs to accurately locate enemy gun positions and other key targets deep inside enemy territory. These were then fired upon and attempts were made to carry out damage assessment through aerial reconnaissance. Meanwhile, the NLI troops holding defences on the Indian side of the LC were allowed no rest and were kept constantly on edge by firing detailed, skilfully evolved harassing fire (HF) fireplans.

Tololing and Tiger Hill: One Hundred Guns in Concert

The first major ridgeline to fall was Tololing in the Dras sub-sector on May 29, 1999 (Figure 2). The Tololing ridgeline was the closest to the Srinagar-Leh NH 1A and its early clearance was an operational priority. Point 4590 on this ridge was captured on June 13, 1999. Point 5140, the highest feature on the Tololing ridge, was captured after several weeks of bitter fighting on June 20, 1999, after a simultaneous, multi-directional attack was launched by assaulting columns from three different infantry battalions. All the attacks were preceded by sustained fire assaults from over one hundred artillery guns, mortars and rocket launchers. Thousands of shells, bombs and rocket warheads wreaked havoc on the objectives and prevented the enemy from interfering with the assault till the fire was lifted for reasons of safety. Field (105 mm IFG) and medium guns (155mm Bofors FH-77B) firing in the direct role destroyed all visible enemy sangars.
The capture of the Tololing complex paved the way for assaults to be launched on the Tiger Hill ridgelines from several directions. In India’s first televised battle, in the space of a few days, Point 4700, Knoll and Three Pimples were captured. After a series of multi-directional assaults, preceded by accurate and sustained preparatory bombardment by the artillery, in some of the most bloody fighting, Tiger Hill was recaptured on July 4, 1999 and Point 4875, another dominating feature to the west of Tiger Hill and jutting into the Mushko Valley, was captured on July 5, 1999.
Once again, over one hundred guns delivered murderous fire assaults. Over 1,200 rounds of high explosive (HE) rained down on Tiger Hill in the space of five minutes and caused large-scale death and devastation. The guns of the field artillery fired audaciously in the direct firing role under the very nose of Pakistani artillery observation posts (OPs), without regard for personal safety. Even 122mm Grad multibarreled rocket launchers (MBRLS) were employed in the direct firing role. Hundreds of shells and rocket warheads impacted on the pinnacle of Tiger Hill in full view of the TV cameras and the nation watched in awe as the might of the Regiment of Artillery burst forth in magnificent glory. Brigadier Lakhwinder Singh, YSM, Commander 8 Mountain Artillery Brigade, himself stood in the direct firing gun positions to inspire the gunners. In recognition of the significant contribution made by the artillery regiments that participated in this battle, Point 4875 was re-named ‘Gun Hill’. Due to the massive employment of all available firepower resources to decimate the enemy’s defences, 18 GRENADIERS, the heroes of Tiger Hill, did not suffer a single casualty during the final assault. Such fire supremacy on the modern battlefield is absolutely unprecedented.

Batalik: Firepower Broke the Enemy’s Will to Fight

While the nation’s attention was riveted on the fighting in the Dras sub-sector, not the least because a TV news channel was telecasting almost a live commentary on the battle, steady progress was being made in the Batalik sub-sector despite heavy casualties. In the Batalik sub-sector, the terrain was much tougher and the enemy was far more strongly entrenched. The containment battle itself took almost a month. Moves to interdict the lines of communication of the intruders were extremely successful in this sector. Artillery OPs were established on dominating heights on the flanks of the intrusions and sustained artillery fire was brought down on the enemy continuously by day and night, thus allowing him no rest and steadily chipping away at his morale. Point 5203 was captured on June 11, 1999.
Khalubar (Figure 3) was re-captured on July 6, 1999, after a daring assault led personally by the commanding officer of the 1/11 GR, the assaulting battalion, despite having been wounded. The enemy was also evicted from Points 4812 and 5000 the same night. 32 enemy soldiers were killed and large quantities of arms and ammunition were captured. Once again, artillery firepower had played an important part in softening the defences and destroying the enemy’s battalion headquarters and logistics infrastructure. The Batalik sector Brigade Commander, Brigadier Devinder Singh, a Gunner, readily acknowledged the artillery’s key role in the victory: “We had to lean on the Gunners to destroy the defence works of 5 NLI one by one, interdict his supply chain, allow him no rest and to systematically degrade his combat potential. I can say without hesitation that the tide turned in Batalik because of the
pounding the enemy received from the artillery. It took time but thousands of tons of artillery shells finally broke the enemy’s back and the troops of 5 NLI could take it no more. While my infantry battalions deserve immense credit for their courage and determination in several hard-fought battles under the most trying and adverse circumstances, the real victory came only when the artillery forced 5 NLI to abandon their positions and scamper back across the LoC”.
With the fall of Khalubar, Point 4812 and Point 5000, enemy resistance in the Batalik sub-sector crumbled completely. In subsequent assaults, the Jubar Heights and Point 4268 were re-captured the next day. Simultaneously, operations to re-capture Points 5287 and 4957 had also been underway and these fell on July 8, 1999. Wireless intercepts revealed that the morale of the NLI troops in Batalik sub-sector had touched rock bottom due to the sustained and intense artillery fire and that they were no longer capable of putting up organised resistance. All the commanding officers of infantry battalions in the Batalik sector whom the author met acknowledged that the artillery had systematically and inexorably broken the enemy’s will to fight and rendered him incapable of further resistance.
Within the next few days, further attacks were pressed home and Pakistani posts in the Batalik sub-sector fell quickly one after the other. The Indian Army’s official spokesman declared in New Delhi on July 9, 1999 that the area had been cleared of intruders to the extent of 99 percent. Thus, Pakistan’s attempt at posing a threat to Ladakh through the Batalik sub-sector and Sub-sector West (Turtok), now re-named Sub-sector Haneefuddin (SSH) after Captain Haneefudddin who laid down his life there, also ended ignominiously.
Even as the Indian troops were poised to evict the intruders from the few remaining ridgelines still held by them, the Pakistanis realised the futility of their ill-conceived military misadventure and opted to withdraw without further resistance to their own side of the LC. Thus, Pakistan’s fourth successive military defeat at the hands of the Indian Army was complete.

The Contribution of Firepower

It does not need to be emphasised that the concentrated firepower of the guns, mortars and rocket launchers of the Indian artillery made the infantrymen’s extremely difficult task much easier. Narrow ridgelines and jagged mountaintops make poor targets. Yet, if the Regiment of Artillery achieved the success that it did, the Gunners’s ability to improvise and find technical solutions to peculiar military problems deserves to be unreservedly lauded.
By honouring three artillery regiments with the Unit Citation for battles in Kargil (141 Field Regiment, 197 Field Regiment and 108 Medium Regiment), Army Headquarters acknowledged the immense part played by all the units of the Regiment of Artillery to recapture Indian territory from Pakistan intruders. The 155mm FH 77-B Bofors medium howitzer performed remarkably and was the mainstay of artillery firepower in Kargil; deep strikes at the enemy’s gun positions, administrative installations, ammunition dumps and headquarters, besides neutralising forward positions held by the intruders. By moving up these guns into advanced gun positions for ‘direct’ fire on Tiger Hill, literally under the nose of the enemy, and thereby inviting certain enemy artillery fire onto themselves, the gunners exhibited unparalleled courage in battle.
The other long-range gun that notched up signal successes in Kargil was the tried and tested 130 mm medium gun. This gun, with a maximum range of 27.5 kilometres, had earlier proved its worth during the 1971 war with Pakistan. Designed by the Russians primarily as an anti-tank gun it is capable of firing only in low angle, that is below angle of departure of 45 degrees. That it was used to immense effect in the high mountains of Kargil, is a tribute to the professionalism of the Indian gunners. The 105 mm Indian Field Gun (IFG) provided ‘close’ support to infantry battalions by destroying targets in the immediate vicinity of the attacking troops.
122 mm Grad, the multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL), was extensively used to decimate enemy camps, administrative installations, headquarters and other large area targets with its high volume fire delivered in a short time frame. Grad in Russian means ‘hail’ and, with batteries of six 122 mm MBRLs delivering a devastating punch of 240 rockets in 20 seconds on an unsuspecting enemy target, the enemy was petrified by the fiery hailstorm. Had longer range MBRLs such as Smerch, which has a range of 100 Kilometres, been available, it would nave been possible for the Indian artillery to hit Skardu from Kargil. Mortars of artillery regiments that rendered yeoman service in the Kargil conflict included 120 mm mortar and the 160 mm heavy mortar. Approximately 5,000 artillery shells, mortar bombs and rockets were fired daily from 300 guns, mortars and MBRLs. 9,000 shells were fired the day Tiger Hill was regained.
The Kargil conflict has once again established beyond doubt that artillery firepower plays a major part in achieving victory on the modern battlefield. Accurate artillery fire reduces the enemy’s defences to rubble. Sustained artillery fire gradually wears down the enemy’s resistance and ultimately breaks his will to fight. By systematically degrading the enemy’s fighting potential before a physical assault is launched, the artillery helps to reduce the casualties suffered by assaulting infantrymen. It has been estimated that more than 80 percent of the casualties on both sides of the LC were caused by artillery fire. Overall, approximately 250,000 rounds of artillery ammunition were fired in less than two months in Kargil sector. Throughout the offensive phase of the Kargil conflict, artillery was called upon to respond to emerging situations and it did so with alacrity and telling lethality. The infantry battalions involved in the fighting were the first to acknowledge the immense debt of gratitude that they owe to their artillery comrades.
From the 6th of May to the 26th of July 1999 was a fairly long haul. Three Valiant officers and 34 brave soldiers of the Regiment of Artillery laid down their lives during the Kargil conflict in the true Spirit of Izzat O Iqbal (Honour and Glory). The officers, JCOs and jawans who served the guns in Kargil have not only lived up to the glorious traditions of the Regiment of Artillery, but have also pushed the envelope of the Regiment’s perpetual pursuit of professional excellence so much outwards that theirs will be a hard act to emulate for the Succeeding generations of Gunners. They have proved once again that the foremost and the most supreme Battle Honour ‘Sarvatra’ (Ubique, omnipresent) was not lightly bestowed on the Gunners, and inspired us to strive still harder to live up to the stimulating regimental motto “Sarvatra – Izzat O Iqbal”.