Statements such as the one above may smack of ego, delinquency and cynicism. After all every analyst cannot have a boots on ground experience to write about an issue. Yet, a degree of cynicism is required when an innovative military experiment is successful and contributes towards a game changing strategy. Visions of the larger picture and even basic facts have eluded some analysts who continue to believe that the LoC Fence, more commonly referred as the Anti- Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS), is a dampener of offensive spirit and not cost effective.
I think not only warriors of the Indian Armed Forces but the nation deserve to be told how 1150 crore rupees was well spent in 2003-4, how much is spent to refurbish it every year and what its overall effect has been and will continue to be. Besides being there at the LoC when the fence was constructed and leading the effort at one of its large segments, I returned twice to the Valley to exploit it and oversee the transition of a most dangerous situation.
I have had extensive discussions with Gen Nirmal Vij, former Army Chief under whose overall command the fence was constructed. As late as April 2014 I met Lt Gen Hari Prasad, former Army Commander Northern Command, the man responsible for overseeing the construction and conceptualizing the tactical exploitation. Extensive discussions with both the apex level generals of that time and my own experience as a Division and a Corps Commander put at rest most prevailing doubts.
It was in my operations room at the HQ of the Uri Brigade that the decision was taken in Aug 2003 to construct a continuous obstacle system at the LoC; the earlier proposal was to construct this in patches where the LoC was more prone to infiltration; that was considered a half measure and good military commanders do not usually believe in such measures.
WHY WAS THE FENCE CONSTRUCTED?
What was the need for such a fence after 14 years of insurgency why couldn’t the Indian Army control the flow of terrorists from across the LoC? After all the key to Pakistan sponsored proxy war lay in its ability to keep the flow going despite massive successes that the Indian Army achieved in its operations in the hinterland. The mathematics was always against the Indian Army which killed lesser than the numbers which managed to sneak across through the rugged terrain on which the LoC existed especially in Kashmir (15 Corps Zone). Once the passes along the Northern gullies opened each year after the precarious winter conditions the nexus (terrorists, ISI and the Pakistan Army) opened the tap of infiltration as per the strategy for the next campaigning season (May Oct). The residual strength of terrorists each year in the hinterland mostly exceeded that of the previous year. The answer lay in plugging the LoC more effectively. But then there is a finite number of troops that you can deploy and logistically maintain; the counter infiltration posture at the first tier, closest to the LoC comprised the very same troops who in all these years were also executing the other responsibility of LoC formations; maintaining the sanctity of the LoC through protection, domination, vigil and patrolling. These troops randomly deployed in ambushes to prevent ingress by terrorists along appreciated routes which in the rugged terrain are just too many. The Pakistan Army regularly shelled (not to forget that we retaliated with more than double the munitions) areas of infiltration to force our ambushes to retract to cover thus creating gaps for infiltration.
It was under Gen Nirmal Vij’s watch as the Vice Chief that the idea of a fence was mooted and he awaited his elevation before commencing the construction. There was severe objection to this proposal from some senior commanders but Gen Vij was clear that the strength of terrorists in the hinterland had to be reduced to a sub optimum number. Gen Hari Prasad first pointed out the worthlessness of such an effort without making it a continuous obstacle to provide an alignment to our tactical and sub tactical commanders to focus their efforts on.
HOW WAS THE LOC FENCE CONSTRUCTED?
01 Jul 2004 (projected date of completion) was not a random date. It signified the midpoint of the campaigning season in the valley that year. It was also the date which would give Gen Vij’s remaining tenure sufficient time to test the concept. Gen Nirmal Vij himself regularly visited some crucial areas, and his push was the much needed adrenaline followed by the menacing vigil on the progress by the Corps Commander, Lt Gen Nirbhay Sharma and the Divisional Commanders. My own General Officer Commanding, Maj Gen Raj Mehta put the screws on as units were made to compete in the construction effort. I will be candid to admit that I initially mocked at the idea of constructing a fence at obscene heights where I knew that it will be washed away every year. I am glad I did not have the last laugh because my own units proved me wrong.
Before 26 Nov 2003, the construction effort was hampered by repeated exchanges of fire, including artillery. This forced us to align the fence well inside the LoC to prevent targeting of our troops. Even as the ceasefire came into being on the above date the trust deficit did not allow us to re-align much. The realignment in certain areas was effected only after Mar- Apr 2004 by when it was reasonably clear that the ceasefire was there to hold for some time.
Everyone had a role to play; Infantrymen along the LoC, Engineers units temporarily moved from peace locations, EME personnel to execute the experimentation of electrification which South of Pir Panjal in the 16 Corps Zone had proved to be a monumental success, vendors who came to offer hardware to improve the stopping power, labor contractors who fought time and demography to get porters from far and wide; not to forget the Staff Officers who spent sleepless nights planning the movement of men and material and overseeing the progress against targets.
At various B Schools I do talk about this project andhave strongly recommended its study as a model of everything they teach the best practices of leadership and management. Remember, almost 130 lorry loads of material had to be transported from ‘Ground Zero’ to heights above 12000 feet to construct one kilometer of the Fence. Of the 750 Km effort almost 450 Km was in 15 Corps Zone.
It sounds so innocuous when you imagine the move of 130 vehicles on flat open ground but you have to consider the multiple means of transportation as stores are off loaded and reloaded in smaller lorries, dumped at road heads and reloaded on mules or man packed by porters to construction sites. Of course, this did not include the water required for setting the cement for the angle iron pickets; water progressively dries up at the LoC through the summer and every progressive day you have to move further down mountain sides to get daily supplies for cooking, washing and cementing. At the Gulmarg Heights, the J&K Tourist Department came to our assistance by allowing move in the Gondola cars of the aerial rope way, during off season and even at times during the tourist season. It was also at Gulmarg Heights that the snow levels were so high that snow digging had to be resorted to create the alignment for construction.
Nowhere were the innovations of enhancing stopping power more forcefully applied than in Maj Gen Raj Mehta’s Dagger Division where an entire industry was set up to manufacture ‘Panjis’, the pointed and well sharpened wooden pickets which were grouted in the vicinity of the Fence to hamper movement, crawling, jumping or any other thing a terrorist may wish to try attempting near the Fence.. These later efforts were led by me, as the Corps Commander to ‘reintroduce’ panjis which had got destroyed over the years and in fact replace them with steel planked spikes and hedgehogs which were more durable.
CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE LC FENCE TOWARDS COUNTER INFILTRATION
The progress of the fence was watched with a degree of interest by the terrorist leaders and the Pakistan Army. Infiltration started getting focused to areas where the fence had lesser stopping power such as the Kala Pahar gap in Uri sector or the Gabdori Nar area of Naugam sector. The famous encounter of 12 Infantry Brigade at the Ghoretal Nala in Aug 2007 leading to the killing of eight terrorists and the martyrdom of Late Col Vasanth, AC, CO 9 Maratha LI, can be attributed to the repeated use of this area by terrorists which was difficult to fully fence. This was also the time that surveillance centers and surveillance sub-centers were created to coordinate the efforts of night surveillance with the efforts of UGS and various technological innovations. Infantry units were now required to handle hundreds of battery packs in battery charging nodes which were established all along the LoC. To cater for breaches of ceasefire, bunkers were constructed near patrol bases along the fence to ensure that shelling did not force the ambushes to retract.
By 2007, with three years of its full exploitation, the fence had reversed the mathematics of infiltration and the Army was on the winning track in the ‘numbers game’. It is also worth mentioning that year on year the formations learnt their lessons on how to improve the reconstruction effort which commenced around mid-April each year and was necessitated by the heavy snowfall in 15 Corps Zone. Approximately 30 percent of the fence gets varying levels of degradation and needs refurbishment. This is a race each year with the Army seeking record timings of refurbishment andprevention of any infiltration while the snow hardens allowing terrorist movement.
By 2011, the figures for confirmed infiltration through the calendar year were down to 42 (authority: Multi Agency Centre), marking it as the most successful effort ever. Good intelligence and thwarting of the reception groups at the reception areas greatly contributed to this, thus highlighting the synergy between the LoC troops and the Rashtriya Rifles units.. A total of 19 terrorist leaders were killed that year alone virtually stemming the terrorist movement. So much, for the effectiveness of the fence.
One of the criticisms that the fence has drawn is that it is not cost effective because the annual cost of repair is upwards of Rupees 150 Cr for material alone. Actually for 15 Corps the figure is just an average of 25 Crore every year. Hypothetically, if the fence did not exist an additional number of troops would be required to achieve the same results. The other criticism leveled is at the deployment of resources and the adverse effect on the winter stocking which too has the summer window for execution. Little known is the fact that the refurbishment of the fence is completed well before the onset of summer season and the winter stocking commences much later.
THE ALLEGED MAGINOT MENTALITY
The most serious allegation against the ethos of the Army is the damning notion that the LoC Fence has given it a defensive mindset and a Maginot mentality. The Ditch cum Bund (DCB) concept suffered from similar allegations for many years. In conventional operations the DCB is manned, the LoC fence is not. The Army is conscious of the fact that our adversary’s strategic orientation demands induction of a large number of irregulars prior to an intended conflict. This would involve holding the LoC fence with some degree of strength up to a critical moment. Offensive operations in the mountains and especially along the LoC do not take place all along the frontage but only at widely displaced contact points. Other areas continue to remain in defensive mode. The fence is invaluable in preventing both irregular and tactical infiltration in such a scenario which in the mountains is one of the most critical components of our concept of operations.
In 2003-4, while in command of the Uri Brigade I labored hard to understand the concept of the adversary’s offensive plans and our own defensive layout and response. In four years’ time I returned to the valley to witness a sea change. General Panag had infused a new offensive spirit in Northern Command. The fence was then four years old and not an iota of defensiveness had set in. Little do critics realize that the presence of the fence and the current orientation of the RR have infused a sense of confidence in our officers and men with respect to small team operations, something which is inherently offensive. Four men ambushes have the capability of carrying out surveillance and building up to a point of contact as a matter of drill. These small teams when called upon will execute offensive tasks with impunity.
The critics of the Army’s functioning mode speak of the advantages which have accrued to the Pakistan Army due to the ceasefire; one, that the Indian Army does not pose a threat across the LoC; two, that the Pakistan Army can unabashedly continue its proxy war; three, with its continuance of the ceasefire the Pakistan Army retains the goodwill of the people of Kashmir; four, the Pakistan Army’s DGMO is free to plan its offensive plans because only the ISI is involved on the LoC; last, the ceasefire has encouraged the Chinese to enter the POK area. Each such belief deserves a rational counter.
One had to be present in Kashmir anywhere near the LoC after 26/11 to see the Pakistan Army scurrying to bolster its defensive posture, laying mines and moving formations and units from Operation MIZAN, its western deployment. All this, without the Indian Army moving a single unit. The state of the effectiveness of the proxy war in Kashmir today displays a classic case of conflict stabilization, something which inevitably happens before conflict transformation and conflict termination/resolution. The counter infiltration posture can never guarantee zero infiltration but even an annual infiltration of 100 terrorists has little scope of turning the tide against the Indian Army.
The Pakistan DGMO is completely taken up with internal security and the western front for himto think offensively against India’s conventional capability. Giving the devil his due, the nexus has one thing taped up; the ability to focus attention towards the LoC every time the situation in the valley’s hinterland becomes peaceful.
The unfortunate events on the LoC in 2013, to include the beheading and the killing of five soldiers in the Sarla complex of Poonch sector, were one off failures of the Indian Army and must not be generalized to deduce incorrect surmises.
The Army has not sufficiently publicised its successes for obvious reasons. The LoC areas and the hinterland of Kashmir have two diametrically opposite demographics. The Pahari population along the LoC is disposed in greater measure towards India and the Indian Army. They have the fullest confidence in the Indian Army’s capability to silence the guns on the other side.
In 2011 the civilian population of the Neelam Valley in POK met the local DC there to complain against the presence of terrorists in their area which according to them would invite offensive action by the Indian Army. Wasn’t this the moral ascendancy we seek. Who desires the ceasefire more is an irrelevant issue. Lastly, the entry of the Chinese into POK. It is not as if the Chinese presence is in areas close to the LC except in some infrastructure projects near Neelam Valley.
It is not out of fear of our artillery that the Chinese were not earlier accessing these areas. The need of the Chinese to construct the intended infrastructure for the energy and trade corridor has long been felt and the Chinese would have commenced the work on this, ceasefire or no ceasefire. The Chinese presence is that of infrastructure developers and some protection elements because of the turbulent situation in Gilgit- Baltistan and the internal security considerations within Pakistan India does not have to be paranoid about aPakistan-China collusive act against “North Kashmir”.
In terms of the offensive spirit of the Indian Army it may also be relevant to remember that the existence of a continuous obstacle on our side counters the conventional/tactical infiltration capability of the Pakistan Army. Correspondingly, by comparison, its absence across the LoC only enhances our infiltration capability. Our capability to take risk thus increases by a quantum jump. What the critics have not pointed out is that in these ten years the capability of the junior leader cadre has gone up tremendously in the sphere of irregular/asymmetric/hybrid warfare with a down slide in the understanding of conventional operations. This is a worldwide phenomenon in most major militaries of the world. It is the need of the hour to have a better understanding of alternative war fighting. The turnover of infantry units is still allowing them peace tenures of a little over two and a half years. Much against the notion that it needs two years of re-training once a unit comes out of CI operations, the flexibility of the Indian Army is sufficient to re-orient to its new operational responsibility within three to six months.
The entire objective of such critique appears to be pander to the school of thinking that the Indian Army needs to get out of the hinterland of J&K and restrict itself to the LoC. The critics must therefore outline to us who will be responsible for counter infiltration and protection of lines of communication. If the CPOs can take on this responsibility to allow the Army to concentrate on its conventional capability at the LoC so be it. Would the CPOs consider being capable of doing this, they need to be asked; haven’t they got enough on their hands in the Maoist areas?
National security is not seen in such black and white terms of roles. It is not easy to fathom and perceive how integration of roles of a force is necessary in as complex a situation as Kashmir where BAT actions, ceasefire violations infiltration, reception, induction into urban areas and execution of terrorist acts are all integrated. Separate the responsibility of countering each and you have a disaster on your hands. This article is courtesy “South Asia Defence and Strategic Review”. The author Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (BAR), Retd is an alumnus of the Royal College of Defence Studies(RCDS), London and has completed a postgraduate degree in International Studies from King’s College, University of London.