“All quiet along the Potomac,” they say,
“Except, now and then, a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro,
By a rifleman hid in the thicket.
— From “The Picket Guard” by Ethel Lynn Beers
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Potomac was the border between the Union and the Confederacy. At points where crossings were not done across the river and in the period when the war had not moved across the Potomac—for some time a state akin to that which exists at the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan existed. The poem above is from that period. The thesis of this article is that what is described as a state of “No War–No Peace” at the LoC is in fact a state of war. In case we must prevail in this war, we need to recognise it as such and build up our capabilities to win in this familiar but paradoxically, unfamiliar milieu.
Sometime in the last quarter of 2017 the US Military conducted a war game based upon the scenario of two nuclear powers fighting a conventional war. The aim was to determine the weapons and equipment needed for 21st century deterrence. One conclusion of that scenario was that it is impossible for two nuclear weapon armed states to fight a conventional war without the danger of the war at some stage crossing into the nuclear realm.
The United States and the USSR during the Cold War, fought wars using proxies all over the globe. This was the substitute to avoid a direct war with each other to avoid a doomsday scenario. In the case of India and Pakistan the option of using proxy states is not possible. We are not super-powers who can motivate other states to be our proxies. In addition is the difficulty of conducting ‘out of area’ operations which are immensely difficult in terms of logistics. Such operations are especially not feasible by Pakistan whose capability to conduct out of area operations’— even in the region— is almost non-existent. Resultantly using Violent Non-State actors (VNSA’s) as proxies, is seen by Pakistan as its winning strategy.
While using VNSAs as a strategy keeps the conflict below a nuclear threshold, there is another form of war which India and Pakistan have indulged in for long which also keeps conventional war below the nuclear threshold. We normally refer to it as ‘Cross-LoC Firing’. This is in effect ‘shooting across the line’, a term used by hunters especially those who own large tracts of land which are their hunting reserves. In hunting ethics shooting across the line is illegal— but very tempting. However, when nations are at war and arrayed on the sides of their respective borders ‘shooting across the line’ is legal. It is legal even if the enemy soldier on the other side is engaged in routine administrative activity, going to the toilet for his ablutions, eating food or sleeping. It is illegal in case the fire is directed at civilians across the Line. In the case of India and Pakistan technically such activities should not occur when a cease fire is in force. On the LoC firing across the Line has happened sporadically throughout its existence after the 1965 war. These are either as isolated incidents by trigger happy or spooked sentries or done deliberately with intent. In most of cases from 1989 onwards firing by Pakistan is with intent. The LoC remained ‘Hot’ from 1989 to 2003 when a Cease Fire agreement was signed by the two countries in Nov 2003 during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Escalations started from 2009 onwards and peaked during the period of the attack at Uri in 2016. A high level of cross LoC firing continues to take place though technically the 2003 cease fire exists. All weapons upto artillery is fired. To get a flavour of cross LoC actions, civilian readers are advised to read the articles “The LoC/IB and Fire Assaults: What’s this all about?” and “LoC—The Downside of BAT Actions” by the erudite Indian Defence analyst Lt General SA Hasnain (Retd) which are available on the internet.
Cross LoC firing was among the tactics used by Pakistan to cover the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC. Over a period of time it has become a way in which conventional war can be kept below the nuclear threshold. With this aim, during the Kargil War of 1999, Indian operations—even by the Indian Air Force— never crossed the LoC. The surgical strikes across the LoC in 2016, while they drew much ire from certain military thinkers for their limited scope and open declaration of having been terminated, are a facet of cross LC firing. They brought in a modicum of ethical acceptability of targeting not the military of the other side but terrorists who are being trained and sheltered on their side of the LoC by Pakistan. Whatever be the Pakistani ranting about not letting their sovereignty being violated, the US drone strikes and Indian cross LC raids, both directed at terrorist targets have been internationally acceptable under the broad parameters of article 51 of the UN charter. Pakistan on the other hand without stating it uses the same argument for sending terrorists or regulars in the guise of terrorists (Border Action Teams–BAT) to raid small vulnerable Indian army posts at the LoC. All BAT actions are strongly denied by Pakistan or attributed to “Freedom Fighters”.
Cross LoC firing serves the following purposes for both sides:
• Enables a form of conventional war to be waged where the aim is to inflict damage on each other’s army without formally crossing the LoC in force and escalating the war. The number of soldiers killed is the measure of ‘victory’ as there is hardly any infrastructure to damage at the border, barring the odd logistics dump.
• Send a message to their respective constituencies that they are punishing the other side for any affront or transgression.
• Maintain or rebuild the morale of troops who may have suffered a reverse through action by the other side.
• Generate political pressure on the other side to desist from an activity by cross LoC firing at civilians. This is highlighted by Pakistani restraint in firing on civilians in the Kashmir sector, fearing loss of local support, and conversely firing at civilians without restraint in the Jammu sector.
This brings this short analysis back to its thesis stated earlier. The thesis is that Cross LoC firing is not ‘No War–No Peace’—which is a manner that it is described as—it is War.If this is the form of war that is going to be waged between the two nuclear weapon armed states of India and Pakistan then we should arm and equip our soldiers to fight this war in a manner that it can be won. We have formalized our response to one type of war i.e war through terrorism by organising specialist military and police forces to fight terrorists by raising organizations like the Rashtriya Rifles or the National Security Guard, by strengthening border guarding forces and raising ‘commando’ units in State police forces. We have done and are doing extensive analysis of the ways and means to combat terrorism through seminars, studies and discussions. Lastly, we have invested in specialised equipment for Counter-Terrorist operations.
On the other hand, all army war games are focussed to fighting a conventional war where there is crossing of obstacles, establishment of bridgeheads, canal and river crossings, offensives, and ripostes etc. As far as cross LoC firing is concerned it is looked at as a side-show to be conducted through improvisation. There is no institutionalized brainstorming at the field formations level or at the training institution level as to how the form of war of “Cross LoC Firing” can be made more effective, what weapons should be procured to conduct it most effectively and how to protect our own troops to the inevitable retaliatory fire which is expected.
The author of this article commanded an infantry battalion in the LoC in the Kupwara Sector and was witness to some of the fiercest cross LoC exchanges of fire. The reflections from that period are that each side tried its best to catch the other off guard. Improvisation was done to utilise long range precision weapons for bunker bursting or inflicting casualties on the enemy. When the Pakistanis brought in heavy machineguns the non-availability of similar weapons was attempted to be overcome by India by using 12.7 mm KPVT and .50 calibre ranging machineguns from obsolete tanks. The ranging machineguns fired a three-round burst and its improvised tripod restricted swivelling the machinegun, but it still gave some confidence. The Pakistanis had old heavy anti-aircraft artillery which enabled them to engage at long distances with 40mm cannon. Old 75/24 howitzers were hauled up steep slopes to enable direct firing which was very effective. Anti-Tank 106mm Recoilless guns were used to telling effect by both sides. Indian improvisation brought in Anti-Tank Guided missiles to target bunkers from where the Pakistanis would fire the venerable 25 pounder guns in direct firing role.
The above reminiscences are brought forth with the sole purpose of highlighting that cross LoC firing is being conducted more as an improvisation using obsolete weapons which are not required for the conventional modern ‘big war’. This mindset must change. This is the conventional modern ‘big war’. We must approach it in a planned systematic manner and not in a knee-jerk manner. Even the media and the people need to be educated about this form of war. Repeated headlines wrongly projecting the Indian State’s helplessness like “Pakistan violates Cease-Fire Once Again” or emotional calls by people and politicians to “Teach Pakistan a Lesson” by going to war need to be tempered by the realisation that this is War.
Courtesy: First published on www.claws.in