Despite drone warfare and other technological advancements in this field it is widely accepted that the Russian artillery and its traditional artillery practices played a pivotal role in creating havoc in Ukraine and holding the Ukrainian forces at bay. In India too it is acknowledged that the Swedish Bofors guns proved to be a game changer in the Kargil War of 1999.
The effective deployment of artillery by the Indian Army during Operation Vijay and its accurate pounding of high altitude targets helped the infantry dislodge the intruders from heights that had been occupied by them. However not many know that even prior to Kargil the Indian Army had used the artillery very effectively to hold on to its positions at Bilafond La and beat back a strong Pakistani attack on 23rd June 1984 during Operation Meghdoot.
The deployment of Grad-P’s, an 11 kms range, portable, single barrel,multiple launch rocket system (designed in the erstwhile USSR in 1966) along with mortars at an altitude of almost 17999 feet (Bilafond La) played a key role in India being able to consolidate its positions on the Saltoro Ridge. Lt. Gen. Sanjay Kulkarni, then a young Captain vividly recalls how he let loose the artillery barrage on the approaching Pakistanis by instructing his men to give it back to them ‘barsaat ki tarah’ (like the rain).
Colonel Yashpal Yadav of the 111 Rocket Regiment was perhaps the first senior artillery officer who trekked up to the Forward Logistic Base (FLB) (now called Kumar Base) around 19th/20th April 1984 and oversaw the deployment of Grad P rocket launchers on Bilafond La. Commissioned in 1981 from IMA Dehradun he was posted as a Gun Position Officer (GPO) at Janglote, District Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir in 1983.
‘Around December 1983 information was received in the unit than an Officer and a JCO were required for a High Risk Mission (HRM) for which training was to be imparted in Pathankot by the 10 Mechanized Infantry unit. Being the junior most, this responsibility fell on my shoulders so I along with Subedar Kumar headed to Pathankot around 25th December for the training. While we were trained in various operational aspects including sabotage, wire -tapping etc. there was also a lot of emphasis on increasing physical endurance. However we had absolutely no clue as to why we were being trained and where we were to go’, recalls Yadav.
‘Around the first week of January we returned to Janglote and then in late January or early February 1984 we were asked to report to the Pathankot airfield along with our personal weapons which in my case was a 0.38 revolver and in the JCO’s case a 9mm carbine. At Pathankot we found that two Grad P detachments each with 40 rockets and one launcher were already present. We also learnt that they had been trained in High Altitude Warfare and Snowcraft at the High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS), Sonmarg. Since we were novices and had no such training the standard joke at Pathankot was that we had been sent for a Hai Ram Mar (HRM) gaya mission!’
‘Later, while loading the rockets and other equipment on the Aircraft we overheard that ‘all stores for Operation Meghdoot had been cleared for air deployment’. This was perhaps the first time I learnt about an Operation code named Meghdoot. Though we were to land at THOISE along with the equipment, we were forced to turn back to Leh due to poor weather conditions. We finally reached Headquarters Zullu Sector (26 Sector) at Partapur in trucks. Till this time we had no clue either about the mission, purpose or region of our deployment. It was only around Holi Celebrations at Partapur that we were briefed about the deployment of Grad P Rocket Launchers somewhere on the Saltoro Ridge as part of Operation Meghdoot and tasked with ensuring that it is done satisfactorily’, remembers Yadav.
‘The Grad P is a portable multiple rocket launch system consisting of the launcher tube on a tripod and rockets which when fired have a parabolic trajectory. For successful firing it is necessary to have complete knowledge about the impact flight path, speed and the behavior of the system at low temperatures.
Since we had neither trained on the Grad-P nor live fired the rockets ever leave alone at the altitudes envisaged we sought special permission to train and test fire the system for at least two weeks before its actual transportation and deployment. Thankfully Brigadier Khusinder Singh, Commander, 3 Artillery Brigade gave his consent and organized the training by making available the services of a Subedar Major (Assistant Instructor Gunnery) for the said purpose. We took hands on training on the system by first firing three rockets across the Shyok on a hill face in Zullu Sector and thereafter three at North Pullu to test the performance and accuracy at high altitudes.
After the final briefing of the Operation on 12th April 1984 and its commencement on the 13th one Grad-P launcher with 37 rockets was heli- dropped at Sia La and the other set at Bilafond La. To prevent any accidental fire on own airborne assets an orange stripe was painted on the underbody of all planes and choppers operating in the region’.
Yadav recalls that the Pakistani positions on the glacier were below the Indian positions and were clearly visible in the open. This helped them properly position their weapons by calculating the bearing and azimuth of the target so that accurate fire could be directed as and when needed. ‘Once the launcher positions were fixed the Grad-P’s were kept loaded in readiness but the firing mechanism was removed. Thereafter they were adequately camouflaged so that they could not be spotted by the Pakistani choppers’. This operational deployment was completed in April itself.
While Yadav was evacuated from Bilafond La after three weeks due to chilblains the Grad- P wreaked havoc on the enemy on 23rd June 1984. As per official reports the battle resulted in 26 casualties on the Pakistani side. The accurate firing by the artillery also resulted in destroying the Pakistani camp and forced them to move their position from Ali Brangza further down the Saltoro Ridge.
On 24th June 1984, the BBC reported that Indian and Pakistani troops have clashed in the high Himalayas at a place called Siachen. The standoff at the world’s highest battlefield had only just begun.