Himalayan Conflict Forges Artillery Doctrine

A former major who served in the Indian artillery recounts India's experience of fire support operations in difficult terrain here. It is based on a paper presented at Jane's 21st Century Fire Support Conference.

The Indian Army's artillery has adopted a pivotal role in the country's military planning for future operations against its principal adversaries - Pakistan and China. Pakistan's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missiles has forced Indian doctrinal thinking away from maneuver warfare.

Instead, it is now concerned with an ability to inflict heavy attrition in a war limited in time and space. A deep counter-offensive inside Pakistan is neither desirable nor achievable. As a result, India's primary military aim is to degrade as much of Pakistan's standing forces in as short a time as possible.

Against China, however, India has adopted a strategy of counter-attack only: to foil a Chinese offensive on a broad front. A limited counter-attack capability using air power and ballistic missiles (primarily in a deterrent role) is considered an adequate response to Chinese aggression.

Indian military plans are prepared around the necessity to wage what is effectively a war on 'one-and-a-half fronts': that is, to fight a full-fledged conflict with Pakistan in order to decimate its military prowess, and to hold China by means of limited counter-attacks and through diplomatic channels.

Although Pakistan and China are both nuclear weapon states, the nuclear factor is being excluded from this examination. Indian military thinking opines that contrary to its declared policy, Pakistan is unlikely to employ nuclear weapons unless its very existence as a state is threatened. To remove such an eventuality, or the possibility of its occurrence, Pakistan needs to maintain parity at a conventional operational level with India (which it presently enjoys). On the other hand, a Chinese threat of low-yield nuclear weapons usage on the Himalayan battlefield is real.

India's artillery, which includes ballistic missiles, is the only organic arm of the country's army that possesses an ability to switch between a general support role and close support of the tactical battle, and to move firepower from one front to another in acceptable time. In operational terms, the role of the artillery is being redefined from that of a combat support arm to a combat arm in its own right.

The Indian artillery operates in varied terrain that includes desert, glaciers, high altitude, jungle, mountainous, semi-mountainous, and plains. The thrust of this article will focus on the Himalayan battlefield that has a mix of jungle, mountainous, and high altitude terrain; and on the Siachen glacier.

The guiding philosophy of India's field artillery is to standardize the caliber of weapons in service, to seek ammunition compatibility with guns of the same caliber but of different regional origin, to give equal importance to both projectile and projector, and to utilize optimally the imminent induction of ballistic missiles.

This philosophy has been influenced by five considerations:

The changes in potential targets inside Pakistan since linear defenses and supporting field works along the border with India are heavily reinforced with concrete fortifications. A successful engagement of hardened defenses is possible only with heavier caliber shells with high terminal velocities;
The expansion of mechanized forces within the armies of India and Pakistan has underscored the need for large caliber artillery systems and higher rates of fire;
A determination to reduce the logistics complexities of operating guns of 14 different caliber, through a program of rationalization;
The development of better roads and tracks in India's mountains means that many mountain guns can be dispensed with, although some systems which can be transported by pack animals will be retained;
Between India and Pakistan, an induction of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads will force a change of doctrines and affect basic principles of war (such as 'concentration of mass') which are essential for a 'break-out' of strike formations through the opponent's linear defenses. A fear of collateral damage without any accompanying territorial gains would limit the use of ballistic missiles. On the other hand, ballistic missiles such as the indigenous Prithvi missile are ideal for use on a Himalayan battlefield against China where there is little fear of collateral damage.

At present, the artillery has about 760 130mm M-46 field guns in 36 regiments (battalion-equivalent) and plans to have 60 regiments equipped by 2000. There are 410 Bofors 155mm FH-77B howitzers for general support and counter fire. In the plains, all regiments equipped with the 105mm Indian Field Gun are earmarked to convert to the M-46. The 105mm Light Field Gun regiments in the mountains will remain in place until 2010. A regiment each of 7.2in and 5.5in field guns (for general support), and the 105mm Abbot self-propelled howitzers, are expected to be phased-out before next year.

The 75mm Pack Gun-Howitzer is used for close support in mountains. While the splinter effect of the latter's shell is unsatisfactory, as a portable equipment some examples are likely to be kept in service beyond 2010.

Retiring regiments

The few regiments equipped with 122mm D-30 towed howitzers are expected to retire by 2010. The single 160mm M58 Tampella heavy mortar regiments is likely to be phased out later this year. The 120mm AM-50 Thomson Brandt smoothbore mortars, which are effective to a range of 9,000m with PEPA/LP extended range ammunition, will stay in service.

Under the field artillery's rationalization plan by 2010 the towed artillery will be based primarily on the 130mm M-46, the 155mm FH-77B, and a select number of M-46s upgraded to 155mm caliber. The 105mm Light Field Gun, which is of limited effectiveness in offensive operations or against concrete bunkers, will continue to be employed in the mountains.

The 15-year war (see IDR 12/1997, pp58-61) being fought between India and Pakistan on the Siachen glacier is a localized middle-intensity conflict. It occurs at an altitude of 10,000-21,000ft across a battlefield that is 76km in length and varies between 2-8km in width.

With the stabilization of the military held line, called the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), the Siachen war has become an artillery battle. India is confronted by more problems than Pakistan because its troops are encamped at higher altitudes - 18,000-21,000ft - upon the Saltoro Ridge, the western edge of the glacier facing Pakistan.

Typical locations on the Saltoro Ridge comprise 'nests' of medium machine guns and automatic grenade launchers, with nearby detachment shelters and fighting positions. A preferred item for shelters is parachute material; there are common cases of cold-arrest of small arms and support weapons, which are overcome by a combination of the wrapping of arms, body heat, and partially successful lubricants developed by the DRDO.

Pakistani artillery includes OTO Breda 105mm Model 56 pack howitzers, 122mm howitzers in troop strengths, 5.5in gun/howitzers deployed as single pieces, and 82mm and 120mm mortars employed in section or troop strength. Pakistan has four independent routes to the Saltoro Ridge from its Dansum garrison, and each has its quota of fire support. Guns at Baltoro take care of the area of Sia La to Khondus, and others have been placed to bring down accurate fire on Indian positions on the AGPL.

Early deployments of Indian artillery were of 81mm and 120mm mortars. It was realized that the Pakistani gun deployments on the Baltoro glacier firing across Convey Saddle-Concordlia at Sia La, and the positioning of artillery to fire at Gyong complex, had to be taken-on by strengthening India's own artillery assets. Moreover, with a stabilization of the AGPL, there arose a need for more artillery for counter-fire purposes.

The initial artillery deployments on the Siachen glacier were of 105mm Indian Field Gun and 130mm M-46 guns. After being broken down into split loads, the guns were dropped on the glacier by Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopters, where technicians re-assembled them at surveyed locations.

The 105mm guns were deployed at the forward logistics base (called Kumar) and north of it to support Sia La. The heavier 130mm guns were deployed at the base camp. Parachute drops on the Siachen glacier carried out a substantial strengthening of artillery guns and ammunition in 1987. It must be pointed out that if India and Pakistan agree to the withdrawal of their forces from the Siachen glacier, India will have to destroy the artillery guns and huge amounts of ammunition kept along the 76km glacier length, as it cannot be retrieved.

Consistent delivery

ZU-23 twin anti-aircraft guns are being used in a direct fire mode, and Russian shoulder-fired 'Igla' (SAM-16) missiles are available to troops in sufficient numbers.

With the completion of a Class 40 road on the east bank of the Nubra river, between Partapur and Siachen Base, one battery of six Bofors FH-77B howitzers was introduced in Siachen in 1987. Once stabilized, the FH-77B has shown itself to be both accurate and consistent, achieving a range of 42km from altitudes of 12,000ft using High Explosive Extended Range (HEER) base bleed ammunition. The battery is deployed at Siachen Base, and it is interesting to note that India's 150km-range Prithvi missile can be deployed at any location the FH-77B can reach.

Some of the problems faced by artillery at the Siachen glacier are:

paucity of gun areas, which are extremely limited; given the lack of space, guns are deployed in troops and at times even singly;
Pillaring' effect, because the gun pits are covered with tarpaulin to prevent slush from dirtying the guns. This does not allow direct sunlight to fall on the gunpit beneath the guns. As a result, unlike surrounding areas, snow under tarpaulin does not melt which results in guns being perched on a pillar;
freezing of fluids due to sub-zero temperature, hence special arrangements for cleaning the equipment are required;
survey is difficult as most of the glaciated area is not well mapped;
shells land in snow and as a result they either do not burst, or their splinter effect is reduced;
visibility remains restricted making observation difficult;
in blizzard conditions the surrounding environment becomes 'whited out' and visibility is reduced to a few meters, making navigation difficult and causing personnel to lose their sense of direction;
The range tables produced for the various guns were not tested at high operating altitudes, and the demonstrated ranges in this region are notably higher then those given in the tables. Firing data has to be extrapolated, and predicted fire may not be accurate;
Guns are a lucrative target for the enemy; hence security of gun areas assumes greater importance. Guns are deployed in troops which means manpower is limited for local defense;
Performance of signal equipment is poor because of the climatic conditions. Maintenance of telephone lines is problematic, compounding communications difficulties. It is not uncommon to find the Indian brigade headquarters lacking contact with up to 30 of some 110 posts on the Saltoro Ridge at any given time in clear weather;
Extreme climatic conditions reduce efficiency of both men and equipment. Wear and tear on equipment is amplified, and it needs to be noted that at heights above 18,000ft no acclimatization of the human body is possible.

On the Himalayan battlefield facing China, the artillery has problems of mountainous and jungle terrain. Some of the important ones are:

again, gun areas are limited which restricts deployment of guns to a few places;
the presence of terrain features creates problems of crest clearance - guns are required to fire at a high angle;
ground observation is restricted to the next crest, and visibility is restricted;
mountains are generally not well mapped, and there is a need for physical reconnaissance of ground at all levels;
Road communications are limited in extent and poor in quality. The available roads and tracks can become easily blocked as a result of bad weather or enemy action. Extensive engineering efforts, good movement planning, traffic control, and recovery arrangements are needed to maintain the flow of movements. During operations, the security and protection of the land communications assumes great importance;
Mechanized transport cannot move cross-country, and the fire support and logistic requirements of infantry units conducting wide out-flanking movements have to be met using animal transport or porters. Sufficient topographical information should be available to determine the best routes for cross-country movement of troops. It must include information about soil formation, characteristics of land forms, drainage and cover;
Broken ground, irregular mountain topography, and reverse slopes provide numerous places for concealment and cover. The soil is generally thin or stony and the bedrock hard; this makes digging difficult. Observation is variable and range estimation is particularly deceptive. At lower altitudes, there is considerable vegetation that provides cover but restricts observation. As altitude increases, vegetation becomes thinner that reduces concealment but increases observation until the tree line is reached. Above the tree line, broad areas of observation are available in clear weather;
The mountain air is relatively dry and thin. Dryness increases with the altitude but atmospheric pressure registers a corresponding decrease. These cause a great strain and other adverse biological reactions on human bodies.

In jungles it is hard to provide effective artillery support because observation is poor, gun positions are few, deployment of guns is difficult, and the supply of ammunition is a major problem. Ammunition must be strictly controlled as the supply route would be overburdened. A large expenditure of ammunition on unwarranted targets may result in shortage of ammunition at a critical time.

In this terrain, hostile infantry patrols and small task forces find it comparatively easy to maintain themselves and to operate from bases that are easily concealed. Raids may be expected from any quarter. Gun areas are particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

If the hostile defensive system is based on a network of bunkers or dugouts on the sides of hills, this presents a formidable objective as the bunkers are difficult to locate and hard to neutralize except by a direct hit. The best method of destroying such strong points is by use of anti-tank weapons and by direct fire of tanks, provided a field of fire at safe distance is available. Use of artillery guns in a direct role poses problems and is not very effective. However, the lines of communication of the enemy are usually clearly defined and harassing fire directed against enemy supply organizations can be particularly effective.

High-angle advantages

Crest clearance problems and the need to fire on reverse slopes increase the value of weapons capable of firing at a high angle. It will be difficult for artillery detachments to accompany units moving off from the main axis, on flanking maneuvers or special tasks, to give close and intimate support.

However, artillery systems with long range can cover - from existing gun positions - an advance both along the main axis and on an outflanking maneuver. As gun positions are few, long-range artillery has the additional merit of reducing the number of artillery units required. The ideal gun is one that has a high trajectory, and can be towed by a jeep or carried by mules. It should be air transportable and capable of being air dropped.

The number of observation parties required will be large. These parties will need additional aid in carrying their equipment and for close defense. Good vantagepoints for artillery observation may have to be held and included in the forward defended localities of the infantry. Since it may not always be possible to provide the desirable number of observation post parties, it is necessary for infantry officers to be trained to conduct shoots so that every opportunity to engage targets is seized.

The meteorological conditions will vary considerably and will change constantly. The availability of accurate meteorological data becomes important especially for the engagement of defensive fire tasks.

Positions for radar will be difficult to find and sound ranging equipment is not effective owing to the difficulty of laying out the bases, deflection of sound by hills, and its muffling by trees and undergrowth. For counter bombardment, airborne observers should be used; they should be sent out during an enemy bombardment in order to locate and engage hostile batteries accurately.

It is difficult to estimate accurately the time infantry will take to reach the objective; hence, artillery fire plans will more often be 'on call' rather than on a measured times program. Greater reliance will thus be placed on effective signal communications. 'On call' fire plans would also assist in control of ammunition expenditure that is essential in jungle terrain; control of fire should be vested with the forward observation officers. The fire plan must be very flexible and capable of being modified quickly.

Due to the close country, map reading poses problems. Observation post officers and gun position officers must carry out continuous map reading while on the move. Up-to-date maps need to be made available to units and formations operating in such terrain.

Survey in jungle terrain is problematic and time consuming. Due to close country and inter-visibility problems 'linking up' and establishing a common grid for all fire units involved in a particular operation would be difficult. Since gun areas would likely be few, it would be pertinent to have them compact, thereby assisting in survey and ensuring coordinated local defense of the gun areas. Time allocated for survey tasks should also be increased.

Engagement of targets by observation post officers is difficult because of a lack of observation, target acquisition and indication, and tree bursts. Smoke rounds would be useful in assisting observation, and may be resorted to salvo ranging where necessary. Time for engagement and ammunition expenditure for ranging would be more than in other terrain. Air observation posts would also be useful in registering targets.

Future trends

Seeds of a future conflict between India and China lie in the disputed eastern sector. India has a disputed 3,054km border with China, which occupies 38,000km of Indian territory and claims another 90,000km in this eastern sector, an area of jungle and mountainous terrain.

Purely in terms of artillery, the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has a few groups of M-9 and M-11 missiles in Tibet, which can be fired to strategic ranges or for counter-air and interdiction roles.

The Indian artillery has an edge over the PLA, since the latter suffers from across-the-board restricted high-angle capability. Both sides possess comparable infantry firepower with direct-fire application. The rough mountainous terrain will force both sides to use old anti-tank recoilless guns, rocket propelled grenades, and automatic grenade launchers in direct-fire applications during advance as massing of artillery weapons would slow movement or get diluted because of inadequate deployment space.

To overcome the problems of artillery mentioned above, the following future trends are likely. With improvements in metallurgy and recoil options, guns could become lighter with an automatic high angle and 360 traverse capability. The 105mm Light Field Gun would be replaced completely by longer ranging 155mm guns. Considering that tactical redeployments and inter-sector movements of the FH-77Bs are limited, the strategic reserves would have to be of a high order. More accurate mortars would be inducted into service.

High-altitude tables would need to be more accurate and the meteorological data of a high order, based on airborne instrumentation.

Smart ammunition is likely to be produced in India with technology transfer from friendly countries. Future 155mm shells could be fitted with unjammable proximity fuses, and include guided (laser, radiation or IR homing) and dual-purpose (anti-tank and anti- personnel types) improved conventional munitions types, or remotely delivered mines. The artillery would also be looking at ramjet shells with a range of up to 70km, and more effective projectiles with a long shelf life.

In operational terms, top priority would be accorded to better communications and surveillance, including intelligence gathering and interpretation. Inputs would be based on data gathered from satellite, remotely piloted vehicles, and thermal imagers. Effective remotely placed sensors would assist in salvo firings.

Heliborne units on the horizon

While development of an Indian strategic airlift capability is a distinct possibility, a heliborne tactical operations capability is likely by 2020. Heliborne rapid action forces would possess organic firepower and would be capable of airborne delivery of mines. The Siachen theater is likely to receive such a capability on a priority basis for ammunition re-supply and for local redeployments with several days' ammunition autonomy. There would need to be a quantum jump in communications capability based on airborne relays for fast-moving battles and ground towers for static defensive battles.

On the Siachen glacier, there is a need for infrared camouflage nets for concealment of equipment from enemy air observation. There is also a need for better ground-based radar to replace the current line-of-sight types, and later on for airborne radar.

The maps of the northeast region with China and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir are inadequate. There is a need for digital maps with an appropriate scale that can be used with present guns. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle would be an important asset in order to scan large areas for later artillery exploitation. Finally, more indigenous Prithvi missiles would be allocated to the Chinese front than the western theater with Pakistan.