The most arduous operations in counter-insurgency are road-opening duties. These involve the sanitisation and protection of routes of communication to allow convoys to pass through, unharmed from ambushes, mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or sniping.
The tactics of such operations reflect the Indian Army's extensive experience of road protection in warfare against the tribesmen of the Frontier prior to 1947. The pre-induction training for counter-insurgency (CI) operations always includes a capsule on road-opening party (ROP) duties.
Before deployment a unit carries out reconnaissance, detailed planning, rehearsals and intelligence collection. In addition stores and communications are checked with administrative details being tied up.
Specific sector stores are issued to all units including mine-protected vehicles, mine-detection equipment and prods. Troops are dropped off by mine-protected vehicles (MPVs) 3-4 hours before movement of convoys to sanitise the route. The troops then proceed to search and clear every inch of ground in their area of responsibility (AOR).
Areas and heights dominating the route are also cleared. Usually the same individuals are deployed to the same area every time because of their familiarity with the ground. Even a rock out of place could indicate that the enemy has planted an IED there.
After ground clearance the AOR is either dominated and patrolled or physically occupied with buddy pairs deployed together in visual contact with others. A high degree of alertness is now required to ensure that the enemy does not interfere with movements or attack convoys.
In habited areas physical occupation of the designated route is resorted to because of the higher threat perception. The AOR of a sub-unit is usually 12-15kms with patrolling carried out by reserves placed at strategic points. Night vision devices (NVDs) are used for operations carried out after dark.
As on the Frontier tactical precautions have to be taken while withdrawing to prevent enemy attacks. Insurgents have been known to target RO parties themselves with IEDs. The trick is to avoid patterns of movement and deployment. IEDs could lie in the branches of tree, under culverts and bridges, camouflaged along the road or even dug into the soil.
Solar-activated rockets have been known to have been used. Danger lurks everywhere. The success of such operations contrary to conventional military wisdom lies in having no contact with the enemy.
2 Field Regiment clearing the way
The experiences of the illustrious 2 Field Regiment at Poonch in 1997-2000 are typical of road-opening operations. Their then commanding officer Colonel Rajesh Seth talked about the tough nature of ROP duties and the difficulties faced by troops in carrying them out. A high degree of individual skills like field craft, self-reliance, vigilance and initiative are required. The ability to remain on high alert till the whole operation is over, a period of 12 to 16 hours, is essential. One can judge the physical toll taken on soldiers by the fact that meals are eaten cold while standing up.
2 Field Regiment excelled in these duties as is their wont as a professional outfit. Seth, now leading an active retirement in Chandigarh recalls with satisfaction that the unit lived up to its motto, 'Har Maidan Fateh' (excellence in every field). When the policymakers of this country fail to take heed of the need to bring the service conditions of soldiers to an acceptable level it is to the arduousness of such operations that they should be directed.