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Open up the skies

There’s nothing to stop anti-Maoist forces from getting air support, writes Sudhanshu Sarangi.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2010 21:56 IST

Escaping a well-laid and well-executed ambush is difficult for troops in any combat situation irrespective of their level of training. All tactical commanders, therefore, take the usual precautions that are provided in any standard training manual to avoid getting into an ambush and these are known to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and other paramilitary personnel and combat troops at all levels of the command structure. However, if for some reason precautions are not taken, breaking out is difficult, if not impossible. One has to be simply lucky to survive the attack. The view that the CRPF soldiers were killed because of deficiencies in training is, therefore, simplistic.

The Indian Peace-Keeping Force went to the jungles of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, with some of our best- trained troops. What they had to depend on was not the usual counter-ambush drill taught during training, but heavy weapons like the 84 mm Carl Gustav rocket launcher. Unfortunately, the troops in Chintalbeada in Chhattisgarh were not carrying any such powerful area weapons, in the absence of which training would be hardly of any use. Small teams of commandos can afford not to carry heavy weapons. But if commandos or medium teams of other combat troops enter into an ambush during an intelligence-led operation or a routine area patrolling, the fire power required to give the troops a fighting chance needs to be very high. Firing from small arms like AK-47s and Insas rifles at an invisible enemy will only mean losing ammunition, contributing to more panic and finally getting completely overwhelmed.

Increasing fire power alone, however, is not a fool-proof arrangement when the enemy is well-entrenched, is more in number and has a better control of the ground, and reinforcements are an impossibility. The US Marines or the British Royal Marines, consisting some of the best-trained and best-equipped combat troops in the world, depend on air support to break out of ambushes and attacks. There is no alternative to quick air-support. It is perfectly within the scope of the existing Indian laws for the police officers on the ground to request support from the air force when they are overwhelmed by armed enemies. This is not an issue of law, but of executive policy. Any collateral damage will be minimal and should be acceptable. Once a decision is made, the necessary standard operative procedures (SOPs) will have to be prepared to expedite processing the request for aid.

The Indian Air Force has the capability to support ground troops and to neutralise armed enemies. Necessary resources, logistics and SOPs have to be put in place so that the air force can engage the enemy within 15 minutes of commencement of fire. Our ground troops should carry better weapons and satellite phones and global positioning systems to request air support. This is, of course, not to say that troops should not take the usual precautions not to walk into an ambush.

In April 2009, the Maoists attacked a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) post on Damanjodi Hill in Koraput district,
Orissa. The brave soldiers fought for eight hours without support and did not allow the post to be overrun. Thirty minutes after the firing started, I led a team of commandos to try and reach the post that was 21 kilometres away to support the jawans. The cross-country climb took six hours. By the time support reached nine lives had been lost. Can India dreaming of becoming a world power in the 21st century not have found the resources to provide air support, at least with some light and sound to confuse the enemy? I can never forget the sense of helplessness, agony and frustration that I felt that night while leading the men on the battleground. And still, at least one news portal blamed us, alleging that “the local police had allowed the men to die”.

Sudhanshu Sarangi was the head of counter-insurgency operations and intelligence in Orissa till June 2009

The views expressed by the author are personal