“Kill ratio” down, fewer militants killed for each soldier’s life
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Dec 16
The tactical debacle in Nagrota on Tuesday, in which four militants stormed an army unit and killed seven soldiers, is the latest example of militant fidayeen (suicide attack) teams inflicting disproportionate casualties on army units. On New Year Day, a four-militant team entered the Pathankot air base, killing seven security personnel and injuring 20. On September 18, four militants struck an army camp in Uri, killing 19 and injuring 30 army jawans. In Nagrota yesterday, four fidayeen succeeded in killing seven soldiers, including two officers, before being gunned down themselves.
This is anathema for an army that frowns on a “kill ratio” poorer than four-to-six militants killed for the loss of each soldier. This success rate was maintained even during the most violent years in J&K. In 1999, 270 soldiers were killed while 1082 militants were eliminated (1 : 4 ratio); in 2000, it was 311 killed against 1,520 militants dead (1 : 4.9) ; in 2001, a total of 408 army men laid down their lives while killing 2020 militants (1 : 4.9); in 2002, 362 soldiers died while the army gunned down 1707 militants (1 : 4.75); and in 2003, the price paid for eliminating 1,494 militants was 258 soldiers dead (1 : 5.7).
In the last three years, with militancy on the ebb and the army operating more lightly, the ratio was two-to-four militants killed for each dead soldier. In 2013, 32 soldiers died, while killing 67 militants (1 : 2 ratio); in 2014, it was 31 soldiers dead, while gunning down 110 militants (1 : 3.5); and last year, 28 soldiers laid down their lives while killing 108 militants (1 : 3.8).
With army casualties on par with militant casualties this year, there is pressure to establish what has gone wrong. Even more worrying than casualty numbers is the jihadis’ success in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota at breaching what should have been tightly guarded perimeters, and gaining access to the lightly guarded interiors of military establishments and camps. A brigade commander notes: “We were fortunate that the jihadis could do serious damage only in Uri”.
A fidayeen squad, which must attack from the open against sandbagged and protected sentry posts on the perimeters of army camps, should suffer heavy casualties while forcing an entry. That the militants entered unharmed in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota speaks of poor siting of sentry posts and careless sentries.
Even more worrisome is the tactical sloppiness on the Line of Control (LoC) that allowed the bodies of several soldiers to be mutilated by militants or Pakistani soldiers. When soldiers leave their posts for patrolling or laying ambushes, they are at least a section, i.e. ten men. While adversaries can sneak across the LoC and ambush such a patrol, even cause casualties with an initial burst of fire, trained soldiers start fighting back immediately, according to basic infantry drills.
“Only in one situation can a patrol justifiably allow its dead or injured soldiers to fall into enemy hands --- and that is when every single member of that patrol is dead or badly wounded. Good soldiers do not leave comrades behind”, says a retired general.
In a healthy army, alarm bells would have rung long ago, with basic tactical standards being demanded and subordinate commanders disciplined. Instead, tactical booboos keep getting repeated.
In a vibrant military, the next level of oversight comes from its veterans who, in military culture, are custodians of tradition and professional standards. Unfortunately, veterans gloss over declining professional standards, focusing instead on demands for better pensions, salaries and status --- important issues, but secondary to professional proficiency.
On television, on Tuesday, senior officers downplayed the Nagrota fiasco. One general argued: “I think it is an admission on the part of Pakistan that the surgical strikes [of November 29] were successful.” Said another, on the question of lax perimeter security: “No matter how highly secure you are, [with militants] who are determined to kill and prepared to die, there is no hundred per cent defence against it… These attacks cannot be stopped at the target end, they can only be stopped at the source end.”
In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. India can do little to stop jihadis at the “source end”, i.e. Pakistan. Where the military can stop them is at the “target end” --- through better perimeter security, tactical drills and higher standards of accountability.
The final level of oversight --- the political leadership --- is the quickest to abdicate responsibility. Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, BVL Narasimha Rao, declared on television after the Nagrota attack: “I do believe that after a series of such attacks, we ought to do everything possible to secure ourselves; at least secure our military establishments. But this is not a political [responsibility]… It’s the army themselves… I think they are in a position to take any decision that they need to; they don’t require any government’s intervention in this.”
The government’s disinclination to get involved is remarkable, with tactical debacles like Uri having strategic effects, and creating an imperative for escalation that impacts India-Pakistan relations. At Uri, incompetent management of a camp’s perimeter defence forced the government to order “surgical strikes”. This had the potential for dangerous escalation, while ultimately doing little to deter Pakistani adventurism.
Ultimately, when the Indian Army enters full crisis mode, there is no doubting its ability and resilience. Kargil was an example when, in 1999, tactical and intelligence laxity were set aside and the situation recovered, albeit bloodily. In Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota, examples of individual competence partially retrieved situations that could have played out more damagingly. Yet, the army cannot afford to gift success to militants again. There remains the possibility that a windfall jihadi “success” --- such as the destruction of Pathankot’s fighter aircraft; mass casualties in Uri, or wives and children taken hostage in Nagrota --- could allow a four-man fidayeen team to take India and Pakistan to war.