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Zarb-e-Momin, Hard realities-III

One should never underestimate one’s opponents, with its preponderant military might. India’s giant status can never be in doubt. In real terms, Indian Armed Forces at the very least outnumber Pakistan’s in a ratio of 3:1 and at places more than 5 to 1. To counter this numerical strength, Pakistani generalship has to be above par, its basic soldiering nothing short of magnificent. The question arises, are we upto the challenges — or like is the norm, all is noise and storm — and we are at most paper tigers?

To bring this series on Zarb-i-Momin to a conclusion, one is led to discuss the real and abstract realities, in isolation and also in relation with each other.

The first hard reality is that our Navy is vastly outgunned and outnumbered. Over the years this has amounted to criminal neglect, this handicap being created by a mixture of government indifference compounded by weak Naval leadership over the last many decades. The result has been that in contrast to the rapid development of the Pakistan Air Force the Navy has been given what amounts to step-motherly treatment in the allocation of funds. During the past few years a gradual realisation about fundamental weaknesses in our coastal defences has encouraged successive civilian governments of Mohammad Ali Khan Junejo and Ms Benazir Bhutto to think “Navy”, rapid improvement in numbers and equipment has been the result. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Navy is reluctant to be based away from Karachi, at least partly, the result is that our coast is almost completely denuded, naval stations in some strength which could have been operational in Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara are still in the planning stage or at the most at proforma skeleton strength. Till recently the professionalism of the Naval Officer has been much below par, it is only now that as the post-1960 batches are coming into senior command and staff appointments the level of competence has shown marked improvement, without any doubt the battle units are much above par, one is proud to acknowledge. One wishes that the Naval hierarchy would look at all the relevant factors to be of some direct consequence to the land and air battle, one physical weakness of Zarb-i-Momin is that while the PAF Exercise “Highmark” was dovetailed into the present Army exercise plan, the absence of the Navy is a mistake. The Navy could have organised the coastal defences, in particular that of Karachi and Qasim’s Port in conjunction with the available air and para-military forces in the area. The Naval posture towards India should take into cognizance the fact that we can never match their surface battle fleet, but with an intelligent mix of smaller missile torpedo boats and deep-water submarines supported by the PAF we can cause great attrition to the Indian fleet if it comes within our act of defence, in fact even outside the arc they should become the hunted. The predilection of our Admirals to have a largely ceremonial surface fleet at great expense must be curtailed by realistic thinking. With our available forces, naval raids a la 1971 by India should not be any more possible but given their two aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, naval blockade will certainly be enforced by them, our penchant must be to find out an inexpensive method to make it expensive for the Indians.

The 1971 war saw, the area of the desert denuded of air cover, amounting to almost total disaster. The then Air Chief was not told by the Army of the air effort required in the south thus causing great material and psychological damage to our ground troops and to the civilian population. It is a must for our Air Defence planners to build up a comprehensive security plan. While it would not be correct to comment upon the phases of air operation in a future war with India one can only state that there is a grey period between Counter Air Operations and Land Support Operations where there is an Air Support Vacuum. The other point is that Land Support Operations against similar targets is expensive, both in terms of usage and possible attrition, we have to have intermediate forces available that will not only fill the gap but will provide the local ground commanders with an air effort. To a great extent this has been filled with the Cobra helicopter gunship, but this battle force-multiplier has a limited capability, constrained by the effort required and availability of aircraft. The helicopter gunship is a costly machine, not as much as an F-16 but even if it is 2 to 3 times less it is expensive. The answer could be to create a poor man’s airforce based on short landing and take-off fixed wing propeller-driven aircraft. With strengthened wing pylons the same air-to-air and air-to-surface missile as that employed by the PAF will be available for deployment. While one would not expect the small fixed wing aircraft to take on an enemy yet aircraft, an air-to-air missile is at least a protective deterrent, much more than a Stinger missile, the airborne platform gives it the potential of a third dimension. As a tank buster the fixed wing slow moving aircraft needs no elucidation. It would create a great psychological impedance to enemy aircraft who will find themselves likely to be taken on by small slower moving aircraft in the vicinity of our sensitive targets. The fixed wing aircraft is a stable gun platform from where to engage enemy armoured formations with rockets and anti-tank missiles, even soft vehicles from a Stand-off distance. There is likely to be severe attrition on the poor man’s airforce in battle but its capability to operate from main roads makeshift dirt runways would give an extra-airborne punch to the local ground forces commander. Typically, 12 fully armed fixed wing light aircraft would cost probably less than half as much as one F-16, if one were to create 6 such squadrons the cost would be that of 3 x F-16s. Since the recurring theme of all the Commanders we met at Formation down to Unit level was time and space, a poor man’s airforce bridges the time and space dimension which may be critical in wartime. The Army has shown great initiative and innovation in creating an Air Defence Command, the Corps Commander’s capability to support his own forces for some time with limited air effort would be the cutting edge leading to battle victory.

One is impressed by the improvement in the basic military education of the officers and jawans, the professionalism was of a very high standard and it shows. Particularly one is struck by the quiet motivation of the Army’s rank and file, there is no bravado or the false veneer of yesteryear. The military will is very much evident as the COAS, General Aslam Beg, has stated, it is in the individual as well as the Army as a whole. Furthermore, the rank and file of the Army is well read, very much current with the domestic and international situation. They well realise that they are living through exciting times, have been placed in an unusual geo-political situation, have an outstanding commander supported by able superior officers with whom they are mutually comfortable and have the potential to be instrument of grand political design if the military will is matched with the political will. From the undeserving image created by the Ojri Camp disaster barely 18 months ago at the tag end of a debilitating Martial Law, this has been quite a turnaround. Right from the evening of August 17, 1988, it has been a collective senior officers decision, a recognition that they were losing touch with their own people and their profession while being used as pawns for personal ambition. Situations may well arise in the future which does not altogether rule out military rule, an effective threat to the politicians to keep their house in order, the Army’s future lies in keeping true to its sole mission in life, safeguarding of the sovereignty of the country while being subservient to civilian rule.

Those who are familiar with military history should know that mobile battles, offensive or defensive, are increasingly based on Corps and Brigade plans, Divisional Headquarters are becoming somewhat of a luxury. The Divisional Headquarters is not altogether obsolete, particularly in fixed defensive positions but savings in men, material and money could be made by reducing the number of Divisional Headquarters except those suited for a particular situation. Some Tactical Headquarters must be available with the Corps for use in wartime as and when necessary. The normal military reaction would be to laugh this suggestion off (it does reduce the number of Major Generals employed), the COAS and his planning staff must give serious thought to this aspect.

The other aspect has been the clear difference between the arms and equipment newly-inducted and the basic infantry weapon of the soldier, a credibility gap if there ever was one. Given our proclaimed penchant for an offensive doctrine, this is not acceptable. The NATO standard Rifle G-3 calibre 7.62 is an obsolete weapon for the 90s what to talk about the 21st century. During an offensive, our men will have to carry their first line ammunition on their person. By reducing to a 5.56 calibre the infantry ammunition load is doubled. Logistics makes a critical difference during any offensive, with a better weapon one give the leading edge to our soldiers.

The most important aspect of our offensive capability is the employment of armoured formations. One does not doubt our tactics but the Indians have an edge as regards armoured motorised equipment having a large number of Russian origin BMPs (Armoured Personnel Carriers). An armoured personnel carrier should not be used as a “Battle Taxi”, it should be capable of carrying troops right onto the tactical objectives itself. We have persisted with the APC M113 in its A1 or A2 version for the last 3 decades, indeed it is an excellent performer and still achieves the required results but for the future we must select a modern armoured fighting vehicle which can and should be manufactured indigenously. The manufacture of large numbers would be economically feasible, given our existing facility it is even now possible. However, the selection be done with due care keeping in view the future, one good point of APC M113 was that it is amphibious allowing limited river fording capabilities for large armoured formations. The COAS has talked about a Main Battle Tank being developed indigenously, one hopes that with the criteria for a suitable gun, its speed and manoeuverability factor will keep it light and fast. Modern day behemoths will get it sooner than later and must be avoided. The Main Battle Tank is to the army general what a battleship is to an admiral of the navy.

The overall impression one gets from Zarb-i-Momin is extremely favourable. It is a multi-dimensional exercise being performed at a critical geo-political juncture with manifold objectives. It has created a great psychological impact on our own nation, a turnaround from the dominance the Indians were getting in the South Asian region from their own psy-war activities symbolised by regional adventures. The ability to carry the war onto Indian territory will have a commensurate effect on the Indian public. The Army exercise thus fulfils a strategic purpose, one that Sun Tzu talked about 3,500 years ago when he propagated that the intention should be to break the enemy’s fighting spirit without actually going to war.

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