The Charm Of 20th Century CE Mechanised Infantry From Sands Of Thar To The Vanni Jungles

The changed threat perception has already reoriented the strategic focus of our armed forces towards the northern borders.

The Charm Of 20th Century CE Mechanised Infantry
From Sands Of Thar To The Vanni Jungles

Training for War

"We were all wet, exhausted and shivering with cold. Suddenly we sensed ground vibrations under our feet and a thundering crescendo of sound enveloped the bridging site. It seemed to emanate from all the cardinal directions of the horizon. We forgot our physical discomfort. With the launch of our bridge successful, the leading Combat Groups of the famed Indian Strike Corps were already homing onto the bridge, in a finely orchestrated manoeuvre, to carry the battle deep into ‘enemy’ territory. The satisfaction of we being the leading elements in setting the stage for the commencement of deep battle and witness from closest quarters the awe inspiring spectacle of the armoured fighting vehicles with battened down hatches, crossing over our bridges in pitch darkness, never ceases to inspire me. It still gives me goose bumps on the skin” – excerpt from “Success From Being Mad” by Col RS Sidhu

Being commissioned into the Mechanised Infantry in the late 70s of the previous century was a walk in the park or so it was assumed on commissioning. That the unit to be commissioned into, was one of the first to be ‘mechanised’ and happened to be equipped with the latest state of the art Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV), spoken only in hushed tones, added to the allure. Probably the famous Onida TV marketing ad of 80s, ‘Neighbours Envy Owners Pride’ was created based on this impression.

So while we the Young Officers and our men did stand tall in any professional gathering, it did come at the expense of sweat and grime of umpteen hours spent under the skin blistering hot sun or the skin fracturing intense cold, both on and under the BMP 1, the short for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty or ICV.

Mechanised Infantry dismounting from BMP for deployment

It meant practicing mounted and dismounted platoon battle drills during day and enduring night long navigation drives, crossing lined and unlined canals on the move, driving buttoned down on rickety bridging, periodic gruelling two sided combat exercises in the larger of which the dust generated haze took a week to settle, and taking part in battle runs with live ammunition on Field Firing Ranges. We learned not to dust off sand and dust from the skin, as it would only embed it further into skin pores. We learned that a dash of jaggery was the antidote to piles of dust we ingested daily. We learned to eat our dust covered packed meals while seated on the moving BMP, magically being conjured through the small commander’s cupola openings. We learned not to touch the metal with open hands during the freezing nights or the blistering hot days. We learned to see through the rains, and the dust clouds enveloping our columns in near zero visibility. We learned that pauses in long tactical manoeuvres were not to take pleasure in a nap, but to maintain the equipment for the next phase. We learned the 72 nipple points through which grease had to be passed, and the tools needed to repair the shed tracks.

We learned to lead our columns in loading/unloading from ramps of tank transporters and train rakes, floatation across canals, firing armaments on the field firing ranges. We learned to dismount from the moving BMP and lead our disoriented fighting stick to capture the objective. We became the veritable ‘Man for All Seasons’ in technical and tactical proficiency.

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2A28 Smooth Bore Semi-Automatic Gun

The spin stabilised projectile fired by the 73 mm smooth bore gun has a muzzle velocity of 400 m/s as against 2000 m/s muzzle velocity of T 72 smooth bore 120 mm gun. The flight trajectory of the 2A28 gun is reasonably complex. Apart from the parabolic arc in the vertical plane, in the horizontal plane the projectile initially follows the line of sight till near 400 mtrs. Then it drifts from the line of sight away from the direction of the wind. Then it changes the direction of drift and begins flying into the direction of the wind till it merges with the line of sight at 765 mtrs and then carries on with further drift till remainder flight. For the pilot gunner to master firing the gun accurately requires continuous practice both on the Field Miniature Range (FMR) and the Field Firing Range (FFR).

The gunner sight 1PN22M2 is quite complex and has to be etched in memory. The figures on its right were for HE ammunition, and those on the left were for sighting HEAT and the co-axially mounted 7.62 mm PKT machine gun. For the missile there was a separate cross-wire. Optical ranging sight graticules are also ingrained on the sight for range finding of standard sized armoured fighting vehicles.

The gun fires two types of ammunition. The High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) against hard targets and High Explosive (HE) against soft targets. The maximum range of the two projectiles is 1300 mtrs and 1600 mtrs respectively. The HEAT had a self-destruct mechanism at 1300 mtrs. Through trial and error method we realised that the HE projectile could achieve ranges upto 6 kms. However, the accuracy beyond 1600 mtrs could not be achieved as the sight graticules on the gunner sight were marked only upto the standard range only. In tactical emergency it doubled up as a mortar!!!

9M 14 M Malutka ATGM

Mastering the first generation, optically tracked, wire guided, 9M14M Malutka ATGM, the main anti-tank weapon was even more complex. The pilot gunner, with his eyes glued to the gunner sight, had to align the target, the beacon on rear of the missile, and the aiming mark of the gunner sight all through the 26 seconds flight time at maximum range. The missile flight path could be controlled through a joy stick, yes a ‘joy stick’, gripped between the thighs! To add to the woes of the pilot gunner, the ‘joy stick’ had a mind of its own, just like the adjacent human ‘joy stick’!!! The missile on launch would not accept any command from the ‘joy stick’ for the first 500 mtrs of its flight, and this early phase flight trajectory could vary in an arc of nearly 90 degrees, in the vertical as well as horizontal planes. There was always a time lag between the command being relayed from the onboard missile control equipment and the processor unit on the missile. Continuous simulator and FMR training was the only answer to master the two weapon systems.

Missiles nearing the end of their shelf lives were generally released for field firing. The electronic circuits of such missiles were quite unreliable and have to be double checked at the firing point prior to loading on the firing platform. Even then cases of the launched missiles tracing trajectories identical to an anti-aircraft missile or even flying 180 degrees rearwards in the general direction of the Fire Control/VIP viewpoint were not unknown. It ensured these gentlemen remain alert.

Today’s third and fourth generation fire and forget missiles are, well, for the kids. No wonder the Pilot Gunner badge was the most coveted in a unit equipped with first generation wire guided ATGMs, and the pilot gunner has the most versatile mind and agile reflexes.

Mechanised Infantry Combat vehicle undertaking floatation

The Driver Compartment

Actually calling it a compartment is a misnomer. It is an enclosed cubby hole barely 2 ½ feet wide, and barely 4 feet in depth and length. It has a complex array of 17 switches, 7 push buttons and assortment of levers and gears to manipulate. Ask any driver of an AFV and he would jump with glee at the idea of changing places with the pilot of a rotary wing aircraft, even if it means dying while trying, rather than his own AFV. The AFV driver is generally the person with the most muscled forearms and great fortitude.

The Fighting Stick Compartment

This compartment, with a seated height at under four feet, with a diesel tank acting as backrest, gives all the appearance and experience of a zigzag crawling tunnel in an obstacle course, during cross-country movement. Its claustrophobic, its nauseous, and exhausting. Sitting cooped in an enclosed fighting stick compartment is one of the most demanding, disorienting and dehydrating experience, and can be sustained only by the most mentally robust and physically fit troops.

Leadership Gruelling

Fifty percent of all training effort is in individual trade and crew integration drills. Thirty percent of tactical training effort is undertaken by platoon tactics and movement drills. Keeping track of the battlefield happenings in the given arc of responsibility, registering the locations of the flanking AFVs, being aware of the tactical situation by monitoring radio communication, all this while remaining cognisant of own location and general line of direction, must come as second nature to commanders at all levels. In mobile battle command and control is first exercised at Platoon level. If the platoon commander has been able to retain command and control over his four AFVs, fighting the battle at upward level is a breeze.

Having to Fight a Different War

Then came the deployment in Sri Lanka as Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), a unique phase altogether. It was nothing like what we had trained for. There was no well-defined enemy. There was no sound and dust synonymous with operations of the mechanised forces. The innocuous looking passages were death traps with remotely exploded Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), plastic drums loaded with up to 200 kgs of explosives, buried deep and surface smoothened. We were deployed in penny packets rather than enmasse. We were fixed to the ground rather than being mobile. We were in a hierarchy that was not familiar with our strengths and weaknesses and neither we with theirs.

But we were quick to learn. Our years spent in learning and practicing the tradecraft of mobile battle would be our saviour. The principles of fighting are always the same. In unconventional warfare flexibility, mental mobility and robustness are key ingredients. The same skills which we had developed over the years training to fight on a mobile battlefield. We learnt our lessons and reformulated our battle drills. We endured our initial losses, and came back with our fresh learnings to lead our troops to success in small team battles.

We insisted and were regrouped into AFV and ICV mix Task forces under organic command and control. We quickly learned to move cross-country and smash through compound walls rather than move on booby trapped roads. We learned to not use the same route twice. We learned to surprise the enemy through speed of our manoeuvre and outfox him with the unexpectedness of our approach. We learned the optimal size of small teams. We learned to suitably equip squads with right weapon mix for the task at hand. We learned ‘make safe’ for rocket launchers to smash our way through surprise encounters. We learned to operate in thick jungles and densely populated terrain. We learned to induct into the battle zone in total silence.

We let our sixth sense grow. We learned to throw the enemy off our scent. We learned to carry odourless food when stealth was priority while operating in jungles. We learned carrying staple Indian food was a big give away, as its odours could be smelled from hundreds of meters away. We learned to suppress body odour, when laying in jungle ambush. We learned not to reveal ourselves to innocent looking cyclists who generally preceded the armed militants. We learned how to read tell-tale signs of imminent militant operation and take pre-emptive action. We learned the essence of mobile check posts. We learned how to seek actionable intelligence through judicious employment of informers. We learned how to effectively dominate our area of responsibility and keep the enemy on the run.

We learned the meeting points of mobile and unconventional warfare.

They are multi directional.

They are highly flexible.

Accurate and timely intelligence is a pre-requisite for success.

Seizing of fleeting opportunities can change the complexion of battle.

Speed and accuracy in decision and execution is the winning factor.

Victory lies with the side which retains its capacity to manoeuvre till the last.

A high standard of gunnery is a prerequisite for the destruction of enemy.

Titles available on Pentagon Press and Amazon

Requiem for the Combat Veteran

We came back home filled with a new pride, having passed the combat test of courage under fire. We had fought a war we had not trained for, but we were fast to learn, and we bested the enemy who was best in his field. We were a battle hardened team.

We returned to more ifs and buts than acclaim. Scars on our bodies mattered not, it was the dents and warts on the war fighting equipment that drew scathing glances. Our easy familiarity with our personal weapons reflected disquiet. Reports of armed guards on duty with loaded magazines sent alarm bells ringing through the environment. We had made the cantonment unsafe!

Hard Beaching By BMPs At Kankesanthurai

Then came the inevitable surveys, inspections and condemnation boards. What were initial whispers, turned into loud ‘I told you so’. In three years in battle zone, the equipment which in normal course should have been good for another fifteen years, had been exploited well beyond its laid down shelf life and was unfit for further war. We held stores not authorised, and were deficient of authorised items. More than 80 % canvas and clothing was in tatters. We held much more than our authorised scale of ammunition. Rocket Launcher HE ammunition had pock marks suspiciously similar to striking pin marks. The precious Malutka missiles were unfit for storage and pronounced dangerous to retain. 2A28 ammunition was without packing material. We were the stuff of nightmares for the new chain of command!

The verdict was pronounced, we not only smelled and looked wild, that we had gone wild. We were the most combat hardened and yet not fit for war!!!

Peek Into The Future

The changed threat perception has already reoriented the strategic focus of our armed forces towards the northern borders. Having mastered operations in terrain along the tropical coasts, the sands of the Thar, the riverine plains on the Western and Eastern frontlines, the next frontier to be conquered is one of the most challenging. The extreme cold climate and extreme high altitude desert plateau of Tibet, the region where the Mechanised Infantry shall seek its destiny in the 21st century CE. I am sanguine, the allure of the Mechanised Infantry with ever new challenges of terrain and technology shall continue to draw the adventurous spirit well into the future.

Col RS Sidhu, Sena Medal is a post graduate in History from Delhi University, and a veteran from the Army’s Mechanised Infantry Regiment with extensive operational service in varied terrain. He also has hands-on experience of dealing with varied facets of IPKF operations from 1987 to 1990 in Sri Lanka, where he had the rare opportunity to serve in all the four sectors.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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