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Posted at: Oct 31, 2018, 12:34 AM; last updated: Oct 31, 2018, 12:34 AM (IST)

Guarding against terrorist snipers in J&K

Lt-Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Lt-Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
The alleged employment of sniper squads is a ploy to save numbers and cause some sensation. Any rifle has a 300-400 metre range. Fitted with a night vision sight of the thermal imaging variety, it is a potential sniping weapon in built-up and semi-urban areas where ranges of 600-700 metres are not available.
Guarding against terrorist snipers in J&K
Dynamic: The proxy war in J&K has witnessed changing trends over 28 years.

Lt-Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Chancellor, Central University Kashmir  

The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, is right when he says it may be premature to conclude yet that sniper squads of Pakistan-sponsored terror organisations have entered J&K and the spate of targeted killings of security personnel by standoff fire are their handiwork. The Army works on concrete evidence of such trends which could mean the recovery of specific sniper rifles or night vision sights which could have been used in these attacks; or any other intelligence reports. 

However, it is also true that with one or two such terrorist squads working clandestinely with over ground workers (OGWs), it may take a fairly long time before even partial neutralisation and recovery is effected.

To get the context right, we have had an ASI of the CISF guarding the Wagoora power grid station at Nowgam, on the outskirts of Srinagar, who lost his life from standoff fire. An Army jawan and an SSB policeman also lost their lives in Tral tehsil to similar action a few days ago.  The first such attack by terrorists was reported at Newa in Pulwama on September 18 when a CRPF policeman was injured; it was then considered a one-off strike. 

From the definition point of view, a standoff action means engagement of targets from a distance sufficient to allow the attacker to evade defensive fire from the target area. Even as the security forces (SF) analyse these attacks and ginger up the intelligence grid for more authentic information, it is important to know what the nature of terrorist actions is all about and the contextual relationship with the past.

The 28-year-old proxy war launched by Pakistan's agencies in combination with sponsored terrorists has witnessed dynamic trends from time to time. In the nineties, when the strength of terrorists was substantially higher, it was usual to experience larger ambushes and direct action against the SF, especially the Army whose presence was largely in the rural areas and countryside. Casualties suffered by the terrorists did not deter them as the numbers were quickly made up through exfiltration of locals, training in PoK and re-infiltration; the pipeline of Pakistani terrorists was also open. 

In 1999, the trend changed to suicide attacks through sneak entry into SF camps and government buildings; these had a deterring effect, in the sense more resources had to be employed for security for camps, including enhanced vigilance at gates. 

With the counter-infiltration grid becoming much stronger due to the construction of the anti-infiltration obstacle system (AIOS), the numbers fell and the strength of terrorists reduced to the range 300-500 by 2008-9. That is when the Pakistani agencies (the deep state) advised agitational terror be resorted to and street-turbulence and stone-throwing became the norm. 

There have been many other innovative actions taken by terrorists and OGWs on the professional military advice of the Pakistani sponsors. 

One of the latest has been the employment of flash mobs to actively interfere with SF columns involved in cordon-and-search operations and attempt to cause the escape of the holed-up terrorists while also causing casualties on the mobs. 

It may also be pertinent to point out that terrorists have exercised caution in two particular fields while operating against the SF, ostensibly on the advice of military experts across the LoC. 

First is the desistance from the use of any missiles against helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The threat from these was live for some years when intelligence agencies pointed towards the possession of anti-aircraft (AA) missiles smuggled from Afghanistan. 

Counter-terrorism experts will opine that terrorist groups exercise caution in the choice of weapons and targets based on the potential response of the SF. A downing of a helicopter may temporarily provide big news for terrorists but the energising of the counter-terrorism grid by the SF in response to such an event does not give lasting dividend to the terrorists. 

Similarly, foreign and local terrorists in J&K have thus far never resorted to suicide bombing, a trend largely witnessed in the Af-Pak and Middle East regions. Changing trends could bring fresh ideas even as ideology creates a larger footprint. This is something the Indian SF need to guard against.

So, why the sudden usage of snipers, if this is true at all? 

A simple rationale could be that dwindling numbers do not permit the luxury to conduct sneak attacks in which two or three terrorists will invariably be killed. Preservation of numbers, especially the trained ones, is therefore mandatory. Ambushes too are rare, although in Shopian and Pulwama, of late, ambushes by a small number of terrorists are being witnessed. However, close ambushes which are far more effective, are far and few and chances of effective SF reaction (especially by the Army as part of instinctive training) ends up in terrorists losing lives; again not acceptable due to limited numbers. 

The alleged employment of sniper squads is, therefore, a ploy to save numbers and cause some sensation. It is not necessary to resort to specialised sniper rifles. Any rifle has a 300-400 metre range. Fitted with a night vision sight of the thermal imaging variety, it is a potential sniping weapon in built-up and semi-urban areas where ranges of 600-700 metres are not available. The use of upper parts of buildings or even trees and pylons can be resorted to.  

What is always a dangerous trend is the tandem use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along with ambushes. This month we saw an IED initiated against a mine-protected vehicle (MPV); something experienced after almost 10 years. It indicates the return of an 'IED doctor' or more because IED fabrication is not everyone's game. That's another worry for the SF. 

The danger that the entry of sniping as a concept spells is that it may tempt the terror groups to look towards smuggling in more sophisticated weapons. A definite threat to convoys, troops moving in the open, senior commanders and political functionaries could then be the result. 

How does one counter the terrorist employment of snipers? 

There is nothing new to be taught for this; it is simply back to basics in terms of good infantry soldiering. No camp or vulnerable area and vulnerable point (VA/VP) can ever be treated like a fortress in an irregular operational environment. Areas around it have to be pre-reconnoitred up to the standoff distances, ambushes and patrols emplaced around to surprise potential snipers at their vantage points. Even if these fail to prevent a sniper action, their presence ensures the quickest response to neutralise the offending elements. Similarly, convoy protection through set drills of creating corridors up to standoff distances is mandatory.

Changes in the operating environment should never surprise the Army; in fact it relishes the chance to use its professional expertise to defeat such trends well before they become too dangerous. 

General Rawat would not really be worried because the counter to such threats lies within the realm of basic military training. The Army must ensure that it shares its expertise with all SF to ensure a more than effective response. 

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