The before and after images of the Jaish terror camp that was bombed by the Indian Air Force

After the ‘surgical strikes’, sniper units have been permanently attached with Pakistan military units

by Joy Mitra

The latest India-Pakistan crisis seems to have dropped off the public gaze as escalation concerns have subsided, but this has happened even as an unabated war by other means has continued on the Line of Control (LoC) and to a lesser extent along the International Border (IB).

According to partial data on the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since Balakot and the subsequent Pakistani response in 79 incidents of ceasefire violations until March 29, 2019, including the raid by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), 17 casualties (2 killed and 15 injured) have been inflicted on Security Forces, while 14 casualties (5 killed and 9 injured) have been inflicted on civilians on the Indian side.

Till March 29, 2019, 135 violations have taken place.

Official data indicates a yearly uptick in ceasefire violations from 2016, when 449 violations took place, with 971 violations in 2017 and 1962 violations until November 30, 2018. Corresponding fatalities suffered by security forces are 13 killed in 2016, 19 killed in 2017 and 24 killed until July 31, 2018. Civilian fatalities stand at 13 in 2016, 12 in 2017, and 28 killed until July 31, 2018.

The current violence has largely been concentrated along certain areas of the LoC, particularly Rajouri and Poonch Districts. It is however not unusual for the two militaries two exact retribution from each other after a major incident, but this dynamic is now complicated with the emergence of new tactics and capabilities.

A slew of acquisitions in the pipeline, however, suggests that India may be pushing to achieve escalation dominance along the border. This could potentially transform into an overt punitive option at lower levels of the escalation ladder.

An evident trend is an increase in the use of sniper tactics. After the ‘surgical strikes’, sniper units have been permanently attached with Pakistan military units.

According to SATP, 4 incidents of sniping along the LoC and IB occurred in 2015; 5 in 2016; 4 in 2017; 11 in 2018; and 4 such incidents already occurred in 2019, till March 26. 29 casualties (15 killed and 14 injured) have been inflicted in these 28 incidents of sniper firing, with almost one casualty per incident.

There is a tremendous psychological advantage that military units derive simply by communicating the presence of snipers, degrading the adversary’s tactical movement and logistical functions and morale.

Since the Indian side of the border is manned in a counter-infiltration mode and often visited by officers, it offers ample and high-value targets for such tactics.

Pakistan uses the latest precision sniper rifles, including the US-made Remington models with an effective range of 1200-1,500 meters, compared to India’s Russian origin Dragunov sniper rifles, with an effective range of 800 meters.

Dragunov rifles are also incompatible with several modern zooming and sighting systems. In a game of margins, even a slight advantage in lethality impacts operational capabilities.

A second facet has been the introduction of higher calibre weapons by Pakistan that marks a definite escalatory trend.

From the initial use of 81mm infantry mortar, firing graduated to 105 mm artillery, and finally to 130 mm artillery, with their greater range and destructive capacities. In response, India has targeted Pakistani positions with the 155mm calibre Bofors guns.

Even as India has always sustained proportional retaliation on the LoC and IB, acquisition trends indicate a quest for total tactical dominance.

The procurement of 5,719 sniper rifles, including Barrett’s .50-calibre M95 and Beretta’s .338 Lapua Magnum Scorpio TGT, of which some have already been inducted for the frontline forces, both with an effective range beyond 1,500 meters, with the former having the ability to penetrate concrete and metal, have the potential to significantly shift the balance.

In addition, India is now starting to conjure up a serious artillery profile. This includes the imported K-9 Vajra-T (Self Propelled Howitzer); M-777 ultra-light Howitzer, and the indigenous 155 mm/45 calibre Dhanush Howitzer.

The indigenous Dhanush, which is still to be inducted, is highly accurate, has better maintenance and a self-propulsion unit allowing better mobility for the hilly terrain.

More importantly, it has a higher range than any towed gun or howitzer artillery gun in Pakistan’s repertoire. On the other hand, the M-777 can be ferried quickly by newly inducted heavy-lift Chinook helicopters.

To add to this arsenal, induction of the indigenous Multi Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) Guided Pinaka II, which can take out targets at more than a 70 to 90-kilometre range with a fairly-low Circular Error Probability (CEP), is also on the anvil.

Without going into further specifics of these weapons systems, it is obvious that the induction of this new equipment in strong numbers will augment the current counter-infiltration stance of the Indian security forces.

The range of some of these weapon systems is also good enough to take out terrorist infrastructure deep within Pakistan held territory.

Artillery duels and sniper fire are already the new normal at the border.

However, India’s edge in both quantity and quality would create an effective punitive option.

Crucially, after the Pulwama/Balakot crises, the political necessity of an overt punitive option without risking fighter jets and pilots would be most appealing. It is significant that there was heavy calibration in the ‘surgical strikes’ in 2016 as well as the Balakot air strikes and in both cases ‘non-military’ targets were attacked.

This, however, is not the case at the border, where both militaries routinely target each other.

The meat-grinding at the border has hitherto served no political objective and has had no impact on Pakistan using terrorism and terrorists as expendable assets.

However, tactical dominance could serve a strategic purpose, particularly as the repeated use of air-strikes will have diminishing returns, especially for want of lucrative terrorist targets away from civilian areas, when the next crisis-point arrives.

Soldiers, unlike militants, are not expendable assets; such tactics, consequently, would have punitive value, though, in the longer term, this could also move the source of escalation between India and Pakistan from major terror incidents to the border itself.