Crossing a red line - There was nothing on their minds except the success of their mission. Not the 19 soldiers who had been killed in Uri on September 18, nor their fate if they were captured alive.
On the night of September 28, close to 100 specially trained operators exhaled gently as they lay in wait at multiple locations across the Line of Control. The moon had waned to a thin, near-invisible crescent. Until H-hour, the cutting edge of the Indian army's Parachute regiment Special Forces, Para-SF for short, did not exist. They blended into the rugged topography because they had reduced their four S-es-shape, shine, silhouette and smell. Their combat fatigues blended into the forest, their faces were streaked with camouflage paint. Their skin was covered in a thin film of mud to suppress body odour. Their weapons had been blackened. They had lain in ambush for over 48 hours.
There was nothing on their minds except the success of their mission. Not the 19 soldiers who had been killed in Uri on September 18, nor their fate if they were captured alive.
The operators were the decisive tip of a very long spear that began in the army's Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO) on the first floor of South Block. Here, India's military leadership sat with their political bosses, the prime minister and the defence minister. It passed through the Northern Army Command's bunker in Udhampur that planned the operation, and, finally, led across the border.
For days now, the SF teams had stalked their targets-launchpads used to infiltrate militants into India.
At H-hour, a coded signal went out to the teams. The operators opened up with the portable artillery they had backpacked across the LoC-Carl Gustaf rocket launchers, thermobaric rockets, under barrel grenade launchers clipped on rifles and 'Milkor' multiple grenade launchers that spat out six 40 mm grenades in one pull of the trigger.
Six launchpads at Kel, Lipa, Athmuqam, Tattapani and Bhimber, located within five kilometres of the LoC, were hit near-simultaneously. The explosions were captured on hand-held cameras and by Indian Army drones floating above, relaying the images back to base. At each location, the operation was terminated in minutes.
"It was a destruction mission, they did not engage their targets with small arms fire nor wait to count casualties," one official says. The weapons were chosen to inflict the maximum structural damage. The Russian Shmel, for instance, is called a flame-thrower by its manufacturer as it ignites a fuel-air mix that collapses structures and has the impact of one 155 mm Bofors shell.
The commandos had accomplished a textbook 'raid' after infiltrating enemy-held territory. The US Special Forces Operational Techniques' field manual FM 31-20, one of the few such documents that is publicly accesible, hails overland infiltration "as the most secure way of getting the Special Forces team into place, especially if time is not crucial. Distance is not necessarily a problem for well-equipped Special Forces personnel, trained to use their skills, wits and resources".
This is precisely why Indian SF operators eschew helicopters. They lack mission-specific helicopters like the stealthy Ghost Hawks Navy Seals used in the 2011 raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
Indian SF operators who do 30-km cross-country speed marches with 40 kg backpacks are comfortable with stealthy landborne insertion. They know the swathe of dense virgin temperate forest on the LoC like the back of their hand. They navigate around the 'nars' or dry river channels leading into the Kishenganga and know which ridges to take to evade detection.
They are at home in the 2 km no man's land belt where vision drops to less than a metre in broad daylight and the crackle of twigs could well be a wild bear, a marauding panther, a militant or a Pakistani SSG operator.
The commandos maintained their composure throughout the mission. At one camp which they staked out, terrorist sentries randomly hosed the trees around with assault weapon fire. Shredded leaves showered the waiting commandos, making them wonder if the mission had been compromised.
Army officials in the know say the number of casualties on the terrorist side are only guesstimates based on how many terrorists and their supporters are within each camp. There were no casualties on the Indian side. One operator sustained foot injuries when he walked across a mine on the way back. He did not cry even once. A commando attributes it to the adrenaline surge during these missions and say the build-up causes post-action nausea and vomiting.
In what is believed to be a first for such missions, the operators took visual evidence of the strike. One team waited until daybreak, past 6 am, to capture a camp being blown up on video. The infrared bloom in one of the launchpads led the brass to wonder whether the operators had hit a weapons dump. The footage was carefully analysed by army and intelligence sources and shown to the leadership before India went public with the strike.
At noon on September 29, while the launchpads were still smouldering, DGMO Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh addressed a press conference in New Delhi announcing that India had carried out 'surgical strikes' 'along' the border after receiving specific and credible input on terrorists planning to infiltrate into India to carry out attacks.
"During these counter-terrorist operations, significant casualties were caused to terrorists and those providing support to them," Lt Gen Singh said, the restrained statement coming 11 days after he had vowed to respond to the Uri attacks at "a time and place of the army's choosing".
The signal to move in had already been given days after the Uri attack as the government seethed in its aftermath and the mounting public pressure for retaliation. An 'Eyes Only' file one officer calls the 'book of targets' kept in a secure location within the DGMO, was opened. The targets were identified in consultation with the Northern Army Command. Updated image feeds of the camps were taken from intelligence agencies.
The first teams of SF operators were infiltrated across the LoC to conduct Close Target Reconnaissance (CTR), a crucial element in the planning process. It identifies targets, verifies they are operational and reverts to the planners who then wargame the operation.
The CTR teams staked out and identified the targets, the infiltration routes and the approximate times for infiltration and exfiltration. They took pains to evade thermal imagers on the Pakistani side. One infiltration route ran through a counter-infiltration minefield laid by the Indian side, littered with buried anti-personnel mines. The team chose to mark a safe route through this lethal obstacle as an alternative route would take time.
The planners kept the operation secret and anonymous. Unlike previous cross-LoC missions, it was not given a name, nor were written orders issued. The infiltration teams were believed to have been sent into the Indian posts on the LoC in disguise before their launch, to keep their arrival secret.
Predictably, Pakistan disputed the Indian army's version. "The notion of a surgical strike linked to alleged terrorists' bases is an illusion being deliberately generated by India to create false effects," the Pakistan army said in a statement.
Indian military commanders have chafed at their inability to strike at militant sanctuaries just across the border. At the height of the Kargil war in 1999, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee issued orders to his military commanders that the LoC was sacrosanct. This, when military advice indicated that the war could have been terminated even sooner had India struck Pakistan's supply routes and bases across the LoC. Vajpayee, however, wanted India to retake the Kargil Heights from a moral high ground.
War apart, cross-border operations across the LoC have been commonplace for decades, part of establishing 'moral ascendancy' over the adversary and conducted at the battalion level. The November 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan drastically reduced such operations, but they began a decade ago when both armies began targeting each other in a cycle of violence and counter-violence.
Army officials privately admit to at least two cross-border SF raids in 2008 and 2011. But these were authorised by the Northern Command in retaliation to specific action by Pakistan army Border Action Teams (BATs).
Surgical strikes against Pakistan-based terrorists, including specific operations to target their leadership, were discussed by the Manmohan Singh-led cabinet committee on security in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. These were abandoned for lack of precise targeting information and, more importantly, what one participant in the meeting calls, a clear lack of political will.
To that extent, the September 29 raid authorised by the topmost political leadership and later broadcast to the world, marks a radical departure in policy. The September 29 operations covered a frontage of over 200 km, both north and south of the Pir Panjal range. In that sense, it was also a step-up from the June 6 raid by Indian SF on NSCN(K)-PLA camp after its guerrillas ambushed and killed 18 Army men in Chandel, Manipur. The raid was carried out with the knowledge of the Myanmar government.
Whether the September 29 strikes mark a permanent change in the government policy of restraint remains to be seen. Army brass believe this operation is a one-off. "There is no change in policy at the formation level," a senior army official says.
The army is quick to underline that this surgical strike calls for a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to undertake a range of future clandestine and covert operations. This command was first proposed by the army in 2002 but shelved. The proposal was resurrected by the Naresh Chandra committee in 2011. The SOCOM, reporting to the Permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff, would have integrated training facilities, a common pool of equipment and dedicated transport aircraft (the army and navy rely on the IAF to fly them for long-range missions). That the proposal has languished before the CCS since 2013 is inexplicable given that the leadership believes in the changed nature of future wars. This, even as the prime minister told the Combined Commanders' Conference last December that "full-scale wars may become rare, but force will remain an instrument of deterrence and influencing behaviour". The next surgery, clearly, has to be on India's moribund defence reforms.