19 October 2019, 22:40 Hours IST
A mortar shell landed meters away from the forward post with a huge bang. A small cloud of dust and smoke marked the spot where it landed with a crater on the ground. Then there were three more impacts in the near vicinity. Indian soldiers huddled in the bunker could feel the rumbling earth through their boots. The bunker itself was made of 3 feet thick reinforced concrete and could take direct hits from heavier artillery, but not all bunkers were built like this. Most others in the area were made of stones reinforced with wooden beams, concrete and earth. They could withstand most small arms fire and even light mortar hits, but no direct hits of heavy artillery.
A number of other such posts in the sector were facing a similar barrage of 81 mm mortars and 155 mm artillery shells. Pakistanis were pissed after a small team of Indian soldiers had infiltrated into Pak held territory and shot a Colonel straight through the chest via a long distance sniper shot. He was looking over arrangements for a new staging camp for terrorists just 9 km from the fence and had brought an unusually large entourage which was caught on surveillance UAVs. The sniper team had exfiltrated successfully while the Pakis were still confused over what hit them. The massive artillery barrage had started minutes after the incident and had picked up intensity quickly.
At some distance from the bunker on the hill, a Swati Weapons Locating Radar (WLR) collected data about the trajectory of the mortars and artillery shells and fed it into the specialised computer which calculated the position of the mortar tubes and artillery guns through it. The Indian army had keenly felt the need for such a radar system during the Kargil war of 1999 as the majority of Indian casualties during the conflict were due to artillery fire. Pakis had an American WLR system and thus had an edge over India in this field. Sale of such radars was blocked for India after 1999 nuclear tests but Americans sold 12 such radars to India in 2002. DRDO started the development of a local system with a budget a fraction of the imports (USD 20 crore vs INR 20 crore) and had a working prototype ready in 2004. Few such systems were deployed along the border soon after for testing purposes and official inductions of around 30 such systems happened in 2017.
Soldiers inside the reinforced bunkers were performing ‘trial by fire’ of the new system on LoC in the Poonch sector. The trajectory data from the passive electronically scanned array radar mounted on a truck some distance away was being transmitted wirelessly to the ruggedised and portable consoles which displayed data overlaid on a digital 3D map. This data was being transmitted to a heavy artillery battery a few km away from the border in realtime.
The artillery battery had just finished deploying its brand new Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) in the gun pits a few km behind the lines. It was developed in a joint project involving DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and private companies Bharat Forge Limited, Mahindra Defence Naval System, Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division.
It could fire 155mm shells at targets 35 km away. With rocket-assisted shells, the maximum possible range was 47 km. Its sustained rate of fire was 1 shell per minute. A specially developed Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact (MRSI) system enabled it to fire 5 shells within 45 seconds in burst mode.
Six such guns were assigned targets using data from Swati WLR. Their automatic gun alignment system and ballistic computer calculated optimum firing solution and adjusted elevation and traverse of the guns automatically. All six guns fired near simultaneously covering the whole area with smoke and dust as a barrage of thirty155 mm shells was fired within 60 seconds. Gunner crews rushed to fill up the magazines with new shells and propellant charges as soon as the barrage was finished. Two small UAVs flying over enemy positions beamed live video stream of shells wreaking havoc on enemy positions. This data was used to make adjustments to guns and another barrage was let loose 2 minutes later.
One shell scored a hit on a small ammunition dump of 81 mm mortar shells lying in the open and the fireball rose high enough to be visible to Indians km away. Immediate Battle damage assessment (BDA) by UAVs indicated the destruction of five artillery guns, three mortar pits and 40+ dead and injured. After firing two barrages, ATAGS used their own engines to move out and reach the waiting Field Artillery Tractors (trucks used to tow them). Even if the Pakis used their own WLRs to locate the position of guns, they’d get only empty ground with the guns safely out of their reach.
Pakistani battalion had lost not only their CO but a huge chunk of their firepower and combat personnel in just a few hours with nothing to show for it.
“How reliable is this information?” Colonel Sreejit was reasonably sceptical of the claim of Salim Abdullah, the local smuggler and occasional double agent. Even with an electrified fence, ongoing sensor upgrades and frequent patrols, stopping crossings by determined people across the rugged LoC was no easy task. There were too many high mountains, rivers, gorges, densely forested areas which made plugging all holes nearly impossible.
Local smugglers like Abdullah used terrain and cleverly dug tunnels to cross the fence in different places all the time. After a few recent upgrades like motion sensors, thermal scanners and radars, the job was not as easy, but still possible for people willing to risk their lives for it. He was caught a few days back while trying to smuggle 2 kilos of heroin into India from his contact in Pakistan. He was interrogated by the army before he was to be handed over to the police and he had claimed to have information about a batch of 10-12 terrorists about to cross the border in the sector. He wanted his freedom in exchange for coordinates of the location inside a village in PoK.
Major Vikrant Dhanoa had caught him and done most of the interrogations. He was not completely sure whether to trust him or not and had presented the information to Colonel Sreejit, his CO.
“He offered to guide us to the house where the terrorists will arrive tomorrow evening in exchange for his freedom. Apart from that, we don’t have any reason to trust him.”
“The location you’ve marked on the map is not an easy target. We can’t hope to hit it with artillery unless shells are fired almost vertically, the mountain peaks and slopes provide good cover.” He stared at the map for a moment intently and then continued, “To top that, there are several civilian houses nearby. Pakis have deliberately chosen this location to hide the jihadis. If we hit them with artillery, then we kill or injure their civilians and are villains. Our mortars can’t reach them either.” he added as an afterthought.
“What about our informers in the area? Do we have any updates from them?”
“Yes, he has confirmed Abdullah’s claim. He had reported the presence of some Pakistani military vehicles near the village last Saturday. This is just a temporary summer settlement for labourers who work on farms nearby. It’s mostly empty in winters but will have a few people in houses nearby. There’s no motorable path, only a wooden bridge over the river which connects the settlement to the main road. Some bags were carried by porters from the vehicles in the general direction of the village. He didn’t know exactly where and what was in them.”
Sreejith scanned the map again and marked a few spots. “There are only four feasible routes that these terrorists can use to infiltrate into our sector.”
“And at least one tunnel that Abdullah used. That’s the only one that we know of, there could be more.”
“Did he say anything about more tunnels?
“He claimed that’s the only one, but I am not trusting him on this.”
Col Sreejith scoffed, “Yup, can’t trust him on this. Digging a 300 m tunnel in this terrain is not an easy job either. I doubt it’d be usable after 2-3 rain showers or winter snow.”
“If we set up ambushes, we’ll need 6-7 platoons to cover all four routes. Pakis have a good line of sight on major parts of at least two routes. We’ll need to keep them distracted while we set up ambushes.”
“Abdullah said that the group will reach there tonight, right?”
“Yes, and they’ll probably stay there for a day or two before trying to cross over.”
“That’s good for us. Dhanoa, send a two man recon team to the coordinates and ask them to keep an eye on our guests. Make sure that they carry enough supplies to keep watch for a minimum of two days.”
“Just a recon team Sir?” Maj Dhanoa asked with some hesitance in his voice.
“Yes, they’ll confirm the presence of terrorists and their exact coordinates. I am calling HQ to ask whether we can use their new Herons for some fun. Just in case, keep some teams ready for ambush too. We may need to use them if this doesn’t work.”
“Heron UAVs, sir?” Maj Dhanoa was quite familiar with the capabilities of Israeli UAV and was happy to have some extra help.
Col Sreejit had some good news for him, “Yes Dhanoa, Herons with brand new Helina under their wings.” he said and grinned like a schoolboy with keys to a candy shop.
18 Hours Later
A two man team in Handwara military HQ stared silently at the bank of screens in front of them. The Heron UAV under their control was beaming live visual and thermal images of the terrain below. The new upgrades to Israeli UAVs had installed lighter, yet more powerful optics and thermal scanners along with datalinks for better data throughput. Another more significant upgrade was the brand new modified HELINA (Air launched version of Nag anti-tank missile). It was called HELINA as it was a HELIcopter launched version of NAg missile. Two of these missiles were attached to underwing pods, one on each wing. USA was already using such a system involving MQ-1 Predator drones and Hellfire missiles to great success in Iraq, Afghanistan and even in Pakistan.
The technicians noticed a laser designator mark on ground and reported it to their senior on the phone. They had the permission to fire a few seconds later. One operator activated the missiles’ laser seeker and got both to lock on the lased target. He pulled the trigger and two HELINA missiles left their mounts and raced to the target.
The two man recon team of Indian soldiers saw a blur of light drop near vertically on the mud house. There was a loud explosion and walls and roof of the single story house exploded outwards with debris flying everywhere. Few people from nearby houses came running out fearing for their lives in yet another artillery duel. They were greeted by sight of the destroyed house which was supposedly occupied by army personnel. A heavily bearded man stumbled out of the barely standing doorway with his clothing in tatters and coughing blood. He walked two steps and collapsed in a heap with his hands outstretched. The gory sight was enough to scare the onlookers to run away in any direction they saw fit.
Successful hit confirmed, the recon team packed up their laser designator and started the march back to their base across the border. Two missiles fired from kms above had killed 12 fanatical terrorists with pinpoint accuracy and no collateral damage.
Sreejit saw the live video feed in his own office and made a mental note of asking HQ for 2-3 such drones under his command.