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Why we need limited air power to battle the Naxals

May 26, 2010 08:29 IST

The air element has a great psychological effect as it can raise the morale of the forces while lowering that of the adversary, says Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd).

Defence Minister A K Antony is on record as having said that matters of strategic importance about measures to tackle the Naxalites are not a subject of public debate. That is indeed the prerogative of the government.

But such is the dust raised by the bleeding heart liberals in the media that the public ought to be educated on certain nuances of the use of force. Let us not kid ourselves, the Naxals have launched a guerrilla war against the Indian State and it is the rules of war that apply and not the India Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code.

The debate on the use or non-use of certain forces has centred on the fear of collateral damage, to the total exclusion of the psychological impact of the Dantewada massacre.

I am reminded of the study I carried out on the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. When the issue of non-use of offensive air power against the Chinese came up, the then chief of planning of the Indian Air Force actually argued that if we would have used the Air Force, then the "international public opinion" would have gone against us.

Another striking episode on air power: Flight Lieutenant (later, Air Vice Marshal) Doraiswamy was on a sortie to Chhamb on September 6, 1965. He over-flew into Pakistan and saw the Pakistan Air Force aircraft openly lined up on the tarmac. When asked permission to bomb them, he was told not to do so. This was the day when the Indian Army had already crossed the Wagah border and a full-fledged attack was launched on Pakistan. The PAF was quicker off the block, launched a major attack the same evening that destroyed many of our aircraft at Pathankot. One often wonders what would have been the case if there was a little more co-ordination between the army and the air force!

The air element has a great psychological effect on the adversary as it can raise the morale of our own forces while lowering that of the adversary.

Then sample this. In December 1971, when Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw asked the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh to 'surrender or die', in Dacca (as Dhaka was then spelt) General Niazi had 30,000 troops with ammunition and supplies to last six months! The Indian troops surrounding them in Dacca numbered less than 3,000! But having lost their morale, the Pakistani army surrendered on December 16, 1971! Not just at Dacca, but at many other places, Pakistani soldiers surrendered to fewer Indian troops.

The psychological aspect of warfare, whether conventional war as in Bangladesh or guerrilla war against the Naxals, is the most crucial element of success. Yet, being intangible and ill-defined, it is neither well understood nor appreciated. Raising the morale of soldiers/policemen and lowering that of the adversary is primarily the single biggest responsibility of the leadership -- political as well as military.

The Dantewada incidents are tactical reverses but have wide-ranging strategic implications for all other areas of Naxal influence and even on the Kashmir or Assam conflicts. For the Indian State has been shown to be ineffective and weak. This has led to raising the morale of insurgents and lowering that of the security forces. All discussions on the use of various instruments of coercion have to be in this context.

According to the late Lieutenant General Eric Vas, an authority on insurgency, the battle has to be fought on five fronts simultaneously: economic, political, psychological, social, and military. Use of force is thus only one of the fronts, and to be successful it has to be in consonance with the other four. This has to be clear right at the outset. That does not mean force is unimportant. In fact, in order to get the other measures and strategies in place, control over violence is a pre-requisite.

The debate on 'adequate' force has to be conducted keeping in view these parameters, and not extraneous considerations like media exposure, international image, fear of human rights groups and other so-called liberal voices.

The element of air power that would be extremely useful in this fight is surveillance and detection. I do believe that technological advances today have made it possible to track groups of people moving even through jungle terrain. This will mitigate somewhat the lack of intelligence that the security forces face. The area of Naxal operations are very sparsely populated and are unlike the Vietnam delta. With weapons of greater accuracy and precision available today, it should be possible to avoid collateral damage and innocent civilians becoming victims. In the strategy of area domination, the police forces would be located in and around population centres. Thus, use of airpower would be against the isolated Naxals. The use of surveillance and tracking will also force the Naxals to break up into smaller groups, making it that much difficult to stage attacks like the one in Dantewada.

For instance, if armed helicopter support was indeed available to the hapless Central Reserve Police Force men, then the moment they came under fire from hilltops, the helicopters could have come to their help by machine-gunning the Naxals located on hilltops.

Thus, limited use of airpower would improve intelligence, force the Naxals to operate in small groups (and thus reduce the threat to larger bodies of paramilitary forces) and in conjunction with area/population domination, isolate them from their support base. But the biggest gain would be the rise in the morale of our forces and the lowering of the Naxals' since they have no counter to armed helicopters.

The Indian armed forces, operating under the UN mandate, are used to working under very strict operational guidelines of dos and don'ts. It should be possible to thus use air power and yet not alienate innocents.

It is a matter of regret that over four years ago although, as a result of my study in Chhattisgarh, I had recommended the establishment of radio stations and distribution of free radio sets to the tribals, it was not done. This would have given the government a powerful media to connect with the tribal and counter Naxal propaganda. In fact, even before the operations started, a major effort should have been mounted to expose the Naxals and warn the tribal sympathisers of the consequences of supporting the rebels. This very important function of leadership was not carried out. Even now it is not too late and action should be initiated on these lines.

The aim of counterinsurgency is to bring about a behavioural change in the targeted population. In short, move them away from armed politics to peaceful participation. It is also called a struggle for hearts and minds of the people.

There is a common perception that 'one man's terrorist/insurgent is another man's freedom-fighter'. This is moral relativism at worst. If a State is 'legitimate', then an armed challenge to it is illegitimate. The twin bedrock of the State's legitimacy are democracy that guarantees individuals fundamental rights and freedoms, and the second is the federal principle that grants the right to groups/tribes/sects/faiths cultural expression and freedom to practice their faith, use their language and lead a collective life of their choice.

When a State meets these two basic criterion, it has unmatched legitimacy and the use of force to overthrow it is insurgency/terrorism.

Ideologically, the counter-insurgents are always at a disadvantage. The insurgents can promise a socialist utopia. While the counter-insurgents become either status-quo supporters or hark back to the status quo ante, neither of this can compare with the dream of mythical 'Shangri-La' that the insurgents paint and many of their urban arm-chair supporters swallow.

This underscores the importance of propaganda and psychological aspects of counter-insurgency. But none of this would be of any use unless there is honest governance and genuine efforts to help out the tribals.

If the twin measures of developmental effort and show of force are implemented simultaneously, the situation can indeed be brought under control quickly. The armed air operations could then well be suspended if the Naxals show an inclination to come to the negotiating table and agree to give up violence. In the short run there is no substitute to wielding the big stick.

Our countrymen need to be reminded that the situation in our neighbourhood in the Af-Pak area is coming to a head and the nation has to be prepared to face uncertain consequences in the coming year or two. It would be wise to set our own house in order before that happens, else we may face a war on several fronts in 2012.

Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)