In a candid interview to a defence correspondent, GOC 15 Corps has admitted that patrols sent out by the Army failed to detect Pakistani intrusions because these had been launched along nullahs rather than ridgelines. The focus was to look for infiltrators. This controverts the very doctrine of patrolling. Lest this become a guide, there is a need to explain the concept of patrolling.
Patrolling is not a police gasht, as generally perceived. The underlying concept of military patrolling is presence, either for observation (reconnaissance) or fire (protection). It is a common military knowledge that neither observation nor fire can be achieved along nullahs. They require heights. Even if one were looking for militants the patrols should have dominated the heights. Further, it is unimaginable that we were oblivious to the need for protection of the Kargil - Leh road and precluded its targeting by the militants. Any movement on the road can be seen from the dominating features and interfered with by pot-shots, howsoever random. Further, patrolling along the ridgeline would have provided us meaningful surveillance over vulnerable stretches of the road from acts of sabotage. Let us re-read Sun Zu, "All armies prefer high ground to low and sunny places to dark." All this is not to suggest that militants moving along the nallahs were not to be intercepted, or the larger Pak designs not gauged from what was happening across the LOC.
Patrolling should not be fettered by paucity of numbers, firepower or administrative support. Their frequency and composition are determined by mission and terrain. A classical example is the Chindits, which was a long range, divisional strength force, with its integrated air element, which had penetrated behind the Japanese lines. The mission of a patrol could be terrain familiarisation, acclimatisation, showing the flag, or conduct surveillance, bring down observed fire and gather tactical signal intelligence. The last mentioned requires line of sight (LOS) observation and can only be conducted from heights. Patrolling is an all arms activity. In terrain like Kargil, gunners, engineers and signaller must send out patrols, exclusive or mixed, to conduct missions specific to them.
During war, real or proxy, patrols are sent to lay ambushes, reconnoiter obstacles, draw fire to know enemy dispositions, protect flanks and vulnerable assets. Sun Zu said, "Rouse him (the enemy), and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots."
Normally, patrolling is planned, co-ordinated and controlled at brigade level. The brigade major is designated as the patrol master. Having held this appointment at Dharchula on the UP-Tibet Border and later during active operations in the Sialkot Sector in 1965, my experience was that patrolling, at its worst, is a drudgery; at its best, a romance, a challenge and the acme of soldering. Its pith is good leadership. A good patrol master leads a challenging force to get the "feel" of the "front". It is my conviction that patrolling cannot be entrusted to the ageing. Youngsters fresh from the academy can teach a trick or two.
Patrolling and reconnaissance has always been coveted and held up as an enterprise of pride and self-realisation. The United Services Institute has instituted an award, called MacGregor Medal for the Armed Forces personnel for any valuable reconnaissance undertaken. The accounts of past recipients of the medal are a saga of motivation and risk-taking.
While the country celebrates, the leaders prepare for the battle at the hustings; the speculators make a kill at the stock exchange, and the enemy uses the operational pause to regroup. Let there be no doubt that we have to sweat more to maintain vigilance. There is no substitute for patrolling – offensive, audacious and novel. Let us get down to it with the gadgetry made available, or without it if old practices continue. Sun Zu said, " If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding. The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom."