Infantry Assaults in High Altitude

13 Aug, 1999    ·   240

Brig. S. S. Chandel, SC, VSM (Retd.) says if attacking in high altitude is very difficult, defending it is no plum cake either, as the Pakistanis have found out.




The Kargil operations led to nearly a thousand casualties being suffered by our Army while carrying out assaults to recapture the heights occupied by the Pak intruders. They have brought into sharp focus the problems faced by the infantry in assaulting heights in high mountainous terrain. The problem in such terrain is extreme cold, paucity of oxygen, lack of cover, and the inescapability of carrying all ammunition, rations, supporting weapons like mortars, rocket launchers, radio and telephone cables on one's back. They  weigh nearly 30 Kgs. Further, the approaches to an objective are easily covered, as they are very few. Switching axis of attack or reinforcing a success is extremely difficult and time consuming. Thus, the odds favor the defender.



However the attacker has certain advantages, too. He has the initiative and can achieve concentration of force and surprise both in terms of manpower and firepower. The defender's machine guns cannot sweep the ground in front by enfilade fire, and are no better than automatic rifles. The attacking infantry can take cover behind rocks and boulders and keep closing in to as close as 20 yards, as witnessed in a few encounters. The antagonists could literally chat and taunt one another.



If tree cover is not available, the darkness of night and fog provides cover, though it can be fickle and capricious. The lack of cover also permits air power and artillery to pulverize the areas held by the intruders. This was done with telling effect in Kargil when 50,000 Bofor shells alone were fired. However, smaller caliber guns are not very useful against a well-dug in defender. The artillery fire can be concentrated since the attacker has the initiative. The Kargil experience may not be applicable for all eventualities since the enemy was in a strategic strait jacket; hence he could not respond by counter offensives to disperse our artillery.



Another advantage that an attacker has in high altitudes is that of infiltration through valleys, which the defender being lodged at great heights cannot prevent. In Kargil, we were restricted by not being allowed to cross the LOC. This prevented us from outflanking the enemy. It must be strongly emphasized that the time frame must be flexible. There can be no fixed H-hour or D-day for that matter. Fire plans must remain on call for the actual assault.



Surprise can be achieved by choosing one's objective so that, in the words of General Sherman, the enemy is put on the hours of a dilemma. He could be kept guessing about the main thrust by feigning movements along all possible thrust lines and by engaging all likely objectives. Surprise can also be achieved by choosing the approaches considered inaccessible by the enemy.



Individual Infantryman: Described colourfully by Wavell as 'Poacher, Catburgler and Gunman,' he is the key to victory in high altitudes. This, our men proved to be. The infantrymen must be led by resourceful junior leaders, which our young officers proved to be.



Tackling Administration: Imaginative thinking and planning can alleviate administration problems, although the infantryman will still have to lug his 30 kgs. Lighter weapons and ammunition, signal equipment and space age ration (at least Pak rations like ghee, honey and dry fruits.) can be catered for. Men should be trained for self-administration of more effective first aid. And why can't our men be provided with bulletproof jackets if that saves 80 percent causalities? The Jacket costs just about Rs. 20,000/-






If attacking in high altitude is very difficult, defending it is no plum cake either, as the Pakistanis have found out. With motivated men, modern equipment and astute planning much can be achieved, as has been proved in Kargil. Finally, you need to have Pakistani Infantry officers who lead from the rear to win as we did in Kargil!