Role of Artillery in Operation 'Vijay'

13 Aug, 1999    ·   243

Wg. Cdr. N. K. Pant (Retd.)xplains the role played by the 155 mm Bofors howitzers at the Kargil conflict

Field artillery replicates albeit in a limited way the function of an air force combat aircraft when its booming heavy guns deliver lethal shells to the distances ranging between 20 to 40 kilometers or even more at the intended enemy targets. The artillery has lived up to its reputation of softening the fiercely defended enemy targets and thus making way for successful infantry assaults in the Kargil sector. In this context, the much maligned the Bofor howitzer, the only 155mm gun in army's inventory has proved to be the most lethal ground based artillery weapon in inflicting a heavy punishment on the Pakistani intruders.



The role of the field artillery is to provide fire support to other arms by backing up attacks, providing defensive fire, neutralizing an enemy's gun emplacements, and generally acting as a basis around which all other arms can operate. These roles remain substantially unchanged in today's context as the gun duels on the Line of Control (LoC) over the mountain ridges of the Kargil Sector have amply proved. The Indian army reportedly had deployed more than 60 pieces of 155mm Bofors howitzers in addition to other guns of lesser caliber besides an unspecified number of multi barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) in Kargil, Dras, Batalik and Mushkoh valley. The devastating salvos fired almost round the clock by the artillery batteries have been so intensively saturating and exhaustive that the army had literally rushed to the international arms bazaar on a buying spree to replenish its war reserves of 155 mm shells.



The modern field guns or howitzers are high angle long barrel weapons which provide long distance plunging fire. Modern technology has transformed the field gun so radically that it now bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Up to the beginning of the Second World War, 75 mm was widely used; but by the time the war ended caliber had increased to around 105mm. The norm was stepped up to 155 mm in the 1960s when it became apparent that the 105 mm projectile could not disrupt armored formation. It was indeed a commendable logistical feat that Indian gunners were able to deploy the 155 mm Bofors at the almost inaccessible heights in the rarified atmosphere of the western Himalayas .



There are two types of field artillery – the towed and self-propelled. Self propelled field gun originally introduced to enable the artillery to keep up with armored formations, is now considered synonymous with survival on the battlefield. Under modern combat conditions, towed artillery support could not be sustained for long, as the gunners who serve these weapons usually lack substantial protection. Only armor can provide that, hence the rise of self-propelled artillery. The Indian army urgently needs self-propelled guns in order to move along the tank formation on the battlefield especially in the plains and desert terrain for softening in-depth hostile targets.



During the recent decades the performance and range of field artillery has shown dramatic improvements. The length and calibre of the gun barrels have increased considerably. Once acceptable range of 20 km is no longer adequate as most of the modern field guns such as Indian army's Bofor FH-77Bs can boast of maximum range somewhere between 30 to 40 km. But this enhanced range is not at all effective unless credible means of target acquisition and fire control form integral part of the long range field gun. For example during the conduct of Operation 'Vijay', Indian army despite having superior fields gun was almost blinded in the absence of gun locating radar. Whereas Pakistan , despite possessing smaller guns could fire more accurately at times damaging our gun positions since their forces were equipped with these vital radar.



The Bofor FH-77B field guns which India acquired in late 1980s and now triumphantly battle tested in Kargil have been army's most effective artillery weapon system. The gun is still one of the strongest and most user-friendly of all current field weapons due to its careful detail design and ammunition handling facilities. The Indian field artillery is badly in need Battle Field Surveillance Radar, Weapon Locating Radar and Thermal Integrated Observation Equipment. The Russians are believed to have offered Zoopark-1, their artillery tracking radar to India which needs to track an enemy shell for just eight seconds to project its full trajectory from the firing position to the place it is going to land allowing pinpointing and thereby suppression of enemy gun positions. Indian army must evaluate the efficacy of these force multipliers and acquire them without fail. It also needs to initiate measures to bolster its command, control, communication and observation system for better effectiveness.