Reducing casualties: integrating field experiences to higher planning


This article is dedicated to all the soldiers, paramilitary and police personnel and civilians who have died in this war. May they rest in peace.

Fighting wars is complex business. It is not just about using kinetic means. In today’s wars, just like in ancient and medieval times, non-kinetic means are as important, often more so. Nor is fighting merely about winning many battles. History is witness to armies winning battles and yet losing the war.

The purpose of this article is not to analyse war or its changing nature and various challenges. That’s a topic on which tomes have been written since Thucydides recorded his History of the Peloponnesian War. I plan to stick to some basics, my essential point being a question that has vexed me for the last ten years: why is our casualty rate so high?

This question has haunted me ever since we got into the current mess, fighting an elusive adversary. In my several visits to the tribal areas, during talks and seminars at the Command and Staff College, Quetta, and even more frequently at the National Defence University, during deep-end briefings by former army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and while talking to officers at various levels, I have often asked this question.

I am not sure the answers have convinced me.

During a briefing by General Kayani some years ago, which was preceded by a presentation by a brigadier, a slide talked about the sacrifices of our soldiers and with a lot of pride showed that our officer to jawan kill ratio is 1:8 – i.e, for every eight soldiers in combat, we are losing one officer. The explanation: our officers lead from the front.

While I have no doubt about the bravery of our officers and jawans, that ratio makes me terribly uneasy.  As I said to the army chief and several other officers, far from taking pride in the courage of our men, I’d very concerned about why we are losing so many YOs. The situation is dire, to the point where we have had to raise the 4th Pakistan Battalion at PMA to offset the loss.

When someone enlists, he knows that when the time comes he must be ready to kill or get killed in the line of duty. There is no clean battle. Incoming fire has a nasty habit of finding its target. Yet, that’s precisely what the professional armies train for, developing the capability to inflict maximum damage on the enemy while minimizing their own losses in men and material. You train yourself and your men hard so they can stay alive and be effective.

This is the essence of what General George S. Patton is reported to have said: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

Patton was of course talking about a different time and a different war. Even so, his message remains constant for all types of war, including the irregular war we are fighting, with no defined front and no rear, no clear zones of war and peace. The degree of difficulty of this war is greater in some respects, not because the enemy has greater firepower, but because he is tightly coupled with the population. It is difficult to identify him, he relies on kinship and ideological bonds, rarely offers a concentrated target, thereby blunting the advantage of a superior force, and can move from the sanctuary to the preparation area to the operational area with relative ease, both in terms of time and space.

This enemy has the element of surprise on his side. He can hunker down and wait for the opportunity. He can snipe at targets, use IEDs, raid isolated posts, mount terror attacks in the cities. In effect, break the norms of fighting in order to gain an asymmetric advantage. The violence he generates is not great but consistent and incremental. Over a long period of time, by not allowing an army to win, he seeks to erode the resolve, if not of the army, then that of the civilian population.

It’s the psychological aspect of seeing bodies piling up over years that challenges the resolve. When he is squeezed in one area, he shifts his operations to another. Simultaneously, he finds soft targets in the cities. That is his greatest advantage because conducting such a war hinges on public buy-in. If the civilian population can be demoralized, the army and the government will also be hard pressed to continue fighting. This, and much else, makes fighting such a war a very difficult affair.

The casualty figures must then be seen within this context. How should a professional army conduct such an exercise?

First and foremost, a high casualty rate must cause concern, not pride. When this war began, the army had never really trained to fight for it. Put another way, when you get an army to fight a different kind of war, it will sustain losses.

This takes us to the second aspect. The operations and the losses must immediately be studied. What kind of training is required for fighting a different kind of war? What kind of organizational innovations are needed? Does the army have the right equipment for fighting a different war? What preferred methods is the enemy employing? How can those methods be blunted and neutralized? Is the terrain familiar? Since the army units are fighting those who are knit with the population, do they have enough knowledge about local customs and traditions and ways of fighting? Is there enough field and strategic intelligence on terrain, enemy resources, lines of communication, recruitment methods, training camps, concentration areas? Is there coordination among intelligence agencies on the one hand and the fighting troops and agencies on the other? Are the army’s training and evaluation procedures up to the mark to deal with a situation of flux (the insurgent/terrorist’s advantage lies in innovating so he will continue to use new methods)?

I do not have full information on any of these aspects and therefore only have partial answers to these questions. But based on my very meagre information, observed or gleaned over years, I am not sure if the army has fully grasped the pressing need to reduce casualty figures.

In the initial phases of this war, units were inducted without any pre-induction training. There was no physical, psychological and cultural training imparted to them. Very often, there was not even enough intelligence about conditions on the ground. There was no plan to hold ground because no one really understood the extent of the problem. While troops were sent in, and SSG (Special Service Group) units used for conducting raids and extraction operations, little to no attempt was made to disrupt the networks being used for funding and recruitment.

Counterterrorism requires a pincers’ approach. But while the CT Mil Ops (counterterrorism military operations) provided one jaw of the pincers, the other jaw, CT Policing, was almost missing from the application of force. That situation, to a large extent, still obtains but it requires separate treatment.

The troops also lacked proper equipment for operating in the area. There were no night vision devices, no flak jackets, little training with fire and move techniques, extraction, heli repelling et cetera. Weapons training was largely restricted to static range shooting with a lot of emphasis on grouping fire. And yet, it took the army a while to figure out the importance of snipers. (It still does not have a dedicated sniper school and, for the most part, marksmen are considered snipers, which they are not).

Result: losses.

It was largely after Gen. Kayani took over that some improvements were made. The emphasis shifted from ceremonial drills to actual fighting. Lessons were learnt. Best practices were shared with the US military. There was an emphasis on expertise in handling quick-response and CQB weapons, including pistols (until some years ago the army laid no emphasis on handguns use outside of MP and SSG.) That has changed.

In the aftermath of Ops Rah-e Haq and Rah-e Nijaat, the army decided to create CTCs (counterterrorism centres) which also impart a 4-week pre-induction training to all units being deployed to the operational areas. That is a good measure. But planners still have to face the problem of rotating troops. The army’s deployment percentage has already gone up to 54 per cent or so and the rest-and-retrofitting percentage has dropped alarmingly to about 12 per cent. This induces fatigue, fatigue impacts performance, and lowered performance can mean higher casualties.

The highest percentage of casualties has been caused by IEDs. While the army has developed techniques and is using sappers more efficiently to address this problem, much of the effort is dedicated to safeguarding troops in the field. I believe that a lot of effort must also go into making it increasingly difficult for the terrorist groups to acquire the materials used for making IEDs.

Additionally, the state must crack down on recruitment and training centres which is where these groups go to replenish human resource and expertise. In other words, tackling IEDs is not just a problem at the field-end but must expand to, and disrupt, the supply chain of the materials and the human resource.

The flak jacket is another issue. I used one last year at a CTC to do a stress course with the jawans. The thickness of its shoulder straps makes acquiring the shoulder for a clean rifle shot difficult. In my experience, while it doesn’t make much difference if the weapon is being fired on rapid, something needs to be done with regard to allowing the butt stock to fit into the shoulder better for a long-distance single shot to take out a target.

This might sound like a banal observation in the larger scheme of things but it points to the bigger problem, namely the question of whether equipment is being tested in an environment which integrates the personnel with the equipment and optimizes the performance of both the man and the weapon/machine. The US military rightly puts a lot of stress on this aspect under its overall MANPRINT (manpower and personnel integration) programme. I am not sure if we have a mechanism along those lines. The important aspect of any such programme would be to have feedback from the field on all the equipment, lethal and non-lethal, for better integration.

Equipment efficiency, reliability and robustness in field conditions ensure better chances of survival for a soldier. There have been many examples of equipment failure during wars, a prominent one being the French light machinegun called Chauchat and pronounced, ironically, Show-Shah, during WWI. The weapon largely proved inefficient because of its open magazine and the long recoil, and would jam and misfire in the muddy conditions of trench warfare. Its US version was equally problematic and by the end of the war both the French and the US armies had replaced it.

Specific examples aside, there are two broad points. One, the issue of casualty must be taken very seriously and every effort must be made to reduce the casualty rate. Two, there must be a reliable mechanism that integrates field experiences with planning and evaluation at higher levels of command.

The army already spends a hefty amount on the rehabilitation and upkeep of personnel who have lost their limbs and also of those who have died in combat. Money spent on R&D and other evaluations and improvements in equipment, planning, intelligence etcetera will ultimately reduce the funds the army has to spend once the damage has been done.

We owe it to our brave soldiers and their families.

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of Hilal, the Pakistan Armed Forces’ Magazine.

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1 Response to Reducing casualties: integrating field experiences to higher planning

  1. jon says:

    one must say a very thought provoking analysis and practical and workable advice which army must be very welll aware but this has been an excellent piece of study. worth reading and strongly recommended for detailed discussions by all concerned. totally agree that loosing young officers and jawan unnecessarily should not be matter of pride rather matter of concern when specially army can come up better ways and option to fight and save thier brave soldiers and officer as well. A good article surely.

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