(A perspective on Conventional Military Mobility in a Sub-conventional Theatre of Operations)

Written By: Brig Muhammad Khalil Dar

While flying over Shahur Tangi in South Waziristan Agency (SWA), one is irresistibly lured into imagining the ordeal of British Indian officers and soldiers who were ambushed by Mehsud fighters in April 1936. A total of seven officers and 45 soldiers were killed in a traditional merciless manner by tribesmen, besides setting ablaze the vehicles. One keeps wondering even having well passed over the gorge like defiles then why could not these series of daunting brick watch towers / posts prevent this massacre in a broad day light? History reveals that their current visible structure came after the ambush, not before it.

Soon after the World War-1 (WW-I), at the time when modern form of conventional forces was taking shape, a new set of exploitable weaknesses was also emerging in parallel. One such basic vulnerability was the growing dependency on road and rail move which was exploitable by the enemy operating on non-linear lines or under un-conventional setting. Skipping history, of course with a regret, but to save on time, we may restrict to post WW-I time frame and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) when the issue actually began to signify. Since, there is a common agreement on the socio-economic benefits of roads and rails, we may confine to military dimension only.

In pure military sense roads mean high mobility, hence, advantages in time and space, both tactical and strategic. For the post-WW-I military planners, motorised transport plying on roads provided the ability to employ 4.5" and 6" artillery guns firing a heavier shell than anything Waziristan had ever seen, hence, an overwhelming ascendency of firepower. A milestone was achieved in July 1930 when two and a half infantry battalions and a company of sappers were moved from Bannu to Razmak in 24 hours using lorries; a tactical mobility unthinkable hitherto. Addition of aerial power and wireless communication might have contributed to the confidence.

The bloody ambush at Shahur Tangi came as a jolt to face the stark reality. The event had exposed the exploitable vulnerabilities of the emerging modern structure of forces. British were quick to realize and it became abundantly clear that time advantage gained through mobility over roads was at the cost of surprise and flexibility. In other words, introduction of modern technology in Waziristan translated as a sharp decline in off-road mobility. There were no choices of routes, hence, less options to encircle and force a battle. On the other hand, the overwhelming advantages of fire power had conversely convinced the tribesmen to give up the tradition of chivalry, avoiding the pitched battles, and adapt to small and swift actions for which they were more accustomed to. British response by introduction of light tanks and aerial support, though, did improve the off road mobility of fighting columns but could not ensure decisive encounter.

To a veteran soldier who still remembered the good old days of 1860s and 1870s, it would have been a drastic decline in the fighting ability of military. By comparison the machine-assisted military was ending up in prolonged and indecisive campaigns. The campaign against Faqir of Ipi fought from 1936 onwards inconclusively lasted for 12 years involving mobilization of 40,000 troops. Whereas 1897 uprising only took two years to subdue despite being larger in scope and fought on horseback. The whole concept of increased tactical mobility would have looked questionable to him. Was it because that possibly motorized army snatched opportunity for personal initiative or any variation in minor tactics being hostage to stereotyped tactics of 'Road Open Days' (ROD). Or, was this relative ineffectiveness owing to the fact that regular units had grown ponderous and over-cautious with interdependent fixed support structures / mechanisms. The realization of the issue can be gauged by the question set for the 1933 prize-essay competition “the growing complexity of modern weapons, mechanisation and the increasing dependence of Indian columns on maintenance services in the field was explicitly linked to the declining effectiveness and relative mobility of the Indian Army”.

Soviet's frustration in Afghanistan is another example to touch upon. With the invasion force of 4 x Motorized Rifle and one and a half 'Air Assault Divisions' backed up by large fleet of aircrafts and helicopters, the objective looked doable if not difficult, especially given the inherent tactical mobility of the invading force. But they were soon to realize a bitter reality. Their under estimation of the criticality of protected roads to keep up the combat potential of their highly mobile force structure, resulted in a fatal loss of prestige. Sustaining mobile forces and maintenance of mobility emerged as a major challenge; hence, protection of roads became the highest priority. On the one hand, it dictated establishment of a series of fixed fortifications, strong points and firebases along the routes and, on the other hand, convoys became larger (100 - 300 vehicles) with 30% of vehicles devoted to security. Soon the Soviets were to rename the whole invasion as the "Highway War" (dorozhaia voina). Attempts to rely on rotary wing support to offset road-side vulnerabilities led to realization that extensive use of helicopters was not only difficult to maintain but was also wasteful, primarily due to penalties of payload at higher temperature / altitudes and high demands of fuel. One is compelled to wonder that restoration of mobility in mountainous country-side of Waziristan may be brought to own favour by going back in time and getting independence from fixed roads. But that may not be the logical conclusion as the adversary mainly or partly enhances its mobility through four wheel drive vehicles. He does so because of very loose and non-rigid small organizational structure; besides using numerous jeep-able tracks with honed driving skills.

By analysing the British, Russian and contemporary wars going on either side of Pak-Afghan Border, one reaches a single conclusion that there is no substitute to roads and road transport. Logical option left with us is to build more roads with numerous laterals to regain the flexibility of choice of routes, hence, gain surprise resulting in snatching the enemy initiative, thus reducing the vulnerabilities. Therefore, the current thrust of building roads holds the key to future, of not only the prosperity of the people but enhanced military applications, hence, may be kept at same pace for decades to come. So it is the 'war of roads'; the more roads will eventually bring the change to a level where fighting becomes meaningless. On the military side, another option is to re-organise in small, flexible, agile and task specific fighting parties. Across the border, large scale enhancement of various forms of Special Forces operating in small groups appears to be the natural response to the similar threat matrix. When the British raised Punjab Irregular Force (PIF) in 1850s, its main strength stemmed from its localized nature and job specificity i.e. not being burdened by the requirement to fight a conventional war, hence, on equal terms with the adversary.

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