Frontlist | An excerpt on Rtd. Lt. Gen.’s book on Uri attack

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An excerpt from ‘India’s Bravehearts: Untold Stories from the Indian Army’ by Lieutenant General Satish Dua (Retired).

This excerpt from India’s Bravehearts: Untold Stories from the Indian Army by Lieutenant General Satish Dua (Retired) has been published with permission from publisher Juggernaut Books. 

This excerpt from India’s Bravehearts: Untold Stories from the Indian Army by Lieutenant General Satish Dua (Retired) has been published with permission from publisher Juggernaut Books. 

I was instantly awake. I didn’t need to be told how serious this was. If terrorists attacked a military base in person, then they were likely on a suicide mission. And when a man comes prepared to die, he will cause great damage and heavy casualties before he does. The next phone call, a few minutes later, confirmed this.

Thirty minutes later we had all the information. Four suicide terrorists had blazed their way through our base at Uri, very close to the LoC, and caused heavy casualties. During the firefight, a cookhouse also caught fire, which increased the death toll.

In the four decades of my career, I have faced a lot of tough situations, mostly in counter-terrorism. But the scale of what happened on that Sunday, 18 September 2016, was huge. We lost eighteen soldiers.

Eighteen young lives lost. And it happened on my watch. As I got ready to go to the helipad, the cup of tea that I had started sipping suddenly seemed tasteless. I left it and went out to the lawn just to be with myself before the chopper arrived. It was a bright, clear day, but for me it was a dark Sunday, the darkest ever.

The terrorists had chosen their target and timing well. A change of battalion had been in progress. A battalion can stay in a high-altitude area for only two winters. Heights above 9000 feet are considered high altitude, and most of our posts on the LoC ranged from 9000 to 12,000 feet. Soldiers face several medical issues if they stay for prolonged periods at that height, mostly due to lack of oxygen in the air and extreme cold during the snow season.

So the battalion was in the process of moving out, with another one replacing it. During this period of transfer, soldiers of both battalions spend a couple of weeks together to familiarize the incoming troops with the terrain and peculiarities of the LoC. They conduct joint patrolling and lay ambushes together. At this time there are double the usual number of soldiers on all posts. At the Uri base too, there was a concentration of troops from both battalions, with some of them accommodated in tents.

The Uri base therefore proved to be a good target for the suicide terrorists. As they cut the perimeter fence and entered the camp, it was still dark. But they were detected soon and fired upon. Even as one terrorist died, the others dispersed and started firing indiscriminately at sleeping soldiers and those stirring to wakefulness.

It was just before dawn. One of the biggest worries in such situations is coordination. We had soldiers from two different battalions who had not known each other for long. It was also unfortunate that an LPG cylinder exploded inside the cookhouse. The cookhouse went up in flames, which also engulfed a couple of tents.

The scene at Uri was grim. The firing had stopped but the fires were still raging. The casualties, both dead and wounded, had been moved to the field hospital. Sanitization operations to check for more terrorists in the nearby forest were under way. An occasional bullet or grenade would explode because of the heat from the fire.

Meanwhile, news came in that the defence minister, the late Mr Manohar Parrikar, was arriving in Uri that afternoon. ‘Why now, why today?’ I asked Mr G. Mohan Kumar, the defence secretary, when he rang me up to tell me of the minister’s visit.

So many things were happening that needed my attention: the operations in Uri, planning how to fly out the mortal remains of all those who had laid down their lives, the road journey to their home towns, the homage ceremony in Srinagar before their bodies were sent back. So many calls had to be attended to – from the Army Headquarters, the police, the civil administration, the chief minister, the governor. The Army Chief had already arrived. I did not need more VIPs on my hands on a day like this.

When the defence minister arrived, I was struck by the simplicity of the man. But I had to say no to his wish to go to Uri. The operation was still in progress and it was not safe for the minister to be there. He respected the decision. So from the airport we flew by helicopter to Badami Bagh Cantonment in Srinagar, where my headquarters was located.

It was impossible to talk in the noisy chopper. The short flight of ten minutes was the only time I had that day to be alone with my thoughts. It was easy to preach phrases like ‘don’t despair when there are upsets’, ‘look for opportunities in every failure’, but the attack at Uri was beyond such sentiments.

What could be the hidden opportunity in an operation like this? They always send terrorists across the LoC and we are always defensive and reactive. Then it struck me that there is outrage in the nation, the country is incensed at Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, my soldiers want revenge and there is a bold leadership at the Centre. So why not plan for a strong riposte? Something that had never been done before? Something that can cause the other side hurt and pain in equal measure?

At my headquarters, I finished briefing the defence minister on a map in my operational room. The Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, and the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda, were also present. Kashmir was my area of responsibility. That is the reason I was doing the talking and briefings. The minister did not interrupt me even once. As I finished giving an account of what had happened so far, he asked, ‘So what is the plan now?’ I said, ‘Sir, if you are asking me about what we can do, then I would like to brief you alone.’ ‘Yes yes, I would like to talk to you in your chamber,’ he said. The officials accompanying the minister did not join as the minister, the Army Chief and the Northern Army Commander walked to my office.

The Army Chief and the Northern Army Commander spoke first. It was their role to work out the larger plans and possibilities at a national level. They talked about our preparedness to take any action and discussed the possibility of our response spiralling into something bigger – that would be beyond my level, as I was in charge of the operational domain only in Kashmir. Mr Parrikar then turned towards me. ‘What do you have to say?’ I simply said, ‘Aap haan keh do, main kar doonga, sir (You give me the go ahead, and I will do it, sir).’ I thought I saw a glint in his eyes, and I knew I had his full attention.

I told him that the Chief would take care of the big picture at the national level; once he gave the green signal, we would plan and execute a bold response on the ground. ‘For years, we have been taking a hit when they send in terrorists, and we are unable to react in kind. We will do something which will create that hurt for them too. We will go across the LoC and hit the terrorists’ camps inside their territory. But please leave the choice of targets and timings to us.’

For reasons of security, I cannot divulge the details of the operational discussion. What I can reveal is that the defence minister then asked me two quick questions. First, ‘There will be no collateral damage, I hope?’ I assured him that we should be able to manage that by going through uninhabited areas. In any case, to maintain an element of surprise we would need to keep clear of inhabited areas.

The second was more of a wishful comment. ‘There should be no casualties to our own soldiers.’ I promptly replied, ‘I agree, sir, we should have no casualties, but I cannot guarantee anything. This is war.’ He paused for a moment, and my heart sank, thinking how hard a politician would find it to agree to such a thing. He said only one word, ‘Barobar!’ This Marathi word has different meanings in different contexts. Here, to me it sounded like ‘Great! Let’s do it.’ When I heard this, for the first time on that dark Sunday I felt a glimmer of satisfaction and relief.

Secrecy is the key to any successful operation. If you catch the enemy unawares, more than half your battle has been won. This is especially the case in a surgical strike where you hit the target, achieve your aim and then have to get out alive. In fact, this is why surgical strikes are the toughest operations in the world. Terrorists infiltrate borders to enter our country. They don’t have an exit plan. We had to go in, conduct an operation and get out, all at lightning speed. We had our job cut out for us.

Very few people knew the exact date for the launch of this operation. Everything was strictly on a need-to-know basis. I had expressly forbidden any PowerPoint presentations. If a diagram had to be drawn to explain something, it was to be made in free hand on the spot and destroyed after use. No paper was to be retained by anyone.

We did not even give a name to the operation, because sometimes giving a code name has the opposite effect as people start using the code name and feel secure in their plans. On the day we launched our operation, a few reconnaissance parties had been sent out in advance. They thought that they were going to return at night, but when the operations were launched they were merged with the raid party and moved ahead with them.

Once the mission began, radio communication was kept to the minimum because it is susceptible to interception. I had issued strict instructions that radio sets only be used in an emergency, at least not till the first shot had been fired. Within the teams, however, they could use smaller walkie-talkie sets which have a limited range.

In any case, the commandos, who were highly skilled and seasoned, did not need to keep coordinating with each other. They had perfected this over years of training and working together in different operations. However, they did communicate in code words after crossing pre-decided landmarks known as bounds.

When our control room received a code word, it meant that the commandos had crossed that landmark. We did not ask them for any more details. It was purely one-way communication so that we could follow their real-time progress. Several unarmed vehicles (UAVs) were also used to monitor the progress of our troops. A UAV is a drone minus the weapons – it’s a remotely piloted aircraft that can click pictures and videos of a target area and stream them in real time.

We spent an anxious night. I found myself praying more for the safety of our soldiers than for the success of the mission. But somehow I had a positive feeling throughout about this operation. Over the last few days, whenever any of my subordinate staff had voiced their concerns, I had tried to ease their doubts. I told everybody, ‘Don’t surround yourself with negativity; harness the power of positivity.’

The commandos’ progress was slow, painfully slow, because this was not an operation in the hinterland of Kashmir. They were walking inside enemy territory and faced a hostile atmosphere all around. In operations in the hinterland, hostiles are limited to just a cluster of houses or their hideouts. That was not the case here.

Terrorists’ launch pads are usually one or more houses in a village right on the LoC from where they observe the movements of our patrols for a couple of days, familiarize themselves with the terrain and then launch an infiltration. However, the actual terrorist camps are a few kilometres inside. Here, the element of surprise was absolutely crucial to the outcome. Since our commandos were walking well inside enemy territory, they walked like ghosts so that, paradoxically, they could stay alive to fight.

The trickiest part was passing through their forward line of defence. Forward defences (group of posts) on both sides are protected by minefields. Landmines are buried in the ground to deter the attacker or infiltrator. They also tend to get dislodged by snowfall and rain. It is these that cause maximum damage because their location is unknown.

On possible infiltration routes, trip flares are fixed which light up when touched and illuminate the infiltrator for half a minute. Night-vision-enabled equipment was also used at the posts to keep a vigil round the clock on likely routes of infiltration. And to make things worse, the soldiers manning the posts would let off a round of bullets now and then as deterrence. The commandos had to cross all these dangers and hurdles without being detected.

What helped us was the fact that the Pakistan Army was not prepared for infiltration because they didn’t expect us to be carrying out any such manoeuvres. While the Indian side is trained to deal with infiltrators, and thus deploy ambush parties and use other such measures, the Pakistani side are a little more static and focus more on manning the LoC posts. It gives me great satisfaction to observe that from 2016 they have also had to deploy soldiers to guard against a possible repeat of our surgical strike. The ‘uncertainty’ mode has been switched on.

The tension mounted in the early hours of 29 September 2016. We were to start the raids simultaneously after everyone was in position. Suddenly I was told that firing had started in one of the locations. I wasn’t sure if our team had been discovered and the enemy had fired first or one of our teams had started the firing for whatever reason. Since the first shot had been fired, we decided to advance the launch by fifteen–twenty minutes.

Now that the raids had begun, the anxiety in the operations room ratcheted – would this turn out to be a calculated risk or a reckless gamble? Would we achieve success in the mission? What if there were heavy casualties? There were moments when I found myself extremely confident that all would be well. I had taken a leap of faith, and I believe fortune favours the brave. Then the next moment I would find myself on pins and needles, thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong.

This was the first time I realized how difficult it is for someone who has been in operations to sit outside and control it. First, you miss the action and you want to be there in the middle of it – participating and directing. Second, sitting outside, far away in an operations room yet intimately involved in each and every step of the planning, you feel utterly powerless. Thank heavens my vacillating moods could not be seen by the brave soldiers conducting the operations.

At one of the terrorist camps, we got lucky. A huge petrol and diesel dump was hit by a handheld rocket launcher and caused heavy casualties. The explosion created a huge blast which could even be seen in the UAV footage. Although the blast could not be heard, the black cloud of smoke that rose in the air obliterated our view of the drone footage. It seemed a fitting response to the fire that had engulfed the cookhouse and tents at Uri.

The strikes on terrorist camps across the LoC did not last very long. Ours was a swift operation conducted with precision, and while there was the temptation to stay on and cause more damage, the team leaders, as they had rehearsed, broke contact and withdrew rapidly so that they could easily escape back to our side of the LoC. Dawn was breaking.

Now was the crucial period of the whole operation – from the moment the soldiers began to exfiltrate to our side till the point the last man came back in. This is the period when the soldier has neither the element of surprise nor darkness to defend himself. Our anxiety in the control room reached a fever pitch at this point. Every time the phone rang, I would flinch, half expecting news of some casualty. At least to me, my sigh of relief was very audible every time it turned out to be some other news. And thankfully, it always was.

Within thirty minutes, our men were all back on the Indian side of the LoC. Not a single soldier had been injured during the raid. When I reported to the Army Commander that the operation had been successful and that all our soldiers were back safely, I could sense his relief across the line. We could feel this with whoever we spoke to on the phone after the mission, up or down the chain.

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