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FIRST BORN MECH – Indian Army 15th Battalion, the Mechanised Infantry Regiment in Op Pawan

Mechanised Infantry troops deploying for action in Jaffna
Mechanised Infantry troops deploying for action in Jaffna. Image: Special Arrangement

“The Battles of the Mind are more difficult to win and have a longer lasting impact than the physical war.” – “Elephant On The High Himalayas” by Col RS Sidhu

15th Battalion, the Mechanised Infantry Regiment was raised on December 15 1981, as the first new raising of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment and adopted the nom de guerre ‘First Born Mech’ (FBM). Within two years of completing its raising, the FBM was placed on standby for operations in Sri Lanka in 1983 before orders came to stand down after 48 hrs. The tryst with its destiny in Sri Lanka had begun

Launch of ‘Operation PAWAN’

In June 1987, the unit was again mobilized and moved to Secunderabad for impending military operations in Sri Lanka. The wait at Secunderabad mounting base was tedious. There were no military maps, and all planning and briefings were restricted to tourist maps. On July 29 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) was signed, and suddenly the wait was over. The first two days of induction were chaotic, with no clarity on quantum and time frame of air effort and shipping for induction. 

Bravo Company, from its mounting base ex-Kakinada, was the first to be launched by Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) and carried out amphibious hard beaching at Kankesanthurai coast in Jaffna, alongside 47 Infantry Brigade. Commencing July 30 1987, Battalion Headquarters and Charlie Company were the first to be air transported from mounting base at Secunderabad to Palaly airfield in Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka.

Advance elements of Alpha Company were moved by LST to Trincomalee as part of the 76 Infantry Brigade of 54 Infantry Division. A Mechanised Infantry Platoon as part of Task Force (TF) 25 RAJPUT was employed for clearing of road axis Trincomalee- Vavuniya- Mankulam- Elephant Pass. Remainder Alpha Company was inducted by the end of the first week of August 1987 into Trincomalee by merchant shipping and thereafter moved on tracks to Batticaloa Sector, where it was deployed in support of 76 Infantry Brigade at Amparai/ Akkaraipattu/ Pottuvil in Batticaloa Sector.

After completion of induction, the troops were confined to their camp perimeters with explicit instructions of no move outside, even for ground reconnaissance. The interlude was utilized for conducting technical and crew and stick integration training.

First Hot Spot Comes Up at Trincomalee

The eruption of ethnoreligious rioting in Trincomalee town in August-September 1987 was the first significant threat that may have led to the agreement’s unravelling. The combat presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Trincomalee was insufficient to quell the rioting. The Deputy General Officer Commanding the 54 Infantry Division and the FBM Battalion Headquarters were relocated to Trincomalee as soon as possible to form an ad hoc Sector Headquarter and suppress the ethnic unrest. Using the disturbances as cover, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) sought to send more troops from Colombo to Trincomalee in the Eastern Province. This was viewed seriously as a clear-cut violation of the ISLA. 

Having been forewarned, a hurriedly assembled Task Force (TF) of FBM established a swift roadblock to intercept the SLA infantry reinforcements from entering Trincomalee. The swift riposte by FBM TF to the very first instance of interference in IPKF mandate by SLA went a long way in dissuading any such future attempts. The crisis was handled deftly, and an embarrassing danger to the agreement was avoided.

Peace Keeping to Peace Enforcement

By September 1987, it was becoming clear that the LTTE, the dominant Tamil militant group, was playing truant in surrendering their full cache of weapons and military equipment. On night 2nd/3rd October 1987, Sri Lanka Navy captured 17 senior LTTE cadres in the waters of Palk Strait while clandestinely transporting weapons and ammunition. These apprehended cadres were brought to Palay airfield and handed over to SLA for transfer to Colombo. The LTTE approached HQ 54 Infantry Division for their release from SLA custody. A Team ex 10 Para Commando was deployed for their protection while the issue was escalated in the hierarchy for an amicable resolution. Six BMPs of FBM were also swiftly deployed at Palaly military airfield to support IPKF deployment. 

The subsequent suicide by these LTTE cadres on October 5 1987, while in Sri Lankan Army custody at Palaly in Jaffna, was used as an excuse by the LTTE to withdraw from the accord. This resulted in the launch of military operations by the IPKF against the rebel organization to enforce peace.

At the commencement of military operations against the LTTE in October 1987, Battalion Headquarter and Bravo Company less two Platoons were deployed near Kankesanthurai jetty, the second Platoon of Bravo Company was located at Jaffna fort along with 1 MLI, and the third Platoon ex Bravo Company was deployed on Marthanamadan axis in support of 91 Infantry Brigade operations. Charlie Company was grouped with 47 Infantry Brigade on the Jaffna-Elephant Pass axis. Alfa Company was ordered to stage forward from Batticaloa to Trincomalee.

As the intensity of operations increased, the Alpha Squadron of 65 Armoured Regiment was inducted from Chennai to Palaly airfield by air transport and placed under Combat Group (CG) FBM. Alpha Company was also moved overnight from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai by LSTs over the next two days. 

On commencement of active operations, FBM was deployed in penny packets to bolster infantry battalion operations. This deployment had two adverse consequences. First, the synergy expected from the deployment of mechanized forces could not be developed. Secondly, during the first week of active operations in the Jaffna and Mullaitivu areas, the FBM sustained the most casualties. The LTTE group’s innovative use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) came as a surprise, resulting in catastrophic deaths in the early days. However, recourse to well-planned anti-IED drills enabled the FBM to negate their impact. Infantry combat vehicles, MI-24 assault helicopters, and para-commandos were the most dreaded by LTTE cadres.

During the later phase of active operations in the Jaffna and Mullaitivu regions, the FBM was regrouped along with armour into Mech Task Forces (TF). The coordinated employment of the massed firepower and cross-country manoeuvres by the Mech TFs, in conjunction with infantry operations, created a decision dilemma for the LTTE, enabling the seizure of key localities with minimal casualties and hastening the latter’s defeat in the peninsula.

On October 13 1987, a Mech TF from FBM comprising tanks and ICVs was moved along the Marthanamadan-Jaffna axis as a show of force and to respond to threats to small infantry detachments deployed for axis control. Fortuitously, this was the only reinforcement available to react to the precarious operational situation of 4/5 GR and successfully assist in its extrication to its own positions.

Another brilliantly executed operation was the move of Mech Platoon from Jaffna fort along heavily mined road axis to link up with and successfully extricate the Commander 41 Infantry Brigade and two companies of 5 RAJ RIF

With Bravo and Charlie Companies continuing to be deployed in support of 91 and 47 Infantry Brigades, the remainder of CG FBM was divided into two TFs to support operations of freshly inducted infantry formations, namely 18, 41, 72, and 115 Infantry Brigades, in the Jaffna peninsula. 

Groupings and regroupings with units and formations became frequent and the norm, with initial contact established over the radio. It was the most hectic fortnight for FBM. No two nights were spent in the same location, moving and fighting day and night. The Mech TFs led numerous infantry assaults in capturing various built-up areas (BUAs).

By the close of October, the IPKF had succeeded in neutralizing the LTTE threat in the Jaffna peninsula. By March 1988, CG FBM was redeployed to Vavuniya, under the 4 Infantry Division. The Battalion Headquarters with Alfa Company and Alpha Squadron 65 Armoured Regiment was deployed at Vavuniya along the Anuradhapura axis, while Charlie Company was deployed at Mankulam-Mullaitivu to support the infantry operations in the jungle-ridden terrain. Bravo Company continued to remain deployed to support the 54 Infantry Division in the Jaffna peninsula.  

The next major redeployment took place in June 1989. Sammanthurai was in the grip of communal riots, and the situation needed to be controlled by the deployment of additional troops. It also lay on the Amparai road axis, a major station of Sri Lanka armoured forces. Alpha Company was moved on tracks overnight to Sammanthurai in Batticaloa Sector under the command of 57 Mountain Division, involving a move on tracks of over 250 km, which was completed in 14 hrs. Charlie Company was moved from Mankulam to Vavuniya to replace Alpha Company.

July 1988 was a hectic period for CG FBM as the IPKF adopted a dissuasive posture to counter likely threats from the SLA.

During the terminal stage of IPKF operations, CG FBM was tasked with maintaining a suitable deterrence posture to cover the deinduction of IPKF from Sri Lanka. Whereas Charlie Company supported the de-induction of the 4 Infantry Division from the Vavuniya sector to Trincomalee, the Battalion Headquarters and Bravo Company supported the deinduction of 54 Infantry Division from the Jaffna sector, and Alpha Company was tasked to support the deinduction of 57 Mountain Division till its final deinduction from the island.

The phased deinduction of 57 Mountain Division from Batticaloa to Trincomalee was meticulously planned in three phases. 24 Mountain Brigade, the Southern-most Brigade of 57 Mountain Division, deployed at the coastal town of Kalmunai, was the first to be deinducted to Trincomalee. In the second phase, all soft elements of 57 Mountain Division, along with 54 Mountain Brigade and CG 65 Armoured Regiment, deinducted from Batticaloa to Trincomalee. Tactical Headquarter of 57 Mountain Division, along with its third Mountain Brigade, deinducted from Batticaloa to Trincomalee in the third phase. Alpha Company was tasked with the critical responsibility of providing rearguard for phase one and phase three of the deinduction, to deter any attempts at interference with the planned deinduction of IPKF formations and units from Batticaloa sector to Trincomalee, and also to maintain a dissuasive posture at Batticaloa during phase two of the deinduction. On arrival at Trincomalee, it was assigned the task of protecting Trincomalee airfield, in conjunction with Alpha Squadron of 65 Armoured Regiment till final deinduction by March 24 1990, one of the last IPKF Mech TF to move out from Sri Lanka.

Review of the Operations

The acronym VUCA had just been coined in the late 80s and was then relatively unknown in the context of the Indian military. Even in the US military, this phrase gained currency only at the turn of the 21st century. But if ever there was a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous military situation encountered by the Indian military, it was in Operation PAWAN, the IPKF military operations in Sri Lanka. Today’s enemies would be tomorrow’s friends and vice versa. Diplomacy and employment of the mailed fist went hand in hand. The harshest lesson learnt was that it was wise to maintain liaison with all disparate groups and entities, whether Sri Lankan or Tamil militant, but trust no one except your own judgement.

The FBM operations were conducted in one of the most highly varied terrains, ranging from densely populated built-up areas, thickly forested jungles, large lagoons, and open sea coasts to semi-marshlands. The cross-country movement was the best recourse to stay alive.

FBM was employed for purposes other than those intended by being deployed in subunits, platoons, and squads along a 600-kilometre frontage for slightly under three years. To come out of such a trying battlefield deployment with flying colours speaks volumes of combat skills, versatility, and flexibility of the unit. 

The variety of operational responsibilities assigned was outstanding. Combat Teams and Squads were assigned various tasks such as bolstering the defensive layout of formation headquarters and the infantry units, leading infantry advance for road axis clearance, the capture of built-up areas, show of force, area dominance, axis control/denial, road opening, convoy protection, escorting VIP movement, mounted and dismounted patrols, laying ambush, establishing roadblocks, conducting lagoon patrols, defending airfields and helipads, and liaison with the foreign security forces.

There was always uncertainty about how the Sri Lankan security forces would respond to the presence of foreign troops in their country. The issue got more acute as the Sri Lankan government’s subsequent opposition to the provisions of the agreement grew. CG FBM was effectively kept poised during deinduction to guard against any such occurrence.

The FBM’s activities were also impeded by a lack of logistical assistance. Infantry formations were just not designed to provide logistical support to motorized troops. The Battalion Headquarters had its work cut out for them in terms of unit cohesion, logistics support and contact with formations and units deployed across the IPKF designated regions.

The junior leadership had full opportunities for conducting varied operational activities on their own initiative. This provided ideal conditions for forging young leadership by imbibing the values of initiative, creativity, the true meaning of esprit de corps, and acceptance of responsibility towards men under the command and for their own actions. 

FBM got the singular distinction of being the first Mechanized Infantry unit to take part in the first-ever overseas operations conducted by the Indian Army under the Indian flag after independence. It earned operational experience in both air transported and amphibious operations, while its Alfa Company has the distinction of being operationally deployed in all the four sectors of IPKF mandated areas in Sri Lanka, i.e. Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa Sectors down to Amparai and Pottuvil. More important, its operational deployments coincided with the critically developing military situations. 

The unit was one of the first to be inducted into Sri Lanka when ‘Operation PAWAN’ began on July 29, 1987, and one of the last to be deinducted when the operation ended on March 24, 1990. The severity of its participation in the activities may be gauged by its fatalities of 23 dead and 34 wounded while receiving 1 Vir Chakra, 5 Sena Medals (Gallantry), and 2 Mention-in-Dispatches.

The lyrics “All gave some, some gave all” by Billy Ray Cyrus though written in the context of the USA, somehow aptly sums up the FBM participation in ‘Operation PAWAN’.

Food for Thought

I wish to sign off with a few thoughts for the current generation of unit-level military leadership:-

It’s time to be really alert when your hierarchy offers you a task that only you can be trusted to accomplish or that they have an easy operational task assigned for you. There is no such thing. 

Don’t ever get hustled into undertaking precipitous action without proper acclimatization, reconnaissance, planning, and briefing. Learn to say a firm no; after all, you are responsible for the lives of your men. If in doubt, remember the 1962 war, ‘Operation PAWAN’ and ‘Operation VIJAY’ (Kargil)!

The easiest-looking approaches while fighting in built-up areas will invariably be mined and covered by fire.

Not all armies have the resources of the Russian military to reduce entire cities into rubble. No matter how pulverized the target appears to be, there will still be some lucky enemy lurking with a weapon trained at your guts, so it’s judicious to approach with caution. 

In futuristic battlefields, a CG shall be potent as long as it operates on all arms concept of armour, mechanized infantry, artillery, air defence, electronic warfare, and eye-in-the-sky reconnaissance and surveillance. 

Train to operate in the disruptive technology-dominated battlefield of the future, where full spectrum communication disruption, drone swarms, and beyond visual range precision guided canister munitions will be employed to target the mechanized forces.

Invest training and technical funds in procuring aerial surveillance equipment with hover capabilities. It’s available off the shelf in the market, alternately engage with reputed technical academic institutes to develop it for you at rock bottom prices. Imagine the operational and training advantage of possessing CG/CT Commanders’ own eye in the sky. The same may be done to procure miniature land-based robotic reconnaissance vehicles and allied high technology, low-cost equipment. 

There is no shortcut to success on the battlefield. Develop initiative in junior leadership by granting them leeway to lead and be responsible for their sub-units in peacetime activities. 

Encourage young officers to explore their own remote areas and neighbourhood countries on leave. You never know when this terrain knowledge may be the difference between victory and failure.

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