Managing the Maoist Upsurge with Technology

Sub Title : Measures which will help manage the threats posed by the Maoists better

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Uddipan Mukherjee

Page No. : 52

Category : Geostrategy

: March 27, 2021

The Maoist Insurgency in India has a long history. Recent years have seen a spurt in IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks by the Maoists against the security forces. IEDs by their very character are difficult to detect and neutralize. The article suggests measures which will help  manage the threats posed by the Maoists better

According to P Sunderraj, Inspector General of Police, Bastar Range of Chhattisgarh State, the police force has  lost hundreds of its brave men, this in addition to innocent civilians including women and children and even cattle in IED explosions by the Maoists in the region. He further stated that there are, on an average, over 60 incidents of IED explosions in Bastar every year.

The Maoists had looted about 16 tons of ammonium nitrate around a decade back from a truck. Interestingly,  this chemical was the key ingredient in the recent blasts in Beirut. The security forces recovered four remote-controlled IEDs in the affected area of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh in May 2020. During a briefing on IED incidents, the Superintendent of Police informed that it was for the ‘first time’ that the Maoists had used remote-controlled IEDs in the region.

On 03 May 2019, an office of a major political party in the Jharkhand state was partially damaged by an IED, planted allegedly by Maoist insurgents. Fortunately, there was no casualty. On 01 May 2019, 15 Police Commandos were killed in an IED blast when they were travelling in a private vehicle on a patrol mission in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra State. A member of the legislative assembly of a major political party also lost his life in April 2019 in the Maoist den of Chhattisgarh, again due to an IED blast.

IED attacks by insurgent forces are not limited to the Maoists within India. In Afghanistan, the American forces faced IED explosions relentlessly with close to 800 attacks in 2006 and over 15,000 attacks in 2012. During that period, more than 11,000 US soldiers were injured and about 1,300 were killed. By including the data from Iraq, it is seen that IEDs account for almost two-thirds of all US soldiers wounded and killed in both the countries. On several occasions, communist rebels in the Philippines have used IEDs against the security forces.

Even the Indian Army has admitted that IEDs are its “biggest enemy”, while referring to its role in containing the insurgency in Manipur. Though the army conducts regular Road Opening Operations for sanitising roads before any military movement, IEDs remain a potent threat.

What is an IED?

It is a homemade bomb, constructed from military or non-military components. IEDs consist of an initiating mechanism, a detonator, an explosive charge, and a collection of projectiles like ball bearings or nails that become lethal fragments upon detonation. IEDs can be made from many different kinds of objects and materials, including fertilizers, TNT, and other explosives. Though of low technology, the ‘poor insurgent’s bomb’ forced the Pentagon to set up an office in 2006 to exclusively deal with the growing threat of IEDs. Incidentally, till date, intelligence gathering remains the most powerful weapon against the IEDs.

Undoubtedly, IEDs and landmines pose a formidable challenge to the world community. It is both a theoretical as well as a practical problem to determine the location of each and every IED/landmine in a geographical area. To defuse them thereafter is even more problematic. In fact, one of the last century’s unsolved problems is the landmines left behind from wars and insurgencies. It is estimated that 15,000–20,000 victims are claimed per year due to landmines.

Interestingly, mines are inexpensive, costing as little as US $3 each and hence have turned out to be the poor rebel’s potent weapon. But on the other hand, they impose devastating consequences on the affected populace.

Landmine Detection Methodology

The major obstacle in detecting mines is that close to 100 per cent of the mines in any area must be found with very few false alarms. The United Nations, for example, has set the detection goal at 99.6 per cent, and the U.S. Army’s false-alarm rate is one in every 1.25 square meters. However, no existing detection system meets these criteria.

Various technologies such as Magnetometers, IR sensors, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) etc have been developed for detection of mines.

Ground-penetrating radars (GPR) are sensitive to large mines, have good coverage rate at a distance and with signal processing, can discriminate anti-tank mines from clutter such as rocks beneath the ground surface. These type of radars, however, remain expensive, cannot detect anti-personnel mines because their resolution is too low and they frequently record false alarms.

Apart from  available detection technologies, dogs and other ‘sniffers’ are the most viable. Nevertheless, they have high ongoing expenses, are subject to fatigue and can be fooled by masked scents. .

Is there a way forward?

The 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of anti-personnel mines and their destruction remains the principal international instrument prohibiting the use of anti-personnel landmines. This convention makes it obligatory for signatory countries to clear landmines planted in their territory.

More international cooperation in this regard is an imperative. Also, the concerns of security personnel in insurgency and war affected areas are genuine. Hence, when the state police forces in India exhibit urgency in implementing landmine detection technology to combat the Maoist  situation, they should not be viewed as mere visionaries, rather be hailed as realists. Furthermore,

The repeated attacks the Maoists through IEDs raise some queries:

  • Are the Maoists focusing more on IED-based blasts and in the process minimizing their own casualties instead of attempting to win a war against the security forces?
  • Is this tactical stance by the Maoists a reflection of the change of guard that took place in November 2018 when Nambala Keshav Rao, alias Basavaraj, took over as the new General Secretary from Ganapathy? Rao holds a B Tech degree from the Regional Engineering College, Warangal. He reportedly underwent training in the forests of Bastar from a group of former fighters of the LTTE.
  • Due to a considerable loss of leadership and manpower, would the Maoists continue to follow this tactic for some time to come?
  • What are the reasons that the security forces are unable to counter this IED-tactic of the Maoists?

First, it is true that in an environment marked by depleted manpower compounded by the lack of fresh recruits and a continuous loss of top leadership, the Maoists of late have switched to the IED-model to inflict blows to the security forces with minimum losses on their side.

Second, it is likely that Basavaraj is instrumental behind this change of approach. Also, the use of IEDs is not a novel technique that the Maoists are putting into effect now. The new general secretary of the Maoists may have a greater proclivity towards the use of explosives because of his own expertise. But does he have any viable alternative given the continuous loss of manpower due to elimination and surrenders?

Third, it is expected that for some time to come the Maoists would focus more on low-end technology of the IEDs to inflict damage on the security forces and dent their morale. This tactic might continue till regrouping takes place. Presently, the Maoists are in the ‘strategic defence’ phase and are on the back foot.

Fourth, considering what conventional armed forces of the world are facing and have faced in the past with regard to IEDs/landmines, it should be easy to comprehend that it is not at all a cakewalk to tackle the ‘poor insurgent’s bomb’. Research on detecting and containing the IEDs needs to continue, with emphasis on cost-effective techniques.

The fundamental issue in this entire deliberation is simple enough. A low-key technology is the motor of a ‘long war’ between two unequal actors: the relatively ‘weak’ insurgent and the powerful state.

Drones: Actionable/Credible Intelligence against the Insurgents

Drone strikes are extremely effective in eliminating insurgent leaders as well as rank-and-file members of the insurgents/terrorists, and also to destroy safe houses and equipment. Application of drones in the combat zone increases the cost to the insurgents of engaging in protracted violence. The feasibility of applying targeted neutralisation approach against the Indian Maoists has also been deliberated upon in detail. However, the dense forest cover in some Maoist infested areas has at times proved to be a disadvantage.

In fact, Drones/UAVs don a leading role in the counterterrorism/counterinsurgency paradigm for the following four reasons:

  • They emit low noise and hence are less likely to be detected.
  • They can hover over an area far longer than a manned aircraft.
  • They can fly low to verify the nature of the targets.
  • The prospects of collateral damage among the local non combatant population is reduced.

Drones became a favoured means of assassinating Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. Fear of drone strikes led to the Taliban randomly executing members of local tribes on suspicion of being informers. This in turn, increased the flow of community intelligence to security forces, as the tribesmen sought revenge.

In the recent past, unidentified drones/UAVs were viewed hovering over a strategically important CRPF camp in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma, in the south Bastar region. The drones emitted a ‘low whizzing sound’ that drew attention of camp guards. However, the UAVs soon disappeared from the sky before they could be shot down. Investigation led the police to a vendor in Mumbai, who is suspected to have sold the drones to possibly, the Maoists. The drones that were spotted were basic variants of a four-legged UAV that is controlled from the ground using a remote control, and is used in capturing videos and photos of social events.

As already pointed out, Drones/UAVs play an important role in Counter Insurgency Operations by gathering actionable intelligence of the conflict area. The footage from the drones can help the police/security forces to pin-point the locations of the insurgent groups, track the insurgent leaders, and eliminate them as and when required.

Air Power/Helicopters

Air power is usually the last thing that most military professionals contemplate when dealing with counter insurgency situations. Writing in 1998, one air power scholar observed that, “to a large extent, the Air Force has ignored insurgency as much as possible, preferring to think of it as little more than a small version of conventional war.” Yet, “since at least 1915 . . . the United States has used air power in more than a dozen conflicts against guerrillas and other irregulars.” Indeed, the former Soviet Union and El Salvador have proved that air power is not just useful but essential to counter insurgency operations. Instances of the use of air power successfully in counter insurgency operations include Nicaragua; Greece; the Philippines; Malaya; Southeast Asia; Oman; El Salvador; Colombia; and more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq. During these operations, air power consistently provided mobility, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities that greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the counter insurgent force.

Probably to justify the argument of efficacy of air power against insurgents, in December 2019, the Kerala police entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Pawan Hans Ltd for procuring a helicopter for anti-Maoist operations. As per the MoU, AS 365 Dauphin N3 of Pawan Hans Ltd will be taken on lease for a fixed monthly charge. The 11-seater helicopter will serve 20 hours of flying per month.

Based on the success achieved by armed helicopters in the Kargil War, a decision was taken to employ helicopter gunships of the Indian Air Force in the battle against terrorists who had infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley. Over the years, the IAF has accumulated considerable experience in the employment of air power in counter insurgency operations. In 1956, Toofani jets of the IAF were employed in Nagaland against the rebels and Vampires operated against insurgents in the North East Frontier Agency in 1960. In 1966, when Aizwal (the capital of Mizoram) was overrun by the Mizo National Front; the government deployed Hunter and Toofani combat aircrafts against the insurgents. IAF helicopters were part of the United Nations Peace Keeping Missions and have operated in counter insurgency operations, for instance, ‘Operation Khukri’ in Sierra Leone.

The Indian government has already given a go-ahead to the IAF to fire back at the Maoists in extremist-hit areas in self-defence. The IAF has deployed two of its Mi-17s and Dhruv helicopters each in anti-Maoist operations. The IAF has fitted machine guns on its helicopters flying in Maoist-affected areas, basically for logistics, personnel transport and casualty evacuation of paramilitary forces engaged in fighting the Maoists. Considering the amount of experience and expertise that the IAF possesses in counter insurgency operations worldwide, either the IAF or the armed police in conjunction with the IAF could effectively use airpower.

Is technology the end-game or human touch can do better?

Insofar as counter insurgency operations in the Indian context are concerned, the primary component is ‘winning hearts and minds’ [WHAM] of the local populace. WHAM can be described as a people-oriented strategy for establishing political, economic, social, and cultural linkages. WHAM-based approach has been implemented in the North-East, Kashmir and the Maoist affected regions in India.

In tune with the WHAM approach, the police/security forces of the district of Dantewada in Chattisgarh has carried out a three-month course in the local Gondi dialect from the middle of June 2019. The approach of the counter insurgent police is spot on. To  handle the left-wing extremists, especially to combat the ambushes, the police need to gather viable ground intelligence, which could be achieved through a working knowledge of the local language, technology notwithstanding.