BSF, India’s ‘First Line of Defence’, is Not Equipped to Face an Enemy Military Attack

While the BSF discharges its peacetime roles quite well, it is ill equipped and ill trained for its wartime role of holding ground in the face of a military assault.

The Border Security Force (BSF) is widely projected as ‘India’s first line of defence’ against infiltration, smuggling and military assault in their official statements. Officially, its role is defined in expansive terms of ‘security of the border of India and matters connected therewith’. The tasks of the BSF are divided into peacetime and wartime. The peacetime tasks include preventing smuggling and any other illegal activity, and unauthorised entry into or exit from the territory of India, etc.

The wartime tasks of the BSF include holding ground in less threatened sectors, etc. Until 1965, India’s border with Pakistan was manned by various state armed police battalions. The BSF was raised in the aftermath of the 1965 war with Pakistan. The BSF website itself says that Pakistan’s attacks in Kutch exposed the inadequacy of the state armed police to cope with armed aggression. That is why, the government of India felt the need for a specialised, centrally controlled border security force, which would be armed and trained to man the international border with Pakistan.

This means that the foremost concern at the time of inception of the BSF was to create a ‘first line of defence’ against external military aggression. The BSF was supposed to take on the enemy army for duration and in areas as the situation demanded. Since there was no militancy or terrorism in that era, the question of infiltration of terrorists did not arise. Moreover, smuggling and other illegal activities had nothing to do with the 1965 War. 

How the IPS undercut the BSF

Since the BSF’s inception, however, the force’s Indian Police Service (IPS) leadership, purposefully relegated the wartime role of the BSF to such an extent that it has been forgotten. They did this in order to hide their own ignorance of matters military. Since the BSF, in terms of its defences, equipment, weaponry and training, is not at all prepared for its wartime role, this means that in the eventuality of any military assault, our ‘first line of defence’ would simply crumble and we will have to fall back until such time that the army mobilis

es and launches a counterattack. Depending on the degree of surprise the Pakistanis are able to achieve in their attack, the army’s counterattack may take up to several days. Retreat and loss of territory in this period will result in national humiliation. The much-touted ‘first line of defence’ is actually no defence at all.

I must hasten to add that the BSF is discharging its peacetime role quite satisfactorily and is adequately equipped for it. The IPS officers in top positions in the BSF, lacking any knowledge of military science that could enable them to appreciate and address the wartime role in a professionally sound manner, promoted only the peacetime role of the BSF. Guarding and patrolling the border bore considerable similarity to the tasks performed in their policing background. However, no one ever talked about the wartime role, not to speak of preparing for it. So much so that even the government lost sight of it.

The Two Hundred Third Report of the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, titled ‘Border Security: Capacity Building and Institutions’, submitted to the Rajya Sabha on April 11, 2017, does not talk about the wartime role of the BSF even once. It talks only of its peacetime role including fencing, floodlights and roads along the borders, development of integrated check posts, and construction of strategic roads. Speaking of the ceasefire violations at Chapter 4.6.3, the report says, “There have been a large number of ceasefire violations and several jawans and civilians have been killed… The government should find a way to prevent the frequent and persistent violations of ceasefire including using diplomatic channels. Ultimately, the answer lies in diplomacy.” Fighting an enemy was never contemplated.

No idea of modern ground warfare

The founders of the BSF, including the committee of secretaries, had spoken of BSF holding ground in less threatened sectors. The very premise was flawed. In their ignorance of military matters, they could not understand that the enemy would not attack ‘tentatively’ in any sector, call it less threatened or highly threatened, whatever. Leaving aside feints, which could be in any type of sector, any meaningful attack will bear the full force of enemy’s firepower.

They nurtured a romantic but wrong presumption that the assault on the ‘first line of defence’ will be by the enemy’s ‘exposed’ infantry on foot, wielding rifles and other small arms bereft of any infantry fighting vehicle or armoured personnel carrier protection. This assault, they imagined, would be repulsed by BSF soldiers wielding similar arms. That is exactly where their ignorance of military science failed them. The romantic imagery of heroic bayonet fights is found only in period films, not in real life. Even during the First World War, all infantry attacks were preceded by heavy artillery bombardment to soften up the defences, if not destroy them outright. At the Battle of Verdun (1916), they coined the famous quote ‘artillery conquers, infantry occupies’. Now, as a rule of thumb, infantry assault, whether supported by armour or not, or even a purely armour assault on any position is preceded by as heavy and as accurate artillery bombardment  as possible.

If the attacking nation could afford it, such as the US during the 1991 Gulf War (over one-lakh sorties and 88,500 tons of bombs dropped), the bombardment could be aerial also. Saddam had expected and prepared for a ground offensive; the Americans refused to open up with a ground offensive. Iraq’s national war-fighting potential was effectively pulverized by the B-52s in one single night. Lest someone think that I cite examples from the Western world only, I must mention that, according to the Official History of the 1971 War also, ‘devastating barrage of artillery fire’ (Chapter 9, page 380) by Pakistan on the western front was common.

The ‘first line of defence’ cannot withstand shelling for a minute

Our ‘first line of defence’ does not have any defensive structures or fortifications that could withstand artillery bombardment even for a minute. According to photographs available in the public domain, most BSF observation posts on the international border are ramshackle structures of tin sheets and sandbags erected on small mounds of earth, which cannot withstand a single shell. The so-called bunkers or mounds will be knocked out within minutes because the shelling will be extremely accurate—the mounds are in full view of the enemy and their locations are known to them to the last centimetre.

The IPS leadership could never understand that, even if you have to place yourself right on the fence for some inexplicable reason, there is no over-ground structure, which can withstand shelling. Even the concrete pillboxes of Germany, in the Second World War, collapsed under fire. Under fire, these ramshackle structures would not serve the purpose of even observation posts. They are good only for watching smugglers in peacetime, not for fighting an invading army!

Nothing to fight an invading army

The weaponry available to the BSF is not a secret. Photographs of the 84 mm Carl Gustaf CGRL, 105 mm Indian Field Gun and their staple, the 7.62 mm medium machinegun are available in public domain. They have been putting their MMGs on public display and organizing trips of students to forward BOPs of the BSF along the international border (for example, at RS Pura sector) to show weapons and special equipment to them.

The 105 mm Indian Field Guns have been placed under the operational command of the army, and BSF would not be able to use them when the enemy makes first contact with them. That leaves them with their 51 mm and 81 mm mortars. The former, with just 109 grams of explosive per shell and a maximum range of  850 m is as good as useless in a war. The 81 mm mortar bomb with an explosive charge of 750 grams has a maximum range of 6000 m. The enemy artillery would in any case be firing from way beyond that range, thereby making effective retaliation through mortars impossible. Even when enemy IFV/APC or armour would come closer and in range, the smooth-bore 81 mm mortar is inherently not accurate enough to hit a moving vehicle—even the NATO rifled 120 mm mortars have a CEP (circular error probable) of 136 m.

As for the 7.62 mm medium machinegun, it is an anti-personnel weapon with the armour penetration of the M80 bullet being just 3 mm at 500m, making it useless against even lightly armoured vehicles. This means that the BSF outposts will not be able to deliver any effective fire at all on an enemy assault. Clearly, fighting the enemy army, for howsoever-short duration or in whichever sector, was never in the mind of the IPS leadership and they never equipped them for it. All they could understand and think of was chowkidari and that is why they never procured weapon systems or arranged for such training to be imparted that could enable the BSF to acquit itself honourably in any engagement with the enemy military.

The acid test they failed

The BSF faced enemy military action during the Battle of Hussainiwala in the 1971 War. Maj. Gen. (Retd ) Sukhwant Singh narrates this in detail in India’s Wars Since Independence, besides the Official History of the 1971 War. 15 Punjab was given the task of defending the Hussainiwala enclave, particularly the canal headworks. Three companies of the BSF in that area were placed under the battalion’s operational command to hold the BOPs of BP 180, Ullake and Rajoke with one company each and a platoon at Shamoke. The Pakistanis mounted a three-pronged attack supported by armour and preceded by intense artillery shelling at 6:15 p.m. on December 3. The BSF positions fell easily and the men had to be withdrawn across the river over the night. What happened to the four companies of 15 Punjab is another story but the withdrawal of the BSF left the entire right flank exposed and the Pakistani pincer movement threatened to close any time. Eventually, a final withdrawal by all units to the south bank of the river was ordered in the evening of December 4 and the Hussainiwala enclave was lost.

The IPS leadership has relegated the wartime role of the BSF to such an extent that most of them are not even aware of this battle. Other than this battle, their combat experience of half a century has been limited to being fired upon occasionally from across the border by Pakistani snipers or mortars etc. and their occasionally responding to the fire from relative safety. Their entire collective experiential repertoire of decades has thus been essentially repetitive and mechanical in character, without any opportunity or incentive to learn the complexities of military hardware and tactics applicable to war. As such, they cannot fight even yesterday’s war.

What ought to be done to salvage the situation?

While detailed professional knowledge on this subject can be provided at some appropriate platform only, the crisis calls for a paradigm shift. They have to think beyond their obsession with the pinpricks of Pakistanis firing upon them sporadically. It needs to be understood that the only defence feasible against artillery bombardment is to go sub-surface—in the form of deep concrete dugouts and fire trenches.

Forget the pathetic mound you have. This knowledge has been established by great research over hundreds of battles during and since the First World War, and often learnt at the cost of millions of casualties. So much scientific mind has been applied to it in the past 100 years that a deliberate ignorance of it by any Force would be criminal. A simplified but comprehensive review for the layman may be found, for example, in Paddy Griffith’s ‘Fortifications of the Western Front 1914–18’. A great amount of technical literature replete with drawings is available in the manuals of the German and British armies, which had survived the bombardment of up to 1.5 million shells. Keep in mind that the Pakistan army has field pieces ranging from 105 mm, 122 mm, 130 mm, 155 mm, and 203 mm tube artillery to 122 mm and 300 mm MBRLs.

Cutaway diagram of a 19-feet deep, concrete-reinforced German dugout. Source: Paddy Griffith, Fortifications of the Western Front 1914–18.

Since trouble from Pakistan can be expected in making new defensive structures close to the fence, we have no option but to slide back to make these. Observation from close proximity of the fence can be made remotely through instruments. Then we need elaborate anti-tank ditches—not the primitive ditch-cum-bunds (DCBs) we have. This too has been developed into a science and the US army, for example, has whole manuals on it.

To deliver effective fire on enemy armoured and lightly armoured vehicles, and infantry operating under their protection, the BSF needs weapons which carry enough explosive payloads to tackle armour, both light and heavy. They have to forget their childish fascination with anti-materiel rifles and sniper rifles. Portability, manoeuvrability and accuracy are important considerations in the ‘first line of defence’ attacking armour—a veritable battery of ATGMs and cheaper yet accurate options like the 80 mm Breda Folgore RCL are available. Using them effectively would require defensive fighting positions interconnected by communication trenches. Research needs to be done to mount weapons like the Shipunov 2A42 30 mm autocannon on platforms faster than the BMP-2—similarly, MMGs/GPMGs need mobile platforms like Humvees to increase their survivability as well as effectivity.

Some apologists of the IPS leadership have argued that tactical brilliance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for strategic leadership. While this admits the IPS leadership’s poor tactical knowledge anyway, their having abjectly ignored the wartime role of the BSF or preparing for it is a living proof of their lack of ‘strategic leadership’. If it were argued that the wartime role is not important, it would mean that the founding vision was flawed and they should have stopped flaunting the organization as the ‘first line of defence’; something they have failed to do all these years. The problem is not so much the ‘transient nature of this parachuted leadership’; the real crisis is its intellectual bankruptcy.

One learns military science by studying it continuously by oneself or institutionally—not by virtue of having crossed the hallowed portals of the UPSC. As Napoleon had famously said, “Read and reread the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene, and Frederick; that is the only way of becoming a great captain, to obtain the secrets of the art of war.” Never mind that military science is not taught at the National Police Academy. That is no excuse for messing things up. In fact, a system of examination can be devised to check their proficiency before they join BSF.

The IPS leadership’s lack of interest in the wartime role of the BSF over the decades has led the country to a situation where there is every possibility of rout and retreat in the early days of the war. This issue needs to be urgently addressed by the government. 

(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Of his 46 books, 10 are on military science, defence and strategic studies; two on science of warfare; two on science of weaponry; and three on military history. Views are personal. He tweets at @NcAsthana.)