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IEDs and the Maoist insurgency

Uddipan Mukherjee, PhD, is Joint Director, Government of India, Ministry of Defence at Ordnance Factory Board.
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  • May 07, 2019

    On 03 May 2019, an office of a major political party in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand was partially damaged by an Improvised Explosive Device [IED]. Initial reports indicated that the blast was triggered by the Maoist insurgents. Fortunately, there was no casualty.

    A villager was killed on the same day when an IED exploded in Aurangabad district of Magadh region, about 125 km south of Patna. The IED again was suspected to have been planted by the Maoists as a trap for the security forces.

    These incidents do not appear to be exceptions. On 01 May 2019, 15 commandos of the elite ‘C 60 group’ were killed in an IED blast as they were travelling in a private vehicle on a patrol mission in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Interestingly, the C-60 commando group was formed to negotiate the rise of Maoist insurgency in the Gadchiroli region, with the recruitment being carried out from the local area. The commandos have been trained in the country’s best institutions insofar as counterinsurgency operations are concerned. The personnel have an advantage of knowing the local language, society and terrain. The point to note here is that, since 2009, there was a steady decline in Maoist activity in Maharashtra and, in that context, this particular IED blast killing 15 elite commandos is a matter of concern.

    However, as if this mayhem was not enough during the pre-election period in the world’s largest democracy when the police and security forces are preoccupied with managing a country-wide adult franchise, a member of the legislative assembly of a major political party lost his life in April 2019 in the Maoist den of the state of Chhattisgarh, and again due to an IED blast. This series of events appear a bit weird when, in fact, the five decade old Maoist insurgency has been on the wane since 2012, with the security forces holding the upper hand.

    A top officer of the Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] has informed that 22 out of 28 security officials lost their lives due to IED blasts in 2019, while 41 of 67 officials had died in such explosions in 2018. However, only seven security personnel among 74 were killed in IED blasts in 2017, indicating a surge of IED explosions in the last two years.

    After the most recent casualty in Gadchiroli, the home ministry has said that the use of powerful IEDs by the Maoists is the next big challenge to tackle. To further add to this tale, it is reported that the Maoists are presently using various types of IEDs : from command-wire IEDs to victim-operated as well as radio-controlled IEDs.

    With a large mass of explosives to the tune of 50 kilogrammes, the Maoists could even blow up an otherwise well designed Mine Protected Vehicle [MPV] in Chhattisgarh in October 2018 due to which some CRPF troopers were martyred. MPVs are effective as powerful shields from bullets and have safeguards for mine blasts of 14 Kg TNT under the wheels and 10 Kg TNT under the hull.

    A 2014 paper in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress states that the Maoists learned the use of IEDs from Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]. The Maoists are also prone to using Claymore mines or directional IEDs which could be fitted to a tree. The paper further informs that in this ‘long war’ with the left-wing ultras, over 60 per cent of the casualties among the security forces have been caused by explosives or IEDs.

    The CRPF on the other hand is in the process of upgrading their IED detection equipment and Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) unit to reduce casualties in the ongoing tussle with the insurgents.

    In this backdrop, repeated attacks of late by the ultras through IEDs raise a few germane questions:

    1. Are the Maoists focusing more on IED-based blasts and in the process minimizing their own casualties instead of attempting to win a war of attrition by inflicting tactical and psychological blows to the security forces?
    1. Is this new tactic by the Maoists a reflection of the change of guard at the helm that took place in November 2018 when Nambala Keshav Rao, alias Basavaraju, took over as the new general secretary from Ganapathy? Rao holds a B Tech degree from the Regional Engineering College, Warrangal. He reportedly underwent training in the forests of Bastar from a group of former fighters of the LTTE, specialising in ambush tactics and the handling of explosives.
    2. Due to a considerable loss of leadership and manpower, would the Maoists continue to follow this tactic for some time to come till they reorganize and re-recruit?
    3. What are the reasons that the security forces are unable to counter this IED-tactic of the Maoists?

    Beyond the Indian borders

    Before these queries are addressed seriatim, a broader look beyond India is essential. IED attacks by insurgent forces are surely not limited to the Maoists in 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. And if the data from Iraq is included, IEDs account for almost two-thirds of all US soldiers wounded and killed in both countries.

    In the recent past, communist rebels in the Philippines have also used IEDs on several occasions against Filipino security forces. In Iraq, some Shia militia groups used explosively formed projectiles to destroy the most heavily armoured M1 Abrams tanks of the US forces.

    Providing another twist to the narrative, even the Indian Army has admitted that IEDs are its “biggest enemy”, while referring to its role in containing the insurgency in Manipur. Major General Vijay Mishra spelt out the reality: “By the character of IEDs it's so easy to assemble and hide.” Though the army conducts regular Road Opening Parties (ROPs) for ‘sanitising’ roads before any military movement, yet IEDs remain a potent threat.

    Cutting across geography, ideology and/or purpose, IEDs appear to be consistent and standard weapons against the ‘state forces’ used by insurgents in this asymmetric war.

    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 produces 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 and indigenously prepared, the ‘poor insurgent’s bomb’ forced the Pentagon to set up an office in 2006 to exclusively deal with the growing threat of IEDs. Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero of the Pentagon lamented that to ‘counter a $31 bag of fertilizer they were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on sensors and protective devices.’

    IEDs give insurgents “visibility, power, and influence,” contends Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. US Army Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett is, however, of the old school as he puts his bet on the well-trained soldier and his eyes, rather than on any exotic technology to tackle IEDs in the battlefield.

    There is no gainsaying that there is a need to detect the activities that precede the use of IEDs to predict the events. That requires a set of information derived from both human as well as technical sources, followed by analytical inference deduced from the data. Naturally, persistent surveillance can improve the capabilities of the security forces. Incidentally, till date, intelligence gathering remains the most powerful weapon against the IEDs.

    Intelligence at ‘ground zero’ plays a pivotal role in countering IEDs as it was again validated in the Gadchiroli massacre. Initial investigations point to the fact that the Maoist insurgents had precise information pertaining to the movement of the

    C 60 contingent, whereas the latter lacked any credible information about the ultras.

    Reverting to the queries raised

    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 loss on their side. They meticulously wish to avoid frontal confrontation but at the same time gain an apparent tactical victory in the propaganda space.

    Second, it is not at all unlikely that Basavaraju is instrumental behind this change of approach. However, it is clear that the use of IEDs is not a novel technique that the Maoists are putting into effect now. Rather, they have been doing it since long. The new general secretary of the Maoists may have a greater proclivity towards the use of explosives because of his own expertise on the subject, yet does he have any viable alternative given the continuous loss of manpower due to elimination, incarceration 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 as much damage on the security forces and dent their morale. This tactic might, by and large, continue till regrouping takes place and fresh recruitment is on the rise. Thereafter, while the use of IEDs would continue, however the intensity of their use would expectedly go down with greater focus on reaching the third stage of the ‘strategic offence’ in the guerrilla campaign. Presently, the Maoists are in the ‘strategic defence’ phase and playing 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, it should be easy to comprehend that it is not at all a cakewalk to tackle the ‘poor insurgent’s bomb’. If the armoured vehicles of the US Army could be breached by IEDs, then the Indian security forces ought to be empathized with in this hour of challenge. Nonetheless, it does not mean that the security forces would not follow standard operating procedures while dealing with the insurgent in a difficult topography. Being huddled together in a single vehicle would obviously make them vulnerable. Further, credible intelligence on the ultras through a local network has to be on the platter to avoid any fiasco. In addition, leakage of information to the other side should be prevented at all costs. Moreover, research on detecting and containing the IED menace needs to continue, with emphasis on less exotic and 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. The Maoist insurgent would continue to use the low-end technology to extract as much leverage as possible, while state forces need to exercise caution, exhibit patience and wait for the earliest opportunity against the ultras.

    Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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