This is a war without guns. Its medium is the ether through which radio signals travel, its tools, sophisticated electronic equipment -- both for transmission and reception -- and its aim, the control and direction of a proxy war by Pakistan against India in Jammu and Kashmir. Last month, the cat-and-mouse conflict was played out in the bylanes of Srinagar. Unable to decipher the transmissions, the Indian Army's Signals Intelligence units kept track of them for weeks, slowly narrowing down their place of origin. The task was not easy. Instead of a single frequency, the clandestine operator "jumped" his messages on a number of pre-set frequencies, at other times he compacted his data and broadcast them in "packets" or bursts. But he made enough slips. Early last month, the direction-finders pinpointed the source to a house in the Shourgarhi Mohalla in Srinagar's Nawab Bazar area. On August 9 when the Jammu and Kashmir's Special Operations Group raided the house, it was met by a hail of gunfire. Only after the operation ended with the death of the militants within did the police learn that they had struck a gold mine. Wireless WarsAmong those dead was Ali Mohammad Dar aka Burhanuddin Hajazi, deputy supreme commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Also found within was the radio transmitter and a matrix to decode the intercepted transmissions being sent by "Daud", Dar's call sign, and others. Deciphered, one of them read: "Our commanders and mujahids in the Valley are facing severe shortage of arms and ammunition. Our dumps are empty. Pressure of the army and the police has made our operations difficult. Jehad is going slow. Please send immediately Kalashnikovs, LMG, sniper, mines, mortars, missile, walkie talkie, antenna, mp-25-mp HF radio sets before snow." The police victory was limited though. As soon as they realised that Dar had been killed, the master control (MC) working out of a facility, north of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan, went silent. The transmissions began again a few days later, with an entirely new code matrix. For the army's cryptographers, it was back to the mind-bending game of breaking the codes. In the early years of militancy, there were few radio sets in the Valley. Communication was through the ISD and std networks. But with services to Pakistan blocked out, and the arrival of Pakistani and Afghan militants well-versed in the use of wireless, things changed. In 1994-95, the Hizbul Mujahideen established a powerful network for communication with Pakistan and its cadre. Other groups had to use this MC for communications with Pakistan, even though they had their own local networks. With the army's Signals Intelligence becoming more effective, the ISI moved the MC to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Though Hizbul still commands the most extensive radio grid, each outfit has its own network based on three divisions -- north, south and central Kashmir. The MC, essentially a guiding station, operates through 10 control stations, using high-frequency (HF) sets with a more or less fixed frequency. The control stations are relay centres or repeaters -- cutoffs to guard against interception. These are run by highly trained operators capable of living in the rugged heights of Shamshabari and Pir Panjal. They communicate with radio stations at various division, district and local area levels where commanders of militant outfits man them. They in turn control their cadres armed with hand-held wireless sets. Only the "divisional" commanders -- there is one for every two districts -- have direct access to the MC through HF radio sets which, unlike hand-held vhf and uhf sets with a limited line of sight range, operate through sky waves up to more than 400 km. "With the kind of HF sets the militants in Kashmir use, they can easily communicate with Karachi and Kabul," says a Signals Corps official. There are two kinds of HF sets being used by the militants: the Kachina Model mp-25 and the American AN-PRC 1099. These can be used with add-on equipment that can enable the transmission of data through scrambled or coded e-mail and Morse mode to escape interception. Latest intelligence reports suggest that top militants may be using satellite phones. For tactical purposes, the techno-savvy militants use US- or Japanese-made Yeasu, Kenwood and I-Com sets which operate on citizen bands from 130 to 176 MHz. The bulk of the militants' communication is through handy wireless sets that occasionally use special diamond antenna put up at vantage points to amplify the message up to 30 km. "The militants are getting the best of whatever is commercially available in the world market," says P.S. Gill, IGP ( Kashmir range). "The difficulty level in breaking their ciphers has increased manifold," says a Signals Intelligence official at the 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar. Each outfit's main control station has a coded call name -- Shahji was one for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, 71 for Hizbul and Uqab for Harkat-ul-Ansar. The clear transmission is of a non-tactical nature, while operational messages are coded. Says Abdul Rashid, a recently captured district commander of Harkat-ul-Ansar: "Barring Dua salaam, all other talk on wireless is strictly as per matrix." The ISI-developed matrix gives a code to each alphabet and numerical as well as objects and places. Each outfit follows different matrix sheets which are different even within the same outfit. Once a militant is killed or arrested or found missing on the network, the matrix is quickly changed to protect the secrecy of messages. Dar was using seven different matrices, one for each day. Besides the conventional ones, militants use matrices in Urdu, Arabic and Pushto which mercenaries follow. "Many codes are based on the Quran, like badr denoting 313 and bismillah 786," says Javed Shah,MLC, the former chief of Al Jehad. The monitoring agencies have Pushto and Arabic experts to assist them. The job of monitoring, deciphering and locating their source is magnified by the fact that as of now there are 400 militant calling stations operating in the Valley alone, with 160 of them taking to the air almost everyday. This number, according to security agencies monitoring militant transmissions, has steadily gone up despite setbacks to militancy. In Doda, ideal for guerrilla tactics because of its mountainous terrain, militants have 172 calling stations. In Rajouri and Poonch districts, the "new gateways for militancy", 131 calling stations have sprung up in just one year. The task before the Signals Intelligence Directorate is enormous. Intercepting communications is just one part of the electronic war, and not simple, given the "burst" and frequency-hopping systems being used by the militants. Deciphering them in time to be of use is the major challenge, requiring human assets who must have considerable linguistic skills and talent for code-breaking. What worries officials most now is that the militants may have gone in for secrecy equipment, similar to the one used by the army for encrypting its operational messages. Deciphering codes is like solving the Chinese puzzle. "We listen a lot and try to correlate the intercepts to ground events to find keys to their codes," says a Signal Intelligence official. Though only about 20 per cent of the militants' coded messages can be deciphered, intercepts yield important intelligence inputs. "The intercepts are a force multiplier," says an army official. At times, however, the army opts for selective jamming of militant transmissions around August 15 or during vip visits when there is a perception of increased threat. "Electronic warfare is a cat-and-mouse game," says Lt-General (retd) Harbhajan Singh, former signal officer-in-chief . "To be one up, one has to have better equipment." After the army recently banned the sale of pencil batteries in Rajouri and Poonch to starve militants' wireless sets of power, they found an answer by smuggling in US-made solar panels and huge consignments of imported rechargeable batteries. As many as 5,000 such batteries were recovered from Dar's hideout. The army's equipment is largely obsolete, mainly ex-Soviet or outdated European designed scanners to intercept messages. Today's norms are scanners that can go through 220 channels per second. Army officials have complained for years about the old equipment they have had to use and the refusal of the Ministry of Defence to process their requests for urgently needed direction-finding equipment. Locating hostile radio sets, using special antennae hooked on to computers, is not easy, especially in the mountain areas where false echoes create problems. But, earlier this month, the Government gave its approval for the import of highly sophisticated direction- finders that will help home in on the militants' clandestine communication networks. Making available the direction-finders and state-of-the-art interception equipment form part of the Centre's Rs 200 crore "Action Plan" for other security forces in the troubled state. Early this year, the state police spent Rs 60 lakh on acquisition of monitoring equipment for each districts headquarter. "The real strength of the militants is not their number but their ability to communicate faster," says state DGP Gurbachan Jagat. "If we can hit their communication network, they will be in a disarray." The allusion is to the resource crunch and failure of the bureaucracy in Delhi to gauge how crucial electronic warfare has become in the Valley. But this is a war that cannot be ignored and the country has to ensure its forces have all that is needed to contest Pakistan's low-cost, high-tech proxy war.