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Kargil 17 Years : The height of challenge

Dec 6, 2015
Published May 29, 2016

SEVENTEEN years ago on 26th May 1999, a wave of six Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft comprising two Soviet-origin MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27M each launched air strikes on Pakistani soldiers located in about 130 pickets on scores of dominating mountain peaks and ridge lines along a 160 km stretch on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil and Leh districts of J&K.

With the battleground ranging between 14,000 and 18,000 feet, the 85-day limited Kargil War between India and Pakistan turned out to be the world’s highest elevation air and land war during which the Army fired a staggering 250,000 artillery shells (average 5,000 a day), a scale unprecedented since World War-II. The IAF, which did some brilliant innovations including unprecedented high altitude night operations in moonlight, ended up flying 7,631 sorties (average 40 a day) including 1,730 missions by 60 fighter aircraft that dropped about 500 bombs including, for the first time, laser guided bombs in anger.Over several weeks preceding the start of the Kargil War, the Pakistani Army surreptitiously intruded 8 to 10 km inside the Indian side of the LoC across four contiguously located sub sectors – Mushkoh Valley (adjacent to the 11,500 Zoji La), Dras, Kargil and Batalik (adjoining the Siachen glacier) – and established outposts overlooking the country’s solitary National Highway connecting Srinagar to Leh.

Pakistan’s multi-fold intention was to realign the LoC by salami slicing a part of J&K, interdict the highway and thereby disrupt the Army’s line of communication, cut off the Siachen Glacier, internationalise the J&K issue and give a fillip to its sponsored militancy in the state.Both the Indian intelligence and the Army were caught shamefully unawares just as it had in the two previous Kashmir wars – 1947-48 and 1965. As in 1965, the intrusion first came to the Army’s notice from (two) shepherds on the payrolls of the military intelligence after they sighted intruders on the higher reaches of Batalik.Then had begun a flurry of activity aimed at ascertaining the identity of and vacating the intruders.

The first Army patrol sent to investigate was attacked and met with casualties (four killed and five wounded); a second patrol went missing; an IAF helicopter followed by a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft were damaged in Pakistani rocket fire; and an attempt to dislodge the Pakistanis from a key peak (Point 5353) was repulsed. By 25th May, i.e. a day before the start of air strikes, 29 Indian soldiers had either been killed or gone missing and another 30 wounded. But the Army still did not know the full extent of the intrusions, their number and identity (whether Pakistani Army or militants as they were claiming). It was not the brightest moment for a country that only a year earlier had proudly self declared to be a nuclear weapon state and had 28 years earlier (1971) soundly defeated and dismembered Pakistan.On 26th July, two weeks after the IAF concluded their strike missions on 12th July, the government announced that all intrusions had been vacated.

Officers and soldiers of a not so well prepared and equipped Army valiantly fought dozens of difficult high altitude battles that involved crossing deep ravines and painstakingly scaling steep hostile craggy rocky slopes, often at night, to retake lost territory peak by peak yard by yard in an inhospitable terrain and sub zero temperatures which was as much the enemy as the Pakistani soldiers. Indian soldiers and air force pilots had to function within the constraint of a government directive forbidding crossing the LoC. However, for tactical reasons the Army thrice successfully crossed the LoC to capture tactically important features to facilitate vacating the intruders. The 27 Rajput battalion crossed the LoC south of Turtuk near NJ 9842; 14 Sikh battalion similarly captured a feature about a kilometre inside the Pakistani side of the LoC near Chorbat La while a Jat battalion captured a feature adjacent to the Kupwara sector. In the latter case, however, the soldiers had to withdraw west of the Mushkoh Valley after about 30 of them suffered frost bite. The Army continues to retain all the captured features.

Victory’s cost

Did the Kargil War end with an Indian victory and Pakistan’s defeat? Has India learnt its lessons? Has Pakistan too learnt its lessons and desist from repeating history? The meaning of events changes with time and 17 years is a fairly long time to reflect.India’s victory lies in recovering territory lost due to its incompetence, this came at a high human cost: 527 soldiers (including six airmen) killed and 1,363 wounded (many maimed for life). When compared to duration and geographical spread, the Army proportionately lost more soldiers in the over two-month war than in the 14-month 1947-48 war in which 1,103 soldiers were killed. The IAF lost three aircraft – a MiG 27M to engine failure and a MiG-21 and Mi-17 helicopter each to Pakistani missiles. Some deft diplomacy led to an unusual public support by the US and all major countries for the Indian position vis-à-vis a diplomatically isolated Pakistan. Islamabad’s, rather Rawalpindi’s (headquarters of the Pakistani Army), ‘success’ lay in internationalising the Kashmir issue; exposing the Indian Army and intelligence agencies, respectively, for their lack of preparedness and incompetence; and continuing their proxy war in J&K. Overall the otherwise militarily well executed intrusions by Pakistan, who for the first few weeks succeeded in misleading the Indian Army and intelligence agencies, reflected badly on the security apparatus of a country considered a regional power with the world’s third largest army, fourth largest air force and seventh largest navy.

Panel and all that

Three days after the war ended, the government on 29th July 1999 constituted the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by K. Subrahmanyam to examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future. The report submitted in December 1999 was tabled in Parliament in February 2000 following which in April 2000 the government constituted the Group of Ministers (GoM) Committee headed by LK Advani to examine the entire gamut of the national defence structure and to formulate specific proposals for implementation of the report prepared by the KRC. The GoM, which met 27 times, in turn formed four Task Forces, each of which examined the intelligence apparatus, internal security, border management and the management of defence. The report submitted on 26th February 2001 was discussed by the Cabinet Committee on Security two-and-a-half months later on 11th May.Some of the recommendations accepted included the establishing of an Intelligence Coordination Group and a Technical Coordination Group (tasked to oversee technical intelligence). The Aviation Research Centre or ARC, which earlier formed part of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was elevated to a separate agency known as the National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation (NTRO). Border management is now based on the one-border one-force principle.Some of the Services-specific measures taken included elevating the Fortress Andaman and Nicobar (FORTAN), earlier under the Eastern Naval Command, to the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), a first-ever tri-service Command. The government created the Strategic Forces Command entrusted with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, a tri-services Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), a Defence Procurement Board and a system of a holistic 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP). India now has better resolution (one metre) satellites to detect intrusions while large portions of the LoC have been fenced with barbed wire and sensors. The Army has since truncated the geographical jurisdiction of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and raised 14 Corps in Leh to exclusively cater for the Ladakh region that faces the armies of two countries – China and Pakistan. J&K now has three Corps – numbers 14, for Ladakh, 15, for the Valley and Nagrota-based 16, for the Jammu-Poonch region.

Crucial exclusion

But the government stopped short of implementing two major recommendations of the GoM – creating a Chief of Defence Staff/Force and integrating the armed forces with the decision-making apparatus of the Ministry of Defence where, currently, pivotal decision making positions are held by generalist bureaucrats on deputation. The existing Service commands also need to be restructured into joint or unified commands for better focus, synergy and optimum use of resources. Instead of appointing a CDS or CDF as the principal military advisor, the government took a half measure by creating a holistic tri-service secretariat headed by a Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS) with officials from departments such as the Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Research and Development Organisations on deputation. It is a different matter that some of the key non-Services positions are seldom filled.Notwithstanding the measures taken, successive governments at the Centre are yet to effectively address three basic issues that characterised the Kargil War: (a) intelligence gathering, the failure of which led to Pakistan’s successful intrusion; (b) deficiencies in defence equipment which was evident during the Kargil War when Army Chief General VP Malik famously remarked ‘we will fight with whatever we have’ on being asked whether the Army was prepared in case the Army’s operation in the Kargil region escalated into a full fledged war (see interview) and (c) the Army-dominated Pakistani establishment’s policy of deception, subterfuge and using terror as an instrument of state policy.Deficiencies in India’s ability to collect, collate and analyse intelligence is evident from the several embarrassing intelligence failures that have occurred since. The December 1999 hijack of an Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu to Kandahar, the December 2001 terror attack on Parliament, the 26th November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai and the more recent terror attacks in the Punjab border towns of Dinanagar (2015) and Pathankot air base (2016) all point to the continuing shortcomings in India’s intelligence apparatus and the fact that Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment continues to either encourage terrorist groups or directly sponsor terrorism in India.

Preparedness lacking

In recent years India has attained the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s largest importer of defence equipment. Yet, India’s defence story in the last decade-and-a-half is one of slippages in preparedness notwithstanding an annual defence budget of Rs 340,000 crore. The import-dependent armed forces continue to suffer shortages on a grand scale. For example, the IAF squadron strength has fallen from the sanctioned 42 to 33 with projections of a further fall to 25 unless the replacement rate exceeds the retirement pace of ageing aircraft. The Navy, with a submarine fleet down to 13, is finding it difficult to maintain a force level of 138 ships and submarines approved by the government 52 years ago in 1964 let alone increase the strength to 198 ships and submarines approved in 2012. The Army is deficient of practically every equipment ranging from bulletproof jackets, night vision devices, and ammunition to artillery guns. The War Wastage Reserves (reserves set apart for an anticipated use during war) are perilously low and the Army is struggling to raise its first Mountain Strike Corps.In the long-term New Delhi needs to handle Islamabad with its India-obsessed Army that sees itself as not just Pakistan’s territorial guardian but also the custodian of its ideology. The Pakistani Army continues to play a dominant role in that country’s governance and foreign policy, especially concerning India. Pakistan, which seeks parity with India, is expected to continue training, arming and mentoring terror groups against India, particularly in J&K, and to internationalise the issue. It has and will continue to attempt nuclear blackmail against India as it has in the past.

Missed opportunities

India’s defence mismanagement and history of missed opportunities to militarily settle the Kashmir issue has not helped. India failed to take the 1947-48 war to its logical conclusion and wrest complete control of J&K. Instead it accepted a UN-sponsored ceasefire ceding 33 per cent of the state to Pakistan marking the genesis of the problem. A second opportunity arose in 1965 when it accepted a ceasefire without knowing then that Pakistan was low on ammunition and could not afford to continue the war. The third opportunity arose in 1971, the only time India was militarily pro-active. But India kept the war on the western front on a limited scale and later failed to use the stunning military victory to reach a final settlement to the J&K issue on the negotiation table.A fourth opportunity arguably arose during Exercise Brasstack (1986) when India had mobilised its armed forces on the western front. As American scholar Steven Cohen later remarked, 1986-87 was India’s last chance to fight a conventional war with Pakistan. The Pakistan-sponsored militant uprising in J&K in 1990, the Kargil War, the terror attack on parliament (2001) and in Mumbai (2008) were other provocations. But then a full-scale conventional war between India and Pakistan seems difficult with Islamabad possessing nuclear weapons. In any case, over the years India’s superiority in conventional weapons vis-a-vis Pakistan has declined. In the meantime an assertive China has been aggressively patrolling a yet-to-be delineated Line of Actual Control, established its military presence in Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and further strengthened its line of communication. India’s security environment remains complicated and difficult. And continued slippages and deficiencies in India’s intelligence gathering and military preparedness are big problems.The craft of warThe supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
— Sun Tzu, the art of war If you win, you need not have to explain…If you lose, you should not be there to explain!
— Adolf Hitler War is over … If you want it.
— John LennonIt is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.
— George S Patton JrTo know your enemy, you must become your enemy.
— Sun Tzu, the art of war In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
— Dwight D Eisenhower, us presidentYou may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.
— Margaret Thatcher, uk pmTo be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.
— George Washington, us president

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