21st Kargil Vijay Diwas: Then and Now

    26-Jul-2020   
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The situation then and now is quite different with adequate systems and resources in place. However, some of the lessons learnt during Kargil remain unaddressed for which we paid the price at Galwan. China will be taught a lesson like Pakistan. The tactics and methodology may differ since wars are not fought with pre-fixed templates.

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Indian soldiers celebrating victory after the Kargil war in 1999
 
The nation celebrates Kargil Vijay Diwas every year on July 26 to recount the sacrifice and martyrdom of our Armed forces that brought laurels to the country by defeating a deceitful and untrustworthy neighbour of ours during the Kargil War 1999.
 
It is celebrated to honour the sacrifices of our brave soldiers who laid down their lives on the lofty heights of Kargil on the frontlines to secure an unparalleled victory in the annals of military history. The slogans like ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ and ‘Jhanda Uncha Rahe Hamara’ became so popular and intoxicating that even today they have the same effect as they did 21 years ago.
 
The War fought mainly in the uncompromising climate of upper Himalayas, saw the raw courage of Indian soldiers assaulting uphill unmindful of enemy fire and dislodging him after a tough hand to hand fight to regain our lost territory which the enemy had occupied surreptitiously throwing to wind the unsigned convention between the two armies of maintaining status quo in the traditional gaps along the LoC.
 
But for the raw courage and audacious bravery of our soldiers and young officers, the history would have been different as the unscrupulous enemy had succeeded in taking us by surprise. Frankly speaking in the beginning, we seemed unprepared for the War, but a month-long tactical pause was enough to mobilise combat resources to throw back the aggressors.
 
The heroic deeds of our soldiers and the details of various battles which made this victory possible have been recounted often since we are now 21 years ahead of that fateful War. Rather than repeating the same emphasis of this article is on the state of Indian Armed Forces then and now and how much we learnt from the Kargil War to make our nation’s frontiers impregnable.
 
Sadly enough what happened in the summer months of 1999 in the heights of Kargil Himalayas on the LoC is almost being replicated albeit at a much larger scale across the trans-Himalayan region in Eastern Ladakh along the LAC. We were surprised then and we have been surprised now. ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) remain our major weakness.
 
Since the War was limited and the LoC was much smaller in length, though there were shortages, the crunch was not felt. The amassing of Bofors guns and ammunition played a crucial role in enabling infantry assaults. The IAF also played a major role though the Air Force was not equipped to fight at those heights with the restriction of not crossing the LoC. India also successfully called the nuclear bluff of Pakistan. A determined political leadership also made a critical difference. The higher military leadership and higher direction of War left many questions to be answered which were subsequently addressed by the Kargil Review Committee, but unfortunately, no heads rolled.
 
Our true homage to the martyrs would be to say with certainty and authority that their sacrifices would not go waste and Kargil like the situation will not be repeated.
 
Our planners would have known that our claim of Aksai Chin and Gilgit Baltistan will definitely raise hackles in China because both were very critical to China as part of Xi Jinping’s pet project of Belt Road Initiative (BRI). However, our planners, including military, failed to take any preventive and precautionary measures to thwart the Chinese threat. Once again, we are reacting. Worried of escalation, we did not even exercise the option of Quid Pro Quo (QPQ). Now it may be too late though the LAC is quite vast and the enemy has many vulnerabilities.  
While we can say with confidence that Kargil 2.0 will not happen again but while achieving that capability, did we ignore our other neighbour? While we considered Pakistan as a threat, we continued to treat China as a Challenge. Our political leadership was convinced of averting a conflict with China through political and diplomatic outreach. Despite the alarm bells by the Army and other services, the political hierarchy was overconfident of their capability to handle China. Like Pakistan, China also proved to be treacherous. China lulled our leadership into being friendly because it needed the Indian market to become an economic superpower. China all the while wanted to be the sole power in Asia, but our leadership failed to read the Chinese mind correctly as it did with Pakistan at the time of Kargil. While Vajpayee had taken a bus ride to Lahore in search of peace with its dubious neighbour, its scheming Army Chief Pervez Musharraf was planning the Kargil incursions.
 
Like any developing nation with a large segment of the population below the poverty line, we also face the dilemma of butter versus barrel of the gun. Every government had to tread a very cautious path while allocating resources for defence forces. Even during Kargil Gen Malik, the then Chief said that “.my Army will fight with whatever we have.” Immediately after Kargil UAVs and certain surveillance eqpt was added to the inventory. However, post-Kargil because of the Bofors scandal the nation faced a very peculiar situation, and all major defence contracts were put on hold. The UPA 1 and 2 from 2004 to 2014 was too reluctant to sign any defence deal. As a result of which the country’s armed forces began to suffer not only obsolescence but shortages in spares affecting the battle-readiness of its equipment. The shortages and deficiencies due to life cycle concept were not being made up leading to what some termed as “hollowness” in the armed forces. However, the trend was reversed post-2014 and big-ticket purchases were made for enhancing the combat efficiency of the forces. Delegation and enhancement of financial powers was also done to enable the armed forces to meet their immediate and critical needs.
 
Today, our Armed forces are well equipped with the latest platforms, smart munitions, PGMs, UAVs, missiles and so on. We have definitely made a qualitative jump but numerically we are still short of fighting a sustained two-front war. Also, criticality still exists in our Air Defence and the infantry weapon systems. The Navy and Airforce also have critical gaps which need to be filled so that we can realise our dream of being the most powerful resident power in the Indian Ocean.
 
National security is like an insurance which every nation needs. But to ensure that insurance remains effective all the times, the regular premium needs to be paid. Similar is the case with the defence budget. Depending on the quality of security we need, the percentage of the GDP (not below 3.5) has to be earmarked for the defence budget.
 
Unlike 1999, when we had just become a nuclear power, today we boast of our Triad capability with ICBM capability. However, I recommend that because of the looming threat, we review our policy of “No First Use.”
 
India, like a responsible member of international comity, has always believed in honouring various treaties and agreements. But both our rogue neighbours have shown scant respect to them while threatening us on the LoC/LAC. In the case of Kargil, the plan was made as early as during the Zia regime. We should have known about it. After that, Pak began a proxy war against us. Just before the Kargil War, it began regular shelling of the National Highway linking Kashmir and Ladakh. Our responses were mainly defensive and ad hoc. Pro-active and punitive responses were absence due to fear of an escalation. Pak took advantage of it, ignored the understanding about “traditional gaps” and presented us a fait-accompli in the form of Kargil incursions.
 
It would be unfair to say that there has been no change. A lot of changes for good have taken place. A Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed recently by the present government. Though, the existing arrangement and charter of the CDS is well below the desired level. Joint planning is quite obvious in the current standoff. Even the idea of Theatre Commands is gaining currency. Post-Kargil, two joint commands were raised as Strategic Forces Command and Andaman & Nicobar Command. Lately, a Special Forces joint command has also been raised. To win future wars and face the challenge posed by China “Purplisation” is the need of the hour.
 

 Chief of Defence Staff B
Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat
 
Similar, is the case with China. Despite salami-slicing, we continued to appease China. It at will threw to wind the various border agreements but our response, to say the least, was meek. We never questioned the validity of the treaties and remained happy with the status quo. Even after Doklam, we failed to wake up. The net result is the multi-point well-planned incursions in Eastern Ladakh with a definite aim of holding on and not vacating. Our planners would have known that our claim of Aksai Chin and Gilgit Baltistan will definitely raise hackles in China because both were very critical to China as part of Xi Jinping’s pet project of Belt Road Initiative (BRI). However, our planners, including military, failed to take any preventive and precautionary measures to thwart the Chinese threat. Once again, we are reacting. Worried of escalation, we did not even exercise the option of Quid Pro Quo (QPQ). Now it may be too late though the LAC is quite vast and the enemy has many vulnerabilities.
 
The possibility of collusion between China and Pakistan cannot be ruled out completely, but to my mind, Pakistan does not have the capability to launch such an offensive for the time being. Where we were holding the entire frontage with a brigade group then, now we have a full infantry division with well-sited and hardened defences along the entire length of the LoC. Similarly, compared to 1962, our defences in Eastern Ladakh are very strongly held with adequate reserves and a well- developed road and track network. The Kargil experience has shown us that a ratio of 1:9 or 1:12 is needed in these heights to launch offensive operations.
 
ISR was a weakness then and remains so even today. Though a lot of structural changes have taken place like the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) yet the optimal has not been achieved. The problem does not lie in the assets but in timely processing and dissemination. The permanent office of National Security Advisor (NSA) is meant to look into this vital aspect of national security management but the desired level of integration has not taken place. Apart from strategic intelligence, we also need to enhance the capability of operational and tactical intelligence. In such terrain with unpredictable and harsh weather multi-mode, multi-layered, all-weather, 24x7 surveillance grid is needed, especially when the LAC is unheld. We also need to develop the capability to monitor the movement of Chinese troops and formations to the Plateau or towards the LAC from Xinxiang Military District. Mountains do impose certain restrictions, but we need to invest more in the required means.
 
Though a lot of structural changes have taken place like the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre (DIPAC) yet the optimal has not been achieved. The problem does not lie in the assets but in timely processing and dissemination. The permanent office of National Security Advisor (NSA) is meant to look into this vital aspect of national security management but the desired level of integration has not taken place. Apart from strategic intelligence, we also need to enhance the capability of operational and tactical intelligence
 
Lack of jointness was a major lesson from Kargil. Here I would like to quote the first-hand experience of the then Colonel General Staff (Col GS) of 8 Mountain Division which was moved hastily from the Valley to dislodge the intruders. “Ever since the infamous huff between the then Army and Air Chiefs in the initial stages of the operations, the Army and Airforce never operated in unison. This notwithstanding the fact that Headquarters (HQ) 8 Mountain Division was visited by the Chief of Air Staff and Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC in C) of Western Air Command (WAC) both located at Delhi and the pilots of the Gwalior based Mirage squadron operating from Srinagar airbase. We had no Air Force LO, no Forward Air Controller (FAC) and our Ground Liaison Officer (GLO) was employed in the General Staff (GS) Branch as a junior staff officer. Hq 15 Corps Tactical Air Centre (TAC) was not in the loop. In the first week of June, IAF recommenced Operation Safed Sagar as we were in Operation Vijay. Two standalone operations in a small mountainous area where the Air Force had never operated earlier! We were never consulted on targets and never apprised of strike missions. Occasionally we would hear aircraft North East of Zozila and see some puffs around some features. Though the stories of bombs/rockets hitting own troops are exaggerated, it is a fact that sometimes the munitions would land a few ridges away where our troops were deployed. Fortunately, we never had a friendly fire casualty. Equally and importantly, we never saw any target destroyed. Incidentally, Muntho Dhalo was in another sector, but the strike had a great effect. To the contrary, when the AOC in C was apprised of the enemy logistics bases North of Tiger Hill, he laughed it off saying there was nothing there. After we captured Tiger Hill, we recovered mortars, ammo, fuel and other logistics items at the same place our Army Aviation pilots had reported.”
 
“When we were planning an attack on Tiger Hill, to maintain the surprise, the artillery was tasked to fire on distributed targets, but Air Force under orders from WAC kept hitting Tiger Hill without consulting us. Infuriated, Hq 15 Corps was informed, which also confirmed that they had no knowledge of air plans.” This should give an adequate idea of the absence of jointness during the last War we fought.
 
It would be unfair to say that there has been no change. A lot of changes for good have taken place. A Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed recently by the present government. Though, the existing arrangement and charter of the CDS is well below the desired level. Joint planning is quite obvious in the current standoff. Even the idea of Theatre Commands is gaining currency. Post-Kargil, two joint commands were raised as Strategic Forces Command and Andaman & Nicobar Command. Lately, a Special Forces joint command has also been raised. To win future wars and face the challenge posed by China “Purplisation” is the need of the hour.
 
Another recommendation of the KRC was regarding Border Management. One force per border has been implemented. But the question of command and control still remains an issue. Particularly, along the LAC with China where the Indo Tibet Border Police (ITBP) has been deployed. There is a divided responsibility between the Army and ITBP, which has proved highly ineffective in the current standoff. Incursions happened under the watch of ITBP and Army had to come in when the crisis developed. Poor arrangement, particularly when we are faced with a cunning enemy on the other side. ITBP should be placed under the command of Army following the LoC model.
 
The situation then and now is quite different with adequate systems and resources in place. However, some of the lessons learnt during Kargil remain unaddressed for which we paid the price at Galwan. China will be taught a lesson like Pakistan. The tactics and methodology may differ since wars are not fought with pre-fixed templates.
 
(The writer is a Jammu based veteran, political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst. The views expressed in the article are entirely personal)