KARGIL WAR – AN OVERVIEW - by Lt Gen Chandra Shekhar (PVSM AVSM)
KARGIL WAR – AN OVERVIEW
The True ScenarioIt is correct to an extent, that the Army had in a certain measure failed to read the events correctly. The absence of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) on a foreign visit in the initial period also added to the perception that the Army and Government were taking matters lightly. I can state unequivocally that this was not so. As the VCOAS during this period, I was well aware that it was the overall geo-political environment and lack of intelligence that took everyone by surprise - rather than any lack of effort or planning. We in the Army HQ, once the initial assessment of the situation was made, were totally involved day and night in planning the operations to evict the infiltrators.
VCOAS during the Kargil War
The Kargil ingress by Pakistan occurred in the first week of May 1999, shortly after the February 1999 Lahore-Agreement between Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. This happened at a time when the tensions between the two neighbours were believed to have de-escalated and mutual relations were on the upswing. Imagine the surprise and sense of dismay in India, when the intrusions were detected during the second week of May 1999. The overall political environment, the nuclear capability demonstrated in 1998 and the improved military situation in Jammu & Kashmir did not justify the development. There is no doubt that the nation was taken by total surprise and the Army and civilian intelligence agencies did not anticipate it.
Much has been written on the Kargil War by experts on both sides– its political and strategic objectives, the conduct of military operations, the nuclear angle, the excessive number of casualties, and the diplomatic and media efforts. However the difficulties in handling the conflict, the ground realities and the higher direction of war, have not been sufficiently examined. Without going into the specific ground operations, which have already been covered in a number of books published on the subject, I believe it is necessary to explain the actual situation as it was in the area of Kargil at that time, and the larger context of the regional environment. Having been closely associated in the entire operational planning of the Kargil conflict, as the then Vice-Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) of the Army, I believe it is also useful to share my knowledge and perception of the follow-up measures undertaken during and after the Kargil War, and our response to restore the situation.
Most of the public coverage during that time focused on the government’s alleged complacency, the criticism of the Lahore venture in hindsight, and a limited understanding of the Kargil intrusion purely as a huge intelligence failure. I believe that the widespread acceptance of such a one-sided perception led to not just national embarrassment, but also contributed to the continuance of avoidable conflict and to our ultimate loss of 527 killed and 1363 soldiers wounded in the battle.
The criticism that the Army was slow to react was also unreasonable, and very far from the truth. There were even absurd allegations made in some quarters that the Army had kept the Ministry in the dark. The fact that such allegations came forth - despite the regular personal interactions with the MoD at the senior level and despite the Army reporting the situation on a daily basis, as is the practice, and also declaring in-the-situation reports that some of its soldiers were wounded in the patrol clash in the sector - was not just surprising to us but also very disheartening. It must be understood that the Army has to depend on the other Intelligence Agencies for information other than tactical information, and it does not have any resources or authority to deploy the other Intelligence Agencies. In the initial days of the incursions, in the absence of any information from any of the agencies who have the responsibility and the duty to provide such intelligence, the Army itself had no clear picture of the situation. It therefore assessed such information as it did obtain through its own observation, as a case of routine infiltration. It was not, either at that time or later, appreciated by most of our nation that the Armed Forces, particularly the Army was responding as best as they could in a situation that was not a planned military operation but a reactive response to the ingress in the unoccupied gaps of our territory.
As soon as we became aware of the nature of the infiltration, we at Army HQ, along with HQ Northern Command, were simultaneously engaged in doing the best possible to obtain detailed information about the enemy, and in speedily building up additional resources from other sectors. This was notwithstanding the handicaps that the Army faced due to the surprise-factor achieved by the enemy, and the fact that logistics in the mountains are complex and take considerable time and effort. The issues were many, ranging from a total lack of intelligence about the enemy, to the slow progress in launching operations due to poor infrastructure and the difficult terrain, problems in mobilization of forces, and the disinformation due to the Pakistani war propaganda.
The reasons that the Army could not itself detect the specific extent of the infiltration initially, was primarily due to the extremely inhospitable terrain along the LoC (at an average height of 12000 feet) and the extreme weather conditions. The enemy had planned its move well, and made good use of adverse weather conditions and the winter months for the intrusion. The area is large with very wide gaps in the Mashko-Dras and the Batalik–Kargil sectors, many of which have been traditionally un-held. The effective patrolling of such a terrain was, and is, difficult. Patrolling was therefore, selectively carried-out and limited during the sub-zero temperatures in winter. Since the gaps were large, there was inadequate ground observation or contact. The monthly Army Aviation helicopter sorties flew only when the weather was clear and followed predictable routes, operating more as communication flights, and did not locate any unusual activities.
The air-photographs of the ingress could be obtained only by 14 May 1999 through the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) as the IAF aircraft earmarked for such missions had developed some technical problems. The satellite imagery provided did not have the requisite resolution to pick up any details of enemy positions. The Army thus lacked support of technical intelligence, such as satellite-imagery, night–vision devices or even air photographs taken periodically to detect any deployment or additional infrastructure development. Some would question the Army’s wisdom in keeping such large gaps as blind spots without any means for their surveillance and creating any military capability for any intervention or reactive response in this area in all the years since 1948.
I will only say that the Armed Forces of India perform the best that they can with the means that they have at hand; there are certain decisions that the civilian leadership takes on behalf of, and sometimes despite the advice of the Armed Forces. That the Armed Forces continue to discharge their duties within these constraints should be seen as even greater proof of their ability and restraint rather than otherwise. The Kargil conflict, notwithstanding the initial surprise, demonstrated the traditional Indian national resolve to hold onto and fight for what is rightfully ours, whatever the cost. This was also demonstrated in the earlier Indo-Pak wars. It seems to me that as a nation we still do not sufficiently appreciate the conditions under which the Armed Forces operate, or the fact that they are human beings operating for the most part under extremely adverse conditions, or that we should be aiding their efforts through timely and prompt access to such technology as can help them in such adverse conditions.
I have a fairly intimate understanding of the terrain and deployments, and first-hand knowledge of the challenges that deployment in such a terrain entails. I spent a number of years in this sector, at different stages of my long service in the Indian Army. My very first posting after being commissioned as a young officer was with my battalion (2/4 GR) in the Kargil sector, and then as a sub-unit commander in an adjoining sector in Ladakh. From my experience in dealing with the manifold issues in surveying and defending the LoC in J &K as a Brigade Commander in 1984-5, and later as the Chief of Staff of the HQ 15 Corps in 1991-93, I was more than aware of the larger constraints of the defence of this region. I had also been in the area during the actual conflict in May 1999 and discussed the situation on the ground with the concerned formation commanders, Major Generals V. S. Budhwar and Mohinder Puri.
The Impact of Political DecisionsThe Indian political leadership has of course always displayed total confidence in its Armed Forces and institutions. Even when the international opinion was not favourable during the initial stages of the Kargil War, it gave directions to the Armed Forces to evict the intruders without enlarging the conflict elsewhere. This policy of restraint to keep the conflict localized may have been appreciated by international powers, but has been a major disadvantage in the actual conduct of operations. India has adopted a similar policy of restraint even in the earlier wars, and during the recent Mumbai attacks. In fact, the restriction of not crossing the LoC has no military logic, when the adversary has already violated the borders.
What is also little appreciated is that we had no troops to react with in the area of intrusion, or any reserves with the local Brigade, the reason being that all its Units were already deployed on other parts of the LoC. The only troops available in J&K were already committed in the ongoing Counter Insurgency (CI) operations down below in the Valley, across the Zojila pass. The pass is snowbound and closed from October to May for any movement. All the available troops in J&K had to be dis-engaged, moved over a distance of 150 kilometers, and had to undergo a minimum acclimatization period of seven days, before being launched for the operations in the high-altitude sector. The Artillery units had to move from the plains sector along with ammunition. The logistics support needed, had to be built-up.
It must be conceded that the Army also failed to read the few isolated indicators that did come. There were unconfirmed reports from some sources of fresh-road construction across the LoC on the Gultari–Shakma axis, opposite the Kargil Sector. This information was interpreted as routine improvement works. There were reports of induction of long-range artillery guns, apart from the ongoing medium artillery shelling of the Kargil-Dras road. The artillery fire was seen by us as reactive retaliatory fire to our interdiction of the road in the Neelam valley which we had undertaken to disrupt the winter stocking convoys in the POK.
However, these reports came in piecemeal, as isolated events, and at different times. As the VCOAS, I would have been apprised by the DGMI, of any unusual activity and of any important developments or reports, if these had been noticed. Infiltration in J&K has been occurring for a long time. After the initial ingress was detected, the ground commanders read the infiltration as routine, having seen it regularly for the past decade. The Army formations thus, at first considered this too as a case of the periodic infiltration regularly encountered over the past ten years and hence not a matter that could not be handled in the normal course. The IB and the RAW inputs also failed to project the likely Pakistan designs or ingress, notwithstanding some reports of improvement of tracks and defence-works.
One of the other reasons for the lack of an independent analysis in the Army and its dependence on a conditioned response may perhaps have been due to its total focus and long-term engagement on the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley. The Kargil sector on the other hand was considered comparatively a low threat area due to the majority of friendly Shia Muslims, who did not support the separatists. The extremely difficult terrain and friendly population were considered as a sufficient safeguard and the entire focus remained in the Valley and on the Siachin-Glacier. In fact even the reserve formations had been de-inducted earlier on for employment in the Valley. This lack of deployment, the fact that the Indian Army was stretched thin on internal CI responsibilities, and the large gaps traditionally un-held by us, were well exploited by the adversary to infiltrate forces in small groups throughout the winter to achieve total surprise. As a nation, we had also under-estimated Pakistan’s obsession with and its deep resentment against the success of the Indian Armed Forces in previous Wars. General Musharraf publicly accepted in his book In the Line of Fire that the Kargil operations were planned to take revenge for the 1971 War and the 1984 Indian action in the Siachin Glacier.
The Strategy Adopted
After the initial apparently slow response, the nation forcefully went about exposing Pakistan’s complicity in the Kargil ingress, and the involvement of its regular troops in the garb of irregulars. The correctness of the Indian stand was thereafter understood, nearly one month after the ingress. Armed forces were instructed to make all the necessary preparations for various contingencies but were to restrict operations within the Kargil sector. The IAF was directed to mount operations without crossing the Indian airspace. In fact, even the general mobilization for war was not ordered and severe tactical restrictions were placed on the Armed Forces by not crossing the border or developing operations elsewhere due to strategic considerations. The operations were not enlarged to the other sectors and limited to the area of ingress as per the Government’s directions, notwithstanding the severe tactical disadvantages and tremendous costs in men and material.
It is with sadness and regret that I recollect the energy and time spent by the political leadership in debates for and against enlarging the conflict, the discussion on defense purchase scandals and scams in the procurement of military equipment, and the questions asked on the Government’s inability to combat insurgency in J&K and on Pakistan’s ability to internationalize the Kashmir issue - all at a time when so many of our soldiers were battling not just the enemy and adverse conditions but also a lack of adequate equipment, stores and battle gear. The emphasis on the part of the media and our political leaders should have been on ensuring that the urgent and desperate needs of our soldiers in conditions of War were met, by speeding up bureaucratic hurdles. Unfortunately this was not the case.
To make up the shortages, procurement of defence equipment was on paper put on fast track, but the fact that defence equipment takes time to procure was not realized by the successive governments. There were large-scale shortages of weapons and equipment with the units, as also in the artillery ammunition, night fighting capabilities and communications systems. Our procurement system failed to make up the shortages despite concluding 129 procurement contracts for stores worth Rupees 2175 crore, on emergent basis. It needs to be understood that defence equipment is not available off the-counter, from a grocery store or a market. It needs time for assembly, testing and training by troops. Defense preparedness has to be done over a period of time as a regular process and has to be given adequate funding. The Indian defence budget at 2.5% is not only low but remains under-utilized due to procedural delays. The Mumbai attacks have again highlighted the institutional and intelligence weaknesses that continue to exist in our system.
Long Term Implications
Such recurrent reluctance in important matters of national security bring into question our political resolve and our lack of decisive capability. The Kargil Committee Report, after the operations were concluded became an issue of ‘mud-slinging’ and politics, rather than correcting the inadequacies in the planning and direction of war. Although a number of recommendations were implemented, a few key important ones, such as the creation of the CDS, integration of the Armed Forces HQ with the MoD and greater delegation of the defence budget to the users have still been held back, more than a decade after Kargil. Even today, the modernization programme continues to suffer due to lack of political resolve and institutional weaknesses. The funds earmarked remain unutilized due to lack of decision making and are surrendered, thus adversely affecting our military capability. We still do not have an institution to render single point advice and military assessment to the Government.
Military strategy cannot be planned in a political vacuum. A clear directive regarding political intentions and objectives must be given by the national leadership. In our system the Service HQs formulate their individual operational plans; these are factored for joint-ness by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), discussed with the Raksha-Mantri (RM) and thereafter presented to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for approval. We do not have a Chief of Defence Staff [CDS] to render full-time military advice to the National Security Agency or to the CCS. The COSC is an ex-officio Committee, which operates when required in addition to their other primary tasks and cannot devote exclusive attention to the higher defence management, or to coordinate and monitor military operations on a regular basis. The three Service Chiefs meet in the COSC as equal partners and attempt consensus for agreement, which many times may not happen. The chairmanship goes to one of the Chiefs on protocol seniority, without any authority to decide on contentious issues or override dissent.
In the Kargil Conflict, as we know, the initial assessment was not correctly made due to lack of intelligence inputs since we did not – and still do not - have an integrated intelligence agency. We lost valuable time since a reasonable tactical picture emerged only after the Air photographs/ radio intercepts of the sector were made available to the Army. These were obtained by 14 May, whereas the patrol–clashes had occurred on the 5th May. The ingress had reportedly commenced in small groups, as early as January 1999, as revealed from the captured diary of a Pakistani officer after the war. There was no information of the enemy or the ground situation, to any of the intelligence agencies – military or civil. It is to the credit of the field formations, who were inducted hurriedly from all over the country, that once the gravity of the situation was discerned, they threw themselves in preparations to evict the enemy, with great effort and courage against great odds. Had there been timely information through technical sources or an independent intelligence coordination agency with an objective analysis at the highest level by the NSA/ CDS, we would not have had to react with such little preparation time, and we would not have had to lose so many fine Indian soldiers.
At the time of the Kargil War, the COSC did meet, and handled most of the issues with understanding and total cooperation and maturity but it functioned more as a briefing and information sharing meeting. The requests of the Army for employment of attack helicopters for quick retaliation on the enemy infiltrators in the initial detection were not agreed to by the IAF due to differing perceptions on their employment and the threat of shoulder-fired missiles of the intruders. The basic fact that we need quick reaction capability and information advantage over our adversary to respond appropriately was indeed realized - but was not exercised due to considerations of safety of the helicopters. Had we obtained the latest satellite-imagery, deployed unattended electronic sensors and night-vision devices in the area, we would have been forewarned and perhaps avoided the pain of loss of many gallant lives at Kargil.
The eviction of the intruders often entailed mounting frontal attacks through narrow ridges dominated by the enemy. In such a landscape, the neutralization of the enemy defence-works by our artillery achieved limited results due to the nature of the ground in the mountains. The employment of the IAF aircrafts with laser-guided munitions for ground–attacks, and the Bofors medium-caliber artillery contributed significantly in weakening the enemy’s resolve, and assisted the valiant attacks of the ground forces on these formidable heights. Although mountainous terrain does not lend to effective neutralization, nonetheless, as regularly reported in the media, there were a number of gallant attacks by our infantry units led by highly motivated young officers while evicting the enemy from their dominating position. There were many acts of heroism against great odds by the infantry units which are not being described here. The importance of physical fitness and the need for younger profile of the commanding officers in the infantry was felt for combat in battle. As always all the Indian Army units deployed for battle irrespective of their Arm or Service delivered their might fully and displayed acts of highest gallantry while re-taking or supporting the attacks on these formidable heights.
The Larger Picture
The Kargil war was significant for the impact and influence of international opinion to both sides. Kargil news–stories and war-footage were often telecast live on Indian TV and many web-sites provided in depth analysis of the conflict. It was important to project the correctness of the Indian point of view, due to Pakistani attempts of denying involvement of its forces and linking the ingress to the Kashmiri freedom-fighters and even disputing the very alignment of the LoC. This was successfully done by releasing the original maps, officially delineated at the Shimla-Agreement, the details of the signal-intercepts implicating Pakistani senior commanders, exposing the captured Pakistani soldiers and the weaponry used by the so-called irregulars. This was achieved by the dynamic diplomatic efforts of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and by our efforts to highlight Indian restraint of limiting the conflict to the international community so effectively that even China, the all-weather ally of Pakistan, did not support or intervene in this conflict. Regular briefings of foreign diplomats in India jointly by the spoke-persons of the Army, IAF and MEA as also of the Media, which acted as a force-multiplier, contributed in clearly communicating the Indian stand.
Finally, the Indian position was accepted by major international powers, the G-8 nations, the European Union and the ASEAN, but the success came at a great cost and after initial frustrations of lack of credible evidence, the slow progress of ground operations, substantiated only later by the capture of enemy held heights and the Pakistani soldiers. Two months into the conflict, the Indian troops had slowly retaken most of the ridges, but it was the American pressure on Pakistan which hastened the pull-out from the remaining locations. At the end of the war Pakistan, looked isolated and the Indian stand stood vindicated. The media both the electronic and the print-media played a very positive role to shape the international opinion in our favour.
Since both countries were nuclear armed, many in the international community were concerned that if the conflict intensified, it could lead to a nuclear war. Pakistan reportedly threatened on May 31 that any escalation of conflict could lead to use of all arsenal at her disposal. Pakistan also accused India of using Chemical Warfare against the Kashmiri fighters. The nuclear factor was considered in-depth by the COSC and the CCS. The USA, it is understood, persuaded Pakistan to desist from deploying nuclear weapons and assured them that India had not deployed any nuclear weapons although, both sides, reportedly took some preparatory steps. The American diplomacy played an important role in the nuclear restraint by the two sides. India successfully campaigned against Pakistani nuclear brinkmanship and showcased a cache of gas masks to indicate Pakistan’s preparations of a NBC war. This was a major restraining factor in not enlarging the area of engagement beyond Kargil. Notwithstanding such public posturing, the lack of a nuclear war fighting capability was obvious on both sides. The nuclear doctrine of India itself perhaps needs a relook.
The Kargil War has a number of lessons both for the military and for various civil institutions. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the government took a number of steps to rectify the shortcomings in the defence preparedness, following widespread media reportage about military procurement irregularities and criticism of intelligence agencies like RAW, which failed to predict the intrusions or the identity of the infiltrators. The Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) have now closed the cases of procurement irregularities due to lack of credible evidence, but the nation has lost valuable time and resources to modernize the Armed Forces. On the diplomatic front, it is interesting that relations with the USA, Russia, South Africa, Israel and France, which discreetly aided India with defence procurements, improved.
The recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee Report were on the whole addressed in a professional manner to enhance defence capability. Our political leadership then, did show considerable maturity and wisdom in carrying out institutional reforms. The needs of the Armed Forces were re-examined with particular requirement of improving their pay and allowance, looking after the battle casualties, medical and housing facilities. Some of the steps initiated to enhance defence capability are indicated below:-
(1) The MoD and the other players involved have commenced work on evolving a nuclear strategy and on integrated command and control structure. The Defence Forces have streamlined their mobilization & deployment plans. Some of the areas/sectors which were thinly held have been reinforced by raising additional forces and formations. The road network and logistics structure in the border region is being enhanced.
(2) An integrated joint staff under a new HQ has been established for greater joint-ness; however it does not enjoy any independent authority in the absence of CDS. A separate Defence Intelligence Agency for the three services and a joint procurement planning wing has been created under the integrated defence staff (IDS).
(3) A Defence Acquisition Cell and a separate defence procurement board have been created to streamline defence modernization and fast-track induction of weapon systems. However on the ground there are delays due to indecisions and fixed mind sets.
(4) Strategic forces command and amphibious forces Headquarters have been created and placed under the HQ IDS. Border surveillance and the communications systems are being upgraded. The counter-terrorism mechanism and the Intelligence Services are being re-vitalized to improve our response to security threats.
However, a few anomalies still continue in the pay and allowance and the pension entitlements of the defence forces. These, needless to say, must be settled speedily. And while, on the one hand, defence procurement procedures have been streamlined and financial powers of services enhanced, the actual defence procurements and modernization programmes have got stuck in corrupt practices and political controversies. Thus, though the Kargil conflict has made the nation aware of many shortcomings and given an impetus to security preparedness, our institutional weaknesses and political indecisions have not allowed the Armed-Forces the desired levels of modernization. The political leaders have not been able to overcome the institutional delays and implement much needed reforms.
This paper is primarily based on my personal recollections of the Kargil War as the VCOAS, and supplemented by information from A Soldier's diary: Kargil, the Inside Story, byHarinder Baweja, 2000, Books Today; and Kargil War - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kargil_War accessed on 6 May 2009