May 31, 2020
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Kargil Remembered

Looking back, it is clear the most serious lapses were not before but after the war, and in the ministry of defence.

Kargil Remembered

Human memory tends to be short. So it is not surprising that a year after the Kargil war, the media has chosen to remember the shortcomings in equipment and intelligence the war revealed and overlook the high degree of professionalism and organisational skill, not to mention sheer heroism, that the army displayed. This wouldn't have mattered if it did not affect morale and battle-readiness in the future. But that is what it is threatening to do. This is therefore an attempt to remember both dispassionately, with the benefit of time.

Pakistan's infiltration and capture of the Kargil ridges was a tactical coup. But not anticipating that they might want to do this, when the sector had been quiet for 30 years, was not the enormous oversight that it's been made out to be. Indian forces in the Kargil area were deployed with the aim of preventing an invasion from the north. With this in mind, they had blocked the five easiest access routes for an invading force from Skardu. Till 1999, neither side had thought of occupying the high ridges in between.

Pakistan thought of it first, and so gets full marks for audacity. But in the final analysis, it isn't the terrain you occupy but that you can hold on to that matters. Even a year after the army recaptured the ridges, the full magnitude of its achievement has still not been fully appreciated.

When the army came to know the extent to which Pakistan had occupied the ridges, there was consternation among officers who were familiar with the terrain. Even those who believed they could be captured estimated that the toll of human life would be not in the hundreds but the thousands. But many doubted whether they could ever be recaptured. For, access to them had to be up knife-edged ridges where jawans could not advance more than two or three abreast. One well-placed machine gun was thus sufficient to deny access completely. As a senior officer put it, "They have not been able to dislodge us at Siachen. We may fail to do so in Kargil."

The first reaction of the army was therefore to deny combat to Pakistan on terrain of its choosing and to launch a counterattack on terrain that favoured India. This would have required it to cross the LoC. When prime minister Vajpayee vetoed that proposal, the Indian army faced the unenviable task of meeting a military and a political objective at the same time. Not only did it do so but it achieved its objective at the cost of amazingly few lives. In all, the army lost around 470 officers and men. Of these, around 130 were killed in the first days of the war when the local commanders thought they were dealing only with a handful of mujahideen and threw their forces up the ridges in broad daylight. Thereafter, the army captured four out of the five key ridges and valleys before Pakistan agreed to withdraw, at a cost of 340 lives. By contrast, based on radio and other intercepts, Indian army intelligence has estimated that the Pakistani army suffered around 700 casualties.

The key to this achievement was the close coordination between artillery and infantry. Once the Pakistani positions were pinpointed, the artillery pounded them incessantly in to give the infantrymen a chance to get as close as possible to their bunkers and sangars. The Indian soldiers knew perfectly well that they were undertaking suicide missions that led only to victory or death, for the third option - of falling back and regrouping - did not exist. This was because once they were spotted, they had nowhere to retreat to and hide. But they went nevertheless.

To maximise the element of surprise and chances of survival, they avoided the ridges and climbed straight up the rock faces, and at night. Still, their chances of success hinged almost entirely on the quality of artillery support, for only its incessant barrage could keep the enemies' heads down. Not only did the artillery not let them down but so great was its accuracy that the jawans were able to approach to within a few metres of the bunkers before the silence of the guns alerted the defenders to the attack.

While these tactics were being perfected by officers at Srinagar and Kargil, the military high command in Delhi set about preempting possible Pakistani responses. It knew that sooner or later the Pakistani military command would come to the conclusion that its troops were sitting ducks if it could not neutralise the Indian artillery. This would mean unleashing its air force. To dissuade them from even considering this option, army headquarters moved five divisions from the east to the Rajasthan-Sindh border. At the same time, the navy moved its eastern fleet into the Arabian Sea. Pakistan was left in no doubt that if it escalated the conflict, it would face Operation Brasstacks all over again, only this time for real.

Looking back, it's clear the most serious failures were not before but after the war, and they've taken place not in the army or intelligence but in the ministry of defence. The most important is its failure to speed up the re-equipment and modernisation of the armed forces. Last year, despite the depletion of stocks caused by the war, the army had to return Rs 700 crore to the exchequer unused, because the ministry couldn't complete the paperwork in time.

This year, the government has given the armed forces an additional Rs 13,000 crore but with no simplification and speeding up of procurement procedures, much of this too is likely to lapse. As in the bad old days, the armed forces remain cut off from the procurement process, while defence ministry officials seem not to know the value of time. So complete is the divide that the very first time an army officer has sat on a price negotiation committee is now, when the government is negotiating the purchase of T-90 tanks from Russia. If there is one thing Arun Singh's committee can do, it is to permanently end this sad state of affairs.

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