The threats have changed and the Indian Army needs to change too
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The 13-lakh strong Indian Army cleared by the government to add another one lakh soldiers straddles two opposite worlds. One is the No-War-No-Peace (NWNP) environment in Jammu and Kashmir, and the other is a probability of ‘hot war’ with Pakistan and China; both requiring different mind-sets, equipment and training. Unfortunately, the NWNP combat, which is inward-looking, takes priority because it is both real and the army has honed its skills in it over 24 years since 1990.
Today, 40 per cent of the army is in the J&K theatre under the northern command headquarters in Udhampur, while an equal number prepares itself to replace those in the NWNP zone after four-week re-orientation training in defensive counter-insurgency operations (CI ops) at three corps battle schools in the troubled state. Considering that NWNP is the only familiar battle zone, it is here that a generation of officers have grown and won awards, laurels, promotions, prestige and status. This explains the long list of decorations with most senior army officers’ names, something which their predecessors who participated in ‘hot wars’ and ‘hot war’ exercises did not have. India’s Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who won the 1971 war for India, was a mere Military Cross.
On the other hand, with all present generals having donned uniform after the last war in 1971, preparedness for ‘hot war’ is an elusive concept which is more notional than real. Unless the army’s prioritisation gets reversed, India’s territorial integrity would be severely affected. India after all has three military held lines — the 746km Line of Control (LC) and 76km Actual Ground Position Line against Pakistan and 3,488km Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China —, which require boots on the ground to provide credible and offensive conventional deterrence. The present army is over-worked and over-stretched and poses little threat to either adversary. This is borne by Pakistan’s uninterrupted infiltration of terrorists across the LC since 1990, and China’s successful military coercion in April-May 2013. Nothing short of a strong political leadership is needed to put the army back to its basics: training for its primary task of preparing for ‘hot war’.
The 24 years of army’s involvement in CI ops in J&K has witnessed five distinct phases. The first from 1990 to 1996 was the most difficult with numerous twists and turns. During chief of army staff (COAS) General S.F. Rodrigues’ tenure from 1990 to 1993, large numbers of regular army for the first time were inducted in Kashmir for internal security operations. General Rodrigues maintained that increased deployment of the army was in ‘aid to civil authority’ and not in counter-insurgency operations. The implication was that the army would leave the Valley as soon as the situation was brought under control to allow the civil administration to function.
Pakistan, meanwhile, was in no mood to let the opportunity of the insurgency in the Valley (which had surprised it as much as it had New Delhi), let go easily. So, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto declared from Muzaffarabad (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) in April 1990 that the accession to Pakistan was the only option open to Kashmiris. And, Pakistan told the US that it feared that the massive induction of the Indian Army in J&K would be used to spring a surprise attack on Pakistan across the LC. This led to the 1990 Robert Gates’ US mission to the subcontinent when numerous confidence building measures between India and Pakistan, including the once-a-week telephonic conversation between the two director generals of military operations, were agreed.
The Gates mission put India on the back-foot with little hope of the Indian Army crossing the LC. Moreover, the blooming insurgency energised the Kashmiri youth to cross over into POK for training to liberate the Valley. From 1990 to 1993, the militants had an upper hand, with the Indian media reporting of ‘liberated zones’ in the Valley. Credit, however, must go to General Rodrigues that despite odds, the army by beginning 1993 managed to have an upper hand over indigenous insurgents in the Valley. The army came down with a heavy hand and Human Rights were given a short shrift.
Indian Army’s tactical successes forced Pakistan’s ISI to change its strategy of support to the insurgency through five well-thought steps. One, by 1993, radical Hizbul Mujahideen replaced JKLF; and well-equipped mercenaries from Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Algeria found their way into the Kashmir Valley by negotiating high-mountain passes in the north. The foreign mercenaries were a determined lot who took on both the paramilitary forces and the Indian Army in pitched battles to support the indigenous Hizbul. Alongside, the Laskhar-e-Tayabba, created in 1990 in Afghanistan with headquarters in Mudrike (near Lahore), was encouraged to commence operations in Kashmir. Two, Pakistan shifted terrorist training camps from POK to Afghanistan in 1993 as the US under India’s insistence came close to declaring Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism.
Three, to relieve pressure on insurgents in the Valley, the ISI took advantage of the communal divide in Jammu. With Muslims of Doda having an affinity with those in the Valley, it proved an excellent place to provide succour and sustenance to insurgents on the run in the Valley across the Pir Panjal range. Moreover, towns of Doda, Kishtwar and Bhadarwah are contiguous to the thinly populated mountainous areas of Himachal Pradesh, which also became a good hiding place. By beginning 1994, the situation in Doda had deteriorated considerably. To operate in Doda, the army wanted the Disturbed Area Act followed by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which, since 1990 had been applied in the Valley and a 20km belt along the LC in Poonch and Rajouri districts, to be extended to Doda at the earliest. This was done.
Four, international concern over Human Right violations in Kashmir reached a high point in February 1994 when Prime Minister Bhutto raised the issue at the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. India, meanwhile set up a National Human Rights Commission in October 1993, followed by the army establishing a Human Rights cell for trials of excesses by soldiers the same year.
And Five, Pakistan helped create the Hurriyat, an umbrella organisation of 27 militant groups, mostly pro-Pakistan, with dubious and untested political clout, in May 1993. The Hurriyat drew strength not from the ‘people of Kashmir’ that it claimed to represent, but from the pro-Pakistan militants in fear of whom the ordinary people, especially in the Valley, lived.
The year 1993 could have been a turning point for the Kashmir insurgency. The new COAS, General B.C. Joshi, who took office on 1 July 1993, was determined to take the bull by the horns. Unlike his predecessor, he refused to call the Kashmir problem a ‘law and order’ issue, implying that the governor, retired General K.V. Krishna Rao (the state was under governor rule) would be disallowed to dictate to the army in the troubled state. General Joshi advised Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in August 1993 to allow the army to hit insurgent bases in POK, and conduct raids at Pakistani posts close to the LC, especially south of Pir Panjal. He reasoned that no additional troops were needed for these tasks. And such pro-active action would help raise the morale of the troops, put Pakistan on the defensive, and help sever growing ties between the people and the radical Mujahids operating in Kashmir. General Joshi was of the firm conviction that the army should not continue in counter-terrorism operations for long, but go back to its primary task of external defence. In hindsight, the timing was opportune as insurgency had yet not spread to Jammu division, the Hurriyat was not formed, and the army had the militants under manageable control.
Prime Minister Rao was not the man for the moment. He backed Governor Rao to the hilt making it clear to the defunct state administration and the army that he wanted to hold parliamentary and state assembly elections in J&K at the earliest; these were eventually held in 1996 amidst widespread reports that the security forces including the army had helped rig the Kashmir elections by bogus voting.
Meanwhile, taking stock of the situation, General Joshi revived the idea of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR was to comprise retired servicemen) mooted in 1987 by minister of state for defence Arun Singh and the COAS, General K. Sundarji, to being regular army with another name, but with a temporary paramilitary status (which remains till today). As it became clear that the army would have to be in J&K longer than he had wished, General Joshi decided to raise large numbers of RR units completely from within the army resources, with the intent to save time by dispensing with getting the government’s approval for new raisings. Even as a portion of his army was to become the RR, he was keen to not use the northern command and even strike corps reserves for counter-terrorism operations in J&K. A total of 30 battalions and 10 sector headquarters (brigade headquarters) were ordered to be raised in nine months starting January 1994 by milking existing army units and using War Wastage Reserves (WWRs).
The raising of nearly 40,000 RR troops in a record time was a nightmare for the army. At a time when the army was struggling to maintain equipment because of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, WWRs with the army for vehicles, tentage and small arms were depleted to precarious levels. To cater for the force’s lack of cohesiveness as they were gathered from disparate units, General Joshi became the honorary ‘Colonel of the RR regiment’ to ensure the best troops and officers came to the RR. As the RR units took three to five years to stabilise, regular troops including reserve forces, and Special Forces continued to be employed in CT roles.
Being conscious that RR would have to operate amongst the people under media glare, General Joshi issued strict dos and don’ts to troops to check Human Rights violations. He also decided to raise a psychological operations (psy ops) division under a major general rank officer drawing from officers of the military intelligence and operations directorate, and reporting to the vice-chief of army staff, to beat the insurgents’ propaganda. This was the beginning of the Army Liaison Cell which over time transformed into the present Directorate of Public Information, different from what it was intended to be. The ALC was meant to assist the media with timely and accurate information to counter militant’s propaganda, and not to project senior army officers as the ADGPI and its affiliate organisations at lower command levels seems to be doing.
The Second Phase: The sudden death of General Joshi was a set-back to army’s determination to go back to its primary task on the LC. It also marked the second phase from 1994 to 1998 under COAS, General Shankar Roychowdhary, when the army consolidated its hold on CI ops under difficult conditions: the RR after its rapid expansion was showing unmistakable signs of distress; the flow of hardened foreign militants into Kashmir increased progressively; the army’s strategy of ‘winning hearts and minds (WHAM)’ under operation Sadbhavana was viewed with scepticism by the people; and the United Headquarters formed in May 1993 by Union minister of state for home, Rajesh Pilot with retired Lt General M.A. Zaki as its chairman was not working as various security forces failed to cooperate with one another.
An elaboration on the RR during this period is necessary. Compared to the motivated militants, the RR lacked cohesion, motivation, good communications and weaponry. There were several instances of soldiers running amuck. Cases of soldiers inflicting self-injuries as a way of being eased out of the Valley were not uncommon. The commanding officers of most RR units were simply not communicating with their troops. There was discernable decrease in discipline and patience. Round-the-clock vigilance, lack of sleep, and an all-pervading fear was taking its toll on the troops. Added to this was a shortage of young officers. In a classified study in late 1997 ordered by the northern army commander, Lt General S. Padmanabhan, the following reasons were found to be responsible for the existing state of affairs: command break-down, battle fatigue, overall shortage of young officers, peacetime administration found to be overloaded, environmental stress, work culture, general disturbance, troops succumbing to enemy propaganda, officers using any method to get postings cancelled, and inadequate allowances for troops combating insurgency in the state.
Thus, between 1995 and 1998, as many as six regular brigades were sucked into CI operations. Little thought was given to the fact that these were reserves of the Northern Command, a fact which comforted Pakistan when planning the 1999 Kargil conflict. The Indian Army was to pay dearly by losing many more lives during Operation ‘Vijay’, the 1999 conflict in the Kargil sector, because these soldiers took time to reorient themselves from conducting CI ops to fighting a conventional war.
The army, however, patted itself for having played a yeoman’s role in the conduct of 1996 assembly elections and the installation of the Farooq Abdullah government in October 1996. This landmark event convinced the army leadership of its role in the running of the state administration. The army senior brass had tasted blood. Two years back, Kamal Mustafa, Farooq Abdullah’s younger brother told FORCE that the army had then approached the chief minister with a queer proposal. It wanted senior army officers to fill in the posts of deputy commissioners and commissioners in the state. The suggestion, however, was immediately shot down by the Union home minister, L.K. Advani. Not deterred by the refusal, the army, convinced of its indispensability in the state, continued to seek a larger role for itself through its WHAM strategy.
The Third Phase: But, to carry the story forward, the 1999 Kargil conflict was the third and a crucial phase in army’s involvement in CI ops. Plenty of lessons should have been learnt, yet few were sought let alone learnt by the army leadership. The army was caught off guard by the conflict and had difficulty in re-orienting itself to conventional operations. With the sudden shifting of attention of 15 and 16 corps commanders towards conventional war, the RR was rendered headless. By extension, the United Headquarters, which was formed to institutionalise cooperation and coordination between all security forces especially the RR and paramilitary forces (BSF and CRPF), and had been less than optimally functional since its inception in May 1993, was rendered defunct. This meant grave threat to internal lines of army’s communications for soldiers fighting on the LC. Thus, to provide command and control to the RR troops and support to United Headquarters, Army Headquarters ordered the shifting of RR overall force headquarters (OFH) under its director general, Lt General Avtar Singh from Delhi to Srinagar in June 1999 at the height of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the paramilitary forces (BSF), under the Union home ministry, refused to cooperate with this new headquarters. And, the chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, who had not been consulted regarding the replacement of his 15 and 16 corps security advisors by OFH, went into a sulk. Thus, within three months, the OFH was forced to beat an ignominious retreat from the Valley back to Delhi, with most its staff posted to the newly raised 14 corps headquarters near Leh (Ladakh).
What lessons did the army learn from this? It raised two additional CI force headquarters to combat militants. The ‘Kilo’ or Kupwara CI force headquarters was raised in September 1999, and the ‘Romeo’ or Rajouri CI force headquarters came into being in January 2000. These moves demonstrated army’s resolve to continue with CI ops with vigour and if needed all by itself. The idea of greater involvement of paramilitary forces in both CI ops and in security of internal communication lines during war was glossed over.
The Fourth Phase: Even as the infiltration of hard-core militants increased after Pakistan’s defeat in the Kargil conflict, the army was also recovering from the jolt of the unexpected limited war. This impacted most on the field commanders, who became restive, setting stage for the fourth phase in year 2000. During this year, in a replay of the early Nineties, the army at lower levels was raring to go, having been encouraged by the COAS, General V.P. Malik enunciation of the doctrine of a ‘limited war’, which was publicly endorsed by the defence minister, George Fernandes.
Thus, in a tacit understanding, while the senior brass in Kashmir winked, the units adopted a calibrated offensive action across the LC to engage the Pakistan Army and to sanitise areas of infiltration. For example, on 22 January 2000, fighting in the Chhamb sector left 16 Pakistani soldiers dead. While both sides blamed one another, the truth was that Indian troops, in strength, attacked a Pakistani post and overran it. Similar instances occurred in Akhnoor, Mendhar, Kotli, Naushera and Pallanwala between January and August 2000. It was payback time on the LC.
Formations commanders on the LC started justifying the need for such action on grounds that Pakistan must face local military defeats. It was argued in private that body bags going home in the glare of cameras would compel the Pakistan Army to re-think its proxy war in Kashmir. Local artillery commanders said that in addition to punitive raids by infantry and Special Forces on Pakistani posts, more Bofors regiments should be inducted into J&K. Heavy artillery pounding of Pakistani positions in areas where infiltration occurred would be a morale booster for Indian troops.
Given this situation, the COAS, General Malik, in December 2000, said that chances of a war with Pakistan were high. His assessment was based on the thinking that Pakistan may, in anger, retaliate in strength which could result in a full-scale limited war. The army chief’s public statement was enough for the Indian leadership to get alarmed. Thus, the unsaid calibrated offensive action policy was over by April 2001.
To appease the army, the government cleared the raisings of more RR battalions in January 2001. (Moreover, for the first time, separate financial allocation was made for the RR in the annual defence budget.) The proposal to raise 30 more RR battalions, six each year, was accepted. Two additional force headquarters and eight sector headquarters to control the additional forces were to be raised accordingly. This marked the end of army’s pro-active strategy.
The next 13 years would see the army justify merits of a defensive mind-set, and the benefits of CI and anti-infiltration ops done by 62 RR battalions controlled by five force headquarters. Like the earlier period of 1994-1998, the chasm between officers and men would grow once again, but for entirely different reasons. The erstwhile disharmony within the RR is no longer there. Instead, mutual respect between officers and men, which is the raison d’etre of an army unit the world over, has diminished. More on this critical aspect will be discussed later.
The Fifth Phase: The fifth or present phase of army’s internal involvement in J&K, which has been the longest of all, began with the end of Operation Parakram in October 2002. Five events during this period have motivated the army to frenetically continue in the CI role. These are the ceasefire on the LC starting 26 November 2003, Operation Fence (or Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System, AIOS) since 1 July 2004, two successful state assembly elections of 2002 and 2008, and the release of the army’s ‘sub-conventional warfare doctrine’ in January 2007 by defence minister, A.K. Antony. The last two events were without fanfare, but the army extrapolated and imbibed powerful self-serving messages from both.
The successful 2002 and 2008 assembly elections convinced the army brass of its indispensability to the political process in the state. In the absence of cogent political initiatives on Kashmir by New Delhi, these have spurred the army to rough-shod the regular protestations since January 2009 of the state chief minister, Omar Abdullah for partial lifting of the AFSPA. And the release of doctrine during the tenure of COAS, General J.J. Singh signalled that fighting CI ops was officially more important than preparedness for ‘hot war’.
The LC ceasefire offer was a masterstroke by Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf. By the silencing of firepower, especially artillery guns, all artillery units in the J&K theatre were suddenly short of hands-on training. Until the ceasefire, all artillery units had a battery (six guns) on call ready to fire salvos at short notice; the artillery fire was a morale booster for troops living in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the LC. In the last 10 years, the artillery guns have been lying in sheds with gunners detailed on CI role.
A sense of frustration borne out of unending and punishing CI role has gripped the soldiers. As an aside, all soldiers that these writers spoke with immediately after Operation Parakram (10-month long military stand-off with Pakistan) had said that they were happier training for conventional war. General Musharraf had achieved the strategic purpose of tiring the Indian Army from within by compelling it to fight an elusive enemy rather than train for combat with the real one. This is not all. General Musharraf had alongside directed his then director general, ISI, Lt General Ashfaq Kayani to take terrorism from J&K theatre to mainland India. India, therefore, was to witness many spectacular terrorism attacks supported by ISI in various degrees starting 2004, with of course, the 26 November 2008 Mumbai attacks being the boldest of them all.
Operation Fence was a disservice by the then COAS, General N.C. Vij, who having been the DGMO during Operation Vijay and the vice-COAS during Operation Parakram should have delivered better. Utilising the ceasefire to fence the entire LC, and taking cue from the BSF guarding the 198km International Border in Jammu (called Working Boundary by Pakistan), the Indian Army erected a fence on the remaining 556 km of the LC. The fence or the AIOS was completed on 1 July 2004. Given the nature of the LC which arbitrarily cuts across villages and divides streams, rivers and mountains, the run of the AIOS varies from place to place from being close to the military-held line to up to three km inside.
The AIOS meant to check infiltration presents a dilemma: it is simply not cost-effective in the higher reaches in winter months where 20-25 feet of snow destroys the fence every year. The annual cost of repairing the AIOS on the LC is more than Rs 150 crore for materials alone. As only a small window of summer months is available for repairing the AIOS, one army pioneer battalion (900 men) with ponies and mules to lug materials is employed every year in addition to other support services to ensure that the work is finished in time. This task obviously is at the cost of annual stocking effort for forward posts in high-altitude which, too, have the same summer window for work. For these reasons, in 2011-2012, 15 corps in Srinagar did a successful pilot project of replacing the fence with permanently buried wooden pointers (called Punjis in jungle warfare) as the AIOS to deter infiltration. The recommendation was sent to the northern command (responsible for Jammu and Kashmir), but nothing much happened as the army commander was due for retirement.
Considering that the present northern army commander, Lt General Sanjiv Chachra has called the fence a game-changer, it will be status quo. The argument that the fence is cost-effective (the cost does not matter) and prevents infiltration will continue to be made. While attributing benefits to the fence as AIOS, the Indian Army is unwilling to concede its biggest drawback: It has instilled the Maginot mentality. Any worthwhile military commander the world over will attest that a fortification induces a false sense of security and stifles the offensive spirit and offensive action. With the silence of artillery guns and fencing on the LC, the Indian Army’s mind-set has decisively transformed from an offensive to a defensive one, focussed on fighting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir by counter-insurgency operations without an end-state.
Unfortunately, instead of waking-up to the realities, the Indian Army continues to make the case for prolonged involvement in CI ops in Jammu and Kashmir. When General Kayani took office in November 2007 and ceasefire violations had commenced, the Indian Army had said that after the crucial state assembly election of 2008, it would review its involvement in CI ops. This did not happen. Today, the Indian Army is yet again busy making the case of its involvement in CI ops in Jammu and Kashmir. Its argument is that post-2014, when the US and Nato troops leave Afghanistan, the terrorists engaged with the US and Nato forces, will be freed. They will then be shifted by the ISI to Kashmir.
To come to the present, 2013 witnessed maximum ceasefire violations on the LC. Five soldiers of 21 Bihar battalion were shot dead in Poonch in August 2013 close to where a soldier of 13 Raj Rif battalion was beheaded by Pakistan’s Border Action Team (BAT) in January, and for the first time since the ceasefire of 26 November 2003, the tranquil International border in Jammu saw increased exchange of fire between August and October. Visiting Rajouri (25 division) in August of the same year, the COAS General Bikram Singh vowed to repay the Pakistan Army at a ‘time and place of own choosing.’
However, the single important reason why Pakistanis are not deterred by the Indian Army is its very apparent inward-oriented mind-set. All forces, including the BSF, are focussed on anti-infiltration operations, while the POK battalions are free to do training for ‘hot war’.
The Hot War
Four things that should go hand in hand towards creating a credible conventional deterrence are: political will, orientation or mind-set, modernisation, and realistic training. All these have been less than encouraging for the Indian Army. While the army has travelled a long way since the 1971 war, it has, unfortunately, been in the reverse gear.
Since the 1971 war, India has demonstrated political will on just three occasions, with a success rate of 1:2. India purportedly succeeded once against China, while Pakistan called off India’s bluff at coercive diplomacy twice.
The so-called success against China was during the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu crisis. One day in June 1986, when a small Indian detachment was away, the PLA occupied its post in Sumdorong Chu, south of the Thagla-Bumla line in Kameng district of Arunuchal Pradesh. In a show of military strength to get back the captured post, COAS, General K. Sundarji ordered a crash forward deployment under Operation Falcon.
At the peak of the operation in 1987, three mountain divisions of 4 corps were pushed to the McMahon Line; two divisions were deployed in Kameng district to defend Tawang, and the better part of the third division was placed in Lohit district to defend Walong. Tawang was designated as the corps vital area, which had to be defended at all costs. Extremely strong artillery elements were placed in support of the troops. General Sundarji ordered airlifting of artillery ammunition worth crores to be stocked in forward areas.
In a rather rash move, reminiscent of the pre-1962 forward policy, 77 brigade, to be maintained by air, was moved close to Sumdorong Chu, which was just three km short of the Thagla ridge occupied by PLA forces. On the question of Chinese tactical nuclear weapons raised by the then eastern army commander, Lt General V.N. Sharma, minister Arun Singh and General Sundarji told the media in Delhi that ‘Indian forces will not fight with their hands tied’, whatever that meant. Somehow, the Chinese decided that going to war was not worth their while and thus by the spring of 1987, the crisis was diffused. In hindsight, the Chinese stepped back to fight another day. A case in point is their successful coercive diplomacy in April-May 2013 in Depsang region of Ladakh.
Unlike China, Pakistan has never waited to call off India’s bluff. The first instance was General Sundarji’s brainchild, exercise Brass-Tacks conducted in the winter of 1986-87, when a total of 13 Indian divisions participated. The concept was to practice a major thrust to achieve deep penetration in the desert and reach the Indus river line. The problem came when instead of contesting India’s suggested thrust in the desert, Pakistan Army vice-COAS, General Arif, in a brilliant stroke moved his army reserve south towards the north, posing a threat to Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Pathankot. At this point, India’s strike reserves were far away from the threatened area. India was suddenly vulnerable at its very centre of gravity around north Rajasthan-Punjab. Through some deft diplomacy by Pakistani ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, the matter was resolved, with Pakistan calling off India’s bluff at military coercion. In hindsight, it was clear that exercise Brass-Tasks was not a launching pad for war. It was a purely military exercise in which politics got mixed with military matters.
The second failed military coercion manifested during Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military confrontation from 18 December 2001 to 16 October 2002. After the terrorists attack on the Parliament on 13 December 2001, India ordered mobilisation of its military on December 18. In the first full-fledged mobilisation since the 1971 war, the army was ready to cross the border by first week of January 2002 under Operation Parakram. To assert resolve, India test-fired its new single-stage 700km range Agni-I missile on January 25. Pakistan, taken by surprise and with its reserve troops committed in Afghanistan against the US-led war on terror, reached out to the US for intervention. The US satellites, meanwhile, picked up offensive reconnaissance manoeuvres by India’s 2 corps which led to the replacement of the corps commander, Lt General Kapil Vij. This Indian action was the clear indication that its political and military leadership were out of sync. The then Vajpayee-led government did not inform the COAS, General S. Padmanabhan that the mobilisation was not for war but coercive diplomacy.
As the military stand-off continued, ISI-supported terrorists struck once again on 18 May 2002 at a military camp in Kashmir leading the COAS to publicly say that India should not exercise patience against Pakistan. Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Srinagar and declared that war was inevitable. This time around, the Pakistan Army was prepared, and to demonstrate tit-for-tat, it conducted three back-to-back Ghaznavi and Abdali ballistic missile flight tests. The test-firing of ballistic missiles emerged as the sign of resolve and signalling deterrence to adversaries and international audiences. Having got the message, India’s national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra approached his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice to help resolve the crisis. India had blinked with little in return.
Barring the above instances, Indian political leadership has always exercised the so-called restraint to Pakistan’s provocations. As General Roychowdhury succinctly said in his book, ‘Officially at Peace’: ‘Our apparent tolerance towards blatant terrorist attacks (by Pakistan) was actually due to the run-down in our military capabilities for decisive punitive action, caused by the government’s economic preoccupation with the demands and compulsions of a free market economy. Effective counter-offensive capabilities were the precise area where the Indian Army’s potential had been greatly eroded.’ The former COAS was referring to the five-year term of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao which started in June 1991.
What were India’s compulsions for not retaliating to Pakistani blatant support of terrorism in J&K beginning 1990? The issue becomes curious as before 1990, India did not have experience of a NWNP environment. Both in 1947-48 and 1965 wars on Kashmir, Pakistan’s strategy were to have irregulars precede regular forces, which then led to a full-fledged conventional war. 1990 was different because the Pakistan Army adopted the strategy of attack-by-infiltration, and for India, three reasons prevented it from escalation. These were poor political leadership, empty coffers, and Indian Army’s turbulent past.
While the first two reasons are known, the third needs elaboration. The Eighties under General Sundarji saw the biggest show of military muscle by India: the Sumdorong Chu crisis in 1986-87, exercise Brass-Tacks in 1987, and Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka beginning 1987. Mention has not been made of the army’s involvement in combating Punjab terrorism (Operation Woodrose) which followed Operation Bluestar (army operation in the Golden Temple in 1984) for two reasons: the army formations involved in counter-terrorism had not moved out of their operational areas (they were forces-in-being available for war), and unlike J&K, Punjab did not have an insurgency. In case of a war with Pakistan, the local people, who were terrorised by militants, were assessed to not sabotage army’s internal lines of communications.
General Sundarji’s successor, General V.N. Sharma had an unenviable tenure. The IPKF returned home in 1990 without much glory and with fatigued troops who were immediately inducted into J&K. Exercise Brass-Tacks, on the other hand, had battered the army equipment so hard that it took most units which participated in the mammoth misadventure more than a year to be restored to a war-worthy state. All these factors denied the army leadership the opportunity to formulate an aggressive operational policy in the early Nineties when the clamour for retaliation was greatest from the field formations.
A word on the 1999 Kargil conflict is in place. India’s political leadership simply did not have a choice to overlook or downplay Pakistani occupation in the Kargil sector. While there was no escaping from the hard fight-back, it was India’s good luck that General Musharraf had not planned the logical end to the aggression that he unfolded. Notwithstanding the political mileage that the Vajpayee drew from Operation Vijay, the truth is that it was a pyrrhic victory.
Regarding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, twice during the 10-year tenure starting May 2004, India showed a total lack of political spine to grave provocations. The first instance was the 26 November 2008 (26/11) terrorists’ attacks in Mumbai. 166 innocents were killed and over 300 were injured during three days of continuous mayhem unleashed by 10 terrorists which were supported, funded, trained and guided by Pakistan’s ISI. It was only on the third day that the three defence service chiefs met with the Prime Minister to give him their assessment of military retaliation. After that, nothing was heard from the Prime Minister.
When senior Union minister Pranab Mukherjee was asked by the media if all options against Pakistan were on the table, he replied in the affirmative. Pakistan COAS, General Kayani responded by saying that Pakistan was ready for war being contemplated by India, and New Delhi decided that a stoic silence was the best option.
The other instance was the sudden intrusion by Chinese security forces in April 2013, when they stayed-put 19km inside Indian land in Ladakh for three weeks claiming it as their own. According to media reports, the Prime Minister sought the advice of his COAS, General Bikram Singh only after a week of Chinese occupation. Therefore, in successful coercive diplomacy, Chinese blatant aggression ensured that Indian troops stopped patrolling in the contested area after the Chinese forces vacated it of their own accord. This is not all. New Delhi has regularly downplayed repeated and regular intrusion by Chinese forces all along the LAC, leaving the hapless army and paramilitary forces guarding the disputed border helpless.
Defensive Orientation: India’s political pusillanimity has rubbed hard on the military leadership and is partly responsible for its defensive orientation. For example, during the earlier years of insurgency in J&K, the thinking at the highest military levels was that a sudden war by an incensed India could not be ruled out. Hence, Indian military, unlike the 1971 war, would not get a preparatory time, and will be forced to fight with whatever they have. This viewpoint has changed with time.
At present, the army leadership is unhesitant in ruling out an all-out war with Pakistan; Pakistan had little need to go to war, when its low-cost strategy of bleeding India is reaping dividends. And, India, which is focussed on its economic growth and inclusive well-being of its people, seems reconciled to daily martyrdom of its soldiers fighting terrorism.
As a consequence of the defensive mind-set, at the operational level, the initiative has passed completely into the hands of the insurgents and their Pakistani patrons. The latter dictate the rates of engagement, infiltration, areas to be activated and to what purpose, including methods of initiation.
The existing defensive orientation of troops is the anti-thesis for the next war with Pakistan, which, given the nuclear weapons capability with both sides, has been assessed to be short, swift and intense. This explains the inclusion and emphasis upon the ‘directive style of command’ (allowing field commanders flexibility to re-orient plans to retain initiative) in the Indian Army doctrine which underscores the ‘pro-active’ war fighting strategy. The army must realise that its ‘pro-active’ war strategy which involves organisational re-structuring, offensive operational art, and tactics are predicated on the premise of fighting the war in enemy territory.
Because of the army’s complete commitment to CI ops, senior field commanders in J&K have been disoriented from fighting conventional war. The focus is on anti-infiltration, which implies surveillance of ravines, nullahs, and lower ground in mountains rather than heights meant for occupation. For this reason, before the launch of Operation Vijay (1999 Kargil conflict), GOC 15 corps, Lt General Krishan Pal had mistaken the occupation of Indian territories as an infiltration attempt by terrorists. On his advice, the then defence minister, George Fernandes had assured the nation that the operation by the army would be over in 48 hours. Similarly, retired COAS, General V.K. Singh informed us in his recently published autobiography that during Operation Parakram (2001-2002), the northern army commander, Lt General R.K. Nanavaty had told the COAS General Padmanabhan that his troops were not ready for war as they needed time to re-orient from CI ops to a ‘Hot War.’
Modernisation: Precisely because of the defensive proclivity of senior army brass bordering on the verge of passivity, modernisation of the army has suffered enormously. During Operation Vijay, when the Indian Army was compelled to fight a limited conventional war, the COAS, General V.P. Malik, when questioned by the media, had expressed helplessness by saying that, “We will fight with whatever we have.”
It was the same story during Operation Parakram, when the COAS General Padmanabhan was informed by the northern army commander that his WWRs were inadequate for war. So, here was the bulk of the Indian Army in 2001-2002 deployed on a military-line in turbulent J&K over which Pakistan had fought three wars, without desired resources and ammunition and completely disoriented. Yet, its senior army officers have got fame and decorations in this war theatre after the 1990 insurgency. Can it get more bizarre than this?
On modernisation, General V.K. Singh wrote a letter to the Prime Minister a month before his retirement in May 2012 that got leaked. He had said that the Indian Army was not prepared to fight a war. Ironically, there was a furore over the disclosure not on why the army was unprepared despite being in a NWNP condition since 1990, but on how the secret letter found its way to the media. Given the frivolousness of the media, it was little wonder that when a month later the next COAS, General Bikram Singh informed the nation through the media that the army was prepared to meet any challenge, no hackles were raised.
In reality, the situation regarding ammunition and equipment for a conventional war remains precariously low. The Indian Army may not have ammunition to fight the next war (with Pakistan, not to mention China) beyond three to five days. Holdings for all types of missiles, and anti-tank ammunition are critically low. Stockings for artillery (70 per cent fuses needed for firing are unavailable) and armour fighting vehicles ammunition are unlikely to last beyond four to five days of intense war. WWRs for most ammunition categories do not exist. (It is mandatory for the army to have ammunition WWR for 40 days of intense war for long-shelf life category, and 21 days intense fighting for short-shelf life category like anti-tank, rocket artillery, and missiles. In addition, the army holds critical ammunition for two days of war as unit reserves, first and second line holdings). All this is when the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) responsible for ammunition has an annual turnover of USD2.5 billion and it regularly passes off its profits to the defence ministry as dividends.
This is not all. Mission reliability of mechanised vehicles is poor. The artillery is obsolete and inadequate; air defence is antiquated; armour is unreliable due to regular barrel accidents caused by mismatch between indigenous barrels and ammunition; and night fighting devices are insufficient. Take the case of small arms which are the mainstay of the Indian infantry. The OFB claimed in early 2012 to have made an ‘impressive product range for small arms including 5.56mm INSAS LMG and assault rifle’.
Interestingly, defence minister A.K. Antony said in beginning 2013 that, “The INSAS rifle is planned to be replaced by the new assault rifle… The ministry is in the process of procuring assault rifles through the global route with transfer of technology to OFB.” The Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued in November 2011. Technical evaluation of bids has been completely and there is total silence on further progress. The Infantry wants a standard multi-calibre and multi-usage rifle. This is because a soldier holding an INSAS rifle made by OFB Ishapore, known to have stoppages during firing, is not confident facing an AK-47 rifle-holding terrorist. Take the case of Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, which has been with the army since Eighties. Its ToT was transferred to OFB, yet even today, the weapon and its ammunition are imported from the Swedish OEM.
It is well-known that the Indian Army was unprepared for war during the 1999 Kargil conflict. There were umpteen reports in the media of defence ministry bureaucrats air-dashing to Russia and Israel post-haste clutching suitcases filled with dollars to procure ammunition. Artillery guns from other theatres were pulled out and despatched to Kargil to fight the limited conflict, in which the Pakistan Army did not join combat openly. What if the conflict had snowballed into an all-out war?
No lessons were learnt from the Kargil conflict and the army found itself in the same situation during Operation Parakram. Part of the reason why maintenance of WWR has never been a serious exercise is because the focus has invariably been on spending finances on new procurements. As a consequence of this attitude, the WWRs which had been depleted by the fast raisings of RR units in 1994 during General Joshi’s tenure were never made up. The other reason is the self-serving attitude of the army leadership. The staff officers at all command levels who should be devoted to providing wherewithal to their field formations are instead busy serving their bosses; one visible manifestation of this rot in the prevalent five-star culture in the present day army.
Training: The present-day training is not realistic for preparing the army for war. Let’s look at three different theatres: the plains sector where 2 strike corps is planned to operate, the desert sector where India hopes to make territorial gains, and the northern command in J&K. Starting 2005, after the COAS General Vij had announced the new Cold Start doctrine in 2004 following lessons learnt from both Operations Vijay and Parakram, the army did a series of exercises. FORCE was invited to witness exercise Sanghe Shakti of 2 strike corps, which is the heaviest corps of the army in terms of mobile assets. In this exercise far too many capabilities were assumed making the whole show more aspirational than real.
For instance, network centricity, excellent battlefield transparency, desired availability of equipment and ammunition, good communications, smooth joint and combined operations, and directive style of command are issues that require serious consideration. Most of them do not exist or are a work in progress at snail’s pace.
It is the same story with 21 strike corps of the southern army command which is supposed to make major gains in the deserts. For one, notional capabilities lead to the impression that the exercises are meant more to test commanders than to train troops. Moreover, given the fact that Pakistan now has a green belt secured by its regular army rather than the earlier rangers, it will not be a cake-walk for the Indian Army as is being war-gamed.
Officers who participated in exercise Brass-Tacks in 1986, attest that the full authorised equipment and vehicles was made available in the expansive exercise theatre to make training realistic. Today, this is not considered cost-effective, and most exercises are conducted in skeleton order (small numbers) and in restricted areas. These do not provide the feel of battlefield to troops. Moreover, the periodicity of exercises has been curtailed to save money; skeleton corps exercises are held biannually rather than every year. There are restrictions on firing as well. Few officers have seen the full complement of artillery regiment guns firing salvos together.
Regarding the northern command, as mentioned earlier, the focus is on anti-infiltration operations. The contention of senior Indian officers that additional RR troops are add-on to troops on the LC in case of a ‘hot war’ is suspect as both forces do negligible desired training on regular basis.
The Way Forward
There is the need to assess the military threats to Indian’s territorial integrity, which undeniably come from the disputed borders with China and Pakistan, both non status-quo nations with a strategic partnership against India. Of the two adversaries, the bigger threat is from China for four reasons: One, the disputed border with China, referred to as LAC by the 1993 treaty of peace and tranquillity, is neither agreed on maps nor on ground, hence is subject to change by the side with greater political resolve and military power.
Two, China will not resolve the disputed border except on its own terms however unfair. The disputed border helps China keep India’s Asian ambitions in check, and assists Pakistan in maintaining a strategic parity with arch-rival India.
Three, a catch-up with China by India, especially in the strategic and military domain is not possible in the foreseeable future.
And four, in case of a border war with China, no country will come to India’s assistance. India should prepare to face the Chinese challenge — strategic and military — all by itself. The economic and security challenges (freedom of the sea lanes) are a different ballgame where India will find friendly powers aligning with its assessments.
What is the crux of the border dispute? Since December 2010, China makes a distinction between the (disputed) border and the LAC, but India doesn’t. According to China, it has a 3,488km LAC with India, which is the same as India’s position. But, China’s border with India is a mere 2,000km, while India considers the entire LAC as its border, earlier (before the 1993 bilateral treaty) officially referred to as the McMahon Line. This is not all. Since 2009, China has claimed the entire 92,000 sqkm of India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh as its land, called South Tibet. To recall, India, during the visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee to China in 2003 had for the first-time accepted Tibet as a part of China in writing.
By a mere announcement in December 2010 made on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India, China, without firing a shot, cut the disputed border by 1,488km, which it has with India in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir). Instead of challenging the Chinese temerity of claiming so much of Indian land, New Delhi underplayed the Chinese interpretation of the border dispute. This opened the path for the PLA to shift the LAC in Ladakh (in Depsang valley in April-May 2013) by its security forces while maintaining that it had not intruded into Indian land. Once the PLA left Depsang after three-weeks of occupation, New Delhi instructed its security forces to not patrol the new disputed area.
Why would China start a border war with India when it has succeeded in military coercion? Perhaps, the only militarily vulnerable area for India is Ladakh where China says it does not have a border with India and Pakistan has a LC and no-man’s land (Actual Ground Position Line) abutting Siachen glacier. So, a strong possibility of a localised two-front war exists for India in North Ladakh with the Siachen glacier as the pivot. But, it is unlikely to be a traditional two-front war with both Pakistan and China shooting together at India forces.
China, which views itself as a global player would abstain from a ‘Hot War’ with India by itself, and also not fight openly alongside Pakistan with India. The most plausible scenario in North Kashmir (Siachen) would be Pakistan fighting a war with India with Chinese providing it real-time operational logistics across the Karakoram highway and strategic support by maintaining military pressure on the entire LAC (including Ladakh) by aggressive patrolling. This will ensure that the Indian Army will find it difficult to shift its dual-use formations from east to west against Pakistan. The purpose of their war would be to force Indian troops out of the Siachen glacier, threaten Leh and eventually sever Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir.
This is not all. China, which has capability to fight in five domains of land, air, sea, space and cyber, would unleash its non-contact assets on India. For example, China, which demonstrated successful anti-satellite capability in 2007 could hit and destroy India’s communication and navigation satellites for its armed forces in the low-earth orbit. China, which has recently signed for sharing its indigenous Beidou navigation system (presently with 16 satellites to be expanded into 36) with Pakistan, would support its armed forces by providing it military-size resolution for navigation of its ballistic and cruise missile. Similarly, China, having developed formidable cyber-attack capabilities, which it has been using against India since 2009, would employ them during hostilities to create panic within India. Moreover, China has a plethora of unmatched ballistic and cruise missiles for land, sea and air.
But, this is not how the Army Headquarters assess the threat from China. Thinking in a linear fashion, as the army can do little about the four other domains of war, the army is, unfortunately, preparing itself to fight the last border war of 1962 better. The COAS, General Deepak Kapoor, who should be credited with initiating the case for major army accretions and by pushing them with the government by publicly talking about the possibility of a two-front war in beginning 2009, told FORCE that chances of a war with China over the border dispute exist. So, the army’s strategy against China will be ‘strategic defence with limited counter-attack’.
This strategy formulated sometimes in 2002 was given an accretion-push and priority by General Kapoor immediately on taking over as the COAS in September 2007. During a briefing to FORCE in 2004 at 33 corps headquarters (Sukhna), it was said that the army envisaged three levels of threat from the PLA: low level, medium level and high level. The threat levels were worked out based on PLA’s air and road lift capabilities, its’ forces-in-being in TAR, and the terrain which puts restrains on fielding of combat potential. The army had assessed that the low-level threat would be a total of 10 to 12 PLA divisions across the entire LAC, and the high level threat could be between 32 to 34 divisions. This assessment was revised after Chinese succeeded in building the rail link between the mainland and TAR. It was now felt that as the PLA had built capability to transport all 32 to 34 divisions at once, the Indian Army should be prepared for the worst case scenario of 34 divisions facing it across the LAC.
General Kapoor’s initiation the force accretion case with the government was to be achieved in two phases. Phase one was raisings of two new mountain division (first army accretion after 1983) meant to reinforce the existing nine-and-half division against China for a better defence posture. These divisions completed their raisings on 31 March 2007, the day General Kapoor retired from service. In phase two, a mountain corps (17 mountain corps) having two divisions with support and logistics elements as well as three independent brigades have been cleared by government and the raisings commenced on 1 January 2013 (COAS, General Bikram Singh interview). These second phase accretions are meant for limited counter attack in a border war.
On Pakistan, the army headquarters’ war strategy remains largely unchanged since the 1971 war. It is still ‘strategic defence and operational level offence(s).’ Pakistan is viewed as the bigger of the two threats, which is why eighty per cent of the army’s assets, including the three strike corps, remain poised against Pakistan. The war aims also remains unchanged, namely: capture of territory, attrition of Pakistan war assets, and prisoner of war. A nuanced change in strategy has been effected to meet the challenge of the envisaged short, swift and intense war. It is felt that maximum war aims will have to be realised within a week to 10 days of war after which intense international pressure would end the war. This reason is the main driver for re-structuring within the army, where learning operational and tactical lessons from Operation Parakram, the war strategy was modified to cater for three operational requirements: a shortening of mobilisation time (for strike formations), a swift crossing over of the border without preparatory time, and to effect shallow penetrations all along the border while retaining surprise about the main ingress to operational depth by strike corps.
It was realised that after a strike corps broke-out, the holding formations with enormous locked-in combat potential would remain unutilised for the remainder of the war. So, the holding corps having been re-named as pivot corps will now have combat capabilities to both prepare a bridge-head for the strike formations as well as make shallow penetrations six to 12km inside enemy territory all along the border depending on the war theatre.
Moreover, the mobilisation time for formations especially with permanent locations in central India has been shortened. The three strike corps while being allocated to three pivots corps have the option to break-up into up to eight self-sufficient mobile battle groups centred around an armoured brigade. Some of the strike corps formations which would constitute battle groups, if and when necessary, have been stationed in forward locations.
To facilitate the fast moving war, two new formation headquarters for improved command and control, namely 9 corps and south-western command have been created. From the above narrative it become evident that the new doctrine requires two basic things: directive style of command to succeed, something that the Indian Army has not displayed during previous 1965 and 1971 wars, and given the existing officers’ mind-set may not be able to do so in the next war. And, there is the need for realistic training for troops, which is becoming a rarity.
To put war matters in perspective regarding Pakistan, three myths need to be demolished. First, there is a belief that India has a conventional superiority over Pakistan. This is not true, because this perception is based on bean-counting of assets of both sides. The Pakistan Army scores over the Indian Army in strategic command, control, coordination and higher directions of war. However much the Indian Army may shorten its mobilisation time, it is impossible to beat Pakistan Army’s advantage of operating on internal lines. Thus, at the operational level of war, the two armies are nearly matched.
The operational level can be successful because of higher direction of war, surprise, firepower, coordination, orientation or mind-set, and training despite fewer numbers in terms of manpower and equipment. This is not all. Pakistan today is the only professional army in the world which has developed expertise to fight war simultaneously at two levels: regular and irregular. India does not have an institutionalised mechanism to combat this challenge. Moreover, as the land war will be a joint air-land effort, the Pakistan Army will use its plethora of ballistic missiles accurately with conventional warheads to supplement its air force numbers, a war fighting strategy it has learnt from the PLA doctrine.
The second myth is that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and especially its unstated nuclear weapons policy has prevented war. If this was true, the Pakistan Army would not make all out efforts to maintain an operational level parity with the Indian military. In reality, two factors that prevent India from retaliating to Pakistan Army’s regular provocations are: a weak and uncaring political leadership which has scant respect for territorial integrity and formulates foreign policy without inputs from the military. The second reason is that given the overall matched capabilities of the two sides, there are no worthwhile military aims to be achieved in a short and swift war.
The third myth is that Pakistan’s recent acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) will unravel the strategic command and control of nuclear weapons and bring instability to the battlefield. Readers are advised to read the recent book, ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’, by the insider retired Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan of the strategic plans divisions responsible for Pakistan’s nukes.
He writes that: ‘Pakistan has no plans to move towards battlefield weapons (TNWs). The introduction of Nasr (60km range ballistic missile) is a purely defensive measure. Should a nuclear warhead system be used in a tactical role, it will still have strategic impact. This warrants the highest level of command and control and use of authorisation from the National Command Authority.’
Given the above discussion, the Indian Army, especially its perspective planning directorate is strongly advised to review overall threats, and more importantly to focus on consolidation rather than expansion. Some issues to be debated are:
• Which is the bigger threat, China or Pakistan?
• Has the war pivot shifted decisively towards the mountains, if so, what needs to be done?
• What doctrine is required against China and what is feasible against Pakistan?
• Is there a need to continue with 80,000 strong RR, or can this force be used elsewhere?
• Does the Indian Army need to raise the 17 mountain corps or should it consolidate its existing assets against revisited doctrines for the two adversaries?
• Have nuclear weapons been dovetailed into operational war plans?
• What is the probability of Pakistan using its low-yield TNWs with strategic control vested at the highest army level?
• What if the PLA uses TNWs in a border war against a determined Indian Army to end the war quickly with minimal collateral damages?
• Should the army give up its expansive CI ops role to focus on its primary task?
The last issue will be the hardest to resolve. For example, recently retired GOC, 15 corps, Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain wrote in a newspaper article that: ‘In 2011, we (the army) enunciated our own joint politico-military aim for our commanders — integrate Jammu and Kashmir with mainstream India, politically, economically, socially and psychologically.’ The general was perhaps speaking for numerous others of his kind, who have unwittingly brought the army to this dangerous crossroad where it lacks conventional deterrence.