THE SORRY STATE
OF HIGHER DEFENCE MANAGEMENT
Lt-Gen Harwant Singh ( Retd )
Kargil conflict ended ten years ago and yet doubts and controversies persist. There are many questions that continue to nag. The more pertinent: why ingress was not detected in real time and the extent and depth of it determined early enough, why the IAF took so long to come on board. Why the Cabinet Committee on Security procrastinated for so long and chartered a timid reaction to Pakistan’s perfidy. Then there was a dysfunctional state of joint operational planning in the defence forces. Finally can the existing higher defence organization optimize to the full the collective potential of defence forces and ensure national security and territorial integrity of the country.
Equally intriguing is the underlying rationale to this misadventure by Pakistan and the limitations, inadequacy and timidity of Indian response. Many theories have been propounded on the reasons for Pakistan to undertake the risky adventure at Kargil. More so when, it had the portents of escalating into a larger conflagration, of which Pakistan had sound reasons to be scared. One misconception was that Indians are too cowardly and ill organized to offer any organized resistance.
Some other assessments by Pakistan, such as, lack of modernization of Indian army, the fatigue caused to it by decades of involvement in counter insurgency operations,(“ Indians whose armed forces are totally exhausted whose morale is at its lowest.”- Musharraf speaking to his troops, Oct 29,98 at Mangla – Kargil Review Committee Report page 82 )’ thinning out of Kargil sector by shifting troops for tasks in the valley, impossibility of taking back high features once occupied by Pak troops, shortage of officers, low budget allocations, etc may have contributed to the decision to stage Kargil drama.
Indian defence analysts too have advanced a few theories to explain Pakistan’s action at Kargil and Indian reaction. Though apprehensions of nuclear retaliation by Pakistan to any escalation of the conflict by India did not have any merit, yet Indian security establishment ‘over time’ had conditioned itself to the validity of the nuclear deterrence of Pakistan and the self induced assessment that, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is controlled by its army which may be rash enough to press the nuclear button. During 1990 standoff, Pakistan had realized that its nuclear deterrence works well on India.
Failure to make any headway at Siachen had greatly frustrated the Pakistan army, more so it’s higher command. Towards the end of 1980s it started examining ways and means to drive Indian army into a position where it would find itself in a Siachen like situation, as faced by Pakistan.
Examination of the LAC revealed Kargil sector as the area where Pakistan could ‘Siachen’ India. It was thinly held, of forbidding heights and dominating features as difficult to tackle as Siachen heights. Pervez Musharraf in his book ‘ In Line of Fire ‘ ( page 87) states that, “India captured a location where they felt that our presence was thin and vise- versa. This is how they managed to occupy Siachen.” Here Indian army could suffer the same set of failures and frustrations that Pakistan army had been undergoing at the Saltaro Range. In addition, movement on Srinagar-Leh road could be interrupted. This plan was no secret from the political executive, as Benazir Bhutto had stated that the plan was presented to her and she had vetoed it. Nawaz Sharif had been fully briefed on this plan and the Indian establishment was being merely gullible in believing his assertions to the contrary.
To understand Kargil conflict one must know the military and terrain peculiarities of this part of the LAC, which falls amongst the highest snow fall regions of the Himalayas,( Dosai Mountains – though as one moves Northward, from Mushko valley towards Turtak, the severity of snow fall keeps decreasing)). Eight army posts in this sector were being vacated due to heavy snow conditions and consequent difficulty in maintaining these. Patrolling of the area during this period in the past had resulted in heavy casualties where even platoon size patrols disappeared under snow avalanches and that had imposed restrictions on patrolling of the vacated areas. To add to this was the extent of the sector ( 164 kms ) held by a brigade and there were the large gaps between defended posts, ranging from 10 to 25 Kms. In all the helicopter sorties during that period only one set of foot prints could be detected, which by themselves were of little consequence. At the same time snow conditions made tactical intelligence collection pretty much impossible.
Jehadis were not expected to occupy positions inside India. No large scale ingress by Pakistan could be expected across a well established LAC. It was India’s stated policy that any aggression in J and K would be considered an attack on India and that this country will respond accordingly. Moreover the local population in the sector is, Shiite Muslims, Buddhists and Drokes who have no sympathy for the Jehadis. With the opening of an alternate route to Leh via Manali, the importance of Srinagar-Leh route had reduced. Large scale movement of troops and preparations by Pakistan would be picked up by the Indian intelligence and Indian troops would have the necessary advance warning. Terrain too did not favour large scale operations by Pakistan.
Such were the reasonable assumptions coupled with some laxity in surveillance of the sector that resulted in the failure to detect ingress. However the significance of heavy artillery shelling in this sector during the previous year was not adequately analysed and appropriate inference drawn from this development. Instead we merely reacted with massive, though wasteful retaliation. The fact that Pakistan did achieve complete surprise was the result of colossal failure of Indian intelligence. Determining the extent and depth of ingress by foot patrols was a slow and time consuming process. Equally it was not feasible to immediately know the identity of the enemy or its intentions. Though, artillery support to those who had occupied the heights was a clear indication of Pakistan’s involvement.
VCOAS’s reluctance to go to the government with scanty information about the nature and extent of ingress must be seen in this background. However continuing with that position from 9/10 May to 17 May, till the issue was finally taken up with the RM etc is inexplicable.
The VCOAS ( army chief was out of the country ) approached the IAF for deployment of armed helicopters on 9/10 May. By then the Indian artillery was already relentlessly pounding the then known positions of the enemy within our territory. Helicopters would be operating well inside India, in totally uninhabited areas. Their employment in this manner could not be termed as, ‘offensive air support,’ a term rather loosely used by the air chief (Air Chief Marshal- Tipnis ) With proper coordination of artillery fire, enemy anti-aircraft potential could be neutralized for the duration these helicopters engaged the enemy. Equally safe helicopter operating bases ( at Matyan, Kargil and Bodkharbu ) could be established within a few minutes flying time to the targets, thus reducing fuel load and increasing the ceiling of these helicopters.
Air Chief’s sustained reluctance to deploy these and the attitude that, ‘we know better’ and it was ‘army’s problem’ and a condescending attitude can find little justification. This attitudinal posturing and dithering resulted in a delay of nearly one week, i.e, 6th to 17th May, 1999 before the issue could be taken to the RM. This delay was also due to the mind-set of the IAF as noted by Tipnis, “IAF has long contended that use of air power in direct support of the ground battle is its most inefficient utilization.” A view less and less supported by many an authority on application of air power. It is more a case of judicious distribution of resources between various tasks. In any case in the instant contingency there was, till then, no question of employment of IAF on tasks other than to support ground troops.
However this prioritizing of tasks in isolation and on IAF’s own bidding, highlights the void that existed between the two components of the defence forces and the dysfunctional state of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. In the end and after much acrimony and delay air force deployed these very helicopters on tasks earlier demanded by the army.
Air support for the ground battle is a vital factor for successful conduct of operations. Air battle without success on the ground can prove even less than a pyrrhic victory. Since support of ground battle is the least desirable task for the IAF and this support continue to remain vital component of ground battle, then some ground support air elements need to be integral to army’s fire support assets, as is the case with many armies.
As for the IAF’s approach to Kargil, the then air chief, AY Tipnis, in an article in a magazine called, ‘FORCE,’ has given a blow-by-blow account of the events leading up to the time the IAF was finally committed on 26 May 99. A close scrutiny of events brings out the fact that, army and IAF had been operating in water tight compartments, the Chiefs of Staff Committee was dysfunctional and there was, confusion and dithering in the Cabinet Committee on Security.( CCS ) Tipnis states that, “to make up for the initial lapse, the army was now seeking air force help.”
IAF took nearly one full week of dithering before this issue was taken up with the RM etc on 17th May for deploying armed helicopters. Another nine days followed before IAF was given the green signal. Air HQ’s indifferent responses, from 9th /10th May to 17th May are one of a piece. To the RM, the Chiefs of Staff Committee was unable to speak in one voice.
In briefing the RM and others, on 17 May, Tipnis stated, “offensive air operations must have priority over ground support role.” In the instant case there was no requirement for offensive air operations. What was asked was the support of armed helicopters. In the same briefing he added, “If air power was used offensively the escalation could be very rapid to any level and anywhere. ----.” In this case ‘air power’ was (armed helicopters) to be used defensively, within Indian air space on targets well within own territory, so talking of ‘offensive air support’ and ‘escalation’ was an irrelevant input and yet good enough to confuse and frighten the RM and others.
During the briefing on 18 May when, in addition PM and other members of CCS members were also present, Tipnis further confused them by saying, that “armed helicopter’s survivability in offensive role would be very low” (as if armed helicopter has any role other than operating against the enemy!) and “the IAF must have the freedom to use the fighters.” This was when the RM/PM and others were still pondering over the use of only armed helicopters. This linking of helicopters with fighter aircrafts further complicated the issue for the PM, RM and others. The result was, firstly the External Affairs Minister (EAM) went completely over board and pronounced that, “employment of air force would internationalise the issue.” Secondly the group dispersed without any decision except that the Principal Secretary ( P S ) to the PM and not the PM or the Deputy PM, made two points as noted by Tipnis:-
a) ‘For the present air power not to be used. ’.
b) ‘Hot pursuit’ by ground forces to be permitted in the area of the present operations, nowhere else.’
The enemy was well entrenched deep inside Indian territory and here the PS to the PM ( who was also the National Security Adviser ) talks of ‘hot pursuit’ , without the slightest notion as to what was actually involved in the tasks at Kargil. Also note the condescending note in his directions of ‘permitting’ the ground forces to take action against the enemy. At last when the IAF did join the fight the conflict was not internationalized nor did it escalate, thus proving the apprehensions and fears, induced into the EAM and air chiefs own misgivings to be ill founded and baseless.
From 20 to 25 May, Gen Malik, after his delayed return to India ( he attributes this delay to the fact that no one asked him to cut short his trip abroad and return - his book, ‘From Surprise to Victory.’ page 108 ) tried hard, though quite unsuccessfully, to get Tipnis to agree to the deployment of armed helicopters. In fact much petty fogging and acrimonious discussions took place in the Chiefs of Staff Committee resulting in frayed tempers.
The Air Chief, instead of persisting on government clearance for deploying armed helicopters, should have, without loss of time and along with other members of Chiefs of Staff committee ( VCOAS and CNS ) pointed out to the RM and others, that deploying IAF ( in own airspace ) could not possibly provoke Pakistan to escalate the fight against superior conventional forces ( both ground and air. ) View it from another angle. We had been subjected to aggression on a large scale and yet it is us who instead of going over to the counter offensive were scared stiff of Pakistan escalating the conflict, merely because our hitting, with air power, the enemy, that had occupied Indian territory, and when all this while Pakistan, fearing Indian retaliation, was at great pains to deny its involvement in the aggression. Some defensive mentality and pusillanimity on the part of India’s security establishment!
Air Marshal RS Bedi ( Retd ) former DG Defence Planning Staff, of MoD, in an article in Hindustan Times ( Chandigarh edition ) dated 21 June, 2004, commenting on the Kargil operations, noted that no air force in the world is trained to engage targets at heights of 15000 to 20000 feet nor are such weapons designed anywhere in the world. Perhaps he does not know that no air force in the world is required to engage targets at such high mountains. Though, the air marshal, by inference, admits that the IAF was neither trained nor equipped to support the Indian army at Kargil. Almost one third of the Indian army is deployed in the high mountains and the supporting air force, at the time of Kargil, had never trained itself to support it. If true, it is indeed a sad state of affairs, and is a direct reflection of the higher defence management.!
Brig Javed Hussain( Retd ) in an article in the ‘Dawn,’ a well known newspaper of Pakistan writes, “ Kargil provided an opportunity to the Indian High Command to convert a tactical loss into strategic gain. They could have selected an objective, the capture of which would not only produce tactical effects on their enemy on Kargil heights and Siachen, but strategic effect as well on their enemy’s high command. That objective was Skardu. As it commands lines of communications to Kargil intrusion and Siachen. What might have happened if, instead of attacking the heights at Kargil, they had captured the Skardu airfield, in a surprise attack by airborne troops and followed it up by a massive air lift of troops to rapidly build up the force of the size of an infantry division, closely supported by the IAF ------- If the Indian had pulled this off , what might have happened to Northern Areas and Kashmir?”
He continues, “Great captains of war are risk takers, because they know that too much caution and indecision can rob them of opportunity and success. Kargil once again exposed the limitations of the Indian High command --- their slavish devotion to orthodoxy and their lack of strategic thought.”
The point simply is that there was no great captain in the Indian military who could urge the political executive to let him seize the opportunity offered by Pakistan: to take the bull by the horns. For all one knows, the PM and others may have grasped the import of such a move. This would have also sent a clear message, in unequivocal terms, to Pakistan that mischief against India will not go unpunished. Instead the Army Chief acquiesced to troops being condemned to frontal attacks. The least he could have done was to demand and insist on tactical freedom in tackling enemy at the heights. Our timid response at Kargil, laid the foundation for future terrorist attacks on India, starting with the attack on Indian Parliament.
Coming back to the bogey of escalation, which played its notorious role in 1962, once more surfaced at Kargil: on equally baseless grounds. The clandestine and incognito travel of Tipnis ( dressed as wing commander ) to Srinagar to alert the air elements there for taking part in the Kargil operations merely highlights that the escalation bug had bitten hard. Tipnis notes in the article in ‘Force’ that, “there was total lack of army-air force joint staff work.” So much for those, who still continue to pitch for Chiefs of Staff Committee system. Committees cannot fight and win wars.
It is on mutual trust and understanding that healthy traditions can be built. Consider this. During the Second World War British army’s operations in Greece ran into near disaster and to save the army, its immediate evacuation by sea became imperative. During this phase of the war, Atlantic was dominated by the German U boats and the naval commanders assembled for the evacuation of the army stranded in Greece, strongly protested against under-taking this task due to the fear of losing a large number of ships. Admiral Cunningham, Admiral of the Atlantic Fleet told the assembled commanders that, “it takes 300 years to build a tradition and only three years to build a ship. The Royal Navy, as a tradition has never abandoned the army and therefore, it will evacuate the army irrespective of the losses in ships.” IAF by staying out of the 1962 war abandoned the army, when everything was in its favour and created serious misgiving.
Were the enemy to ingress in a more sensitive sector and or had the capability and the intention of driving deeper towards some vital objective, the pussy footing by the VCOAS, semantics and petty fogging within the Chief of Staff Committee, the divergent views given to the political executive, NSC’s own timidity and procrastination could have had grave consequences. Taking the situation at Kargil in its totality there was no need to go to the government for deploying armed helicopters to engage the invaders, especially when army was already pounding them with medium artillery. More recently Central Police is known to have used helicopter gunship against Maoists without reference to the government!
Time and again this discord and differing perceptions have surfaced amongst the higher command of the defence services. Services have failed to function as a well oiled machine and proof of this if any, lies in the fact that it took the army and the air force over two weeks to traverse common ground. Long after the Kargil conflict, the two service chiefs, ( Malik and Tipnis) through their writings, continued with their spat.
Existing arrangement of Chiefs of Staff Committee with its conflicting views, turf tending and differing recommendations can merely confuse the political executive, result in delays and dithering which would prove disastrous in the event of grave national emergencies demanding quick responses. The Chiefs of Staff Committee has repeatedly and completely failed to synergise the collective combat potential of various wings of the defence services. Kargil episode brings out the imperatives of single point of advise to the government from the defence services on national security issues and an authority that can synergise the full potential of the armed forces.
A nuclear and emerging economic power, ( in the midst of potentially unstable regimes ) with ambitions to exercise influence for the stability and security of the region and to safe guard vital national interests , cannot have an antiquated and potentially dysfunctional decision making and operational system in the defence apparatus. The delay in adopting the CDS system and integration of service headquarters with the MoD could prove very costly to the nation. Existing integration of defence services headquarters with the MoD is a complete farce, infact a joke and a meaningless exercise.
After the conflict a number of books have appeared, mostly to justify actions of authors of these books. The fact is that troops were thrust into battle without essential acclimatization and reconnaissance in frontal attacks along knife edge ridges and up impossible slopes. When the IAF at last did go into action, the presence of stinger missile pushed its aircrafts to great heights making acquisition of snow covered enemy positions difficult to acquire and engage. (earlier even low and slow flying helicopters could not detect these.) Yet its employment had tremendous psychological impact on the enemy. But for Air Commodore Jasjit Singh ( a well known defence analyst ) to claim, “exceptionally well executed aerial strikes by IAF provided an impetus--to the support of international community in favour of India rather than Pakistan,” ( Kargil 1999 – Pakistan’s Fourth War - page 129’) is to strain reader’s intelligence. Supporting artillery fire too was less helpful due to the nature of terrain, ever changing met conditions, inability to neutralize enemy guns and large time lag from lifting of fire and arrival of attacking troops at the objectives.
Success at Kargil can be attributed to three factors. One, spirit, resolve and the courage of troops and their officers. Two, Pakistan government developing cold feet and denying its troops at the heights continued support. Three, American pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its troops from Indian territory. Missing was generalship.
Finally did Pakistan gain anything from Kargil adventure! For one, it tested India’s lack of capacity and resolve to respond aggressively to a major mischief by Pakistan. It gauged the extent of India’s threshold of tolerance.
It made Indian army increase its deployment North of Zojila fourfold: in an area of least strategic importance in the India-Pak context. This has also imposed unwanted heavy burden on the Indian army’s budget in having to maintain troops North of Zojila. It emboldened Pakistan to mount major terrorist attacks against India which in turn, besides much else has made India, expend large sums as a result of these attacks. The mobilization of defence services ( Op Parakram ) consequent to attack on Indian Parliament cost India over Rs 1000 crores. Much larger sums have to be spent on NSG relocation with dedicated airlift capability and on Coastal Guard, raising of more police battalions etc after the Mumbai attack. During Kargil and soon after, large sums were spent on ‘panic purchases’ of equipment and ammunition, which later performed poorly and other scandals followed. Coffins to transport bodies of soldiers to their native places and laser guided ammunition from USSR for Bofors, to mention just two such cases