“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” ― Sun Tzu.
Like the famous quote about the Royal Prussian Army (which participated in the Napoleonic Wars), currently Pakistan is too 'not a country with an army but an army with a country'.
Pakistan was not like other countries that raise an army to deal with threats they face; it had inherited a large army that needed a threat if it was to be maintained. The Pakistani military's institutional interest that it would have to effectively control the country by being able to get the lion's share of its resources which is why it encourage Pakistan's evolution as a national security state, living in constant fear of being overrun by an India. As state building and survival became synonymous with the ‘war effort,’ the civilian leadership diverted scarce resources from development to defense and abdicated its responsibility of oversight over the military, thereby allowing the generals a virtual free hand over internal organizational affairs and national security management.
Pakistan claims the northern part of the region, and three initial wars the two nations fought over the area—in 1947–48, 1965 and 1971—failed to resolve the dispute. The Simla Agreement, signed after the 1971 conflict, stipulated that neither country would attempt to alter the cease-fire line, dubbed the Line of Control, and neither party has expressed a real interest in converting that temporary boundary into a permanent border.
By early 1999 it seemed India and Pakistan were well on their way to improving their relationship. Nearly three decades had passed since their last direct war, and despite a Pakistan-backed insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and nuclear weapons tests by both countries in 1998, it appeared Islamabad was ready to discuss with New Delhi a bilateral solution to the Kashmir issue. But not all concerned parties supported a negotiated settlement, least of all the Pakistani army, which decided to act—covertly.
In early May shepherds in the Kargil district, on the Indian side of the Line of Control, informed the local Indian brigade commander of heavily armed men atop the ridges. The first Army patrol sent to investigate was attacked and met with casualties (four killed and five wounded). Lieutenant Saurabh Kalia and his five-man patrol went to investigate but vanished; it was later determined they had been captured and tortured to death. A second patrol went missing; an IAF helicopter followed by a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft were damaged in Pakistani rocket fire; and an attempt to dislodge the Pakistanis from a key peak (Point 5353) was repulsed.
As reports of additional ambushes poured in, and local Indian units proved unable to evict the infiltrators, New Delhi approved Operation Vijay (“victory” in Hindi), initiating the redeployment of nearly 30,000 troops to Kargil. But the Indian soldiers who rapidly deployed from the lower altitude and hot clime of the Kashmir Valley were physically unprepared for the thin mountain air and single-digit temperatures.
Furthermore, they had scant intelligence about enemy positions or strength, and the inhospitable terrain along the Line of Control hindered movement and resupply. Thus these early responding units suffered terribly. Pinned down on exposed mountainsides, some assault teams went days without food or water, subsisting on snow and cigarettes. When the army called up 1st Battalion, Naga Regiment, which had fared poorly in its initial assaults, six of its officers went on sick call.
By 25th May, i.e. a day before the start of air strikes, 29 Indian soldiers had either been killed or gone missing and another 30 wounded. But the Army still did not know the full extent of the intrusions, their number and identity (whether Pakistani Army or militants as they were claiming). It was not the brightest moment for the country who had 28 years earlier (1971) soundly defeated and dismembered Pakistan.
With the battleground ranging between 14,000 and 18,000 feet, the 85-day limited Kargil War between India and Pakistan turned out to be the world’s highest elevation air and land war during which the Army fired a staggering 250,000 artillery shells (average 5,000 a day), a scale unprecedented since World War-II.
The IAF, which did some brilliant innovations including unprecedented high altitude night operations in moonlight, ended up flying 7,631 sorties (average 40 a day) including 1,730 missions by 60 fighter aircraft that dropped about 500 bombs including, for the first time, laser guided bombs.
The commanding officer, 39-year-old Lt. Col. Magod Basappa Ravindranath, was an experienced veteran with three prior deployments. He focused their efforts on the knowledge that successful mountain operations hinged on three elements: altitude acclimatization, flexible assault tactics and a sound logistical support plan. The soldiers also ensured their small arms—a mix of 7.62 mm AK-series assault rifles and new, domestically produced 5.56 mm INSAS rifles—were properly zeroed for the thin mountain air. All four companies ran mock assaults on nearby peaks, emphasizing flexible small-unit tactics against fixed enemy positions. Shortly after the regiment’s arrival, brigade headquarters ordered Ravindranath to recapture Tololing, a dominant peak looming 16,000 feet over National Highway 1 scarcely 3 miles northwest of town. Pakistani positions atop Tololing represented the deepest point of the Badr incursion, and Indian commanders counted on Ravindranath to establish a foothold from which the army could launch subsequent operations.
The 18th Battalion, Grenadiers Regiment, had initiated operations to recapture Tololing on May 22. As its companies made their way up the exposed slopes, heavy and coordinated Pakistani mortar and artillery fire stopped them cold. The grenadiers conducted three more assaults in vain, suffering more than 150 casualties. On May 28 an Indian air force Mil Mi-17 helicopter, struggling in the thin air as it provided fire support, was hit by a shoulder-fired missile and crashed on a nearby peak, killing its four-man crew. In response the air force suspended attack helicopter operations. On June 2, after the grenadiers’ fourth desperate attempt to storm the peak, brigade headquarters ordered them to cease attacks, dig in as best they could and await relief.
After linking up with the exhausted grenadiers, Ravindranath led his command team on extensive reconnaissance on June 5–6. Ravindranath elected to send two companies up each spur—one attacking, the other in reserve—to split the Pakistanis’ attention. By this time, the 120 artillery guns had arrived in Dras and would support the assault, a crucial support element previously unavailable to the grenadiers. Ammunition and water supply points on each axis of advance, and on the nights before the attack; rations and medical supplies up the steep gradient in an exhausting, seven-hour climb to the bases. Pakistani forces on Point 4590 detected the Indians’ approach and engaged the attackers with machine gun and mortar fire. Saxena led the company forward, sprinting from boulder to boulder, until his men had closed to within 100 yards of the nearest Pakistani positions. Unable to advance farther, they sheltered behind a line of boulders and kept firing uphill, waiting for an opportunity.
Meanwhile, to the southeast, came Company C, which had started its advance 30 minutes after Company D. As the men climbed, the two leading platoons noticed the Pakistanis appeared to scurrying west to face Saxena’s attack. Seizing on their inattention, one of Company C’s platoons rushed forward and splitting the Pakistani-held terrain. The alarmed Pakistanis began spraying automatic fire to scatter the attackers. As the men of the leading section scrambled forward, they failed to notice a well-concealed bunker on their flank; its machine gun killed all of them. Major Gupta, on standby with the reserve platoon, led his men up the right side of the spur. The platoon’s progress was marked by bitter close-quarters fighting. Amid the confusion Gupta and a Pakistani nearly collided in the darkness and, standing barely 6 feet apart, killed one another. By 2:30 a.m. the platoons had finally cleared the bunkers.
Over the next hour Pakistani soldiers fiercely counterattacked Company C on Tololing Top and Area Flat, trying to throw back the Indians before they could consolidate their positions. The Indians repulsed each attempt, but desperation set in as the company’s casualties mounted and its ammunition ran low. Ravindranath rushed a platoon from Company B to reinforce C. But confusion still reigned in the darkness. As Tomar awaited reinforcements, one of his NCOs pointed to a trio of unidentified men climbing toward their position. Both parties paused, anxiously trying to identify the other in the dim starlight. The NCO called out to them—only to realize they were Pakistani soldiers. As the men of Company B approached, Pakistani forces launched three more counterattacks in quick succession. The Indians held and by the third attempt had eliminated all resistance. Before anyone could celebrate, however, the commando detachment radioed reports of Pakistani reinforcements rushing south toward the summit from Point 5140. The Indians immediately called in accurate artillery strikes along the Hump, stopping the surge. Ravindranath then led Company B to reinforce the summit. The punishing task would claim the lives of three more officers and 10 soldiers and wound another 52 men.
India’s victory lies in recovering territory lost due to its incompetence, this came at a high human cost: 527 soldiers (including six airmen) killed and 1,363 wounded (many maimed for life). When compared to duration and geographical spread, the Army proportionately lost more soldiers in the over two-month war than in the 14-month 1947-48 war in which 1,103 soldiers were killed. The IAF lost three aircraft – a MiG 27M to engine failure and a MiG-21 and Mi-17 helicopter each to Pakistani missiles. Some deft diplomacy led to an unusual public support by the US and all major countries for the Indian position vis-à-vis a diplomatically isolated Pakistan.
Islamabad’s, rather Rawalpindi’s (headquarters of the Pakistani Army), ‘success’ lay in internationalising the Kashmir issue; exposing the Indian Army and intelligence agencies, respectively, for their lack of preparedness and incompetence; and continuing their proxy war in J&K. Overall the otherwise militarily well executed intrusions by Pakistan, who for the first few weeks succeeded in misleading the Indian Army and intelligence agencies, reflected badly on the security apparatus of a country considered a regional power with the world’s third largest army.
Three days after the war ended, the government on 29th July 1999 constituted the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by K. Subrahmanyam to examine the sequence of events and make recommendations for the future. The Aviation Research Centre or ARC, which earlier formed part of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was elevated to a separate agency known as the National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation (NTRO). Border management is now based on the one-border one-force principle.
The government created the Strategic Forces Command entrusted with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, a tri-services Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), a Defence Procurement Board and a system of a holistic 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP). India now has better resolution (one metre) satellites to detect intrusions while large portions of the LoC have been fenced with barbed wire and sensors. The Army has since truncated the geographical jurisdiction of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and raised 14 Corps in Leh to exclusively cater for the Ladakh region that faces the armies of two countries – China and Pakistan. J&K now has three Corps – numbers 14, for Ladakh, 15, for the Valley and Nagrota-based 16, for the Jammu-Poonch region.
Notwithstanding the measures taken, successive governments at the Centre are yet to effectively address three basic issues that characterised the Kargil War:
- intelligence gathering, the failure of which led to Pakistan’s successful intrusion;
- deficiencies in defence equipment which was evident during the Kargil War when Army Chief General VP Malik famously remarked ‘we will fight with whatever we have’ on being asked whether the Army was prepared in case the Army’s operation in the Kargil region escalated into a full fledged war. In recent years India has attained the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s largest importer of defence equipment. The import-dependent armed forces continue to suffer shortages on a grand scale. The War Wastage Reserves (reserves set apart for an anticipated use during war) are perilously low. The Army is deficient of practically every equipment.
As American scholar Steven Cohen later remarked, 1986-87 was India’s last chance to fight a conventional war with Pakistan. The Pakistan-sponsored militant uprising in J&K in 1990, the Kargil War, the terror attack on parliament (2001) and in Mumbai (2008) were other provocations. But then a full-scale conventional war between India and Pakistan seems difficult with Islamabad possessing nuclear weapons.