Saturday, February 19, 2005

INDIA: Kargil Exclusive - War Against Error


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Was the army right in carrying out the assessment? There is one school of thought that the army should not have identified and recorded its mistakes since it shows the force in poor light. Conventional wisdom is that there should not be a post-mortem of any recent operation. But many senior officers feel that a candid assessment was necessary. They feel that only such an exercise and a keenness to learn can help a professional army to make a course correction and keep it fighting fit in this millennium. +

Kargil Exclusive - War Against Error
SAIKAT DATTA

The Indian army was shocked and awed by the Kargil war. Five years on, its internal assessment report lists the blunders it made, and steps to avert them in the future.

Revelations of the Secret Report

* Senior commanders reached late. There were lapses in command and control.

* There was total intelligence failure

* It was presumed that an overt nuclear posture would guarantee peace

* The army was in low intensity conflict mode and unprepared for a conventional war

* There was a sense of complacency. It was assumed there would be no incursion across difficult and harsh terrain.

* Senior officers were physically unfit. And there was lack of initiative at the JCO-NCO level.

* Northern Command was stretched and troop levels were not adequate

There are passages in the history of a nation that are etched in its collective memory forever.

The battle fought on the icy heights of Kargil between May and July 1999 is one that will not be easily forgotten by India. Five years after a war in which 474 officers and men lost their lives, there has been much introspection in the country's security establishment on what went right, and what went wrong, in Operation Vijay.

The decision to take a dispassionate look at the war and to record its history and disseminate it among top generals of the army was taken two years ago when Gen N.C. Vij took over as army chief. He had witnessed the conduct of the war at close quarters as the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO). Gen Vij decided to put together an internal assessment documenting the crucial lessons from that war, culled mostly from top secret operational notes with the military operations directorate.

Such an assessment, it was felt, would help the army's senior commanders to learn "valuable lessons of the art of war"—a war that was fought in recent times and won, albeit after paying a heavy price.

The soul-searching made the army take a hard look at the many blunders that were committed during the Kargil operations—the critical failures which happened at various levels. Senior commanders failed to deliver, the intelligence set-up proved ineffective, battalions were led by people too old to climb razor-edge peaks in sub-zero climes, rifles that were introduced midway through the war created problems and the delay in deploying air power during the conflict prolonged the war.

Each blunder had a lesson in it too. The army establishment was of the view that there was no point in hiding the truth under the "top secret" veil. It would be better to acknowledge the failures, take corrective measures, and move on. Outlook is the first in the media to study the 250-odd page report. In it, for the first time, the defence establishment officially acknowledges the army's failures and also puts on record what it has done to ensure that such lapses don't occur in the future. Here is an exclusive peek into the army's internal assessment of the Kargil war.

Complacency And Intelligence Failure

According to the army's own assessment, one of the biggest lessons of the Kargil war was that there "was a sense of complacency among the officers and men". It was believed at the command level and on the ground that the "terrain was so difficult that there would not be any incursions". The army's "winter posture" had led to vacating a few critical posts. This was coupled with the fact that nearly "a 130 km stretch between Turtuk and Zojila had no sensors". The "winter air surveillance operations (WASO)" is described as "at best, not very effective."

The ongoing peace process, kicked off by the Lahore bus ride of then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the fact that both India and Pakistan had gone "overtly nuclear" led the army top brass to believe that war was a distant possibility.

The assessment also recognises another factor that caused much heartburn within the army's higher echelons—the fact that there were no inputs from the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW).

It was the agency's task to gather foreign intelligence. While RAW did manage an "intelligence scoop by intercepting a call between Gen Pervez Musharraf and his chief of staff", there were no initial inputs on the extent of incursions into Kargil. The fact that there were "no ground sensors" on the 130 km stretch also adversely affected the army's ability to preempt the incursions. It has also been put on record that Military Intelligence was unable to "analyse certain inputs". For instance, there were reports of "large-scale animal transport movements on the Pakistani side of the LoC".However, military intelligence summarised that these were undertaken to replenish ammunition for the Pakistani artillery regiments.

Later, it was learnt that this was part of the 'Kargil plan'.

Lessons: A range of new technology has been introduced, including regular flights by unmanned aerial vehicles. The army pressed for a fence on the Line of Control to effectively check infiltration. With a drop in infiltration, the senior commanders can keep their troops readied for conventional operations. It was also decided that winter posts would not be vacated. A Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created along with the National Security Council secretariat and Military Intelligence was refurbished and "strengthened" by then army chief General S. Padmanabhan.

Defensive Mindset

The army has acknowledged the fact that its formation and senior commanders were so involved in counter-insurgency operations that when the first reports of an incursion came in, few believed that this was a Pakistani gamble to "take possession of the strategic heights". The army was in Low Intensity Conflict Mode ("LICO-ised"). Coupled with this "defensive mindset", it took more than two weeks for the army top brass to recognise that this was an unusual occurrence. "While initial reports reached the Military Operations Directorate on May 8, only two battalions were dispatched to the area" (the sector manned by the 121 Kargil Brigade). On May 17, the army received aerial reconnaissance pictures and was finally able to gauge the extent of the incursions and on May 20 orders were issued to the Bareilly based 6th Division to move up.

The assessment dwells on the "delay in the introduction of the air force for operations in the Kargil sector". It also notes the fact that a legitimate worry had been expressed by the then chief of air staff, A.Y. Tipnis, that introduction of air assets could "escalate the conflict". With the three chiefs unable to come to a decision, and the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee indecisive, air power was finally introduced only on May 25.

Lessons: The army ordered that additional formations would be rotated in the north and be kept in battle preparedness. An elaborate exercise was undertaken to ensure that formations raised to deal exclusively with counter-insurgency operations would also be tasked to support and, if necessary, undertake conventional operations. The army underlined the need for a decision-making process to be institutionalised and "perhaps the appointment of a chief of defence staff could help resolve any similar dilemmas in the future".

Missed Gauging The Strategic Environment

There was an "interim government" in India which emboldened the Pakistani army hierarchy to assume that it would be "indecisive" and not be in a position to tackle with the exigency. With political instability, the Indian army should have been on high alert. But it was not. According to the assessment, Pakistan's army hierarchy was "banking on the fact" that since it was also "overtly nuclear" India would not want a full-fledged war.

There were also fears in the Pakistan army that the ongoing Lahore peace process in February 1999 could "dilute Pakistan's stand on Kashmir".

This gave "further impetus to their plans to occupy strategic heights in the Kargil sector". Finally, the stated policy of the Indian government, up to the conclusion of the Bangladesh war in 1971, was that if there were any incursions across the LoC then the Indian armed forces had the right to cross the international border. Since then there has been no stated policy on this. The BJP government went in for a policy of restraint for diplomatic gains. This forced the army to take on virtually impossible objectives like high mountain peaks which were "found to be unsound militarily".In one such operation Major Vikram Batra was killed.

Lessons: The security set-up has been revamped—the National Security Council secretariat was established which now publishes a security review. Drawing extensively on inputs from intelligence agencies, it looks at economic and political factors. The review is disseminated within the security establishment in the hope that it can prevent "another Kargil".

Seniors Unfit, Juniors Lax

The assessment points out that with an older profile of "commanders at the battalion and brigade level", the army was literally gasping for breath. Two commanding officers of infantry battalions were moved out as they were physically unfit to deal with the demands made by the rugged terrain, high altitude and the rigours of war. The report also points out that equivalent Pakistani commanders were "younger by three to four years."

A sizeable proportion of the 474 killed during the war were young commissioned officers (lieutenants and captains) who had just passed out of the Indian Military Academy and had joined their respective units. The high casualty rate among them has been largely attributed in the assessment to the "severe lack of initiative in the junior leadership", specifically among Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) who are platoon commanders. They were also found to be averse to taking risks. Finally, if the war was won, the report says, it was due to the "courage and leadership of the young (commissioned) officers" who "carried the bulk of the burden".

Lessons: On Army Day last year, the partial implementation of the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee report was announced by Gen Vij. The government finally gave the clearance in December 2004 for its full implementation, allowing a host of younger officers to assume command of battalions. In the last two years, army headquarters has been working furiously to establish an academy for NCOs to motivate them and to hone their battle-craft.

Lack Of Fire Power

In retrospect, the army's own conclusion is that as the war broke out it did not have adequate troops in the region to "tackle the emerging threat". The Indian troops maintained a "defensive posture" and were not "adequately poised" to deal with "conventional operations". It did not have "committed and trained force levels" to deal with Pakistan. An internal study by the army had also established that in the mountains the Indian Army needs to maintain force levels in the ratio of 9:1 vis-a-vis Pakistan to retain its upper hand in conventional operations. This, obviously, was not the case during Kargil.

Operation Vijay also brought out that "overwhelming firepower from heavier calibre guns" proved decisive. While the majority of the Indian army's artillery regiments had guns of a lower calibre, it was the 155 mm Bofors Howitzers that performed magnificently. Greater firepower could have shortened the war and cut down casualties.

Lessons: Kargil and to an extent Operation Parakram led to the authoring of the Indian army's first doctrine under the chairmanship of Gen Vij.

The army top brass recognised that in future there would be "short wars", that the army needed the "immediate ability to go to war" and it would be fought in the "backdrop of terrorism" as well under the cloud of an "overt nuclear threat". On the ground, army headquarters has also ensured that to maintain "adequate force levels" a formation from the Bareilly-based 6th Division would now be permanently located in the north and would "train and deploy elements to keep them battle-ready."

Even the Kargil Review Committee had noted that it is yet to be recognised in spirit by the ministry of defence "that acquisition takes a long time to fructify." The "long-standing requirement" of weapon-locating radars was sorely felt and the army ordered "up-gunning from 105mm and 130mm to a higher calibre of 155mm of its artillery regiments."

Northern Command Stretched

The report points out that "the Udhampur-based Northern Command was stretched" and unable to "cope with the emerging threat of war." While it had to oversee live operations in the mountains in and around Kargil, it also had to maintain vigil on the LoC and the international border. Consequently, it was also engaged in counter-insurgency operations. There was a need to "rationalise the command and the control structure". The Srinagar-based 15 Corps was found to be inadequate to control operations east of the Zojila Pass which led to the debacle. "In the initial stages, the corps had only one division to deal with the exigency."

The report also recognises the fact that due to "operational urgency" troops had to be rushed to forward areas without acclimatisation. Acclimatisation is mandatory for all troops before being inducted into high-altitude areas.

Lessons: Cleared by the government in January this year, the new South-West Command will help rationalise this anomaly and enable quicker deployment and immediate commencement of operations. The army also created the Leh-based 14 Corps with three divisions to beef up its presence in the Kargil sector.

Misuse Of Special Forces

An operation launched by a Special Forces team under the 8 Mountain Division ground to a halt on a mountain feature called Sando Top when they were engaged by Pakistan's Special Services Group. The Indian troops were found to be lacking in key equipment and the tasking was also questionable. Other SF units which were deployed were used as regular infantry battalions to capture features, a role they are neither equipped nor tasked for. This led to higher casualties and misuse of a strategic force.

Lessons: None. The army continues to misuse the Special Forces. In fact, now it has expanded and diluted their capabilities further. In future wars India will have to do without any real Special Forces capability.

Was the army right in carrying out the assessment? There is one school of thought that the army should not have identified and recorded its mistakes since it shows the force in poor light. Conventional wisdom is that there should not be a post-mortem of any recent operation. But many senior officers feel that a candid assessment was necessary. They feel that only such an exercise and a keenness to learn can help a professional army to make a course correction and keep it fighting fit in this millennium.