The 85-day Kargil War saw the Indian Army at its worst during the first half and at its best during the second half.
The days that followed the morning of 3 May 1999 surprised the Army at both strategic and tactical levels. Our contingency plans were shoddy and troops were rushed into counter-attacks without planning. Our training for conventional operations in high-altitude terrain was not up to the mark, and tri-service synergy took time to build. Our response remained tactical and strategic opportunities were not exploited. We were forced to fight with what we had than what we should have had. Above all, initially, there was ‘denial’.
But a lot changed in the second half, and by the time the war came to an end on 26 July 1999, Indian Army troops had done incredibly well and their outstanding performance would remain indelibly etched in military history. I know of no other example where such determination, grit, spirit of self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty has been displayed. The regimental system was upheld. New norms for use of artillery and air power were established. The combination of raw courage, immense fire power, and relentless momentum brought about the psychological collapse of the enemy sitting at impregnable heights.
I examine some of the lessons learnt from the Kargil War, which remain relevant 20 years later and for future war scenarios.
The ‘surprise’ element
At the strategic level, the Kargil War was an absolute surprise. We had no idea that Pakistan was planning intrusions of this magnitude.
In our own war games, the vast gaps in the Kargil sector and their proximity to the Srinagar-Leh highway always attracted the commander acting as the enemy, like a magnet. Major General (later Lt Gen) Mohinder Puri, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 8 Mountain Division, who was responsible for evicting the enemy out of Dras and Mushkoh sectors during the war, in April 1999, while acting as the enemy commander during the corps war game, had exercised this option.
We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.
Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.
In May 1948, when the Gilgit Scouts had captured the area from Zojila to Kargil and lay siege to Leh, they had done so by exploiting these very areas.
Therefore, all commanders were aware of the possibility, even if the probability of the enemy troops exploiting the gaps was assessed as low — and yet they failed to keep the area under surveillance. The three battalions deployed in the intrusion areas did not patrol the gaps while surveillance by helicopters was inadequate – a clear violation of the fundamentals of defence.
If that was not bad enough, aggressive patrolling and aerial reconnaissance was not carried out even after the intrusions had been discovered. It took the Army nearly two weeks to determine the extent and depth of the intrusions and the strength of the enemy, leading to hasty and sequential response.
In a limited war, such lapses are a recipe for defeat. There is an urgent need to upgrade our tactical surveillance and reconnaissance capability as well as create an integrated battlefield management system. Ironically, the Army shelved its Battlefield Management System project in July last year.
Poor planning, hasty response
The armed forces prepare for surprise and situations with ‘low probability of occurrence’ with contingency plans, which require trained reserves.
The 3 Infantry Division, responsible for entire Ladakh including Kargil, was already stretched beyond capacity. The Corps reserves had to come from the Valley and were not acclimatised. While high altitudes of 9,000-12,000 feet require a minimum of six days for acclimatisation, heights of 12,000-15,000 feet and those above 15,000 feet require at least 10 and 14 days. Ad hoc reserves were created from the acclimatised units going back to peace stations after a two-year tenure, while the rest were rushed in from the Valley and put into operations straightaway without acclimatisation, resulting in a lot of non-battle casualties.
Due to poor surveillance and reconnaissance even after first reports of intrusion on 3 May, the enemy identity, locations, and strength was not identified clearly for the first three weeks. There were efforts to “cover-up” the failure, with the concerned commanders insisting that a small number of “militants” had intruded. Unacclimatised troops were rushed to evict them without any preparation and suffered heavy casualties. Corps and Command Headquarters were squarely responsible for poor contingency planning. Rushing ill-prepared troops into battle was a military sin committed by the brigade and the division commander. Maximum casualties were suffered during this phase.
In future wars, the Army is likely to go on the offensive at short notice. Contingency planning and operational readiness, which includes acclimatisation, assume even greater importance. However, speed without method only leads to disaster.
As the nation’s instrument of last resort, the accountability of the armed forces is absolute. Traditionally, it is difficult for armies to accept their shortcomings. Prolonged tenures in counter-insurgency have blunted our Army’s training standard for conventional operations. Our training methodology did not adhere to the ‘systems approach’ until 10 years ago and our validation process is still suspect.
Training for the attack, particularly the last 200 yards, is given short shrift. The final 200-yard battle is not a mad rush. It is the toughest of all military operations and can take up to 12 hours in high altitudes. In plains, it is possible to cover up to 6-8 km and attack the same night. In high altitudes, the operations can barely be carried out from 1 km. Therefore, a ‘firm base’ needs to be established first, at a distance of 500-800 metres. ‘Firm base’ includes isolation of the enemy and establishing direct weapons fire support bases. Direct and indirect fire support has to be much more in high altitudes to cover slow and difficult movement of attacking troops than in the plains. The attacks begin from this ‘firm base’ and have to be multi-directional to divide the response from the enemy. Attacks are more about creating conditions for psychological collapse than physical destruction of the enemy.
Our infantry units were not prepared for attacks at high altitudes and had to learn on the job in the first month at a very high cost. All our plans of going to war from a cold start will come to naught if the troops are not trained.
Higher strategic aim
The political aim – restoration of territorial status quo in Kargil while not crossing the Line of Control keeping in view the international opinion – did earn us accolades. But it also showed our strategic naivety. Pakistan’s impulsive tactical operation had presented us with an opportunity and we should have seized it to make maximum territorial gains in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. We were fighting with what we had, but it was 1999 and Pakistan had even less. Realpolitik is not about morals.
Kargil once again exposed the poor state of our tri-service cooperation, when in the initial stages the Indian Air Force (IAF) dithered and wanted a separate strategic clearance directly from the central government rather than accept the directions of the Chairman Chief of Staff Committee.
The best tribute
While we celebrate our phenomenal success, it is more important to learn lessons from the initial debacle in the Kargil War. The lessons are relevant for the conflicts or wars that we are likely going to fight in the future. Future wars are going to be short and of high intensity. Our doctrine is ‘proactive’ and we will be in the thick of it from the word go. We cannot afford to learn on the job. Success in such scenarios is contingent on sound intelligence, high standard of training, and thorough preparedness.
The best way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kargil War would be by revisiting the Kargil Review Committee and Group of Ministers reports to carry out the long-pending holistic national security reforms – notably, the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and creation of the theatre commands. Lastly, we must fight the next war with what ‘we should have’ and not with ‘what we have’.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it
You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.
You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.
We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.
At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.
This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.
If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.