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20 years on, a Kargil lesson still holds true: Indian Army can’t afford to learn on the job

It had taken Indian Army two weeks to determine the extent of intrusion and strength of the enemy - a recipe for defeat in limited wars.

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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.

Also read: ‘Foreigner’ Kargil war veteran Sanaullah gets bail, to leave detention centre

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. 

Also read: These 5 Indian Army, IAF heroes are the faces of the Kargil conflict

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.

Poor training

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.

Also read: At IAF’s Gwalior base, Mirages attack ‘Tiger Hill’ to celebrate 20 years of Kargil success

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.

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  1. Great article!!! Basically, worship the God of Preparedness so that we don’t have to call upon the God of Valor…

  2. I am sorry to read such depressing assessments of the 1999 Kargil War from a general who himself been responsible for equipment, training, deployment and operations throughout his service life.
    About initial detection and assessment, has he forgotten the deployment of 3 Infantry Division from Chushul to Dras and beyond? How can one Infantry Brigade with 4 battalions effectively cover approximately 300+km that too in high altitude areas?
    Does the general forget the equipment, clothing, rations, communication, etc, in some areas worse than Siachen? Does he remember that lack of equipment and infrastructure, the forward posts were vacated during the onset of extreme winters every year?
    I have witnessed death of several soldiers due to extreme cold and snow caused by delayed evacuation in 1995.
    Were the senior officers like him sleeping and failed to realise the importance of holding forward posts irrespective of weather?
    What happened to the sophisticated R&AW surveillance aircraft that was supposed to keep an eye of the vacated areas along the LOC?
    I am surprised to read assessment of situation from a senior and decorated general and others, who failed to bring the situation in the notice of government over several decades.
    I am satisfied now that the northern boundaries are sealed shut with troops deployed throughout the year. Why the same was not ensured earlier, the generals and MoD/government must clarify.

  3. ‘Armchair reminiscences’ after two decades and ‘a man on the spot’ is like some pilots giving their views on an air crash,…..” if I was in the cockpit I would have blah blah blah blah”.

    • You can’t give short shrift to somebody who has experience and expertise. He is a distinguished soldier with important insights. There are valuable lessons in every war, even ones you win.

      • Ravi has rightly pointed it out. Gen Panag was Army Commander of the Northern Command much after the 1999 War. He should have known the history and the reasons of Pakistani infiltration. Why didn’t he and others anticipate such eventualities well in time?
        Army battalions in Kargil area were neither equipped nor reinforced to guard the 300+km high mountains. Were the generals sleeping all the time? The regular patrols were reduced by almost 50% due to budget-cuts and unfortunately, the Pak intrusions were exactly where the patrolling was carried out (that too during the summers).
        The troops never had special high-altitude and extreme winter clothings as they have their n Siachen.
        Weren’t the generals and government supposed to anticipate the likely intrusions?

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