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View: Learnt and unlearnt lessons from a costly Kargil victory


Twenty two years after the Indian Army, enabled and complemented by the Indian Air Force, evicted Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) intruders from the daunting heights of Mushkoh, Dras, Kaksar and Batalik, the Kargil conflict of 1999 continues to generate a wide range of analyses from historians and strategic analysts.

Adding to these in the public discourse is the continued emotional impact of loss on the families and the units who suffered significantly during the bruising high-altitude conflict that saw tough frontal assaults and brutal close-quarter fighting that is no longer considered the ‘new normal’ in contemporary warfare.

In the sobering backdrop of these memories, one would imagine that India would have lost no time in absorbing the lessons from the conflict and translated them into suitable doctrines and strategies for the conduct of limited and high-intensity conflict, particularly in high-altitude terrain. The outcomes, however, have been a mixed bag.

Military mindset: We are still struggling to shrug off a manpower-intensive approach to war
India’s decision to go to war after being surprised by a nimbler adversary was grounded in restraint and responsibility, with even a touch of diffidence while using all the instruments of force at its disposal. There was an all-round hesitation to test the escalation ladder under a nuclear overhang and hence the directive to the IAF not to cross the Line of Control (LoC) during operations.

Two decades later, there is now a much clearer understanding of the dynamics of limited conflict; military operations under a nuclear overhang; and a willingness to test punitive and coercive strategies against different adversaries. Though an emerging trend of proactive deterrence can be seen in India’s recent military responses starting with the cross-border strikes against insurgent camps in Myanmar in 2015, the Uri strikes, Doklam, Balakot and the firm but limited responses to recent Chinese transgressions, much more needs to be done if India must exorcise the ghosts of Kargil and cope with the increasingly belligerent Chinese posturing along its northern borders.

At the operational level, both the army and air force were forced to offer hasty initial responses to the Kargil intrusions. Going into combat ‘blind’ in the absence of a credible and synergised intelligence mosaic to support operations resulted in avoidable casualties. The initial absence of adequate artillery fire power and aerial bombardment to shape the battlefield before committing troops to frontal assaults made matters worse. Though the army and the IAF have been careful not to allude to Kargil during the recent build-up of forces in Eastern Ladakh, the acclimatisation of troops during induction; the build-up of artillery and mechanised forces; the unrestricted presence of air power in Ladakh in all its roles; the ability of the military leadership to resist calls for an immediate riposte; all of this and more points at lessons well learned from Kargil.

When the Indian army launched its assaults on the Kailash Range and other heights in August last year, India was prepared for escalation. If there is a gap that remains, it is in the realm of synergised intelligence and the ability to create a ‘persistent stare’ capability that reduces the possibility of being both strategically and operationally surprised as happened in Kargil.

Joint operations were sub-optimal during Kargil and evolved through ‘hit and trial,’ immediate and instinctive action that invariably followed a setback. While Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance (ISR) capability to support military operations has improved significantly since Kargil, and so has the precision capability of the IAF’s aerial weapons, there is still much ground to be covered in other areas. Among them are inter-operability of army-air force communications, commonality of laser designators and structures like the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC), which have been the standard fit in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Have we learnt enough since then is debatable because against an accepted norm across militaries that shaping any kind of battlefield must be the prerogative of air power, and to some extent, different forms of artillery firepower, the Indian military mindset is still struggling to shrug off a ‘boots on ground’ and manpower-intensive approach to war. Kargil has not precipitated the kind of change in military thinking as it ought to have.

But it demonstrated the strength and robustness of the Indian military’s junior and middle-tier leadership and to some extent, it is they who turned the tide. Accepting missions that seemed impossible to accomplish, several battalion, squadron and company commanders from the army and IAF led from the front and inspired young officers and their men to perform extraordinary feats of courage. This willingness to do battle, absorb casualties and hit back is what India’s adversaries surely recognise, however, the bottom line is that the Kargil template of casualties is simply unacceptable for any modern state in a limited conflict even in the most hostile of terrains. Whether it is by being more pre-emptive, preventive or proactive, India’s strategic and military establishment must do whatever it can to ensure this.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal and occupies the President’s Chair of Excellence in National Security Affairs at the National Defence College.

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