We must not forget the sacrifices of Kargil martyrs

India needs to implement changes to make the military capable of fighting a modern war.

 |  6-minute read |   27-07-2017
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Eighteen years ago, India declared victory in Kargil War after it reclaimed the heights occupied by Pakistan. The men fought valiantly, braving the odds stacked against them, led by junior leaders who were resolute and uncaring of their personal safety, solely focussed on their mission that was backed by dedicated commanding officers, many of whom were at the forefront of the battle.

Behind this success was the booming of guns and rockets and ultimately, formidable fire power provided by the air force. And all this to regain what was originally ours.

The main contention by many strategists has been that by reclaiming what was rightfully ours, can we call it a victory? In many ways, it was. Loss of these heights would have given the enemy, power to dominate the axis leading to Ladakh, as also the complete area. This could have made defending the region difficult for us. It was a loss of face for the government and the Army. Pakistan was certain that India would approach the world community but not launch an attack. It was also their belief that even if India attacked, it would not succeed. Finally, being a nuclear power, it could deter Indian forces from expanding the conflict beyond Kargil.

In every aspect, they were proved wrong. The Indian government decided to confront Pakistan directly rather than taking the circuitous route of raising an international shindig and desiring world intervention. It was a slap on India’s face, and was completely unacceptable. On one side, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Lahore meeting Nawaz Sharif and seeking peace, while on the other Pervez Musharraf was launching Kargil (war). India decided to up the ante and battle them headlong, knowing that the Army would never let the nation down.

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Indian soldiers proved their mettle, attacked uphill in tough conditions and at night, proving the impossible. Despite casualties, Indian flag was raised on every mountain peak. Each battle led to insurmountable casualties to Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry (NLI), which bore the brunt of losses.  

Such was the worry in Pakistan's top circles that they initially refused to accept the bodies of their own soldiers, the most cowardly action by a military, subsequently came with a white flag to collect them, hid the defeat from their own population and covered up their failures.

Musharraf became the only chief in the history of the world, who rose to be president, despite leading his army into defeat. Ironically, for Musharraf alone it was, "defeat into victory". 

The occupation of the heights by Pakistan was the result of our own failure, which we should admit. We never occupied Kargil heights throughout the year, nor expected anyone to come and sit at those altitudes during peak winters. Hence, our patrolling was also lax. Pakistan proved it can be held and we learnt. Today, despite all difficulties, we are deployed in those dominating heights all year round.

The war did bring about some changes in the Army. We realised the vulnerability of the region, pushed an additional division into the sector, raised a corps to control operations and enhanced intelligence capabilities. The Bofors, which had been the centre of a scam since its induction, faced its first test of battle and proved to be a formidable piece of equipment.

It was realised that our other artillery equipment was insufficient for mountains and we needed to procure guns, which are much lighter, have multiple option of shells, longer ranges and better accuracy. Rockets, meant to be area weapons, were found to be effective in the direct support role.

There were shortcomings too. The air force should have been brought into the operations from the onset, however were involved much later. Although tasked to provide direct fire support, they lacked basic intelligence of the targets and army-air force coordination was shallow. Pilots were compelled to film the heights on camcorders as co-pilots, then using these films as a guide, launched effective strikes.

The present IAF chief, air chief marshal BS Dhanoa, was one of those pilots, who flew missions directly onto Tiger Hill. What should have been seamless coordination between two services, especially when it was a war, ended up being anything but that. The two services criticised one another for lack of cooperation and coordination for years.

Have we learnt and changed since then? We have, but in very limited ways.

The Vajpayee government ordered a Kargil Review Committee to analyse the shortcomings, and recommend changes to structures to overcome that. Based on the report, the Arun Singh committee, headed by the then minister of state for defence, Arun Singh, was formed. Both gave a slew of recommendations, some implemented, major ones ignored.

Medium guns for mountains have taken 17 years to be inducted and are finally on the way. The UPA, scared of the Bofors ghost, refused to sign any contracts, least concerned about military capabilities. Basic equipment is still in immense short supply. Bullet-proof jackets, infantry assault rifles, night vision devices and many more essentials are yet to be procured.

The Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was created. It, however, remains toothless, as the chief of defence staff (CDS), the person marked to integrate the services has yet to be appointed. Basic inter-service integration has still not been enforced. Thus, coordination between services would continue to lack in future battles, as each would pursue their own goals first, solely because of lack of integration.

India is known to wake up only after a major threat. Kargil shook the government, but the shake ended as soon as normalcy was restored. The defence budget spikes immediately after crises, the government ensures procurement. However, as time passes, all reforms recede into the sunset and the government moves into sleep mode.

Our structures are still of the 1960s, seeking to fight wars of the 21st century. At the national level, we still bank on a select few to advice the government on "managing national security". 

We have yet to evolve strategically. The armed forces can handle "management of war" as it is their primary role, but at the national level, there is yet to be a clearly defined strategy against both our adversaries, Pakistan and China. We seem to be blundering along, reacting at every stage, unable to bring either to book. If this continues, India would only react to their actions, as hithertofore, rather than things being the other way around.

If the sacrifice of our 527 martyrs and 1367 wounded soldiers is not to go in vain, then we as a nation need to bring about changes in our strategic thinking and structures as also implement changes to make the military capable of fighting a modern war.

Capability and capacity building takes time and resources and unless we do so, we would always remain a middle power. Only the strong are respected and if we seek our place in the polity of nations, we need to strengthen our military.

Also read: Honour soldiers, but no withdrawal from Siachen

Writer

Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The author is a retired Major General.

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