Kargil Vijay Diwas 2019: Have We Learnt Any Lessons in 20 Years?

A most fitting tribute to the martyrs of Kargil would be to fast-track defence reforms & their implementation.

5 min read

(This story was originally published on 25 July 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to commemorate Kargil Vijay Diwas.)

Nearly forty-eight books were written after Kargil – the maximum following any Indian war. Kargil had captured the imagination of the youth being the first TV war fought under a caretaker government. I recall seeing lads wearing fatigues and carrying toy guns recreating scenes from Kargil, Yet the NOIDA park is a far cry from the rugged heights of Kargil.

The movie came much later. The most defining book on Kargil titled From Surprise to Reckoning – the Kargil Review Committee Report, came in the form of the government’s scrutiny of the mishap, and was headed by the doyen of strategic thought, K Subramaniam. Much water has flown down the Shingo river since, resonating the monumental intelligence failure which cost the lives of 527 bravehearts. This figure could have been much lower and duration of operations shorter, if the Army had proper gear and equipment in its fighting inventory and there was no embargo on crossing LoC.

The-then Army Chief, Gen Ved Malik, made this famous remark ‘we will fight with what we have’. Rather this infamous comment was first made during the 1962 debacle by Lt Col MS Rikh, CO 2 Rajput and most lately, by Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa in connection with a two-front war after Balakot.


Confusion & Then, A Spectacular Capture

20 years on the ascent, appropriately, is on commemoration of martyrs and celebration of the most memorable uphill frontal infantry assaults led by young officers and leaders seldom witnessed in any war. The Modi government, excellent on symbolism and rhetoric, has not missed the opportunity to advance its national security agenda even after a desultory defence budget that provides minimal upgradation.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said during one of the many Kargil events last week that no one will be allowed to harm the honour, pride and esteem of our jawans. Great. But as Home Minister, he let Delhi Police rough up veterans protesting at Jantar Mantar against OROP in 2017. Igniting the Kargil victory flame, bicycle rallies, military tattoos are all fine. The real stuff of strengthening defence and implementing KRC recommendations is missing.

Brookings in New Delhi sought to replay Kargil and its lessons. Interestingly the three services fought Kargil as three connected operations , not jointly: Army Op Vijay; Air Force Op Safed- Sagar; Navy Op Talwar.

The local IAF commander of the time recalled that the Army withheld information and there was lack of trust between the two. Shepherds on 3 May detected the intrusions that extended along a 100 km frontage and were 5 to 9 km deep. In 1965 too, infiltration – Pakistan’s Op Gibraltar – was reported by shepherds . At Kargil, India fought its longest limited war of 83 days surpassing the 73-day long stand off at Doklam. Notable was the delay in Services getting their act together as confusion prevailed; Defence Minister George Fernandes saying it would take 48 to 72 hours to evict the intrusions and Corps Commander Lt Gen Krishan Pal affirming it would be two to three weeks.

Besides strategic restraint in not crossing LoC and delaying employment of IAF till 26 May, the Army-Air operations were hobbled by shortages; mainly Bofors artillery ammunition and laser guided bombs for Mirages. Had Israel and South Africa not chipped in, the war could have stretched few weeks longer. That Pakistan would succeed in making such large scale incursions was also a failure of imagination.

Still the spectacular capture of the dominating Tiger Hill on 4 July signalled the beginning of the end for Pakistan. US unilaterally took credit for Pakistan’s de-escalation when it was the rampaging Infantry that forced it. The per capita gallantry awards awarded in Kargil was the highest in any war, so ferocious were close-quarter battles including hand-to-hand combat, very rare these days.


A Failure of Intelligence?

The KRC report came down heavily on ‘critical failure of intelligence’ – the intelligence apparatus and its woeful lack of resources and coordination. RAW was singled out for failing to detect movement of Pakistan infantry battalions opposite Kargil that caused strategic surprise. It singled out the infantry as deserving the highest priority in modernisation and discussed the nuclear factor without confirming ‘weaponisation’, even as Pak was crying nuclear wolf.

Days before intrusions were detected, Gen Pervez Musharraf had said that due to nuclearization, he expected low intensity conflict not any conventional war with India. KRC explored defence expenditure obliquely attributing low defence allocations to essential shortages in inventory.

It noted that in previous 13 years, defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP had declined from 3.59 per cent in 1987-88 to 2.28 in 1999-2009, registering an overall drop in defence outlay of 35.65 percent. On whether a Kargil could have been avoided, KRC was equivocal, saying for this ‘Siachenisation’ of Kargil would have been necessary and that Pakistan’s actions were not rational?


The 49th book on Kargil- Surprise, Strategy and Vijay: 20 years of Kargil and Beyond- was released this month by the Army think tank, Center for Land Warfare and Studies (CLAWS). Gen Malik highlighted among other deficiencies, failure of intelligence and shortage of equipment. Malik says that Prime Minister Vajpayee asked: ‘should you have said ,‘we will fight with what we have’ and Malik replied: ‘Sir, I am a commander. I have to tell the truth’.

Our higher commanders continue making a virtue of fighting with what they have instead of demanding resources required or scaling down missions as KRC recommended.

As for the recurring intelligence deficit, Pulwama bombing – 50 to 60 kg of RDX and the first local suicide bomber – shows its déjà vu in J&K. KRC’s prophetic observation on J&K is relevant today: ‘ the last few decades have been marked by vacillation and drift, placing an increasing burden on armed force without requisite clarity in regard to the nation’s political and strategic objectives’.

The key recommendations of the Group of Ministers that followed KRC (reiterated by the Naresh Chandra Task Force) have remained unimplemented. KRC called for full review of national security and intelligence systems and restructuring of military. Absent jointness, integration, theatrisation, CDS and strategic political guidance, the armed forces will fight compartmentalised as they did during Kargil.

The most fitting tribute to the martyrs of Kargil would be to fast-track defence reforms and their timebound implementation. After Balakot, the cry for war and fixing Pakistan has grown louder. It is a sure sign, India has not learnt from Kargil. India has to deter war; not fight one.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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