By Ashok K Mehta
It was ironic that speaking to serving and retired armed forces personnel at the grand finale of the 20th anniversary of the Kargil Vijay Diwas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised on the need for modernisation and jointness, the two pivotal issues on which he has done little. Appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (it was approved by the Cabinet in 2003), ordering the integration of the Armed Forces Head Quarters with the Ministry of Defence and increasing defence capital outlays — at present barely sufficient for committed liabilities — will transform the ad hoc defence and national security system into an effective military mechanism. This is precisely what the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report, From Surprise to Reckoning, had recommended in 1999. Modi’s script-writers must read the KRC and its sequel, the Group of Ministers (GoM) reports.
The catastrophic intelligence failure that permitted massive Pakistani intrusions led to monumental confusion. Troops hurriedly brought in from the Valley had to be re-oriented from counter-insurgency to conventional war-fighting. Loss of two fighters and one helicopter chastened the Indian Air Force (IAF). Strategic constraint of not crossing the Line of Control (LoC) proved avoidably costly. The jointness was absent in the Army-waged Op Vijay, IAF Operation Safedsagar and Navy Operation Talwar. Acute shortages of high-altitude clothing, equipment and ammunition forced the then Army Chief, Gen VP Malik, into saying, “We will fight with what we have.” Kargil became a test-bed for uphill infantry assaults, never witnessed before or after in any war. The re-capture of jagged peaks took 83 days and cost 527 lives with nearly 1,400 brave men wounded. Brave infantry commanders, junior leaders and soldiers, with the help of IAF, turned around the situation in Kargil from ‘defeat’ into ‘victory’, much like Field Marshal William Slim’s second Burma campaign in World War II.
The theme for this year’s Kargil Vijay Divas was ‘Remember (sacrifices), Rejoice (victory) and Renew (resolve to protect tricolour)’. Missing was the fourth ‘R’: Review lessons of Kargil. I commanded my triple Victoria Cross, winning Gorkha battalion in Kargil after the 1971 war. My World War II vintage Brigade Commander made me walk from Batalik to Dras — the extent of the incursions — so that I write a threat appraisal paper. I did not visualise like many before and after, and at different headquarters of command, that Pakistan could do what it did. KRC called it irrational and said it could have been avoided with Siachenisation of Kargil, which it did not recommend. Operation Badr (also called Koh-i-Paima) by the Kargil clique of four Pakistani Generals, while tactically brilliant, had blistering strategic consequences.
KRC reported that Kargil was complete and was a total surprise for the Government, the Army and the intelligence services. The uncorrected intelligence deficit led to attacks on Parliament in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008. Twenty years on, Pulwama happened. On February 14, for the first time in Jammu & Kashmir, a local suicide bomber rammed a Maruti packed with 60 kg of RDX smuggled from Pakistan into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy, killing 40 troopers. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is still investigating the case.
KRC has a full chapter on defence budget and modernisation, lamenting the decline in defence outlay from 3.85 per cent in 1987-88 to 2.09 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1999-2000. It stressed that infantry modernisation be given the highest priority. Sadly, this process started only last year with Infantry combating CIS “with what it has.” The KRC noted: “Many grave deficiencies exist in India’s security management system” and recommended a thorough review of the national security environment and national security system in its entirety.
It also added that the Government, Parliament and public opinion should determine the security shield required to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Never in the country’s history has a review of the national security environment been done — neither a White Paper on defence nor a strategic defence and security review. Instead, piecemeal defence reforms have been attempted by the likes of Krishna Rao and Arun Singh Committees and Naresh Chandra Task Force, among others. The Army has tinkered with the reforms to enhance tooth to tail ratio.
Gen Bipin Rawat had cut Army by 50,000 soldiers to muster Rs 500 crore, which the Government never added to the Army’s capital outlay. Similarly, it was overlooked by the Shekatkar Committee. Now, the Army is on the threshold of implementing operational and structural reforms without an overall review of national security, environment and the system.
Despite the Government making national security its flagship programme, defence outlay this year was 1.5 per cent of the GDP, the lowest since 1962. The modernisation account allocation was even insufficient for the payment of old programmes. Still, the service Chiefs have painted a rosy picture. Both the Army and Air Force Chiefs are retiring shortly and vying for either CDS or governorship/ambassadorship. Gen Dalbir Singh, the architect of the Uri surgical strikes, was belatedly rewarded with ambassadorship to the Seychelles. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa deservedly is eyeing his dividend from Balakot, which decisively swung the Modi Government’s vote tally to 303 seats.
Dhanoa, who commanded a MiG 21 squadron in Kargil, is euphoric. Once, he had compared fighting a two-front war to playing a T20 cricket match with seven players. Now the assertion is that an attack on an IAF installation like Pathankot in 2016 is a greater threat than two-front war and that 42 combat squadrons are required only in a two-front war. He also claimed that the IAF has all-weather capability, including during clouding for precision strikes. The IAF’s post-Balakot internal report leaked to the Press said: “Because of bad weather, the Crystal Maze-AGM 142, which video records the target strike, could not be used after Spice 2000 missiles…”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on Kargil Day that he will ensure no harm comes to the pride and honour of the soldiers, conveniently forgetting that as the Home Minister, he let the Delhi Police rough up veterans protesting One Rank One Pension (OROP) and evict them from Jantar Mantar. On national security, the Modi Government has excelled in symbolism and rhetoric. While it lauded the daring, determination and raw courage of soldiers in Kargil, it is playing hide and seek on Non Functional Financial Upgrade (allowed to almost all central services), disability pension and full OROP (matter in court).
Modi, who has become the darling of most veterans, must walk the talk: Ban anyone saying “we will fight with what we have”; apply dil maange more, which he quoted from brave-heart Vikram Batra, to defence modernisation; order review of national security system in its entirely; and bestow genuine izzat auriqbal (honour and respect) as engraved on the gunners’ cap-badge and as Rajnath Singh has promised. Kargil has shown that India has become impervious even to crises to usher in reform.