India drew hard lessons from the 1999 war against a smaller foe, but those have not entirely been put into practice by successive governments at the pace the military would have liked.
Kargil led to intelligence capabilities being expanded, the army rebooting its deployment and distribution of forces factoring in the crafty plotting by the enemy and younger commanders being given charge.
In an exclusive interview to Hindustan Times on Friday, army chief General Dalbir Singh said a repeat of Kargil was not possible, asserting several loose ends had been tied up since 1999 and the army was capable of responding to any challenge.
“I would say the robustness added to the intelligence machinery and re-orbatting of force levels after the war were important steps,” said Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, a former top army commander in Kashmir.
But the 26/11 Mumbai attacks exposed chinks in the Indian intelligence machinery and the military is still hobbled by gaps in its capabilities.
From fighter planes to submarines to artillery guns, shortage of equipment evokes memories of then army chief General VP Malik’s worrying comment: “We shall fight with whatever we have.”
The weapons acquisition process slacked off during the United Progressive Alliance’s 10-year regime. “The rate of building up capabilities could have been faster,” said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Airpower Studies.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has focussed its efforts on equipping the army with reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, heavy artillery, air defence guns, tanks and anti-tank guided missiles. But the induction of these weapons and platforms could take up to 10 years.
Malik’s words haven’t lost their resonance.
The country’s top auditor, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, recently warned that the army faced a massive ammunition shortage with reserves barely enough to last 20 days of intense fighting, against an optimal 40 days.
Soldiers are still saddled with the problematic INSAS (Indian National Small Arms System) rifles. “It barely meets 50% of our requirements. It’s ancient,” an officer said.
Key reforms proposed by the Kargil Review Committee, which examined lapses that allowed Pakistani aggressors to occupy strategic peaks in the Indian territory, have barely got off the drawing board.
It had recommended the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff to provide military advice to the political leadership.
The memories of the war will last a lifetime, especially for those who fought the enemy on the battleground. Brigadier Kushal Thakur (retd), who was then commanding 18 Grenadiers, lost 34 men in the action to recapture Tololing and Tiger Hill.
“I still think of them, I still think of what could have been,” he told Hindustan Times from the Drass war memorial.
For Thakur, the highlight of the celebrations at Drass, ahead of Vijay Diwas on Sunday, was meeting up with his martyred deputy Lieutenant Colonel R Vishwanathan’s daughter Anjali. She flew down from Singapore to pay homage to her father and reunite with the 18 Grenadiers family. “Her father died in my arms. I can’t describe how I felt on meeting her,” the retired army officer said, recollecting the episode.