Why 1999 Kargil war turned out to be a game-changer for Indian military | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Why 1999 Kargil war turned out to be a game-changer for Indian military

By, New Delhi
Jul 25, 2023 08:18 PM IST

With Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine war, India has no options but to build strong indigenous defence supply chains.

Tomorrow, India will celebrate the 24 anniversary of its military victory in 1999 Kargil war. The war was foisted on India by a Pakistan Army Chief blind with military ambition to capture Kashmir Valley and Saltoro Ridge on the Saichen Glacier through planned troop intrusions north of Zoji La and south of Chorbat La, south of southern glacier. Initially surprised at the audacity of the plan, the Indian Army took over two months to chuck out the intruders but in turn lost 527 braves in the war. The war showed that the Indian Army was capable of taking out the enemy against all odds and each trooper knew how to draw blood so what if he did not belong to any martial race. The military victory at Kargil against perfidious Pakistan brought global spotlight on cross-border terrorism practiced by Islamabad since 1990 but also showed how India could defend its borders with restraint and impose huge military and political costs on the enemy. Even though India lost fearless young officers and men at rarefied heights and glaciated battlefields, the war was a game-changer for India, a crucial step in its quest to become a developed nation.

File photo of 155mm Bofors howitzers blasting away Pakistani bunkers in Drass sector during 1999 Kargil war.
File photo of 155mm Bofors howitzers blasting away Pakistani bunkers in Drass sector during 1999 Kargil war.

First, the war not only forced the country’s political leadership to initiate modernization of its conventional military power but also to reform the national security architecture with a task force headed by K Subramanyam, father of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, spelling out the vital requirements. It is another matter that the military and national security reforms had to meander around the slow Indian bureaucracy before they were implemented. The post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was proposed by the Subrahmanyam Committee when the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power but it took two decades to implement the recommendation by the Group of Ministers headed by then Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani. On January 1, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed General Bipin Rawat as the first CDS of India.

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In the interregnum, Indian Army reorganized its commands and raised a strike corps against China at Pannagarh, right opposite the Chumbi Valley-Silliguri corridor to take on the PLA challenge.

Reforms were also initiated in the Indian intelligence with then Director, Intelligence Bureau, Ajit Doval setting up the multi-agency center (MAC) and joint task force on intelligence (JTFI) during his short tenure in 2004.

Second, simultaneously with military and intelligence reforms, India started border infrastructure upgradation and literally exorcised the ghost of 1962 war. Even at the dawn of 21st century, the Indian military planners were afraid to build roads leading to its northern borders, lest the Chinese used the same and do a Bomdi La on India along the 3488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Fact is that neither the Indian Army or the political leadership barring PM Vajpayee and his maverick Defence Minister George Fernandes had the stomach to take on rising China or for that matter its tributary state, Pakistan, till the war at Kargil forced their hand. Both Vajpayee and Fernandes were pilloried by the media for naming China as the key reason for 1998 nuclear tests and calling the Communist nation a potential threat. In the past nine years, building on the plans initiated by the previous UPA regime, border infrastructure upgradation has been taken on in the earnest with advanced landing grounds all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and state of art platforms like Chinook helicopters for rapid insertion of forces to meet the challenge of a superpower neighbor. The air strips at Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO), Nyoma, Thoise and Leh have been upgraded so that Indian troops deployed on Saltoro Ridge are not surprised from China and its client Pakistan in the name of CPEC which runs through occupied Northern Areas and Shaksgam Valley, north of the Teram Shehr glacier. Fact is that while surgical strikes in Occupied Kashmir post Uri terror attack and air attack on Balakot terror camp post Pulwama terror attack have put the fear of Indian military and political leadership in neighboring Pakistan. The PLA also is no longer sure after Col Santosh Babu of 16 Bihar and his gallant men had showed the mettle of Indian Army to PLA at Galwan on June 15, 2020. But it was the Indian Army operations on August 29-31, 2020 in south Pangong Tso, planned by NSA Doval, CDS Rawat and Army Chief M M Naravane, that took the wind out of PLA aggression as India was ready to take on the Chinese Army during that critical period. Just as in Kargil, the message today is that India under PM Narendra Modi will retaliate to any transgression and will defend its borders with all might. It will use all its military arsenal at its disposal.

Third, the on-going Ukraine war like Kargil has shown that there is always scope for conventional war even though the era of stand-off weapons like drones, cyber and missiles has dawned. Even with overwhelming power, Russia is facing reverses in the Ukraine war as Indian Army took over two months to decimate the Pakistan Army troopers perched on Kargil heights. That the wars tend to drag on and can lead to loss of military prestige is evident from the military losses faced by Russia. The Ukraine war is not only a lesson to India but more importantly to China, which wants to grab Taiwan, South China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh and force a rejected 1959 line in East Ladakh on India.

Four, even though the Pakistani intrusions in Mushkoh sector took place in March 1999 or even before the ill-fated Lahore bus trip, the Indian military-civilian bureaucracy woke up in May 1999 after the then National Highway 1 Alpha was threatened by Pakistani artillery bombardment. History has it that the Indian Air Force only moved in on May 26 after getting approval from Cabinet Committee on Security and the war exposed the bureaucratic delays in weapons acquisition program. Faced with a dictatorial China without any political or civilian opposition, a democratic India with its power grabbing politicians and self-serving bureaucracy will always be found wanting in decision making and implementation. While India’s present Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba was personal aide to Defence Minister George Fernandes and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was handling Kashmir operations during Kargil war, the decolonization of Indian bureaucracy is still work in progress as decisions are process not result driven and are not in sync with the national interest.

Last, the Indian Army suffered at the hands of Pakistan artillery at Kargil as it did not have the gun locating radars, surveillance drones or laser guided ammunition. The radars were acquired from the US after the war, just as Israelis provided Searcher drones, laser guided bomb kits for surveillance and targeting were inducted at the last minute in the Drass sector in June 1999. The border sensors were provided by Israel post war to prevent cross -border infiltration in the Valley. With Russia today bogged down in Ukraine and no longer the reliable supplier it once was due to its “no limits” friendship with China, India needs to go for full spectrum “Make in India” to ensure that Indian military has not only indigenous platforms but also indigenous ammunition to fight a prolonged war and defend India. Even though PM Modi has been pushing the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” program with all his might, the Indian defence PSUs and hardware developers are putting hurdles on the entry of private sector in this field and using the fifth columnists to their advantage. If India is destined to become a developed nation by 2047, a strong defence supply chain is the need of the hour. The adversary today is rising super power China not gasbag Pakistan.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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