20 Years to Kargil
Kargil Vijay Diwas is celebrated every year on 26th July to commemorate India’s military victory on regaining control of high altitude posts in the Kargil sector which Pakistan Army regulars had intruded.
26th July 2019 brings up the 20-years milestone of Kargil War. What initially went undetected, trivialised as ‘minor incursion’, and two weeks to wake-up to, took over two months to neutralise – at a huge cost and sacrifice of 474 military personnel (another 1109 wounded, both figures as of 26th July 1999). The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) set up in the wake of Vijay Diwas rendered a comprehensive appraisal of the war and made significant recommendations.
While we celebrate our heroes who turned around an almost impossible situation, the harsh reality that obtains today on the 20th anniversary of Kargil Vijay Diwas is the dithering on KRC’s recommendations and our ham-handed approach to national security.
Nobody Wants War
Nations train and build military capabilities to keep the peace (with few exceptions, Pakistan being one). Nobody dare mess with a force that is capable of imposing irreconcilable losses on an adversary. Kargil happened because of Pakistani establishment’s delusion, their ‘history of misreading India’s will and world opinion’ (from KRC’s Executive Summary), duly facilitated by those from our side who slept on watch then and many years before.
The Indomitable Indian Soldier
The result was predictable, true to our chequered history. The Indian soldier rose to the challenge without preparation, acclimatization, with poor equipment, and made up for all these with unbelievable resilience and indomitable bravery. If any real lessons have been learnt, it is hardly evident on ground as government after government weakens our military’s capabilities while singing paeans to martyrs and announcing band-aid fixes.
20 Years On, What Has Changed?
The mantra etched into every training institution in the armed forces is ‘the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’. Another one says ‘ek goli ek dushman’, signifying the value of each shot fired in war (one bullet, one enemy).
Whether these mantras still reflect the reality is anybody’s guess. Twenty years on, the Indian Army is still rooted in CI/CT ops. Op Parakram saw a tri-service mobilization of unprecedented scale that soon diffused into a lost opportunity. The IAF continues to focus on honing its own capabilities over building synergies with other services. The recent Balakot strikes must surely have fortified this tendency further. The distinction between shooting a missile and shooting the breeze has blurred somewhat. But let that be for now.
Focus – The Men in White
The Indian Navy (IN), relegated to the status of a peacetime force engaged in gunboat diplomacy, peacetime activities, secondary charters and optics hasn’t seen a single warshot fired since the 1971 war.
On the debits side, since Kargil, the IN has seen spectacular peacetime losses like INS Prahar that sank at sea after a collision, submarine Sindhurakshak that blew up in harbour killing all onboard, INS Vindhyagiri that limped back to harbour after a minor collision only to be sunk alongside by pumping-in more water than the ship could hold. If all this wasn’t enough, we hold the unique ignominy of tipping over a warship in dry-dock (INS Betwa, 2016).
Recent incidents of fire on the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and flooding on nuclear submarine Arihant must make those in charge aware of the atrophy that sets in when a machinery raised and tuned for war is left to idle while the tail (revenue) wags the dog (capital).
Five Questions for the Silent Service
On Kargil Vijay Diwas, I have a few questions for our men in white who played a small but significant role in that victory. As always, such questions are best addressed in the spirit of ‘let’s attack the problem’ rather than ‘let’s attack the messenger’.
Do we have a number-based force structure or a capability-based one?
Having two operational carriers, maybe three, sounds very lofty. Have we accounted for the huge number of ships, helicopters, submarines and logistics tail that accompanies this monster? Thought about how one big ship will chew up the already slim capital budget like an afternoon snack?
We recently had the navy chief quoted that the next indigenous aircraft carrier may come with electric/hybrid propulsion. This came not a day too late from another ‘milestone’ that was celebrated via Twitter – HAL handing over the first of 8 Chetaks to the IN. For the record, we are the only nation who buys these anachronisms in this day and age – and celebrates it on official media handles.
What is the state of our armament, particularly naval air armament?
At last appraisal, CAG had rendered a scathing indictment of naval aviation and put on record the abysmal state of armament, particularly air armament. Have we outsourced air strikes to the IAF altogether? If no, how can we get a good night’s sleep with such gaping voids, even as we continue to add carriers to our fleet?
What is the state of our nuclear, biological & chemical damage control and fire fighting (NBCD) in real terms?
For a force that has not been tested out at sea in a real war, it is easy to pour water over such fears. But bear in mind the peacetime losses suffered on account of faulty NBCD, both at design and implementation level. Do hatches and doors seal shut like they are meant to? Is NBCD State 1 Condition Zulu implementable across the fleet? Are we fully up to the NBCD motto “to float, to move, to fight’?
Do our ships conform in letter & spirit to laid down stability criteria?
Apart from a brief overview during Sub-Lieutenant’s courses and Pre-Commissioning Training (PCT), the officers who man the bridge (equivalent of cockpit for aviators) are hardly trained or equipped with knowledge or tools to compute ship’s stability. But here’s the irony. These are the people who are eventually held responsible for ‘accepting’ newly-commissioned ships or those out of refit. Have these stability criteria been tested from time to time, say, through the occasional ‘inclining experiment‘? If yes, what explains keeling over of INS Betwa and sinking of Prahar, Agray and Vindhyagiri? If no, isn’t that a serious matter? Are we waiting for the first shots of war to expose these vulnerabilities?
Has the air anti-submarine warfare (Air ASW) capability of the IN been rendered a ‘force in being’ today?
With a handful of vintage Seakings (with obsolete weapons), Kamov-28 helicopters (just one squadron, returning from an upgrade that comes too little too late), & 24 MH-60 Romeos to come (a third of which may ever line up on the frontline), how do we intend to give 24/7 ASW cover to a blue water navy? Any nation serious about its naval capabilities either inducts potent submarines and ASW capability, or builds alliances to plug the gaps. We seem to be straddling a middle path that invests in bottomless pits that devour the lion’s share of capital budget while reserving the small change for assets that will win us real wars. Is this the right approach?
Good Point in History to Introspect
As the closing lines of KRC report reads: ‘there is both comfort and danger in clinging to any long established status quo’.
Such a status quo has been prevailing in the ‘silent service’ for close to four decades. It is easy to lose focus on long-term capability building versus optics that provide instant gratification (such as clearing lower decks for International Yoga Day photo shoot). Then again, how all this soft and hard power comes together during a time of crisis should not be left a burden to be carried on the back of the indomitable Indian soldier, sailor or air warrior.
The sea, like icy heights of Kargil, is an unforgiving medium. And like the infiltrators of Kargil, many threats can remain hidden from view until it’s too late. Some of these may emanate from our own soporific intonation of ‘bluewater navy’ while turning a Nelson’s Eye to real challenges that lie beneath the surface.
To revisit some of these threats would be an apt tribute for Kargil’s heroes. We float, we move. We must also fight.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.
Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy’s Twitter account.