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Remember Kargil: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat their own mistakes

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kargil war memorial

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” …is a twice-told curse for India. In 1999 we hoped that the Pakistanis would not intrude, but they did, in Kargil. In 2020 we thought that a bloated trade surplus and small bites of territory (salami-slicing) would satisfy China’s hunger for land. It didn’t. It chewed off a huge chunk in the Galwan (Ladakh) sector.  

We had hoped that the euphoria of the “bus diplomacy” in Lahore and the combination of a bleak landscape covered in winter snow and blasted by high wind speeds would deter the Pakistani Army Inter-Services Intelligence from exploiting the “unheld gaps” to redraw the Line of Control and present India with a new fait accompli. It didn’t. We learned nothing about the Pakistani military mindset from the history of the Siachen deployment (vintage 1984) or the widely-held belief that the “Kargil Plan” was formulated as early as the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq (1978-1988) and dusted out and implemented by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 after the successful testing of nuclear weapons by both countries in 1998. 

WASO Failure

The Kargil Review Committee set up to find what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again, found that the helicopter-borne Winter Air Surveillance Operations (WASO) failed to detect the intruders even when its helicopter was flying over their heads. By the time summer arrived in March several hundred Pakistani soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry had entrenched themselves on the high ground overlooking the National Highway to Leh. It is now 21 years since history happened. It is winter once again in the Himalayas and we are confronting a much more dangerous enemy than Pakistan. We now have them both, operating in tandem. The Chinese are creating new fait accompli every day. Can and will WASO fail us again?  

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Problem In Kargil

In Kargil, the heliborne sensors produced blurred and distorted results caused by the vibrations of the rotors giving the impression that there was no human presence below. The culprits, on the other hand. could hear the helicopter coming long before it arrived and would cover themselves with camouflage material and play dead till the helicopter left.

There was another wing of the Government– the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) –entrusted with the collection of external Intelligence. It had the assets for aerial reconnaissance –the Aviation Research Centre (ARC). But it worked based on requisition from Military Intelligence. The Kargil Review Committee had this to say: “As it happened the last flight was in October 1998, before the intrusion and the next in May 1999 after the intrusions had commenced. The intruders had by then come out into the open” The requisition was contingent to “weather permitting” and this was hardly winter. 

army picket in snow


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Acutely aware of the prohibitive high cost in manpower and finances of patrolling the 742 km Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir braving avalanches and cold injuries, the Kargil Review Committee coined the word “Siachenisation” to describe the trap of difficult logistics network and permanent presence in the icy Himalayan heights. That must be avoided it said in its report in 1999.

Yet it was in Siachen that we learned our best lesson in dealing with rapacious enemies in the worst of terrain and weather conditions. After pre-empting Pakistani attempts to capture the glacier in 1984 (we arrived four days before the Pakistani troops arrived), the Indian Army which took control of the high ground overlooking all passes through the Saltoro range, fended off almost daily assaults by Pakistan’s special forces to dislodge them.    

The importance of boots on the ground is hereby illustrated: The Pakistanis had set up Quaid Post named after the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It overlooked several Indian positions and the whole of the Siachen glacier. From there they would unleash sniper fire at Indian troops. After one such attack, the Indians decided to end the scourge. After several failed attempts to capture it, a squad led by Naib Subedar Bana Singh (later Hony Captain and winner of the Param Vir Chakra) captured Quaid post (it was later renamed Bana Post). Since that day in 1987 Pakistani attacks abated and finally, the Siachen battlefield receded into the background. The lesson was that “boots on the ground” were essential to show possession and impose costs on prospective intruders that could be dissuasive 

The myth of ‘no strategic value’

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Over time it became a cause to denigrate the Siachen deployment and to demand a settlement with Pakistan that would facilitate withdrawal based on the construct that the territory has no strategic value and the cost of logistics is prohibitive. That the territory has no strategic value has since been disproved by China’s Belt and Road and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects that cut through the Aksai Chin/Karakoram salient. Votaries for withdrawal of Indian troops from Siachen included some of those who planned, selected and occupied the Saltoro range in 1984. I was among the very few who vehemently opposed withdrawal from Siachen through editorials in PATRIOT and my fortnightly column “Military Matters”. My appreciation was that it would only whet Pakistan’s yen for more misadventures which were obvious in the ferocity and frequency with which it tried to dislodge Indian troops. This prognostication was validated by what Pakistan did in Kargil in 1999. In the interregnum, it tried the Khalistan card and shifted its attention to Kashmir when that gambit failed.  

The Kargil Review Committee recommended that such technical means as surveillance cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles UAV), satellite imagery bolstered by thermal sensitive sensors and day and night vision should be deployed. Indian experience with surveillance cameras has been patchy. Cold does have a condensation effect on cameras and deployment without human monitoring and protection (autonomous mode) has led to the rather humiliating event of having our camera damaged by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army returned to us at a flag meeting. 

While the issue of how the Chinese managed such deep penetration into the Galwan sector without being challenged is a matter for future investigation, the more urgent requirement is to ensure that China does not use the winter months to expand intrusions at any point along the 4,056 km length of the Sino-Indian undemarcated boundary. The complacency of the kind witnessed in Kargil is no longer acceptable and if indeed the P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft has been used in an innovative, unconventional manner to monitor the India-China land frontier it resonates with what than Chief of Army Staff V.P.Mallik said: “We will fight with what we have”. 

Current Impasse

We have had a none-to-happy experience with surveillance cameras. Our worst fears about Siachenisation have come true with the induction of between 40,000 to 50,000 acclimatized troops to match and contain the Chinese at various points along the amorphous Line of Actual Control. We are being subjected to a villainous Chinese gambit of intruding two steps and withdrawing one step that leaves aggrandisement of territory one step at a time. China has not shown any inclination to return to the status quo ante of April 2020. How it has introduced a new element by establishing villages inhabited by People’s Liberation Army personnel in Doklam in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh shows that it has no intention of leaving. This also means that it could resort to mischief during the winter months to either reinforce or expand its hold in the Galwan, Sikkim, Arunachal and Bhutan salients.


In the immediate context of Winter Air, Surveillance Operations India must expedite the instrumentalities that facilitate the acquisition of realtime geospatial and topographical Intelligence of the Himalayan battleground under the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)  signed with the US in 2020. This will help in domain awareness of such hotspots as in Galwan and facilitate the identification of weak spots and vulnerabilities of the Chinese deployment. The sighting of the maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft P-8I in the Ladakh sector appears to be part of such an arrangement.

In the final denouement that China deserves for humiliating India, the role of the Indian Special Forces is paramount, The Indian high altitude warriors are the best in the world as illustrated in Siachen and proved in Kargil. Given the right equipment and briefed on the topography of their target, they will make the Chinese wish they hadn’t started it.

February provides a window of opportunity to let the Chinese know that if they want to prolong the diplomatic/military dialogue and refuse to return to status quo ante of April 2020 to bleed India, two can play the same game 

China has been using the amorphous nature of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to keep shifting goalposts. That it has practically abandoned agreements designed to promote peace and tranquillity in the border region should free India to reformulate its position. We erred in expecting Pakistan to reciprocate the spirit of the bus diplomacy. We erred in not understanding Xi Jinping’s mindset. Time for correction.

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Cecil Victor
Cecil Victor
Cecil Victor is the author of “India: The Security Dilemma” and veteran Defence analyst


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