India must not always be on the back foot

Kargil in 1999 and Ladakh in 2020 had a few things in common, the most obvious was to have been surprised, followed by a reaction.

The Indian polity had closed its mind to the fact that China was a threat, while in 1999, it never expected Pakistan to risk an offensive manoeuvre, considering differences in military power.

The political belief was that diplomacy and economic bonding would contain Chinese adventurism. Post Doklam, General Bipin Rawat had stated at a seminar in CLAWS, “Salami slicing, taking over territory in a gradual manner, testing our limits of threshold is something we have to be wary about.” It was a warning, yet when China entered Ladakh, India was unprepared.

Kargil was a failure of intelligence and laxity by forces deployed in the region. Ladakh was no different. The Chinese had planned and prepared for the incursion, keeping it below thresholds of war. The use of medieval handheld weapons at Galwan were indicative of their in-depth planning. They exploited Indian involvement in stemming the pandemic, while Pakistan exploited Indian casualness. Indian reserve formations, which deploy in Ladakh for exercises to counter additional forces, were held back on the premise that China was conducting routine training exercises. Subsequent Indian reactions were similar during Kargil, which was to rush forces to the region.

The Lahore summit between Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif had taken place in February 1999, while the Mahabalipuram summit between PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping occurred in October 2019. In both instances, India trusted diplomacy and believed that bonding and peace talks would ensure the borders remained peaceful. Conversely, while their leaders discussed peace, cooperation and trade, the armed forces of our two neighbours were planning offensive manoeuvres in Indian territory. In Kargil, Pakistan had studied our routine and exploited it, in Ladakh the Chinese did the same. Trust deteriorated subsequently.

The major difference between Kargil and Ladakh was in the levels of violence. In Ladakh, apart from Galwan where India lost 20 of its bravest, there were no other instances of violence, and talks have been adopted to resolve the dispute. In Kargil, the army was compelled to take offensive action to evict intruders, leading to large loss of lives. The other difference was the Indian offensive action of occupying the Kailash Ridge, pushing China on the defensive and leading to resolution on both banks of Pangong Tso. We reacted to hostile actions by our neighbours, which occurred due to our own shortcomings.

Another commonality was induction of additional formations and reassigning operational responsibilities. In Kargil, an additional division was inducted, as also 14 Corps raised, splitting the responsibility of the erstwhile 15 Corps. In the case of Ladakh, an offensive Corps in the plains has been reassigned for similar tasks in the region, enhancing offensive capabilities. Additional troops have been deployed all along the LAC to cater for any future Chinese misadventures.

Pragmatism and correct assessment of national threats over the years, as also logical allocation of funds for national security would have avoided sudden spurts in expenditure, reduced the capability gap and possibly resulted in the Chinese thinking twice before attempting misadventures. The mountain strike corps, whose raising was stalled by the government due to paucity of funds, has been revived. Thus, defence expenditure has witnessed an increase, rather than a reduction. The same occurred post Kargil.

During Kargil, there were increased allocation of funds to procure equipment essential to make up shortfalls in capabilities, as defence budgets had reduced over years. A near-similar scenario of poor allocation for defence continued until the government was shaken by the Chinese intrusion. The forces had been forced to re-adjust procurement plans due to poor allocation of capital funds, despite repeated requests to the finance ministry. Governments slept, unwilling to accept that threats to national security had not reduced and China would exploit its military superiority at some stage.

When Ladakh happened, the government woke from its slumber and hurriedly released funds for procurement. To shift procurement responsibility on to service HQs, they enhanced financial powers of service chiefs. The government ignored the fact, in both instances, that defence equipment is never available off the shelf and there is always a gap between placing orders, procuring equipment and enhancing capabilities. Had it continued with logical financial allocations in defence budgets, such haphazard solutions would not have been resorted to.

Similar to the post-Kargil scenario, once the Ladakh intrusion occurred, the government realised the importance of logistics and connectivity. Infrastructure towards the LAC once again came into focus. Connectivity projects along the entire LAC, from Ladakh to Arunachal, saw infusion of funds. Deadlines were reduced, projects closely monitored, and every completed project inaugurated by a senior government functionary, aimed at sending a message. Procurement of essential ammunition stocks and winter clothing, slowed due to paucity of funds, picked up steam. Such was the initial shortfall that the US released winter clothing from its reserve stocks. Currently, the army is procuring for future use.

Post Kargil there were multiple committees established to study causes, shortcomings and suggest remedial measures. The take-off point was the Dr K Subramanyam-led Kargil Committee. Failures were identified and creation of additional coordinating bodies and institutions recommended. Many were created. No such committee has yet been announced for determining the causes of the Ladakh crisis as also recommending remedial measures. It appears that the government is unwilling to accept criticism or even an assessment into how the nation was surprised and compelled to react.

India has always claimed to be a state which desires peace and tranquillity. It expects the same from its neighbours. However, every time it was led up the garden path and surprised. National leaders of both Pakistan and China engaged in talks with India, while their military planned offensive actions. Thus, they were part of strategic deception, willingly or unwillingly. In such a scenario, there is bound to be a trust deficit, which will impact future relations. India needs to ensure that it is never again compelled to react as also deter misadventures by enhancing military capabilities. Our political leadership must never blindly trust the adversary’s leaders.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.

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