The 1999 Kargil War was triggered by a territorial incursion by Pakistani military forces in the winter of 1998-99 across the Line of Control (LoC). It all started when the then over ambitious Pakistan army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, conspired a plan with his ‘clique of generals’. The plan aimed at targeting the supposedly unimportant Kargil sector to interdict the Srinagar-Zojila-Kargil Road so that the maintenance of Ladakh and, by implication, of the Indian Army deployment at Siachen glacier would become near impossible. The intrusions would, further, give Pakistan control over substantial tracts of strategic land area across the LoC, thereby, enabling Islamabad to negotiate from a position of strength.
The reprehensible designs of a pugnacious neighbour (Pakistan) to violate the territorial integrity of the nation were impeded by a full-on combined military action (involving all the forces in cohesion) that has no parallel in the chronicles of military history. Famously known as “Operation Vijay”, it was a series of attritional battles fought by the Indian forces at heights of 16,000-18,000 feet to evict the Pakistan Army’s intrusion across the Line of Control on a frontage of almost 130 km. The tactical advantage of the enemy sitting on the high ground did not deter the resolve of the Indian soldiers to throw him out of Indian soil. Twenty-three years have elapsed since the day, 26 July 1999 (Vijay Diwas), when India emerged victorious in the Kargil war. Today, the nation is paying homage to the 527 soldiers martyred and over 1,100 soldiers wounded at the Kargil heights in the nearly three-month-long conflict with Pakistan from May–July 1999. On this day, the brave soldiers of the Indian Army, fighting against insurmountable odds, successfully restored a situation that had the potential of escalating into a nuclear holocaust. The situation was contained by orchestrating a mature and restrained response under the leadership of the than prime minister Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpeyi that won international acclaim and gave India, not only a military victory but also a moral ascendancy over Pakistan.
The remembrance and homage to the sacrifice and valour of India’s martyrs in Kargil on ‘The Kargil Vijay Diwas’ will be in the right spirit if we can affirmatively say it won’t happen again. However, whenever security reversals occur, gaps in our security system get exposed especially in critical areas and the focus is too much on dealing with crises based on past pretexts, rather than future objectives. Thus, there are flaws in our security systems that need to be addressed. No adversary, especially a defeated one, ever employs the same strategy as they had in the past. What India must be prepared for is the revenge of a wily adversary who has time and again witnessed defeats at our hands yet continues to seek retribution.
Wars are not fought only by the armed forces, but by the entire nation, the government and all its organs, the political class, the media, and the people in an integrated and unified manner. The Kargil war was one such event that unified the nation. The political, diplomatic, and military insights gained during the conflict have tremendous learning value for our politico-military structures and processes. Over the last decade, the Indian military has incessantly articulated the need to fight a “two-front war”- an understatement signalling a shift from the Pakistani border toward focusing more broadly on the threat posed by China. The Indian military faced its most serious military crisis with China in over 50 years. Chinese troop deployment in 2020-21 amidst the pandemic surprised the Indian military, and clashes along the disputed border led to both Indian and Chinese casualties. While there has been some drawdown of forces, the crisis is by no means over. In the wake of the Kargil War in 1999, India also started seriously thinking of reforming and modernizing its defense forces and command and control structures while the Ladakh crisis highlighted the importance of new-age technologies, primarily drones and cyber warfare, to the Indian military.
Going by data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India has the ignominious distinction of being the world’s largest arms importer over the last four decades. This makes it extremely vulnerable to external influence in times of war. Further, achieving some level of self-sufficiency in defence production will not materialize quickly. Rather it will take decades and tremendous efforts to get it down to the more respectable figure of producing 70 per cent of our defence requirements and importing just 30 per cent. It was with this purpose of learning lessons and sharpening our higher defence management that the Kargil Review Committee was formed in the aftermath of the Kargil War of 1999. While the past governments have acknowledged this problem, their policy remedies have proven to be ineffective.
However, the present Modi Government has placed particular emphasis on building up India’s domestic defence industry. Under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative, the current dispensation has prioritized defence production. Despite opposition from labour unions, the government has gone ahead with politically contentious issues like the corporatization of ordnance factories. Crucially, policies favour both state-owned and private sector defence enterprises amidst an ongoing effort to encourage foreign firms to participate in this sector. Perhaps the biggest achievement has been a mindset change engineered within the military and in the defense industry toward working with each other. Previously, this relationship was marked by finger-pointing, mistrust, mutual allegations of corruption, and even incomprehension. Now, these stakeholders are encouraged to work together, and the private sector is no longer imagined as a den of vice. The government has also pushed the defense industry to focus on exports, which, according to one count, have grown by over 700 percent from 2016 to 2020.
L&T, in partnership with Korea’s Samsung had procured a Rs 5400 crore order to manufacture 100 artillery guns (155/52 mm K-9 Vajra tracked SP) and is also going to manufacture the Lakshya-1 and Lakshya-2 pilotless target aircraft with the DRDO. DRDO has tied up with Bharat Forge and General Dynamics to manufacture FICVs and Tata Strategic Division is joining hands with Airbus Industries to manufacture medium transport aircraft. Reliance Industries, Mahindra Defense Systems, Dynamatic Technologies, TVS Logistics, MKU, and others have also entered the defence market for manufacture. Two defence industrial zones are also coming up, which augurs well for the Make in India initiative. Further, several key purchases that were pending for years were made. Be it the new SiG 716 rifles from the US for the infantry, the Rafale jets from France for the Air Force or the Chinook heavy lift and Apache attack helicopters, or the S 400 air defence system from Russia, the Modi government has pushed for better equipment.
Among a slew of reforms that the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) recommended, one pertained to the recruitment practices of the armed forces. It stated, “the Army must be young and always fit. Therefore, instead of the present practice of having 17 years of colour service (as has been the policy since 1976), it would be advisable to reduce the colour service to a period of seven to ten years and, thereafter, release these officers and men for service here”. Not just the Kargil committee, the Indian Army had also proposed a recruitment scheme like the Agnipath scheme to save on manpower cost. In 2020, the army had proposed “tour of duty” scheme to recruit youths for 3 years. The current scheme has several similarities with this proposal, while the service term has been fixed at 4 years instead of 3 years.
The Agniveer recruitment reform brought by the current dispensation must be contextualized in the backdrop of the larger canvas of defense reforms and a reorganization of the armed forces into theatre commands to promote jointness and synergy. These include the appointment of a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), the establishment of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), implementation of One Rank One Pension after 40 years, the establishment of the Defense Space and Cyber Agencies, Special Operations Division, and the corporatization of the Ordnance Factories (OFs) into seven DPSUs. Furthermore, with active border disputes with two hostile neighbours that have led to hand-to-hand combat in recent years, the need for a young force, particularly for the Indian army, could hardly be ignored. Thus, the Agnipath scheme heralds a new era of bold reforms to strengthen India’s defence preparedness. This recruitment reform will help in right-sizing the armed forces and is accepted globally by many countries. Further, considering Beijing’s expansionist agenda, it will certainly tend to increase more military pressure on the disputed border. According to experts, the Agnipath scheme can prove to be a masterstroke to answer China, as India’s youth and tech-savvy Agniveer, will prove to be a real threat to the dragon on the LAC.
India has come a long way from what we were in 1999, but there is still a great deal of work ahead of us to see that our nation is secure. Robust higher defence management is critical to ensure that the Indian military is well-equipped, trained, and has clarity on its broader military objectives from the civilian leadership. These go to the issue of civil-military relations, security strategy, and better synergy and jointness among the three military services. The current political dispensation in the last few years has not only focused on the modernization of the armed forces on a priority basis through fast-track acquisitions, at the same time made transformative changes in policy initiatives to increase the domestic defence industry. Make in India initiatives aimed at ensuring an “India First” policy. It is in keeping with India’s aspirations to fulfil its destiny as a major power in the 21st century. Further, the future of warfare entails a lighter human footprint, with soldiers equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, supported by cutting-edge technology to fight a war in a highly informationised environment. Thus, Agnipath is a much-needed reform as it has melded into the imperatives of the fifth generation/ hybrid warfare. These radical reforms were long overdue and are in the interest of the country’s preparedness in the face of emerging threats. This momentum will have to be sustained, for which an effective institutionalized interface between the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the services, and the private sector is required, at the policy-making level.
(The author is Dean, Students’ Welfare, Central University of Jammu.)