Military & Aerospace

Decision Making in War: Recalling India’s Military History
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Issue Vol. 31.3 Jul-Sep 2016 | Date : 09 Oct , 2016

War is a costly proposition and the currency of war is life and limb. Leaders at all levels are required to attain the results with minimum effort and risk to own forces. Unfortunately, Indian decision making has rarely considered this factor, and the case studies exemplify these. Having said that, it is reiterated that the reasons of picking such examples has not been to suggest that ‘all was wrong’ but only to point out where the decision making could be different. The aim of revisiting military history as always, is to learn, and hopefully, if the right lessons are learnt, the decision making of India’s leaders in the future would not be found wanting. Given a clear decision, the junior leadership has always proved its mettle, however, it cannot be denied that there is much that is desired from the senior leadership and it is this that requires a paradigm change.

“An able General only seeks battle ‘after’ the war has been won.” — Sun Tzu

Decision making in war is many times more difficult than it is in peacetime due to the uncertainties and imponderables and the currency being blood and life…

Decision making in war is many times more difficult than it is in peacetime due to the uncertainties and imponderables and the currency being blood and life. It is also important to emphasize that this is invariably more difficult for political leaders than for the military, as there are issues beyond the domain of the military; a volatile mix of myriad ‘external’ and ‘internal’ factors. It is in this context that the quote of the Chinese General and master strategist gains salience and it is as important for ‘setting the stage’ and ‘shaping the environment’ to ensure victory ‘before’ the battle, as it was in his time. It is thus imperative to decide on the course of action after having walked through the entirety of the issue(s), set the stage to attain a favourable outcome and in keeping with the desired end state. This requires ‘gaining’ and ‘retaining’ the strategic initiative – both in war and peace. Getting into a war, even when forced into it, without a coherent plan and without definable outcomes can never lead to success.

This revisit to independent India’s decision-making in war would make it apparent that with the ‘possible’ exception of 1971, India’s wars have never ended in victory as not only have they been reactive but have also been left ‘inconclusive’. Apropos, India has rarely achieved the desired end state, since this was never made clear, the bottomline being that the forces have been found wanting in terms of preparation – both material and psychological, and irrespective of the tactical victories, success has invariably eluded India. Even the best of militaries require clear strategic guidance and this is a vital task for the political leadership of the time.

Military history is generally about events that actually happened, rarely about events that did not take place, though there are major lessons to be learnt from both. In most cases, the Indian forces were constrained to fight against all conceivable odds and more importantly, started with major disadvantages due to dithering in New Delhi. Though there have been exceptions, these have been more the result of operational commanders taking the initiative, and often going against the script.

With the ‘possible’ exception of 1971, India’s wars have never ended in victory as not only have they been reactive but have also been left ‘inconclusive’…

1947-‘48: The First Kashmir War

The Securing of Srinagar Airfield – 27 October, 1947

Task any sensible officer to secure an airfield for an air landing operation, an airfield that is under threat of being overrun any time, and his first action would be to first sanitise the area by air, secure the area by parachute forces and only then attempt the physical landing of big lumbering transport aircraft. Yet in the case of Srinagar on that fateful day, irrespective of the fact that India was successful, the airfield was actually secured in the reverse order. It is not that the aircraft and paratroopers were not there – they were, however, but for one aerial sortie by an Oxford Recce plane1 flown over the general area on 26 October, i.e. a day before, no other precautions were taken and the Indian forces went in totally blind and unprotected.2 Not only that, there were no fighter bomber aircraft escorting the transport aircraft.

When Lt Col Ranjit Rai landed with 1 SIKH at Srinagar in the first Dakota aircraft, it was sheer providence that he did not face opposition. Had that been the case, as it well could have been,3 the outcome could have been totally different. Kashmir would have been lost even before India could set foot in the Valley to save it. Admitted there were British officers deciding for India in New Delhi (who would have their own reasons for India failing in Kashmir) and time was short, this is ‘CMK’ – Common Military Knowledge; the Indian leadership on that fateful day apparently showed a lack of this even with seasoned soldiers at the helm.

Operation Snipe June 1948

Later, in the aftermath of a major debacle in North Kashmir, with Pakistan having captured Dras, Kargil and was even controlling the strategic ZojiLa Pass (Operation Sledge, 15 May 1947), coupled with the fact that the India’s summer offensive had gone badly (but for the recapture of Tithwal by Brig Harbaksh Singh), General Thimayya, GOC of Indian forces operating in the valley, had been put on a backfoot. In addition, he was under immense pressure to prevent Skardu, then being held defiantly by Lt Col Thapa of the State Forces against overwhelming odds, falling into enemy hands. Time was, therefore, of essence.

India did not redeploy her overwhelming combat power in terms of air power and armour to get the better of Pakistan…

It was under such trying conditions that Gen Thimayya submitted the plan of Operation Snipe and this was the boldest plan conceived by an Indian General in the war. He sought to negate the disadvantage of the cutting off of Ladakh and proposed an offensive by a Brigade group to recapture Gurais and affect the relief of Skardu by cutting through the Burzil Pass. Though no authentic records of the plan are traceable, the relevant part as recorded in the official Indian history is quoted. “It seems the plan envisaged an early capture of Gurais followed by an advance across the Burzil Pass and the Deosai plateau to Skardu. This ambitious plan would not only have removed the threat to Bandipore and raised the siege of Skardu, but would also have cut off the enemy’s line of communication to Kargil, Dras and Leh.”4 The route had been selected by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, Sheikh Abdullah’s trusted lieutenant and in fact, he even offered to guide the Indian forces to Skardu.

Notwithstanding the indecision in Delhi, enemy activities necessitated Indian actions opposite Bandipore and Gurais, and by default, even the proposed launch pad was secured on 29 June as a two-Battalion operation. While this was not done as a part of Operation Snipe, the thrust which was required to strike out to Skardu from there, never saw the light of the day, despite the launch pad having been secured. Though administrative difficulties may have been the reason that the plan was not cleared, it is pertinent to mention that Pakistan had undertaken offensive operations from the same region and in worse weather.

The bottom-line is that Thimayya was not allowed to mount the only operation which had the potential to change the history of the war. His plan was two-fold. Directly, he would have been able to lift the siege of Skardu and indirectly, make the enemy’s positions at Dras and Kargil untenable by manoeuvering behind, and by so doing, remove the threat to Zoji La and Leh. Had this operation been allowed to go through, Operation Bison that was mounted later that year, may perhaps not have been required! Such are the travesties of war!!!

The political leadership should not be able to roughshod the military leadership of the day…

Tying Down of Indian Forces

Enough has been written about the duplicity of the British advisors, both in the government and the military, and therefore, this issue is not being touched upon. The point being made is simply that this was allowed to continue even after Lord Mountbatten had demitted office in the later part of 1948. Despite Operation Polo, the successful military liberation of Hyderabad, India did not redeploy her overwhelming combat power in terms of air power and armour to get the better of Pakistan, even in Kashmir.5 Despite having the advantage, India never planned to launch offensives opposite Chhamb to retake Mirpur and Domel and this was followed by the abrupt termination of the war foreclosing the option.

The political leadership should not be able to roughshod the military leadership of the day. With this fateful decision, the chance of a lifetime was lost forever – a reality that plagues India even today.

1962: Sino-Indian War

The Nadir in Civil-Military Relations

If the first Kashmir War, especially towards the end was an indication of things to come in terms of the civil-military relations, the 1962 War, and the run up to it was its lowest ebb. More than anything else, it was the abject failure of the political leadership in recognising the military threat from China as it grew.

Much has been written about how Defence Minister V.K Krishna Menon not only disregarded advice by seasoned military commanders such as General Thimayya and Kalwant Singh but also he was allowed to even replace field commanders with Generals of his choice, despite their lack of combat experience.

What was worse was that though the British had left behind a rich legacy of jointness between the Army and the Air Force, even the appointment of Supreme (Joint) Military Commander was allowed to lapse. The onus for joint planning therefore fell on the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) who became the de-facto advisors to the Defence Cabinet Committee (DCC). Unfortunately, after the first Kashmir War, even the system of the DCC was never revived, and the COSC had not even met since 1959.

The only disadvantage India had was in terms of lack of counter value targets in Tibet…

Apropos, even the sub committees, including the Joint Intelligence Committee had become non-effective and by itself, was a major reason for the debacle. Having said that, the major lesson in terms of higher direction of war, is recapitulated.

Failure to Use Offensive Air Power

Much has also been written about the controversial decision not to use offensive air power for the issue to be discussed again. However, it is highlighted that in terms of quality, relative elevation of airfields and the fact that India was operating on inner lines of operation, India had a fighting chance – possibly, the only one.

The only disadvantage India had was in terms of lack of counter value targets in Tibet, whereas India’s cities were within range of the PLA Air Force. It was this fear that that ultimately tipped the decision of not using offensive air power against the PLA in Tibet. In order to highlight the advantage India had in terms of the quality a comparison has been given.6

As can be inferred, except for the MIG-19s, China had nothing to counter the much more technically advanced IAF of the time:

Fig. 1: Comparison of Air Power - India and China

1965: The Second Kashmir War

The Run-up to War

The second Kashmir War was the first time when not only did India permit the conflict to go out of the geographic limits of Kashmir, but also a first in terms of launching large scale, Corps-sized offensive operations. In fact, it was the surprise sprung by Lal Bahadur Shastri by launching major offensives in Punjab and later, opposite Jammu that changed the complexion of the war, a war, where Pakistan had not only surprised us strategically in Kutch in the early months of April, but had again done so in September, this time in Kashmir.

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In Kutch, India went on the back-foot and this was essentially an outcome of the fear of escalation. However, before the Kutch flare-up actually took place, India had tried to deter Pakistan by a massive show of force which included use of offensive airpower from INS Vikrant. However, when the time actually came, not only was the Indian Navy asked to stand down, even the Air Force remained out of the show. If anything, this lack of resoluteness became a major contributing factor for Pakistan to decide on taking the gamble in Kashmir later in the year.

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