Use of Air Power in Chhamb
Despite being kept out of the loop by the Army, the Air Force responded with alacrity by undertaking air operations to stall the Pakistani offensive in Chhamb. The decision to do so was immediately taken by a clear-headed Defence Minister Y.B Chavan. However, despite the pro-active approach, the lack of jointness between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force was apparent when the offensive in Punjab was executed. The Army had not even planned for the use of air power for the offensive towards Lahore and ipso facto, there was no air cover on the first day which proved costly.
In Kutch, India went on the backfoot and this was essentially an outcome of the fear of escalation…
Employment of Armour
Though individually the Indian armoured forces gave a good account of themselves, despite the technological superiority of Pakistan’s Patton tanks, both sides displayed the inability to handle large forces. This was manifest more in Pakistan’s case as Operation Grand Slam and the offensive in Khem Karan could never capitalise on the advantage in terms of her superiority of armour. On the other hand, though India achieved success in Shakargarh, it was only by bull-headed tactics, not speed or manoeuvre. The bottom-line is that the Indian offensive was ham-headed and as for Pakistan, except for shades of brilliance at the tactical level, the situation was worse.
1971: The Western Front
Operations of Western Command
For India, the Eastern Theatre (Bangladesh) was always the area of strategic focus, and justifiably, all efforts were directed towards this aim. On the other hand, Pakistan’s stated strategy was that the ‘defence of the East lay in the West.’ This implied that Pakistani Forces were configured to launch offensive operations across the Indian Western front, so as to deter/force India to apply limited forces against her Eastern wing.
Caught in a catch-22 situation, then GOC-in-C, Western Command, Lt Gen Candeth wrote of his biggest worry: “What worried me most at that time was that while these troops were moved to the East, the whole of the Western border lay unguarded as Army HQ would not allow troops to be moved up to the Western border, lest that should alarm Pakistan. I was of the view that the formidable concentration of Indian formations in the East may be seen by Pakistan as a threat to her security and lead to a pre-emptive strike across the Western border. I felt it more prudent to first secure the Western front, before carrying out the massive concentrating on the East Pakistan border.
India achieved a tactical victory in Kargil after three bloody months…
However, this was not agreed to by Army HQ who thought that any move of troops to the Western border would be considered a greater threat by Pakistan and forcing her to react. Thus, until the third week of October, the Western border was virtually open and had Yayha Khan attacked before the middle of October, he would certainly have succeeded in overrunning a large part of Punjab and our narrow corridor to J&K.”7 Though this never happened due to dithering on the part of Pakistan, there’s a major lesson in this, especially in view of the two-front threat India is again faced with.
Operational Task in Chhamb
Though, initially India had plans to undertake a limited offensive to threaten Tanda in Gujarat district of Pakistan and create a criticality for her, this was a difficult task since chances of succeeding in a reactive scenario were slim. This notwithstanding, GOC 10 Division did not want to foreclose his offensive option and he opined that once the enemy offensive had been blunted, he would be in a position to launch a counter-offensive and it was for this that he had even left a wide gap in the minefield.
In the first week of November, orders were again received that ‘no loss of territory’ were unacceptable and though the Divisional task were clear, the formation continued to retain its ‘offensive’ posture. However, 191 Brigade was inducted across the river on November 02 and 03, but deployed in a ‘temporary’ defensive posture. Even when reports were received on December 01 of an imminent attack by Pakistan and the Indian Army Chief reiterating that offensive plans must be shelved, the formation continued in a ‘forward poise,’ till it was too late and it was this reluctance to change from an offensive to positional defence that proved costly for India.
1999: Operation Vijay
India achieved a tactical victory in Kargil after three bloody months and it goes to her credit that despite her public announcement of not crossing the LoC, she surprised Pakistan by the vertical escalation of the battle space by employing airpower and the infamous Bofors guns. Having said that, it may be pertinent to discuss that given the situation, was there anything India could have done different?
Captain Sir BH Liddell Hart advocates that the ‘indirect approach’ is generally the best option in warfare. In the light of this truism, did India have any other option than launching frontal attacks uphill on treacherous terrain? In the light of this hypothetical question, it may be pertinent to highlight Pakistan’s greatest vulnerability.
There is little point in fighting the battle as per the enemy’s game plan…
Pakistan remains a nation whose coastline is limited and as of 1999, she had only Karachi port as her major maritime node. In light of the aggression by Pakistan in Kargil, something that was acknowledged even by her closest ally – China, it is argued that India would have been well within her rights not only to launch aerial attacks on the Pakistani logistic bases immediately behind the enemy positions and make their intrusions in Kargil untenable, but also strangulate Pakistan economically by blockading Karachi port. It is highlighted that Pakistan has little logistics stamina and an effective blockade may have resulted in either of the two results – one, the Pakistan Navy would be forced to react, making her the aggressor yet again and two, force her to pull back her forces. Either way, India’s aim would have been achieved.
Though debatable, the only point being made is that in war – and Kargil was a real shooting war, one must always apply strength against the weakness of the adversary. There is little point in fighting the battle as per the enemy’s game plan. If India succeeded, it was because of the resoluteness of the assaults, but the price for the ‘Vijay’ was high.
War is a costly proposition and the currency of war is life and limb. Leaders at all levels are required to attain the desired 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.
War is a costly proposition and the currency of war is life and limb…
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 shift.
- The plane was piloted by Wing Commander N Chaterjee and Flt Lt NK Shitoley. As given in ‘Defence from the Skies, published by the Centre of Air Power Studies, p-52, authored by late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh.
- Tempest aircraft were available at Amritsar, whereas India had a number of battalions trained for parachute operations, courtesy the Second World War.
- See details how Pakistan lost the race in taking Srinagar, The Crimson Chinar: The Kashmir Conflict – A Politico-Military Perspective, p-62-64.
- Prasad SN and Dharam Pal, p-349, History of Operations in J & K, History division, MOD, Natraj Publications, Dehra Dun, 2005
- The issue has been covered in Operation ‘Polo’ – the Liberation of Nizam’s Hyderabad: Impact and ramifications on India’s First Kashmir War by the author as posted on the Indian Defence Review
- Tabulated from Prasad SN and Dharam Pal, p-349, History of Operations in J & K, History division, MOD, Natraj Publications, Dehra Dun, 2005
- Candeth K P, Lieutenant General (Retd), p-11-12, The Western Front: Indo-Pak War 1971, The English Book Depot, Rajpura Road, Dehra Dun, 1997