Military & Aerospace

The Indian Military and the Element of Surprise
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Issue Vol. 37.1, Jan-Mar 2022 | Date : 14 Apr , 2022

“We are never deceived, we deceive ourselves.” — Goethe

The significance of the element of ‘surprise’ in warfare has been acknowledged since time immemorial. Articulated as far back as the first millennium BCE by Sun Tzu, ‘surprise’ has since then been enshrined as one of the principles of war; a fundamental truth derived from experience. The element of ‘surprise’ in warfare spans millennia from the Trojan Horse anecdote recounted in Homer’s Odyssey to the more recent devastating terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Surprise bestows a distinct advantage on the attacker, while impacting the victim adversely. As Clausewitz brought out, the effects of surprise could be confusion, lowering of morale, disruption in decision-making and on many occasions the victim may face a loss of cohesion leading to even capitulation.1 Surprise can upset the relative advantage that accrues to the stronger side and is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the weak. History reveals that surprise has enabled the weaker side to even the odds and at times, triumph against the stronger side. We observe this quite often in sub-conventional conflicts or insurgencies.

Thinking about surprise brings to mind the critically acclaimed 2007 book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Black Swan is a metaphor for a totally unexpected event which leads to severe consequences. Taleb, a statistician and options trader, wrote the book based on his exposure to stock trading and economic issues. But the characteristics outlined by Taleb fit many of the classic military ‘black swans’ such as the D Day amphibious landings at Normandy in World War II, China’s entry into the Korean War and many other such events. Taleb highlights that in hindsight, black swan events appear quite predictable with clear warning signs. Among other factors, Taleb identified one peculiarity of human behaviour responsible for surprise that accompanies a black swan event. Termed as ‘confirmation bias’, it is the human tendency to take cognizance of indicators which reinforce or confirm ones existing belief while ignoring or disbelieving anything that contradicts this belief.2

In the normal course, militaries develop ideas on the manner in which conflicts would evolve, how the battles would unfold and the weapons and technologies which would be employed. These expectations are then war-gamed to identify appropriate responses. The numerous possibilities beyond the ‘expected’ are considered improbable and ignored. These improbable contingencies when exploited by adversaries, produce stunning surprises or Black Swan events. The most effective method of deception then is convincing the adversaries that their expectations are correct and then do something considered improbable by them. This is in line with Magruder’s Principle, which implies that in the normal course, it is easier to convince the victim to continue to believe that his/her expectations are correct, rather than attempt to convince them otherwise. Simply stated, surprise can be understood as an adversary’s actions which are contrary to one’s expectations. Robert R Leonhard defines it as, “Surprise is a condition in which a military force is contacted while in a relative state of unreadiness.”3

India has an unenviable record of being surprised militarily on numerous occasions. Heading the list is the disastrous Chinese aggression of 1962, which still rankles every Indian. India was once again surprised a few years later by Operation Gibraltar followed by Operation Grand Slam, leading to the Indo-Pak War of 1965. Then there was the Kargil conflict of 1999 triggered by Pakistani occupation of the heights in Kargil and neighbouring areas. The nation is now confronted with the surprise Chinese intrusions into sensitive areas of East Ladakh. To add to this, the recent drone attack on Jammu airfield caught the entire security establishment by surprise. A question that comes to mind is, why does the Indian military get surprised so often? It is thus in the fitness of things to explore the phenomenon of military surprise in the Indian context. There is another compelling reason for a deeper look at the phenomenon of ‘surprise’. India has for long followed a policy of conflict prevention to focus on its priority of economic upliftment of its citizens. To prevent conflicts, it is necessary to avoid strategic surprises which can escalate into kinetic wars.

A caveat would, however, be in order. The discussion that follows, benefits from hindsight. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and happenings which were ignored or were nebulous as the event had unfolded, appear crystal clear in hindsight. The discussion that follows uses hindsight and may appear somewhat unjust to some. But the aim is not to apportion blame or accountability. Rather, it is aimed at identifying lessons to deal with surprise in a proactive manner. While discussing surprise in the Indian context, the discussion focuses primarily on the Kargil conflict while drawing parallels with other wars or conflicts involving India.

The focus on Kargil conflict is largely because it is an extensively researched and debated event. Kargil conflict of 1999 was brought into the homes of citizens through live TV coverage highlighting the bravery of the soldiers and thus captured the imagination of ordinary people. The conflict generated considerable nationalisitc fervour. As is normally the case, the afterglow of victory tends to obfuscate acts of omission and commission. An in-depth analysis would reveal that the Kargil conflict was a copybook illustration of how military surprise occurs. The manner in which events unfolded is a tailor-made case study for discussing surprise in warfare. With this background, let us examine ’surprise’ in the Indian context.

The prelude to Kargil conflict of 1999 was the major geopolitical disturbance of 1998 caused by the open display of nuclear capabilities by both India and Pakistan. Nuclear parity was expected to preclude an open war between the two. There was however, a realisation that the nuclear umbrella may encourage a higher level of risk-taking by Pakistan. But the likelihood of Pakistan taking greater risks under the nuclear backdrop does not appear to have alerted the Indian security apparatus to anticipate trouble, which came calling barely a year later.

Then, in early 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee made the path-breaking journey to initiate a peace process between the estranged twins. The bonhomie generated by the bus journey to Lahore blinded everyone. The dominating narrative or belief became peace returning to the subcontinent and nothing untoward happening to disrupt this process. But other forces were at play. During this visit, Pakistan’s Armed Forces’ Chiefs were conspicuous by their absence at the welcome event. While they attended the banquet, they avoided saluting the Indian Prime Minister. The Pakistani Army was clearly not too enamoured by the peace initiative.4 As a matter of fact, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the premier foreign intelligence agency of India, reported the unhappiness of the Pakistani Army leadership on the Indo-Pak peace process.5 By the time the Indian Prime Minister reached Pakistan, Pakistani soldiers were already occupying Indian positions vacated during the winter months. Having known the clout that the Army exercises in Pakistani affairs, the behaviour of the three service chiefs should have rung alarm bells in India’s security set-up. Any changes in the Pakistani Army’s deployment should logically have come under the scanner. However, no agency thought of contrarian narratives or to closely monitor developments. In the Indian scheme of defence management, there does not appear to be any agency specifically responsible for such scenario planning or being the ‘devil’s advocate’ to question assumptions.

There were numerous warning signals; but the dots were not connected. Everyone turned complacent, believing that India and Pakistan were treading the path of peace. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) of India warned of increased military activity along the line of control (LOC) near Kargil, close to the locations which subsequently served as base camps. In an unusual step, the IB director personally issued this warning. R&AW also warned of new Pakistani troops being inducted opposite the Kargil sector.6 Warning signs were numerous; but since these contradicted the prevailing belief, they were ignored as highlighted in the case of Black Swan events.

Was this a repeat of the 1962 Chinese aggression? The 1962 war came as a big surprise to all stakeholders. All institutions from the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the IB to the entire Indian Army hierarchy were on the same page, blindly ignoring all warning signs based on the belief that China will not go to war with India.

The most recent Chinese intrusions of 2020 into East Ladakh also came as a big surprise. In 2019, India amended the constitutional status of J&K by abrogating Article 370 and making Ladakh a Union Territory. After this change of status, the Home Minister in September 2019, reaffirmed India’s claim on Aksai Chin.7 This region was occupied during the 1962 war and has great strategic importance for China as the road linking Xinjiang and Tibet runs through it. The statement issued by the Home Minister would have provoked China. China has the dubious reputation of claiming territory under control of other countries. It has never been at the receiving end of others claiming territory under Chinese control Indian claim on Aksai Chin must have shocked China. The Indian announcement though low key was a challenge to China and possibly upset the bilateral equation.8 Then in early 2020, China intruded into areas of Ladakh. The intrusions were in areas that seemed to block possible ingress routes to Aksai Chin while trying to firm up the line of actual control (LAC) along its 1959 claim line.9 Should the security establishment have anticipated China’s moves after India staked its claim to Aksai Chin?

In hindsight, it does sound quite logical that China would respond to India’s claim on Aksai Chin. Forget about anticipating Chinese actions, even the normal precautionary measure of manning forward positions when adversaries conduct large scale training exercises near the border, were apparently dispensed with. The oversight is being attributed to the adverse effects of the pandemic. Did the positive atmospherics of the Mahabalipuram meeting between the Chinese President and Prime Minister Modi in October 2019, lull the security establishment into believing that the LAC would remain peaceful?10

Moving beyond ‘belied beliefs’, let us look at the manner in which the Indian Armed Forces were surprised in the Kargil conflict. At the outset, it may be in order to put on record that though surprised, both the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) got their act together quickly and the speed and ferocity of the retaliation was commendable. However, certain aspects deserve recall in the context of the discussing the surprise factor. At the outset, it emerges that the Indian Army believed that military intrusions into the Kargil sector were unsustainable due to the terrain and high ridges and at best, infiltration may be attempted.11 Pakistan was, therefore, not expected to be foolish enough to attempt intrusions. Considering its improbability, the contingency of intrusions into Kargil sector was not contemplated and nor did any army-air force joint staff work or planning take place.12

The IAF may not have been fully in the picture on the support expected from it. When the unexpected occurred, there were repeated requests for employment of attack helicopters, without realising that these helicopters could not operate at the prevailing heights. Unfamiliarity with the operating envelope of these helicopters was surprising because these were operational for over a decade prior to the Kargil conflict.13

On the other hand, the IAF was also surprised when called upon to engage mountain top targets in forbidding high-altitude terrain, where pin-point targets were difficult to identify due to snow. The location of targets at high altitude resulted in some unusual operational issues. This lack of familiarity in terms of terrain and altitude was surprising because hill and valley flying are a routine part of training and aircraft have been operating in this region and the Siachen glacier area since the eighties. Equally important, is the fact that similar mountainous terrain prevails in the East as well, where numerous tussles with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China have occurred. The question that comes to mind is, what was the type of employment envisaged in the hilly terrain? Why was the IAF required to evolve appropriate tactics, procedures and induct weapons for engagement of targets after commencement of hostilities?

Analysis of the instances of surprise discussed above reveal some disturbing commonalities. First and foremost, the discussions indicate that origins of the conflicts lay in geopolitics and disturbance in bilateral relations. Geo-political changes and reset in bilateral relations preceded and set the tone for the conflicts or altercations that followed. One could surmise that major geopolitical changes or bilateral differences should alert the intelligence and security establishments. This aspect assumes importance because India is a status quo power and shares borders with two revisionist states. All the more reason then, for India to be alert when geopolitical or bilateral changes occur.

Another striking aspect in all the instances was the cognitive predisposition generated by a strong political belief that the adversary would not trigger a military confrontation. The belief was that at best infiltration would occur along the LOC with Pakistan and minor transgressions across the LAC with China. This belief filtered all the way down to the security establishment leading to complacency and ignoring of all tell-tale indications. A long period of minor skirmishes in Kargil/Leh/Siachen region quite obviously lulled the Indian Army and the IAF into believing that a major outbreak of hostilities was unlikely. Both the Indian Army and the IAF were thus not prepared for the Pakistani intrusions.

The important lesson that emerges is that the military establishments while accepting the beliefs based on the past and diplomatic interactions need to maintain vigil and identify contingencies open to the adversary, especially in the wake of bilateral and geopolitical disturbances. The discussion on surprise also indicates that the military needs to be prepared in terms of doctrines, procedures and action plans adapted to the local terrain and prevailing conditions. It is unlikely that an adept and a stronger adversary would provide breathing time to evolve procedures or prefect techniques after the battle has been joined.

An equally important aspect applicable to the instances discussed above was the one highlighted by the USA 9/11 Commission inquiring into the attacks on the World Trade Centre (WTC). The commission clearly highlighted the lack of imagination down the hierarchy in thinking beyond the routine.14 As a prelude to the Kargil conflict, increased threat became evident in July-August 1998 when sharp artillery exchanges with the Pakistani Army resulted in a number of civilians and soldiers being killed. Similarly, R&AW had informed of Pakistan’s determination to interdict the Drass-Kargil highway.15 All these warnings were ignored because they did not fit the prevailing narrative that only infiltration was possible, ruling out intrusions. The lack of thinking anything beyond the main narrative is what the 9/11 commission referred to as lack of imagination. In hindsight, a drone attack on some military target was to be expected after the numerous weapon/drug drops across the border using drones. Why was the entire security establishment surprised when a drone attacked the Jammu airbase? Such attacks can only be anticipated if attempts are made to put oneself in the enemy’s shoes.

In hindsight, the surprises in the Indian context reveal that warning signs were available. These were however, not taken into cognizance. Why did this happen? As brought out by Taleb on Black Swans, there is a tendency to ignore or disbelieve information that contradicts the prevailing belief. Is there then a need to expand the variety and number of narratives? If contingencies other than the main narrative were explored, an unusual context would have been helped to make sense of the numerous warning signs and point towards the adversary’s course of action. Take the example of the 2020 Chinese intrusions into Ladakh. The prevailing narrative was that skirmishes and jostling along the LAC with the PLA would recur, but would be resolved through border talks between the military commanders. This view received support from political and diplomatic interaction and the series of treaties between India and China. But loud Chinese objections to the Home Minister’s claim on Aksai Chin, should have alerted of possible Chinese action beyond the usual. Contingencies should have been explored.

In hindsight, one would expect that the PLA would attempt to deny access routes to Aksai Chin from the Indian side. If this contingency was considered, then the movement of two PLA formations: the 6th Mechanised and 4th Highland divisions from Xinjiang over 1,000 km towards the LAC in Ladakh, should have rung alarm bells. These formations were exercising near Hotan in Xinjiang and should have returned to their bases after completions of the exercise. But instead, they drove along highway 219 and turned Westward towards Ladakh.16 If this contingency was explored, then the movement of the new units would have alerted the Indian Army about the likelihood of an unusual PLA plan.

Based on the above discussions, it appears that military surprises in the Indian context may largely be attributed to:–

    • India is a status quo power and is thus prone to military surprises by revisionist neighbours.
    • Disturbances in geo-political situation and bilateral relations are an early pointer to subsequent conflicts, altercations and border tussles.
    • The primary narrative based on political or diplomatic beliefs impacts the security establishment. The security agencies base their plans/responses on the main narrative ignoring other possibilities or contingencies.
    • Warning signs though available tend to be overlooked since these do not correlate to the main narrative.
    • The security agencies are so focused on the main narrative that contingencies beyond the routine are not imagined or thought through.
    • There is no centrally designated agency which identifies contingencies based on geopolitical changes or shift in bilateral relations. If contingencies are thought out, the Indian Armed Forces and intelligence agencies would be able to correlate inputs and warn of unusual occurrences.
    • The Indian Armed Forces have, at times, been found short on the preparations/equipment to deal with existing operational requirements as also contingencies beyond the routine. This occurs due to too much focus on a standard narrative. Other ideas do not fund acceptance.

Based on earlier discussions on surprise, the above factors individually or in combination, provide fertile ground for Black Swan events or strategic surprises. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that India has been taken by surprise strategically on numerous occasions. However, except for one occasion: the 1962 Indo-China war, the military has succeeded in overcoming the initial surprise and recovering lost ground to emerge victorious. But this reckoning has on occasions resulted in high losses of men and material.

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It is evident that military surprise by definition is unpredictable and considered inevitable. As Colin Gray says, “Surprise is not merely possible or even probable, it is certain.”17 Since surprise cannot be avoided, the answer lies in mitigating its effects by managing uncertainty about insufficient and ambiguous information. Forecasting or developing scenarios or contingencies, is possibly the means to reduce uncertainty. Bits and pieces of information on troop movement and concentration or stocking of resources make little sense unless viewed against possible contingencies or options open to the adversary. Contingency planning or scenario development provide means of viewing the data against specific enemy options and thus make sense of the intelligence inputs. The military element in the NSA’s establishment would be ideally suited since it can receive inputs from foreign office, armed forces as also intelligence agencies. Identification of contingencies by the NSA’s office and conveying these to the armed forces and intelligence agencies would help is better anticipation of surprise moves by adversaries. In the current state of geopolitical upheaval and strained bilateral relations with neighbours, it is all the more important to expect military surprises and institute timely and adequate precautionary measures.


  1. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Ed and trans by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, page 198: quoted in Mark J Kneis II, The Surprise Hypothesis: A Monograph, 2003,page 6,
  2. Andrew A Hill, Black Swan, Red Beard: Recognizing the Unexpected, War Room-US Army War College, June 22, 2017, Also covered in Avinash M Nafday, Strategies for Managing the Consequences of Black Swan Events, Leadership and Management in Engineering, October 2009,
  3. Robert R. Leonhard, Fighting by Minutes, Time and the Art of War, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994, p 135
  4. Srijan Shukla & Sajid Ali, The bus ride that almost helped Vajpayee, Sharif rewrite history of South Asia, The Print, 1 July 2019,
  5. Kargil Review Committee Report 2000, page 132
  6. Manoj Joshi, Kargil war: Shocking lapses, intel goof-ups see India failing to anticipate Pak offensive, June 14, 1999,
  7. Amit Shah statement SD Muni, The Internal Drivers of China’s Ladakh Offensive, Analysis, The Hindustan Times, 20 October 2020,
  8. Andrew Korybko, India’s asking for trouble with its claims over China’s Aksai Chin, 07-Aug-2019, LAC Claim line
  9. Lt Gen HS Panag, China has taken LAC clock back to 1959. India not in a position to take back Aksai Chin, 8 October 2020,
  10. Modi-Xi Jinping summit at Mamallapuram, Day 1 | Modi and Xi conclude ‘highly productive day’ with private dinner, The Hindu, 12 October 2019, ttps://
  11. From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report. Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd, 2000, pp 223-251.
  12. Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis, Operation Safed Sagar,
  13. Ibid
  14. The 9/11 Commission Report, Executive Summary,
  15. Vijay Sakhare, To What extent is Kargil War a case of intelligence failure?
  16. Manoj Joshi, Eastern Ladakh, the Longer Perspective, Observer Research Foundation, June 14, 2021,
  17. Mark F Cancian, Coping with Surprise in Great Power Conflicts, Report of CSIS International Security Program, 2018,
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt PK Mulay

is a Test Pilot and has Commanded an Attack Helicopter Squadron.  He is a PhD in Defence Studies.

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One thought on “The Indian Military and the Element of Surprise

  1. We were surprised at Doklam in 2017 and in Ladakh in 2020. We come out looking like fools with pre-conceived notions in our approach to issues relating to national and international security. We are oblivious to the ever changing dynamics of security.

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