|Kargil: Afterthoughts on the
Operational level |
The tenth anniversary of the victory at Kargil was marked in 2009. Among the many events organised to mark the occasion, the Northern Army Command honoured the next of kin of the heroes through a visit to the site of their martyrdom. That Kargil was not an unqualified victory in the tradition of 1971 is accepted as witnessed in the title of the official report on the conflict, From Surprise to Reckoning: The Kargil Review Committee Report (New Delhi: Sage, 2000). Even though there was much to commend in the showing at Kargil, such as junior leadership, ability to mass firepower, innovation in air power, heavy media coverage, shortcomings such as those in equipment, intelligence, vulnerability of lines of communication have also rightly received attention. However, this article dwells on the relationship between the operational and strategic levels during the conflict to see if there are any lessons learnt from the conflict.
The three books that cover the military aspects of the conflict fairly well, miss out on the operational level. Lt Gen YM Bammi’s Kargil 1999: The Impregnable Conquered (Noida, India: Gorkha Publishers, 2002) and Amarinder Singh’s A Ridge Too Far: War in the Kargil Heights 1999 (Patiala: Motibagh Palace, 2001) restrict themselves in the main to the tactical level, recounting the great battles now part of Indian military lore. Kargil: From Surprise to Victory (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2006), authored by the Chief at the time, Gen VP Malik is revealing on this score in that it describes the intimate interface of Army Headquarters with the tactical plane. The missing link is the operational level story of Kargil, perhaps because much of the detail cannot be made public due to its continuing security value. Nevertheless, one can hazard a guess that there was extensive interaction between the tactical level and the military operations directorate. This has found mention in passing in journalistic accounts such as Harinder Baweja’s A Soldier's Diary – Kargil: The Inside Story (New Delhi: Lancer, 2000). What are the implications in terms of managing conflict given that the Kargil War appears prototypical of wars of the future?
It is notable that the Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen HM Khanna, does not figure in the iconic war photographs that emanated from Kargil. The Command Headquarters in Udhampur exercised considerable self-effacement; restricting its domain to logistics, provisioning firepower, interfacing with the Air Force, tasking reserves mobilised and managing the overall operational situation in J&K including the terrorism aspect. The major task of the headquarters was to arise in case of need for expansion of the conflict from beyond its localised confines on ‘own side’ of the LC in Kargil. In case the going was found to be impossible, then General Malik indicates in his book that he may have gone back to the government for revision of the ‘terms of reference’ of the CCS. In such a case of widening the front to enable attack from the rear and multi-directional attacks, the battle would have indubitably gone beyond the tactical confines to the operational level. In case the LC elsewhere was activated alongside to keep enemy reinforcements tied down, then the staff at Udhampur and Srinagar would have been crucial to the effort. In the event tactical prowess and intimate monitoring of the battle space from South Block did not let this happen. What is the lesson in this?
Given that the Kargil conflict was a discrete case in light of its unique context; its lessons may only be partially generalised. At Kargil, the requirement to enforce victory within the political parameter of limitation, perhaps justified the extensive engagement of Army HQs with the localised theatre of operations, necessitating a number of visits of the Chief to the front. The lesson of more ‘hands on’ control is perhaps reinforced by the reported removal of a strike corps commander in the opening stages of the subsequent ‘Operation Parakram’. Nevertheless, the danger is in Army HQs losing the wider picture in case of over-concern with a particular sector. Arriving at a balance is relevant to the future in which recurrence of ‘Kargils’ can take place as also Limited Wars, which by definition compel limitation. How then can this limitation be exercised without Army HQs overly intruding on the operational level?
Firstly, in case a shared understanding of limitation pervades the service, this is easier achieved. This indicates that a Limited War doctrine, as is being discussed in different forums including defence studies bodies such as the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), requires promulgation. This would help place the service across the hierarchy on the same page without ambiguity. Secondly, intimate control, as is inescapable in limited conflict scenario, would require operational level headquarters being responsible for exercising it. This would be the principle challenge of Operational Art in the nuclear age. This would leave the apex free for engaging with issues of wider import as nuclear thresholds, joint direction of the war, managing the political interface and winning the information war.
Lastly, there is a case for operational command devolving on theatre level headquarters. Among other more weighty reasons, this also owes to the chemistry of personalities, such as personal equations between the Chief and his C-in-C. These headquarters would of necessity have to be joint headquarters, a reform that can only succeed the eventual (since inevitable) creation of a CDS. This in turn awaits acceptability of the idea of Chiefs divesting command responsibility, role and functions in favour of a role that better matches their official nomenclature.
At Kargil, history records that the political-strategic scope of the conflict was managed ably; ensuring that Pakistan could not escalate by widening the conflict to escape defeat in detail. This enabled combat power, particularly firepower and surveillance resources, to be transferred to and within the theatre with lesser risk. However, the retrospectively justifiable ‘narrow focus’ Kargil model cannot be replicated in future conflict. Received theory on division of labour between the three levels of war needs translation into organisational relationships in light of the Kargil experience.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies