KARGIL WAR: HOW THE INITIATIVE AT SEA WAS SIEZED

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[Original article titled “KARGIL WAR 15 YEARS ON: How the initiative at sea was seized” published in 2014. This is a reproduction. Source: Internet]

The role of the Indian Navy in the Kargil war has not been talked about much. Former Navy Chief gives a first-hand account of the Navy’s Operation Talwar as the Kargil conflict unfolded

Admiral Sushil Kumar

VERY little has been spoken or written about what the Indian Navy did during the Kargil conflict of 1999. In fact, it is largely believed and mistakenly so, that the Indian Navy played no role at all. While the Army and Air Force undoubtedly played a stellar role and won the war for us, the Navy, albeit on the sideline, made a silent but significant contribution. And this is a first-hand account of how the Kargil conflict unfolded and what the Navy’s Operation Talwar was all about. I recall the initial phase of how the Kargil conflict began. As the Navy Chief, I was also officiating as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee since General Ved Malik, the Army Chief, was abroad on an assignment.

The reports that first came in were quite vague and hazy. They alluded to stray incidents along the Line of Control with Pakistan. There was also a report of an Indian Army patrol that had not returned and of shepherds having seen strangers on our side of the Line of Control (LoC). Despite the uncertain nature of these reports, the Army was understandably concerned and requested for air effort by way of armed reconnaissance. At that stage, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis, the Air Chief, quite rightly advised, that hastily inducting the Indian Air Force may send the wrong signal. With scanty reports available, the situation was confused and seemed to be only a minor border incident in an area that had always been regarded as no-man’s land.

More than a border incident

By the time General Malik returned from his trip abroad, it became clear that the incursion on the Himalayan border in the Kargil sector was not just a mere border incident. Not only was the extent of the Pakistani intrusion very vast but it also appeared that something sinister was afoot. The manner in which the intruders had entrenched themselves on our side of the LoC, in well-prepared concrete bunkers at strategically commanding locations, clearly showed that this was a well-planned manoeuvre that had been executed over a carefully calculated time frame. There was no doubt that Pakistani treachery had caught us by surprise. Promptly, the Indian Government swung into action and gave the Indian Armed Forces a clear-cut directive: Evict the intruders. But do not cross the LoC was the Prime Minister’s diktat which proved to be a diplomatic masterstroke. This was the start up for Operation Vijay. For Navymen like me who had been around during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, the lasting memory had always been of the mischief carried out by the Pakistan Navy at sea. When all attention had been on the land war, a couple of Pakistan Navy destroyers had sneaked in one night and lobbed a few shells onto a deserted beach on the Gujarat coast. Ever since then, the Pakistan Navy has celebrated that event as “Pakistan Navy Day.”

By early June 1999, as our Army and Air Force were preparing for action on the LoC, task forces of the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet had already been deployed to their battle stations — to seize the initiative at sea. With the situation getting tense, it was at an important war council briefing that the Prime Minister reiterated his Directive of not crossing the LoC.

Operational constraint

For the Army and Air Force this was surely an operational constraint but not so for the Navy, as we always operate in international waters anyway. Moreover, coercive diplomacy has always been the Navy’s forte and the tactic of exerting pressure from over the horizon has always been a well- tested strategy referred to as gunboat diplomacy from Nelsonian times. We realized that the Indian Navy’s forward deployment had certainly had the desired effect when we learnt that Pakistan had frantically started escorting its oil tankers at sea, for this indeed was their lifeline for survival.

By the middle of June, the Army and Air Force had scaled up their operations. With tension mounting, the situation looked as though it would escalate beyond a border conflict. At this time the Navy’s Operational Commanders
re-appreciated the situation and decided to prepare for hostilities. The Navy’s Eastern Fleet from the Bay of Bengal was rapidly mobilized and deployed in strength to the Arabian Sea. And so as the operations on the Himalayan heights at Tololing and Tiger Hill reached a crescendo, the Indian Navy remained poised with both fleets in full readiness. As we approached what seemed like the precautionary stage for war, operation orders for combat were issued with the rules of engagement clearly defined for commanders at sea. This was a very important threshold for us. The codename assigned was Operation Talwar.

Threat of nuclear retaliation

It was around this time that Pakistani generals started resorting to threats of nuclear retaliation. Much of it was rhetoric but it could not be dismissed altogether, as we were obviously dealing with a desperate foe whose misadventure had been exposed, through recovered Pakistani documents and captured prisoners of war. By the end of June 1999, full-scale hostilities seemed imminent. At a crucial tri-Service briefing, the Army Chief General Ved Malik issued an advisory for the Indian Armed Forces — you better prepare for war, be it declared or otherwise. We in the Navy were fully armed and ready for battle.

Here I must add that while our task forces were well poised; we had our fingers crossed. Our warships were vulnerable with no Anti-Missile Defence (AMD) against the Pakistan Navy’s deadly Harpoon Exocet sea-skimming
missiles. It was a serious vulnerability but the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, Vice Admiral Madhavendra Singh, and I had taken stock of the situation. There is always the fog of war and the adversary may not be entirely aware of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, we had deployed in preponderant strength and our strike forces were aggressively poised. It certainly had the desired effect. We knew that the Pakistan Navy had gone on the defensive when we monitored a special message from the Pakistan Navy high command to all their warships ‘Remain in harbour’.

Seizing the initiative at sea

The signal from the Pakistani Naval (PN) Headquarters said it all and that day, at the briefing for the Chiefs of Staff Committee, I informed my colleagues that the Indian Navy had achieved what it had set out to do. We had seized the initiative at sea.

Tri-Service cooperation had many facets during the Kargil operations and the Navy was able to chip in where needed. The Navy’s squadron of specially equipped electronic warfare aircraft operated extensively along the Line of Control in support of land operations. Specialist hydrographic survey teams of the Indian Navy were conjoined with the army’s artillery batteries to pin-point gun locations. But all this is trivia compared to the overall canvas of tri-service understanding and cooperation that Kargil 1999 portrayed. Many too are the lessons that the Kargil conflict has brought forth. Most important of all being that the Indian Armed Forces have the natural ability and resilience to face adversity when the chips are down. Kargil had caught us by surprise, yet motivated by the Government, the Armed Forces turned the tables onto the Pakistani intruders.

Force-multiplying effect

What Kargil also demonstrated was that when the Service Chiefs are in sync everything falls into place with a force-multiplying effect. General Malik, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis and I had trained together initially at the National Defence Academy as young cadets while still in our teens. In later years we served together on various operational and staff assignments and we also had the opportunity to serve concurrently as Vice Chiefs of our respective service. When Kargil erupted we finally came together as the three Service Chiefs of the Indian Armed Forces. All this certainly mattered and was in sharp contrast to what happened on the other side of the border.

The silent force

Undoubtedly, students of military history will remember Kargil as an operation conducted on the snowy Himalayan heights where the Indian Army and the IAF brought glory to the country. The role that the Indian Navy played during
Kargil may yet remain lost as a footnote. But that is the way navies operate anyway; over the horizon and unseen. Perhaps, that is the reason why the Navy has always been known worldwide, as the silent service.

Admiral Sushil Kumar
The author was the Chief of the Naval Staff during the Kargil war.
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