While the overall strategic aim of Pakistan in engineering intrusions across the LoC under the facade of Kashmir militancy was quite obviously to provide a fresh impetus to the flagging jehad and again attempt to focus international attention on the Kashmir issue, the intrusions had multiple military aims. As a plus, the Pakistan army had also planned to physically occupy a large chunk of real estate on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil district to use as a bargaining counter, particularly during future negotiations for a mutual withdrawal from Siachen Glacier.
It is now three years since Pakistan’s foolhardy bid to dramatically raise the ante in its proxy war against India was successfully foiled. In April 1999, regular soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry of the Pakistani army had surreptitiously intruded into several un-held areas on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir. In launching its ill-conceived military adventure, Pakistan violated the sanctity of the LoC and breached the provisions of the 1972 Shimla agreement. The NLI troops transgressed the LoC in large numbers in Mashkoh Valley, Drass, Kaksar and Batalik sub-sectors and established themselves on the top of high mountain ridgelines. In an attempt to pass them off as “indigenous Kashmir freedom fighters’. Pakistan’s general headquarters ordered its soldiers to dress in civilian salwar-kameez Pathani suits.
Objectives of the incursion
Due to the militarily impassable nature of the rugged high-altitude terrain along the LoC in Kargil district, it had been the practice on both the sides of the LoC to man defensive posts only on the tactically important mountaintops and patrol other areas during the summer months. There were several large gaps in development on both sides of the LoC in areas that were considered unsuitable for large-scale offensive military operations. It is axiomatic that no army can physically hold every metre of territory along the country’s borders either in peacetime or in war; nor is it militarily necessary to do so.
For over 27 years since the 1971 war the Pakistan army had respected the sanctity of the LoC and there had been no attempt to physically alter it. Hence, in the Kargil sector India’s operational priority during the 1990s had been to thwart the Pakistan army’s efforts to open up new routes to infiltrate so-called mujahideen mercenary terrorists through the valleys and passes into the Kashmir Valley and the Doda-Kishtwar-Bhadarwah areas south of the Pir Panjal Range. In difficult mountainous terrain like that in the Kargil sector, any regular army can achieve initial tactical surprise by intruding through the gaps and occupying unheld mountaintops. That is exactly what the Pakistan army did. However, its limited tactical gains finally turned out to be a strategic blunder.
The extent of intrusions varied from four to five km to a maximum of seven to eight km. The intruders quickly set about building sangars (improvised bunkers made by piling’ Up locally available stones), bringing forward their heavy weapons and dumping ammunition, rations and other military stores. The intruders were armed to the teeth with battalion support weapons such as heavy and medium machine guns, rocket launchers and automatic grenade launchers. Some’ of the posts were also given mortars, anti-aircraft guns (which were used in the ground role against assaulting Indian infantrymen) and shoulder-fired Stinger and Unza surface-to-air missiles. Large numbers of plastic anti-personnel mines were indiscriminately laid along the expected approaches to the ridgelines.
While the overall strategic aim of Pakistan in engineering intrusions across the LoC under the facade of Kashmir militancy was quite obviously to provide a fresh impetus to the flagging jehad and again attempt to focus international attention on the Kashmir issue, the intrusions had multiple military aims. In the Drass, Mashkoh Valley and Kaksar sub-sectors, the aim was to sever the Srinagar-Leh National Highway 1A to isolate Kargil district and cut India’s lifeline to Leh, with a view to eventually choking supplies and reinforcements to Indian troops at Saltoro Ridge across the Siachen Glacier. Another military aim in these sub-sectors was to open up a new route for infiltration into the Kashmir Valley and the Doda-Kishtwar-Bhaderwah region south of the Pir Panjal Range over the Great Himalayan Range.
In the Batalik and Turtok area, which adjoins the Siachen glacial belt, Pakistan ‘attempted to establish a firm base with a view to eventually advancing along the Shyok River Valley to cut the only road link from Leh to India’s Siachen brigade. As a plus, the Pakistan army had also planned to physically occupy a large chunk of real estate on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil district to use as a bargaining counter, particularly during future negotiations for a mutual withdrawal from Siachen Glacier. The capture of 12 trained Islamist mercenaries in the Turtok sector revealed that a large aim was also to gradually spread Islamic fundamentalism in Ladakh.
The first reports of the intrusions came in to an army unit in Kargil sector from the local people on 3 May 1999. Reconnaissance patrols were expeditiously dispatched to investigate the intrusions. Extensive patrolling followed over the next few days. The depth of Pakistan intrusions and the extent of preparation soon became evident and plans were made to evict Pakistani troops from the Indian side of the LoC as early as possible. In order to ensure that the task was accomplished with the least possible casualties, Army HQ decided to orchestrate maximum available combat power simultaneously on all the points of intrusion. In order to avoid escalation to a larger conflict, the cabinet decided that the LoC was not to be crossed.
It was soon realised that the recapture of each of the ridgelines from the well-entrenched Pakistani regular forces would be an extremely difficult military operation. Infantry assaults would have to be undertaken along narrow, super high-altitude approaches under withering fire from several directions. It is a well-known military maxim that the mountains favour the defender. An attacker assaulting uphill is at an immense disadvantage. It was appreciated that maximum artillery firepower would need to be requisitioned before infantry battalions. could launch physical assaults to regain each position. Division and brigade commanders emphasised the necessity of destroying the enemy’s prepared positions through coordinated preparatory bombardment to reduce the combat potential of the posts and break the enemy’s will to fight.
As part of India’s military strategy to deal with Pakistan’s unwarranted intrusions, Army HQ decided to adopt a strategic posture that would prevent
Pakistan from focusing only on the Kargil sector, maintain pressure all along the LoC and retain strategic balance to counter unforeseen eventualities. It was the fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force would also be necessary to strike at enemy positions, particularly those that were not directly visible to ground observers. Approval of the cabinet committee on security was sought and obtained for air strikes against the enemy positions within own territory. The first air-to-ground strikes by fighter ground-attack aircraft of the IAF were launched on 26 May 1999. Throughout Operation Vijay, India’s armed forces coordinated their approach under the guidance of the chiefs of staff committee. The synergistic approach of the three services completely unnerved Pakistan’s military planners and led to the early capitulation of the battalions that had intruded into the Kargil sector.
The operational-level strategy in Operation Vijay was to contain-evict-deny. That is, to immediately contain and limit the intrusions up to the areas already affected, then prepare for and evict the Pakistani soldiers from the Indian side of the LoC and, finally, enhance surveillance, patrolling and deployment, where necessary, to ensure that the Pakistan army is denied the opportunity to launch such a venture again. In view of the fact that the Tiger Hill and Tololing complex in Drass sub-sector dominated the Srinagar-Leh highway, the highest priority was accorded to the eviction of intruders from these features.
Besides 3 Infantry Division that had been deployed in Ladakh and Kargil, additional troops of 8 Mountain Division, engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the Kashmir valley, were | inducted into Kargil sector. Additional infantry battalions, artillery regiments and engineers units were expeditiously inducted from other sectors in J&K and from other parts of India.
Logistics plans were fine-tuned to sustain the additional forces in the difficult terrain of Kargil sector. Fortunately, Zoji La pass opened in early-May 1999 — it normally opens only by mid June every year — and the additional induction of combat forces and logistics units became possible when it was most required. Specialised equipment and extreme cold climate clothing necessary for fighting at super high-altitudes were rushed in from various sectors. While additional troops were building and acclimatisation was under way, attempts were made to get around the intruders positions and cut off their supply lines. Along with regular troops, special forces troops were also employed for such tasks. Meanwhile, the NLI troops occupying ridgelines on the Indian side of the LoC were allowed no rest and were kept constantly on edge by the artillery by firing skillfully evolved harassing fire plans.