War games

Print edition : November 07, 1998

The Indian Army's proposed military exercises near the Pakistan border and Pakistan's reaction to it raise the temperature on the bilateral and international front.

THE Indian Army's plans to conduct military exercises near the India-Pakistan border have attracted international attention. According to a senior Army official, the month-long exercises will start by the end of November.

Islamabad, which was informed about the plans as per the Indo-Pakistan agreement on advance notice on military exercises, reacted by saying that they would not be conducive to the ongoing peace talks. Pakistan has since sought to put pressure on the international community to criticise the Indian move. For its part, the West argues that with India and Pakistan having carried out nuclear tests early this year, a spark is enough to cause a nuclear catastrophe on the subcontinent.

A senior Indian Army official said that the exercises are of a routine nature. He said that the process of planning the exercises, held once every two or three years, was initiated last year, much before Pokhran-II. He admitted that at that point, the Army had not visualised an international furore over the issue. In the post-Pokhran-II situation, even routine military exercises in the subcontinent have the potential to become volatile issues.

Responding to India's plans, Pakistan announced plans for military exercises of its own ahead of the Indian exercises. Some 60,000 troops and war planes were scheduled to participate in the Pakistani exercises.

Islamabad alleged that India is planning "simulated" war games involving operations on land and air in the Thar desert and possible amphibious landings on the western sea coast. It raised the matter officially with New Delhi.

Western intelligence agencies implied that the exercises that India is planning would be the biggest such since Operation Brasstacks in 1987. That round of exercises had brought the two countries perilously close to war.

The Indian Government insists that they are scheduled, routine exercises. However, the Pakistan establishment does have some reasons to panic. The Iranian Army was carrying out large-scale military exercises along its border with Afghanistan. Pakistan is Afghanistan's neighbour.

China expressed its concern over India's plans to carry out the exercises. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that his country wanted India and Pakistan to improve relations and "eliminate tensions to ensure peace and stability in the region."

HOWEVER, the senior Indian Army officer denied allegations originating in Pakistan regarding the scope, timing and size of the exercises. He said that the exercises, code-named "Tri-Amph-98" would be confined to the corps level and would involve around 50,000 troops. (The Army, the Air Force and the Navy participated in similar exercises code-named "Tri-Shakti" and "Amphex" during the last decade.) Sources in the Defence Ministry clarified that contrary to reports appearing in the Western media, the Indian Navy's aircraft carrier and submarines would not participate in the exercises.

The exercises will focus on the west coast. The participating Air Force and Army units will be sourced from the regional command. According to military sources, the planned exercises conform to the existing Indo-Pakistan understanding on confidence building measures. As per this understanding, each side has to give 90 days' notice in writing for Army-level exercises and a two-month notice if the exercises are confined to the corps level.

Senior Indian Army officials said that elaborate planning had gone into the exercises and that calling them off in view of the holding of the Foreign Secretary-level talks would have constituted a setback for the training process. They pointed out that the decision to hold Foreign Secretary-level talks had been taken only in September when the Prime Ministers of the two countries met in New York, while the military exercises had been planned since last year. According to the officials, the exercises would be purely defensive in nature. Besides, they said, the area in which the exercises are planned is available only at this time of the year since the harvest season comes to an end by October in the plains of Rajasthan and Punjab.

A senior Army official said that such exercises were essential for the Army since the troops have to be ready to fight on all kinds of terrain. A soldier fighting in the Himalayas or the jungles of northeastern India also needs to get acclimatised to the arid terrain which characterises the western sector. He said that a lot of homework had been done to make the exercises a "synchronised" affair. Canc-elling them at the eleventh hour would be bad for the morale of the Army, he added. He was of the opinion that the exercises could go on side by side with diplomatic talks. The Army official said that even though the exercises were scheduled to start only by the end of November, the force build-up would start earlier since troop movement and training have to start much earlier.

Speaking to mediapersons in Patna in the second week of October, Defence Minister George Fernandes said that the military exercises were not prompted by any aggressive design. He accused the Western media of spreading disinformation in order to show that nuclear weapons were not safe in India's hands. He said that the exercises were being held in Rajasthan because of the availability of vast open spaces and also because the armed forces are already deployed there. Fernandes, who said that India had no objections to Islamabad carrying out military exercises along its border, said that Islamabad should take a "mature view" of the Indian exercises.

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