An exercise in anticipation

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

India completes successfully its biggest military exercise in over a decade, in the western sector close to the Pakistan border.

It was billed as the biggest Indian military exercise since the controversial "Operation Brass Tacks" of 1987. This time, however, the week-long exercise in the second week of May did not raise tensions along the border to the extent Brass Tacks did. Concurrently, smaller exercises were held along the western border, code-named "Amogh Shastra", "Vajrapath" and "Vijay Shastra".

The military exercise in the western sector was a sequel to the recent Army Commanders' Conference. According to an Army spokesman, the exercise, code-named "Poorna Vijay" (Complete Victory), was undertaken to "evaluate concepts and battle procedures". Importantly, the Army has said that a major goal of the exercises was to test battle procedures during offensive and defensive operations on "a future battlefield with a nuclear backdrop". Another important aim was to enhance the Army's operational preparedness by conducting a number of tactical exercises employing troops and live firing under simulated battle conditions. The exercises provided an opportunity to formations of various sizes, including a corps-level force, to conduct large-scale manoeuvres.

Islamabad has complained that "war hysteria" was being created by the massive show of force by the Indian armed forces close to the border. Pakistan also said that advance notice of 60 days had not been given by the Indian government: there is an agreement between the two countries that calls for such notice in the case of war games at the corps level.

Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Agha Shahi said that the exercises were "provocative" as they were held close to the border and alleged that the Indian Army was testing strategies "to be used in future wars against Pakistan".

The Indian Defence Ministry, however, maintained that Islamabad had been duly intimated about the exercises. According to Indian Army officials, the exercises were conducted 180 km from the border and the two formations - the "Blue" and the "Red" - involved in the simulated war games faced each other in a north-south direction and not towards the Pakistan border.

THE Indian Air Force also participated in "Poorna Vijay" by launching ground attack missions. The IAF made around 1,000 sorties deploying 120 aircraft, including 70 fighters. Two hundred pilots were critically evaluated during the exercises. Air Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command (WAC), told the media that the IAF pilots performed satisfactorily under extremely adverse conditions - visibility on many occasions was less than 500 metres, while heat and dust made the upkeep of the flying machines a difficult task.

The WAC chief stressed that the exercises were part of the strenuous training needed to destroy the "war-making potential of the enemy and protect our ground forces from enemy attacks". The IAF concentrated on combat operations. Twenty planes and helicopters dropped heavy infantry weapons, tanks and artillery guns together with the elite Special Forces Commandos, behind "enemy" lines at night with the aim of seizing an objective in depth and assisting the advancing mechanised forces. Special attention was given to the interception of "enemy" surface-to-air missiles and the destruction of the air defence systems of the enemy. Deep forays were made into "enemy" territory by planes and helicopters belonging to the Army's aviation wing.

Special Forces units of the Army launched "operations in the enemy's depth areas". During the exercises, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were also tested. The WAC chief said that the indigenously produced Indira-II radar worked satisfactorily in adverse weather conditions. The new advanced version of the Mi-17 IV was also tested successfully in the soaring desert heat. Until recently, they were used only in the Siachen area. Special Army formations, supported by armour, artillery and engineers, conducted "breakthrough" operations in obstacle-ridden terrain. According to Army officials, drills and procedures to meet the "challenges of a nuclear, chemical or biological strike" were practised during the exercises, in which more than 75,000 troops participated.

For the first time, an exercise of this kind was held in May, when the weather is extremely hot in most of the western sector. Temperatures hovered around 50 Celsius in the Thar desert, where the major part of "Poorna Vijay" was conducted. The Army had to make provision for the supply of around 70,000 litres of potable water a day for the personnel who participated in the exercise. Temperatures inside tanks during the day was around 60C. More than 400 tanks participated in the exercises. Soldiers had to lay bridges and handle guns.

For the first time, live firing was resorted to in an exercise during the summer. New weapons systems acquired after the Kargil war and inducted into the infantry battalions were tested in simulated battlefield conditions. The Army top brass is confident that the infantry now has the potential to withstand a determined enemy assault on its own and will not have to take assistance from a mechanised division. The personnel of 1 Corps of Indian Army was in an offensive formation. Major-General I.A. Satur of 36 Armoured Division, who led the attacks on the "enemy", told the media that his tanks, mechanised columns, heavy artillery and other force multipliers had moved 190 km in six days. In all 1,000 armoured vehicles participated in the assault.

Satur emphasised that the IAF played an important role in providing intelligence inputs to the advancing force. He said that it was for the first time that the Indian armed forces were put through survival drills in nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. However, Lt. Gen. Pankaj Joshi, who supervised "Poorna Vijay" sought to underplay the nuclear aspect of the war games, by saying that the immediate threat to the nation was still of a conventional kind. He conceded that "a nuclear background exists", but reiterated his belief that "nuclear weapons will not be used in fighting a war". The Army top brass is evidently of the view that Pakistan will not use its nuclear weapons just to halt an Indian offensive. However, according to newspaper reports, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Indian government, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said in Bangalore when the exercises were on that the Indian troops were "actually perfecting how to use a nuclear weapon".

Army officials give the impression that the exercise only dealt with a possible scenario in which an enemy aircraft carrying nuclear weapons is encountered. According to the current thinking in the Army, the nuclear option will be exercised by Islamabad only if the Pakistan Army is on the verge of annihilation. There is also a dangerous attitude prevalent in the higher echelons of the Indian defence establishment that in the unlikely eventuality of a nuclear exchange, India, because of its strategic depth and better weaponry, will be able to outlast Pakistan.

Both India and Pakistan seem to have organisational problems related to the command and control of their fledgling nuclear arsenals. The fact that the two countries have fought three conventional wars in the last 50 years instils the fear in the international community that the next war could lead to a nuclear exchange.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said in the second week of May that the Indian military exercises in theory meant that "India assumed that a limited conventional war could take place despite Pakistan's nuclear capability. India wants to transform this theory into a reality. That is why it is carrying out such a big exercise".

The leadership of the Indian armed forces has been talking about the nuclear threat from Pakistan. This could be a convenient argument to achieve its desire to take over the professional management of the nuclear arsenal.

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