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Friday, May 17, 2002

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No war — at least for now

Praveen Swami

The prolonged border build-up has stripped India's armoured formations of the element of surprise. In addition, troops are fatigued by several months of unbroken deployment in extremely hot and humid conditions.


POLITICIANS in New Delhi have started talking war, but the commanders of key strike formations are believed to have made clear they are not ready for one: that is, not just yet.

Top army officials told Business Line there were several problems in initiating full-blown offensive. The first and foremost is that the prolonged border build-up has stripped India's armoured formations of the element of surprise.

"Everyone knows where the opposing formations are," an armoured corps officer said, "and has prepared to meet them. We could perhaps manage a penetration of a few kilometres, not a decisive victory."

In addition, several technical issues have to be resolved. Summer is a difficult season for armoured formations. Temperatures inside the T-72 Ajeya main battle tank rise upwards of 60 Celsius in the summer heat, and soldiers have only just started receiving imported ice-packed vests. The T-72 also suffers from high levels of heat-related engine problems.

These hitches are worrying strike formation commanders as the T-72s will be facing the superior Ukraine-made T-80UDs which Pakistan acquired several years ago. The army is in the process of introducing equipment that would give it a decisive edge, like the T-90 main battle tank and the Firefinder weapon-locating radar system. The full introduction of these systems, however, lies in the future.

On top of all this, troops are fatigued by several months of unbroken deployment in extremely hot and humid conditions. Although the Indian Army started granting leave to small numbers of soldiers from March, mainly on compassionate grounds, most soldiers have not had time to rest. The army has done its best to ensure decent conditions, but facilities in many forward bases can at best be described as rudimentary.

Eroding troop morale has been shored up by the tragic killings of fellow-soldiers' family members at Kalu Chak, near Jammu. Anger, however, is not adequate compensation for fatigue. "Most people can't spend three hours standing out in the sun," said one Samba-based officer, "and we have been out there for three months. The compensation is that the Pakistan Army, which has been taking it easy while we have been fighting terrorists, has had to sweat it out as well."

Problems in the Indian Air Force have compounded the Indian Army's concerns. No one had anticipated the grounding of a large section of the IAF's MiG-21 fleet when the build-up began in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament. The Pakistan Air Force has its own share of issues to deal with, but Indian planners do not wish to premise their strategy on a "they're worse off than us" gamble. What military options does India then have? One is to wait out the monsoon, when armoured operations will be impossible, and initiate an early-winter offensive. Troop formations are scheduled to be rotated every six months, a process that should begin in the coming weeks. The troop rotation would allow the Indian Army some flexibility, and restore to its strike formations some of the invisibility they need.

A winter offensive would have to take place before early October, when Assembly elections are due in Jammu & Kashmir. Most within the army believe there is little chance of such a course of action, because of the presence of US troops in key military targets for India such as Jacobabad in Sindh.

Ambala-based 3 Corps Commander, Lt-Gen Kapil Vij, had been relieved of his command for having pushed his troops in position for a thrust towards Jacobabad early this year.

The second option being discussed is the possibility of limited tactical strikes at some or all of 70-odd terrorist training camps just across the Line of Control, using air-power and medium-range missiles. Advocates of this course of action say it would minimise the chances of a generalised escalation. Such strikes would, however, serve little purpose strategically as most training camps are little other than a few tents and ramshackle huts.

No one in the army knows how events will finally pan out: and politicians, not generals, will have to make the final decision.

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