LESSONS FROM THE 1965 WAR

No war takes place in a vacuum. There are indicators strewn all over, but the rhetoric of peace sometimes blinds decision makers to the possibility of conflict. Such indeed was the case in 1965. The hyperbole that emanated from Pakistan in the early sixties was of such decibels that it should have set the alarm bells ringing in South Block. A cursory look at the content of their media – both radio and print should have caused India to sit up and take notice, but for some unfathomable rea-son, war with Pakistan was never considered as a serious possibility. That represents the first les-son of the 1965 war – both political and military. Pay heed to what the enemy is saying – and pre-pare accordingly. Today, when Pakistan talks of using nuclear weapons against India, it cannot be construed as bluff and bluster. The antidote must be readied now, to include signalling of resolve and intent, as much as development of capacity and capability.

Preparedness for war is a long drawn process. No nation is ever able to maintain a hundred percent readiness rate. But the capacity to reach that level within a set period of time must be aimed for. The early sixties were a period of rejuvenation for Pakistan. They were getting stronger eco-nomically through beneficial alliances with the West, which led to the flow of great economic and military assistance. India was reeling from the 1962 debacle and internally, its economy was poor, wheat was being imported from the US, and there were myriad agitations taking place in the coun-try, from the language agitation in Tamil Nadu to insurgency in the Northeast, a restive Punjab, agi-tating for Punjabi Suba and increased dissonance in Jammu and Kashmir, for a variety of reasons. Geopolitically, Pakistan had all the major powers aligned with it, or at lease not overtly hostile to it. India, was not so fortunately placed. A perceived Indian weakness was the trigger which led to war. Which brings home the second lesson. A strong military is the best antidote to war. This again is a function of capacity, capability and will. Politically, the lessons were well learnt as India went in for a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union, which enabled India to successfully pursue operations in East Pakistan in 1971, leading eventually to the birth of Bangladesh. But militarily, the lessons, though known, are far from being addressed. We still have a weak military industrial complex, the government run research institutes and defence production facilities continuously underperform, hollowness within the Services, especially in the Army and Air Force is high, and we are today, the worlds largest importers of defence equipment. This opens up the country to foreign pressures and forced compromises and is an aspect which need to be urgently addressed. While the present government is cognisant of and sensitive to the issues involved, and the Prime Minister no less, has embarked on an ambitious ‘Make in India’ campaign, the road ahead is long and arduous and will require dramatic changes in the functioning of the Ministry of Defence and other organs of the government of India.

A brief overview of the war makes it easy to compartmentalise it into various stages. Operations in Kutch, in April 1965, Operation Gibraltar, launched by Pakistan in August, Grand Slam launched by Pakistan on 1 September, and then the Indian counter offensives on night 5/6 September and 8 September, called Operations Riddle and Nepal respectively. And to complete the picture, a coun-ter launched by Pakistan in Khem Karan – Operation Mailed Fist on 8 September.

India was unfortunately surprised at each stage. We were caught unaware at Kutch, which should have forced us to raise our guard. We did not do so and were surprised again in J&K when thou-sands of infiltrators crossed the ceasefire line (CFL) on 1 August, as part of Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar. To add salt to our festering wounds we were surprised yet again when Pakistan launched Grand Slam on 1 September in Chhamb. Divine providence and incompetence of thePakistan military prevented the fall of Akhnur, which lay exposed and was open to capture that very day itself. We were surprised for the fourth time with the sudden appearance of Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division in Kasur. This constituted serious drawbacks in our external intelligence collection methodology, which persist till date. The Army too, missed obvious signals and was repeatedly surprised. Serious lacunae still exist in our intelligence set up, as reflected by Kargil in mid 1999. While efforts are being to made towards this end, much more needs to be done towards integrating the efforts of various agencies and introducing at least some levels of accountability in the system.

The operational and tactical level also threw up a host of lessons which have applicability today.

Foremost is the need to be mentally and physically prepared for war. In 1965, there was a feeling which existed throughout the field army, that there would be no war. Despite Kutch, despite Gibral-tar, despite Grand Slam, units on the ground were not sure whether they would actually go to war or not. This constitutes a very serious failure of command, especially at the level of brigade and above. Ultimately, when units were pushed into battle, they were not mentally prepared for war. The imperatives for secrecy were such that troops which went into battle on the first day, on night 5/6 September, went in hopelessly unprepared, lacking briefing and a clear concept of what was expected of them. The enemy was certainly surprised, but the advantage was frittered away in a lack of direction – a result of commanders at division level and below, not being clear about their tasks or the end state objectives to be achieved. It however redounds to the credit of the units and formations that they still performed creditably, despite the limitations faced by them.

The 1965 war was fought in silos, with no worthwhile integration taking place in operational plans between the Army and the Air Force. It was apparent that both sides were fighting their own war, independent of each other, leading to a lack of synergy in operations. This proved to be costly and constitutes yet another important lesson of the 1965 war – the necessity to bring forth the total combat power of a country against an adversary. We are still far from achieving that goal, despite mouthing platitudes on such issues. The aspect of integrating the Ministry of Defence and the three Service HQ though a Chief of Defence Staff is repeatedly stressed, but action on that front remains slow due to a host of factors, not least being resistance within the Ministry of Defence and the three Service HQ themselves. This would require political will to pull through, much on the lines of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, of the United States.

Administratively, the field army was ill prepared for war. It seem surprising that units and formations went into battle, including the famous 1 Armoured Division, without adequate maps of the area. These were peace time issues which unfortunately were not addressed. It continues to be India’s Achilles heel even today as our experience of Operation Pawan and other out of area con-tingencies shows. The Survey of India comes under the Ministry of Science and Technology, and much greater integration is required in its functioning with the armed forces. The Armed Forces too, need to be more proactive in projecting their demands well in time.

It also seems surprising that troops went into battle in the plains without anti tank weapons. The 106 mm anti tank gun was made available to troops of 4 Infantry Division only on 7 September 1965. Why this was not done in the months leading up to the war indicates severe administrative lapses at senior levels of command. Communication equipment was also deficient/ unreliable, which seriously impacted the conduct of operations. A lot of these deficiencies stand rectified today, but it needs to be emphasised that communications at the ground level, need to be reliable and foolproof. Preparation for war takes place during peace time and commanders need to hone their administrative skills to avoid such lapses.

Finally, a word about leadership. At the tactical level, the leadership was commendable. That con-tinues to be the state today. At the operational level, the leadership exhibited was weak and vacil-lating. Even today, the focus in the military is not so much on winning the war, as ensuring that we do not lose. A more offensive orientation in senior military leadership is required. In 1965, we missed many opportunities to exploit success. XI Corps operations could have exploited the suc-cess achieved in the opening stages of the offensive when Dograi was captured. There were other fleeting opportunities during the war which were not seized. The biggest failure in offensive operations was however the stalling of 1 Corps operations on 8 September. Boldness shown on that day could have led to the defeat of the Pakistan army, but the momentum was allowed to lapse due to faulty appreciation of ground realities. That opportunity was not to come again. Herein lies the challenge for the Armed Forces. While we continue to produce outstanding tactical commanders, very few come up to the level of acumen as displayed by Lt Gen. Sagat Singh in 1971. That needs to change.

Overall, the fighting spirit of the Armed Forces is something which the nation can be proud off. But we would do well to remember, that going to war is a complete national effort. The wherewithal to fight long drawn out battles must come from within the country, which means that we have to con-centrate on building capacities, capabilities and skills. These are long term efforts, but only through such proficiency will we be in a position to prosecute and win wars. Most importantly, the existence of military capability, remains the best antidote to war.

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