Kargil to Galwan: Has India learnt to overcome its ‘Strategic Surprises’?

 By Tejusvi Shukla

The Kargil Conflict (1999) is placed among the finest manifestations of India’s military strength and strong resolve to protecting its territorial sovereignty against any external aggression. But, it is also additionally counted among the few ‘unfavourable’ strategic surprises faced by India since Independence. As a fallout of this, threat perception from adversaries; enhancing military capabilities; advanced training of troops; strengthening border infrastructure, management and surveillance; effective military jointness; synergy of the intelligence agencies; and efficient collaboration of various wings of the government, among others, were set out as immediate goals for ensuring national security. However, even 21 years after the Kargil Conflict, the instances of ‘strategic surprises’ faced by India seem to continue. Despite an unquestionable dissimilarity in terms of the costs – human and resources – and impact involved, the recent developments in Eastern Ladakh hint at some striking similarities with the Kargil Conflict, only this time from a more powerful adversary (China) than India faced in 1999.

Miscalculation of the Adversary’s Intent. Pakistan – the country in general and the Army in particular – was facing a severe financial crunch during 1998-99. Reports emerging as late as September 1998 had downplayed the possibility of any large-scale aggression by Pakistan stating these reasons, and hinted mostly at Jehadi infiltration.[1] A grave miscalculation, it took the entire national security machinery by surprise in May 1999. Even as we look at perceptions about a possible Chinese offensive following the India-China meeting of Army Commanders on 6 June, 2020[2], it was expected that disengagement of troops would follow de-escalation at the LAC in eastern Ladakh. That China is not only under severe international pressure due to the antagonism earned by it through the COVID crisis, but also facing its worst economic growth in nearly three decades, further strengthened the perceptions of the unlikeliness of Chinese escalation. However, much to India’s surprise, on the fateful night of 15 June, 2020, Chinese troops did not act as per the verbal assurance given on June 6 (both sides will peacefully resolve the situation in the border) and while protesting the move, India lost 20 of its men. Although greater casualties were inflicted on the Chinese side, the loss suffered by Indian troops was its worst against China in decades. Pre-mediated offensive efforts by adversaries in both instances are established facts. The intent of the adversary could not be adequately anticipated in both these instances.

A strategic road. Another striking similarity that the two instances provide is that of the clashes surrounding a strategic road – NH 1D during Kargil and Darbuk-Shyok Daulat Beg Oldie Road (DSDBO) in Ladakh. The NH 1D serves as an arterial road connecting Srinagar to Leh. By occupying heights in 1999, the adversary attempted to overlook the highway, thus cutting off Srinagar from Leh, and consequentially causing serious concerns for military access to the Siachen glaciers. The DSDBO road, on the other hand, connects Leh to Daulat Beg Oldie – that is at the base of the Karakoram Pass separating China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region from Ladakh. Notably, it also houses the world’s highest airstrip built and controlled by India. The Chinese build-up in the Galwan Valley overlooks the DSDBO road.

Protocols. Indian Armed Forces are counted among the most professional militaries the world over. Protocols and agreements are held in religious sanctity – however, reciprocation from India’s adversaries has often been read as a ‘breach of trust’, in hindsight. Both, the Kargil Conflict and the clashes in Eastern Ladakh stand testimony to this. An understanding between Indian and Pakistani troops for vacating mountain peaks as high as 14,000 to 18,000 feet at the LoC had made the Indian side to leave these points unguarded in the winter of 1998.[3] Violating the mutual understanding, Pakistani intrusions occurred during this ‘unfavourable’ time. Cut to 2020, even in Eastern Ladakh, protocols were violated by the Chinese troops in Pangong Tso Lake leading to a standoff between the two armies. Unfortunately, it must also be noted that it was indeed while following protocols that the unit of 16 Bihar led by Col Santosh Babu, could not use firearms in defence on June 15.[4] On the contrary, they were attacked by the Chinese troops who were in possession of anachronistic but lethal close-contact weapons – which is very unlikely in the 21st century.

Presence of troops. Extending the previous argument, it is notable how the absence of adequate military activity in strategically relevant areas had offered the requisite ground for aggression by the adversary in both instances. While vacated strategic peaks, as earlier mentioned, offered that opportunity to Pakistan in the winter of 1998, the COVID crisis in 2020 did impact military activity in Ladakh – an aspect of the current standoff that cannot be ignored. The Annual Army Drill conducted jointly by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Indian Army in the hinterland in summers along the LAC was postponed this year after a soldier tested positive for COVID-19 in March.[5] While the same was followed on the Chinese side, given the pandemic’s required precautions, Chinese troop deployment resumed much earlier than India’s, thus offering China advantage of early positioning of troops well within the India territory.

Carefully looking at all these similarities, along with a nuclear umbrella that covers both these instances, contemplation over the lessons learnt from Kargil, and now the ongoing developments in Eastern Ladakh deserve merit by all wings of India’s national security machinery. While India’s response following the June 15 clash has been a calculated balance of assertive and aggressive, a few points could be worth considering.

  • India needs to enhance its threat perception capabilities. While the Indian norm has been mostly reactive in nature, it is time that pro-activeness be normalised. The conventional understanding of the adversaries needs to be critically integrated with the unconventional reading of the enemy psychology to overcome recurring instances of strategic or tactical surprises.
  • Strategically relevant areas, including existing/proposed infrastructure, needs to be regularly guarded, regardless of contemporary circumstances. This shall include guarding prospective points for similar enemy aggression. Intensive discussions with Security Think Tanks regarding such prospects need to be regularised and actively used in policy formations.
  • Tech-driven border surveillance must be upped. Instances like the induction of the indigenously built Bharat drone – the world’s lightest and most agile – needs replication and multiplication.
  • While the professionalism of the Indian Armed Forces is uncompromisable, expectations of any reciprocation from the adversaries need to be given up. Operating in ideal situations, yet preparing for the worst response from the adversary should be included in the Standard Operating Procedures of the Security Forces guarding India’s borders. Altering the Rules of Engagement at the LAC is an appreciable move in this direction, but should not be left as an isolated instance in this context.
  • Proactive vocal protests at international fora need to be upped early on when Indian interests are involved, regardless of Indian territory or Indian population being immediate parties. India’s posturing with regard to Hong Kong (housing a sizeable Indian diaspora) and the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (bordering Arunachal Pradesh) are the most recent moves that must be replicated in the future. Passive reaction, or even a delayed response will only increment the resultant costs for India.

Having come 21 years from the Kargil Conflict, it is time India learns its lessons once and for all leaving minimum gaps for its hostile adversaries. This needs to be recognised as an urgent objective to ensure India’s total security – for its territory, men, and resources.


[1]Gen VP Malik, “Kargil War: Some Reflections”, Centre For Land Warfare Studies Summer Journal (2009). Accessed on 23 July, 2020. Available at:https://archive.claws.in/images/journals_doc/1400824315V%20P%20Malik%20%20CJ%20SSummer%202009.pdf

[2] Ministry of External Affairs Press Release, “India-China meeting of Army Commanders”, dated 7 June, 2020. Accessed on 23 July, 2020. Available at: https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32746/IndiaChina+meeting+of+Army+Commanders+on+June+06+2020

[3] The Economic Times, “Kargil war: What happened 20 years ago and why it may not happen again”, dated  26 July, 2019. Accessed on 23 July, 2020. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/kargil-war-what-happened-20-years-ago-and-why-it-may-not-happen-again/articleshow/70371791.cms

[4] The Hindustan Times, “Armed, but followed protocol: Govt”, dated 19 June, 2020. Accessed on 23 July, 2020. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/armed-but-followed-protocol-govt/story-fjuuwtLXNsMtAtjPKE5LPJ.html

[5] The Economic Times, “How COVID kept Indian Army out of the scene when Chinese troops were moving in”, dated 17 June, 2020. Accessed on 23 July, 2020. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/how-covid-kept-indian-army-out-of-the-scene-when-chinese-troops-were-moving-in/articleshow/76406957.cms