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Exercise Poorna Vijay

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A Preliminary Analysis of India's Conventional War Doctrine as Revealed by Exercise Poorna Vijay and Other War Games

The Indian Army (IA) and Air Force (IAF) held a series of exercises from May 2 to well into the third week of May. Four interrelated corps or divisional level exercises were held: Poorna Vijay, Amogh Prahar, Vajrapath, and Vijay Shakti. The centerpiece was Exercise Poorna Vijay, a corps level exercise involving Army and Air Force units. This article analyses operational aspects of Poorna Vijay and other recent exercises to arrive at some conclusions about Indiaƒ??s conventional war doctrine.

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A map of locations associated with Poorna Vijay and related exercises.

The Land Component of Poorna Vijay

The land component of Poorna Vijay involved some 40,000 to 70,000 troops[i]; about 1000 armoured vehicles; and supporting artillery pieces and equipment. It was staged in the Bikaner-Suratgarh area of North Rajasthan. Lt. Gen. Pankaj Joshi, GOC Central Command, was the officer responsible for conducting and refereeing the exercise [1 ]. The blue force was composed of 1 Strike Corps [2 ] led by Lt. Gen J.J. Singh. As part of the exercise, about 600 paratroopers from 5 Parachute Regiment commanded by Col. A.K. Srivastava undertook a nighttime High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) jump. The operation also involved delivery of a large number of heavy loads including BMPs, artillery guns, anti-tank guided missiles and jeeps by parachutes. This was one of the biggest airborne exercises undertaken so far by IAF and IA, and it involved four IL-74 and eighteen AN-32 aircraft [ 3 ]. About 110 Special Forces soldiers were inserted behind Red Force lines by helicopters, and Air Force Chief A. Y. Tipnis personally flew one of the sorties [ 4 ].

A corps level thrust was led by the 33 Armoured Division and accompanied by unspecified mechanized and infantry formations [5 ]. The objectives of the attacking Blue Force were the two "Redland bases", represented by the villages of Bhanipura and Sardarshahar. By the final day, 33 Armoured was reported to have traveled about 190 km, 70 of them in enemy territory [5 ]. This distance corresponds well with the estimated distances of the two villages from Hissar, which is the home base of 33 Armoured. The entire distance was covered in 6 days, but the more interesting figure is the time taken to cover the 70 km in Redland. Reports on Exercise Vijay Chakra indicate that a RAPIDS division and an armoured brigade traversed 70 km into Redland in about two days [9 ].

Since the exercises were intended to test the preparedness of the military forces for operating under nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) attack conditions, situations involving the use of nuclear and chemical weapons were examined as part of the exercise. Hypothetical tactical nuclear strikes were carried out against advancing mechanized columns and against brigades concentrated at a bridgehead. Chemical strikes against company level formations were also rehearsed. In all cases, the effected army formations had to respond with decontamination procedures, evacuation of casualties, and replacement of affected units with reserves.

Finally, the choice of a peak summer month for conducting exercises placed heavy emphasis on logistics and maintenance of equipment. An estimated 70,000 liters of potable water had to be provided per day, for the personnel who participated in the exercise [28 ]. Formations judged to have been hit by mock nuclear attacks had to make alternate arrangements for water and food supply. If they failed to do so, the participating soldiers got no water to drink [29 ].

The Air Component of Poorna Vijay

About five hundered IAF personnel, including two hundred pilots, participated in the exercise. Some 120 aircraft, including 70 fighters, 20 transport aircraft, and 20 helicopters from IAF's Western and Southwestern Commands were involved[ii]. The attack helicopters operated from Nal, Suratgarh, and Adampur; fighter aircraft operated from Nal Suratgarh and Sirsa; and transport aircraft from Agra and Chandigarh air bases [6 ]. Radar and communication units were also involved. The fighter aircraft practiced air strikes, fighter sweeps, escort for air defence, and electronic warfare missions. The Mi-35 attack helicopters were used in conjunction with armoured columns, and two mobile radar units moved forward in conjunction with army formations to provide continuous surveillance capabilities [6 ]. About 840 sorties were to be flown in nine days [13 ], and the total number of sorties was expected to reach 1000. Some missions were flown in simulated post-strike environments, for which the aircraft had to shut off external air supply and activate special protective systems [14 ]. The missions were flown in extreme heat conditions, which may have been responsible for the one tragic fatality of the exercise. Flight Lieutenant Ajay Sharma was flying a MiG-21 BIS on an anti-tank mission during a dust storm. He apparently lost too much height while trying to attack his targets, and could not pull up when the aircraft engine failed to provide sufficient thrust due to the extreme heat [10 ] UAVs were used by both Army and Air Force for reconnaissance purposes. Newly inducted systems like Lakshya UAVS, Indra-II low-level surveillance radars, Mi-17IV helicopters, and unspecified artillery and electronic warfare equipment were tested during the exercise [7 ].

Other Exercises related to Poorna Vijay

Fewer details are available on the other exercises held in conjunction with Poorna Vijay. While official sources did mention that the different exercises were related, no further explanations were provided. However, the physical proximity of these exercises to each other raises several interesting speculations. There were reports of two division level exercises - Amogh Prahar and Vajrapath. They were said to be simulations of flank movements aimed at destroying enemy concentrations [6 ]. Amogh Prahar lasted for five days coinciding with Poorna Vijay. Vajrapath was held in the Ludhiana area, and it consisted of two phases of four days each. Amogh Prahar exercise area was in the Bhatinda-Suratgarh region [6 ], which is less than a hundred km from Poorna Vijay Redland bases. Given that such exercises generally cover hundreds of kilometers[iii], the exercise areas may have abutted or overlapped each other. Similarly, the first phase of Vajrapath coincided with Poorna Vijay, and Ludhiana district abuts Bhatinda district.

The fourth and final exercise was Vijay Shakti, which was stated to be a nominal corps/command level exercise for Northern Command and 16 (Nagrota) Corps. Maj Gen H S Kanwar, Chief of Staff of the Nagrota Corps, oversaw this exercise. It involved about 10000 infantry, 150 tanks, and 1000 soft vehicles, as well as 15 IAF aircraft. T-72 tanks, BMP armoured vehicles, and combat aircraft like MiG 29,23 and 27 took part. The exercise was held on the eastern bank of Beas in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab [11 , 12 ].

Media Management

Exercise Poorna Vijay was accompanied by a media blitz that was unprecedented in its level of openness. Actual formations involved in the exercise were mentioned publicly for the first time. Newspaper and magazine articles wrote candidly about the amount of casualties the army would take if its advancing columns or bridgeheads were to be attacked with nuclear weapons. This level of openness is a direct result of the Indian Military’s positive media experience during the Kargil war, were the popular media were used as a force multiplier in the information war. The other unstated reason was that the Indian establishment wanted to send an unambiguous message to Pakistan about India’s willingness to wage a conventional war even under the threat of nuclear escalation. According to the Kargil Review Committee report, Pakistan overrated its nuclear deterrent and believed that no conventional wars were possible once Pakistan had overtly declared its nuclear capability. Poorna Vijay was therefore used to very unambiguously warn Pakistan that India was prepared to fight and win a conventional war even under nuclear conditions.

Evolution of Air-Land Battle Doctrine in Recent Years

Poorna Vijay is part of a regular cycle of exercises undertaken by the army and air force to revalidate current doctrine; to train commanders and soldiers in realistic war-like situations; to test newly inducted systems; and to experiment with new tactical, operational and strategic concepts. Hence, the set of exercises conducted in May 2001 is best viewed as part of a continuum of exercises conducted by the Indian armed forces as part of their preparation for joint warfare.

It is useful to examine two recent war games in conjunction with Poorna Vijay, to gain a better understanding of some significant changes India’s conventional war doctrine in the near past: Exercise Shiv Shakti in December 1998; and Exercise Vijay Chakra in February 2000. Shiv Shakti was a corps level exercise held in the Barmer area of South Rajasthan, near the border between Rajasthan and Gujarat. It involved four divisions of the Southern Command of Indian army; with a small contingent of 13 IAF combat aircraft from the Southwestern Air Command and an unspecified number of Prithvi surface to surface missiles. Shiv Shakti was the first significant step in testing Army Training Command’s recently developed Air-Land battle doctrine, which involves total integration of air force and army assets to carry out deep strikes into enemy terrirory. Other significant developments were the induction of digitized and encrypted communication equipment; use of RPVs and satellite imagery for reconnaissance; and the extensive deployment of night vision equipment to permit the army to operate at maximum efficiency during nighttime as well as daytime [16 ,19 ,20 ]. The ability to maneuver and fight effectively at nighttime is a significant force-multiplier. Darkness imposes significant limitations on the combat capabilities of mechanized formations that do not have night-vision equipment. Nighttime combat capabilities raise the tempo of the battle significantly, and permit an attacking force to consolidate gains without allowing the defenders time to regroup. The 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak conflicts are replete with examples of attacking formations squandering hard-won advantages due to nighttime operational pauses. Even air forces are affected – in the celebrated Battle of Longewala, the IAF had to wait until daybreak to enter the fray because the Hunters did not have night-time combat capabilities[iv]. More recently, in the 1991 Gulf War, USA-led coalition forces had a significant advantage because they could maneuver and fight in dark and through dust-storms due to night-vision equipment, while the Iraqi forces could not.

Vijay Chakra was a much smaller exercise in terms of number of personnel involved, but it is equally significant in terms of innovations introduced to the conventional war doctrine. A RAPIDS division and independent armored brigade from the Army Western Command participated with some 40 fighters, 16 helicopters and 10 transport aircraft from the Air Force Western Command. For the first time, a company of paratroopers was dropped 60 km behind “red” lines by air force transports. The relieving force was 20 km away from the airdropped force in this exercise. The exercise was held in the same area as Poorna Vijay [21 ,22 ,23 ]. Shortly afterwards, in May 2000, Defense Minister George Fernandes; the three service chiefs; senior field commanders form the three services; and strategists got together for a three day conference (Exercise Brahmastra) that covered areas of operational concern to all three services. An audit of India’s land, air and sea warfare capabilities was carried out; and reportedly, a decision was made to adopt a more assertive and offensive conventional war doctrine with a nuclear backdrop [24 ,25 ].

Poorna Vijay is the culmination and expression of lessons learnt and decisions taken during the earlier exercises. In a sense, Poorna Vijay is Vijay Chakra scaled up to Shiv Shakti proportions. The company level para drop in Vijay Chakra evolved into a battalion level paradrop in Poorna Vijay. Similarly, the augmented division-level relieving force in Vijay Chakra became a full strike corps in Poorna Vijay. Poorna Vijay can also boast of significant advancements in addition to the enhancement of capabilities first introduced in earlier exercises.

The biggest development in Poorna Vijay was the introduction of an NBC scenario into conventional doctrine. This could be a result of the deliberations during Exercise Brahmastra, but it was really made possible due to the steady accretion of India’s NBC capabilities. The Indian military establishment has been slowly developing NBC capabilities since the late 1980s. Concepts and doctrines for NBC operations have been studied and taught by the army for several years [17 ], and the necessary equipment is being produced by the DRDO since the early 1990s [18 ]. Previous exercises had notional representation of NBC aspects: Shiv Shakti involved mock fires of the Prithvi missile as well as NBC simulations [15 ,16 ]; and Vijay Chakra involved a Prithvi missile group [27 ]. However, large-scale acquisition of NBC capabilities is extremely expensive. Indigenously developed individual protection kits cost Rs 12,000-15,000; while the cost of protection for a single infantry battalion can be around Rs 80 – 100 million [26 ]. Perhaps this is the reason why no large scale exercises with NBC equipment were held before Poorna Vijay, inspite of the Indian defense establishment’s awareness of the issues involved.

The second significant development was the extremely dense air defense environment provided for the attacking force, and the successful induction of low-level Indra-II radars during this exercise. Dense air defenses for an advancing corps raises the costs for penetration by enemy aircraft, and acts as a deterrent against a contemplated use of tactical nuclear weapons as a an easy and effective means of stopping an armoured thrust.

Strategic Aspects

Indian strategists have evolved a strategy since the early 1990’s for fighting a conventional war with Pakistan in such a way that the anticipated threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is not crossed. This strategy takes into account the geopolitical realities in the subcontinent, and is finely calibrated to achieve limited but significant strategic gains and inflict maximum punishment on Pakistan, while at the same time precluding the use of nuclear weapons. The strategy is founded on the choice of an attack location (in Central Rajasthan) that would permit movement massed armoured formations, and would strike Pakistan at a significantly vulnerable location. The attacking formation would affect a shallow penetration to draw out Pakistan’s strategic reserve formations. Once the strategic formations are engaged, the Indian air force and army would fight an attrition battle to inflict maximum casualties. At all times, the penetration into Pakistani territory would be carefully controlled to stay within the threshold of use of nuclear weapons.Sanjay Badri Maharaj [18 ] gives a detailed description of this scenario, and the geopolitical imperatives that drive the Indian strategy.

The centerpiece of Poorna Vijay was a 70 km thrust into enemy territory by a corps level or smaller force, accompanied by a battalion strength parachute jump. The 70 km thrust was accomplished in about two days, and prior to that, the attacking formation moved some 120-odd kilometers from its staging areas in some four days. These operational parameters are indicative of the army’s deployment and attack capabilities, and give us a rough approximation of how far and how quickly the army plans to conduct its offensive. The increasing use of para drops and special operations forces reveals greater sophistication of operational planning, and an increased confidence in the army’s ability to seize objectives in a stipulated time frame, because airborne forces can operate behind enemy lines for a limited time period. IAF’s participation in joint exercises has increased tremendously, which points to closer integration between the two services (and possibly with the navy too, but that is not the focus of this article).

These operational capabilities are independent of the specific geopolitical situation prevailing at the time of any future hostilities, so it is not really appropriate to assign capabilities to any one strategic scenario. In other words, it would not be correct to say that Poorna Vijay was intended as a rehearsal of an armoured thrust to Rahimyar Khan, although that objective does fall within the operational capabilities revealed by Poorna Vijay. The capabilities, then, could be used to accomplish one of several likely objectives: in a shallow thrust to gain territory as a bargaining chip; in an attack to draw out and grind down the enemy’s strategic reserves; or in a limited war situation to achieve some spatially or force-limited objectives. Significantly, the Indian military is now seeking to accomplish these objectives even after nuclear weapons have been used. In the final analysis, the main utility of these capabilities may be to introduce some caution in Pakistani thinking about the scope and limitations of a nuclear deterrent.

Acknowledgements and Disclaimer

This article benefited immensely from discussions on the Bharat Rakshak Forum (www.bharat-rakshak.com/forum) on this and other topics. I am especially grateful to Johann Price and Rupak Chattopadhyay for their keen interest in my efforts; for their penetrating observations that I have shamelessly borrowed; and for providing me with an excellent initial compilation of articles on Poorna Vijay. The opinions presented in this article are entirely personal, and do not represent those of my employer or any other organization.

Notes

[i] Figures on the reported number of personnel involved vary wildly for this as well as other exercises. Poorna Vijay seems to have involved 40,000 personnel to 70,000 personnel. Figures for previous exercises show similar variation – Shiv Shakti involved 60,000 to 72,000 personnel depending upon who reported it, while Vijay Chakra involved 20,000 to 30,000 personnel.

[ii] These included MIG-21, MIG-23, MIG-27, MIG-29, Jaguar, IL-76, AN-32, Avros and Dorniers. The helicopters are Chetak, Cheetah, MI-8, MI-17, the newly-inductedMI-17 IV and attack helicopters MI-35 [7 ].

[iii] The Tribune (17 February 2000) states that the smaller Exercise Vijay Chakra, covered an area of 150 square km.

[iv] IAF’s nighttime combat capabilities have improved massively since then, as witnessed by the around-the-clock strikes in Operation Safed Sagar.

References

  1. India showcases its military might, HT Correspondent, Chandigarh, May 7, http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/080501/detNAT02.asp,
  2. Pioneer News Service, New Delhi, May 08 2001 www.the-pioneer.com
  3. War games: Army downplays N-angle, Vishal Thapar, Thar Desert, May 10 2001, The Hindustan Times Online Edition http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/110501/detnat06.asp
  4. Gaurav C Sawant, More exercises to help armed forces achieve Poorna Vijay, Indian Express Online Edition, 7 May 2001
  5. Two exercises to hone fighting skills, Defence India Consultants. http://www.defenceindia.com/test1/templ.php3?filename=news15.html
  6. Army, Air Force begin joint exercises, Bikaner, February 16 2000, Shishir Gupta, The Hindustan Times Online Edition. http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/170200/detFRO08.htm
  7. IAF to rework MiG 21 pilot training: Krishnaswamy, Express News Service, New Delhi, May 8 2001. www.indian-express.com
  8. Arun Sharma, Defense exercises in Punjab plains today, Indian Express, Wed May 15 2001, Jammu.
  9. PTI, May 17 2001, Army's other wargame Vijay Shakti ends, Hindustan Times Online Edition.(www.hindustantimes.com
  10. IAF grind in extreme conditions, Pioneer News Service, New Delhi, 9 May 2001.
  11. IAF pilots in Poorna Vijay learning to combat nuclear attack, Sutirtho Patranobis, New Delhi, 8 May 2001, The Newspaper Today.
  12. R. Prasannan, War Games, The Week Online Edition, 13 December 1998. www.the-week.com
  13. Manoj Joshi, Future Combat, India Today Online Edition, 21 December 1998. www.india-today.com
  14. Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Satish Nambiar, Preparing for Purna Vijay, The Newspaper Today, 16 May 2001.
  15. Sanjay Badri Maharaj, The Armagedoon Factor, XXXX Press, 2000.
  16. Atul Aneja, Air Land Battle Concept to be Adopted, The Hindu Online Newspaper, 29 April 1999, www.the-hindu.com
  17. R. Prasannan, War games, The Week Online Magazine, 13 December 1998, www.the-week.com
  18. Shishir Gupta, Army, Air Force begin joint exercises, The Hindustan Times Online Newspaper, 17 February 2000.
  19. Operation Vijay Chakra (sic) begins in Thar deserts, The Daily Excelsior, 15 February 2000. www.dailyexcelsior.com
  20. Amarjit Thind, Tribune News Service, Exercise Vijay Chakra begins, 15 February 2000. www.tribuneindia.com
  21. Tribune News Service, Brahmastra to be an annual affair, 6 May 2000. www.tribuneindia.com
  22. Brahmastra, Daily Excelsior Editorial, 6 May 2000. www.dailyexcelsior.com
  23. Vijay Mohan, Tribune News Service, N-warfare training for recruits, 25 April 2001. www.tribuneindia.com
  24. India Times News Service, A fine show of the might of armed forces, 17 February 2000. www.indiatimes.com
  25. John Cherian, An exercise in anticipation, Frontline Online Magazine, Volume 8 Issue 11, 26 May 2001. www.flonnet.com
  26. Heat and dust: Exercise Poorna Vijay, 1 September 2001. www.stratmag.com
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