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R. Prasannan © The Week - 13 December 1998

Colonel Joy Cyriac, with around 70 battle-ready tanks, waited at the forward assembly area at a designated point in the western sector. The radars had gone into a fearsome head spin; anytime the enemy could strike. On a hoarse cry from him, a few Ajeya and Arjun tanks revved into a terrifying roar, shattering the sandy thickness of the desert air. The artillery guns grouped with him could open up any moment and the awesome power of Shiv Shakti could be unleashed. It is virtual war near the western border. About 60,000 troops are engaged in close combat, led by 4500 Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and 1800 Officers. Enough numbers to man the whole army of a small republic.

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Virtual War: An armoured regiment in Exercise Shiv Shakti, in the Thar desert of western Rajasthan.

Amid the rumble of about 600 tanks and the roar of more than 400 heavy artillery guns, troops are rushing in armoured personnel carriers. Unmanned aerial vehicles are droning across the skies spying on enemy positions. Deep-penetrating Jaguars and the agile MiG-27s are bombing airfields, armour concentrations, depots, bridges, roads and enemy command headquarters. It is war, but virtual. The war is being fought not between India and Pakistan, but by Indian forces divided into Blue Land and Red Land in the Army's 'Exercise Shiv Shakti', combined with the Air Force's Exercise Gajraj. "It is the closest to actual war we can get," said Air Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy, AOC-in-C of the South Western Air Command. "The only difference is that there is no fear of getting killed."

But how are tactics validated? "Instead of firing shots, we take photographs. For instance, if there is an attack on an airfield, the defenders would send up their interceptors and engage the attackers. If you capture the other fellow on your camera, it means you have scored a hit. Finally an umpire evaluates the plans, their execution, the evidence and declares the winner," said Air Marshal S. Krishnaswamy. Exercise Shiv Shakti is the biggest exercise since Brasstacks of the late 1980s. Newer technologies, developed and purchased, have since revolutionised battlefield concepts, tactics and even strategies. "We are validating the relevance of conventional capability in the nuclear era," said Lieutenant General H.M. Khanna, GOC-in-C of Southern Command whose troops are exercising with the 13 combat aircraft and 30 transporters of the SWAC under Air Marshal Krishnaswamy who has planned 2,200 sorties.

Naturally, the air across the border has been thick with apprehension. Major exercises are not allowed within 100km of the border, "but we are 150 km away," said Brigadier D.K. Babbar who commands a brigade of 200 Armoured Vehicles and 600 softer-skinned ones. Coming after the nuclear tests in Pokharan, a major theatre-level exercise was bound to raise the antenna of Pakistani suspicion. "We have informed Pakistan, as any exercise at the corps level or above have to be notified. But I think they are over-suspicious," said Lt. General Khanna. Reports from across the border, which are confirmed by authorities on this side, indicate that Pakistan has put its troops on a high border alert. In real terms, it means Pakistan has moved troops as close as 30km of the border. According to MoD officials, a series of exercises have been planned in the post-Pokharan period, mainly to evaluate a whole lot of conventional concepts. Thus the Navy, Army and Airforce had a tri-service amphibious exercise, TriAmph-98, off the Goa coast last month, and the Airforce's Western Air Command is planning a still bigger exercise with the Army's Northern Command next March.

The main rationale behind the exercises is that warfare has changed radically in the last 10 years. As is said, militaries are always preparing to win the last war, they always look into the mistakes committed in the last war and rectify them. "We have to be forward-looking; the next war can never be like the last one," said an Officer. And so, a whole range of new weapons and systems are being sand-tested. Indian officials deny that the exercises have a nuclear factor, but Lieutenant General Khanna admitted that the Army version of the Prithvi-150 is being factored, though not fired. Similarly, there is a passive nuclear factor in the sense that troops are exercising a mock NBC atmosphere. "We are trying out against certain new threats that have appeared on the horizon after the Pokharan explosion," said Brigadier D.K. Babbar. In fact, the Army brass feel that conventional capability is all the more important in the post-Pokharan phase than ever before. "The validity of conventional capability and its perceived effectiveness would have overreaching significance to prevent an escalation," explained Lt. General Khanna. In other words, the new thinking is if you can defeat your enemy conventionally, it would negate the reasons for using nuclear forces. Thus the nuclear factor in the exercise is evident in the armoured segments, rather than in missiles or bombers.

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Amid the rumble of about 600 tanks and the roar of more than 400 heavy artillery guns, troops are rushing in armoured personnel carriers.

The T-72 tanks, which Colonel Cyriac describes as the best in the world, would activate their sensors to detect gamma rays in the air released by a nuclear blast. "If they do detect them, there is provision of automatic sealing of the tank," said Colonel Cyriac. "There are air filters which would ensure that contaminated air will not enter the crew chamber." In other words, the army is not exercising with real or mock nuclear weapons, but the crew would perform the drills as if the enemy has used one. Apart from the diplomatic problems a nuclear exercise could cause, there is also the command & control factor that eliminates a nuclear warfare exercise. The decision to use the nuclear weapon is with the highest political authority, rather than the Generals. Lt. General Khanna explained the rationale, "Prithvi as a conventional weapon can be decontrolled to the corps level." So, it would be the Prime Minister who finally decides to launch a nuclear-armed Prithvi, whereas a Lieutenant General can order the missile regiment to fire a conventional Prithvi. The exercise envelops a whole range of new technologies and capabilities rarely tried out by the Indian Armed Forces. Triamph-98 proved that the Navy has the capability to lift a brigade size force along with its heavy equipment into a hostile zone at short notice. Pictures sent by the IRS-1C at pan 91-53B, taken from a height of 850 km, showed virtually every sand dune and tank-navigable paths across the desert. "They also show us whether and where the enemy is moving," said a Colonel at the Corps HQ of the Blue land forces near the Uttarlai air base.

Amid the rumble of about 600 tanks and the roar of more than 400 heavy artillery guns, troops are rushing in armoured personnel carriers. According to the Colonel, the IRS-1C is one of India's biggest technological assets. "We can get the satellite images about enemy movements wherever we are and whenever we ask for them," he said. "If the Corps Commander in an area would like pictures of the large theatre, we can even provide pictures of the smaller tactical area right down the line to the battalion commander, or even further down to every tank commander. And the good news is that Pakistan, with no remote-sensing capability, would have to depend on satellite pictures supplied by the Americans." Supplementing the civilian satellite are the DRDO-developed remotely-piloted vehicles launched by both the Red and Blue forces. Made of composite material, they fly at slow speed and spy on the enemy, sending down pictures and data in real time. If there is fear of them being shot down by heat-seeking missiles, they can even be de-throttled from the ground. "Of course, they have a larger radar profile, but since they are cheap they are dispensable too," said an Officer. According to Lt. Gen. Khanna, the exercise factors a whole range of force-multipliers like surveillance radars, unmanned air vehicles, secrecy devices, high-frequency and very high-frequency transmission systems. A communication revolution has taken place since Brasstacks, "like digitalisation of data, fax, e-mail, data transfer and so on, some of which were tried out last year," he said. "All of them are being integrated for the first time."

While the troops are fighting, there is provision for the senior command officers to relax with a few video games. Well, not exactly. The Army Training Command has developed two computer-assisted wargame packages called CDR-1 & CDR-2. Interest in computer-wargaming precedes even Operation Brasstacks. Computer-wargaming was accepted as a philosophy in the early 1980s when General (retd.) K. Sunderji, as commandant of the College of Combat in Mhow, headed a team to study the subject. Incidentally, it was General Sunderji, as Chief of Army Staff later, who presided over Brasstacks. The first battalion-level war game was developed by 1996. The lessons from this are being incorporated at the brigade, division and corps level. Meanwhile, as Chief of Naval Staff, Admrial Vishnu Bhagwat, explained soon after Triamph-98, the Indian Navy has designated the first naval air squadron for information warfare. "It is a squadron of dedicated aircraft with all possible sensors to gain information with real time connectivity to shore and sea," he said. The series of exercises seem to be designed to energise the defence forces against the threats of the 21st century. The Navy, under whose auspices the amphibious exercises were conducted last fortnight, is now gearing up to meet the threats to the country's energy security. "We don't any longer look at ourselves as merely a fighting force, but one that is closely associated with the nation's development," he said.

Even as it is pressing for an aircraft-carrier, preferably Indian-built, the Navy is readying for its own Prithvi. "It will be on board a ship by January 26th, on an experimental basis," said Admiral Bhagwat. A Naval Prithvi and a newer carrier is expected to enhance India's force-projection capability miles farther. "It is a national requirement on the strategic frontier, not at the doorstep," said Admiral Bhagwat. The Indian Navy is pressing hard for a sustained submarine-building programme. The services are pressing for major systemic changes at the top level too. The mere designation of a national security council does not appear to have satisfied them. For instance, the services argue that half of the intelligence collected by agencies are meant for the armed forces, but they don't get it in time. "We have suggested setting up of a defence intelligence agency," said Admiral Bhagwat. Does it all amount to too much of muscle-flexing? Apparently, the nuclear weaponisation is having its impact on the three services. That India's strategic frontiers lay far beyond the actual land and maritime boundaries is being increasingly recognised in the services, especially the navy with its talk of energy security and the move to create a Far Eastern Naval Command based at the Andamans. "We have to stop thinking that a threat is a threat only when the enemy soldier steps into our territory or his aircraft drops a bomb," said a senior Army Officer, adding, "The threat to a developing country lies far beyond, in securing sea routes in the high seas, looking into the skies far yonder, and deterring enemies from beyond your neighbourhood. We should not be worrying only about Pakistani adventurism in Kashmir, we should worry as much about what the Chinese are doing close to the Andamans or the Americans in Diego Garcia or the Afghans and others in central Asia."

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