As we celebrate Vijay Diwas, commemorating India’s greatest absolute military victory, it is pertinent to look back at the lessons learnt and their relevance today

by Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM

First, after the catastrophic defeat in 1962, the armed forces had been reformed and modernised, and lessons from the stalemate of the 1965 War had been imbibed. Second, defence budget hovered between 3-4 per cent of the GDP from 1962 to 1971, equalled only once more from 1980 to 1990 when the last major reforms took place. Third, the political aim was clearly spelt out — liberate East Pakistan to create Bangladesh. Fourth, there was excellent politico-military dialogue and military advice was paid heed to. Lastly, the armed forces conducted the most brilliant tri-Services operational-level campaign, albeit by default, to achieve the political aim. I will focus on the last ingredient for victory — the operational-level of war.

What Is The Operational Level of War?

In military theory, there are three levels of war — strategic, operational and tactical. Strategic level deals with the political and military aims, and involves drawing broad contours of political and macro military plans. The tactical level deals with battles and is generally restricted up to the divisional-level/corps-level. The operational level of war focuses on campaign planning to achieve the military aims and is practised at theatre command-level. But in large theatres, the campaign planning can also be done at the corps level. It is the essential link between the strategic and the tactical levels, where hundreds of battles are coordinated to target the enemy’s centre of gravity or critical vulnerability to bring about psychological collapse and defeat.

The operational level of war, also known as operational art, was formally evolved by the Germans and Russians post First World War and applied during the Second World War. Western armies adapted to it in the 1980s and exploited it in Gulf War 1 (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991) with great success. Armies not well-versed in military theory remain obsessed with the tactical battle, and hence, fail to translate and stitch numerous tactical battles into a campaign plan to achieve strategic aims — Indian armed forces fall in this category.

The Indian Experience

No, I am not contradicting myself because the translation of a predominantly attritionist tactical plan in 1971 was left to brilliant commanders and staff officers who, after initial tactical successes, instinctively seized the opportunity to head for Dhaka. Sadly, military theory has never been our forte — 49 years later, we still remain focussed on the tactical level of war.

The public and the media are generally obsessed with battles. Note our focus on encounters to kill terrorists in counter-insurgency operations. They rarely involve discussing political/military aims/strategy, and the operational-level execution. In Eastern Ladakh, our focus has been on the Galwan incident — the night of 15/16 June — and the extent of specific Chinese intrusions at various points. We failed to note the brilliant operational-level plan of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which through a number of coordinated tactical operations achieved its strategic aim.

China sullied our political/military reputation, secured its 1959 claim line, neutralised our defensive strategy, prevented development of border infrastructure in critical areas, and made large tracts of our territory vulnerable for cherry-picking in the event of an escalation. Above all, it didn’t fire a single shot.

An apt comparison to explain the difference in the Indian and Chinese approach is of the man on the fence who sees the situation up to 500 metres versus an eagle in the sky that gets the larger picture.

The 1971 Story

Dhaka was the centre of gravity of East Pakistan. It was the political capital, and all major communication arteries emanated from it. Logically, it should have been our final and principal objective, because it was the geopolitical and geostrategic heart of then East Pakistan. However, it was never spelt out as the strategic objective. Seeped in attritionist culture, which revels in using force on force, the army headquarters’ operational instruction focussed on the ports of Khulna and Chittagong, and also insisted on capture of all other towns except Dhaka.

Years later, Lt Gen Inder Gill, then Director of Military Operations, explained: “Operational Instructions issued to Eastern Command specified capture of areas up to main river lines. Dacca was not included as the terminal objective. This was because it was considered at the time planning was done that Eastern Command would not have the capability of capturing the whole of East Pakistan before a ceasefire was forced on us. It is the great credit of Indian Army leadership that once Pakistani defences started crumbling, they were able to quickly switch gears and head for Dacca with dash and elan.”

In a nutshell, it was the brilliant field commanders and staff officers — Chief of Staff Eastern Command Major General J.F. R. Jacob, Director General of Military Operations Major General Inderjit Singh Gill, GOC 4 Corps, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh, and Commander of 95 Mountain Brigade Brigadier H.S. Kler, operating under 101 Communication Zone — who, after initial tactical success, translated an attritionist tactical-level plan into a brilliant operational-level victory. Pakistan’s defences, based around major towns, were largely intact. Dhaka had 30,000 defenders against 3,000 of the Indian Army on its outskirts. But such is the impact of threatening the centre of gravity that General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi agreed to surrender. Rest is history.

On Vijay Diwas, apart from traditional ceremonials, the military must also resolve to master the theory of war and adapt it to our environment. Of course, it needs a review of the Professional Military Education programme. But along with it, we must also study the operational-level absolute victory in the Bangladesh War, and relate it to incomplete victory in 1947-48, defeat in 1962, stalemate in 1965, laboured restoration of status quo in 1999 Kargil War and groping in the dark in Eastern Ladakh.