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Exercise Shiv-Shakti

Troops taking part in the exercise

In December 1998, India conducted a 10-day exercise "Shiv-Shakti" in the deserts near the border with Pakistan. The exercise, the biggest after Operation Brasstacks(1987) involved four divisions consisting of 72,000 men, 600 tanks and 400 heavy artillery guns. The Indian air force also conducted its own exercise code-named "Gajraj" simultaneously. A key element of Shiv-Shakti was the integration of the Indian Air Force(IAF) into the war game. Every level of the simulated combat closely linked the operations of the Army with that of the IAF. The exercises validated new concepts that had emerged from changes in the battlefield environment and by the induction of new technology.

What differentiated Shiv-Shakti from previous exercises in the '90s was, of course, the nuclear environment. The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998 had altered the scenario on the subcontinent. "We are trying out against certain new threats that have appeared on the horizon after the Pokharan explosion," said Brig. D.K. Babbar who commands a brigade of 200 armoured vehicles and 600 softer-skinned ones.

According to Lt-Gen. H.M. Khanna, GOC-in-C of the Southern Command which supervised the event, one of the major aims of the exercise was to demonstrate that conventional war "is as much important as it was earlier, if not more". However, he admitted that the army version of Prithvi-150 was being factored(though not fired) in the exercises. Similarly, there was a passive nuclear factor in the sense that troops were exercising in a mock NBC(nuclear-biological-chemical) atmosphere.

Prithvi missiles can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.

Defense Minister George Fernandes said the exercises were conducted to evaluate conventional military concepts. A host of new technologies, especially in the communications field, had been introduced after Operation Brasstacks. According to him, force multipliers like surveillance radars, unmanned air vehicles, very high frequency transmission systems and secrecy devices, were tested.

Defense Minister George Fernandes

Fernandes made it clear that the military exercises had not been promoted by any aggressive designs and should not cause concern for anybody. "All armies routinely carry out exercises to remain fit and alert. This one is no different. So, none should worry about it," he stated while commenting on the strong Pakistani reaction to the proposed manoeuvres. Pakistan had mobilised 20,000 troops into defensive positions across the border.

On the venue of the exercises, the Defense Minister pointed out that they could be held only where the Armed forces were deployed and were sufficient open spaces were available for the purpose. "Obviously, we cannot have these exercises in the backyard of Patna or in Mumbai," he said.

For the 1,700 or so officers and 70,000 junior commissioned officers and other ranks involved, the exercise was not about Pokhran or Pakistan but the craft of war which was rapidly changing as newer and more capable equipment made the battlefield more lethal and unforgiving. According to Manavendra Singh Rathore, Brigadier(general staff), a major departure from the past was the movement towards shifting the main thrust of fighting to the night. Night attacks, as any veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars knows, were a chancy affair that caused chaos and confusion and ended in failure rather than success.

Tunguska air-defence system

Fourth generation night-vision equipment like thermal imagers and image intensifiers mounted on Mi-35 attack helicopters, T-72 M tanks and BMP infantry combat vehicles turn night into day and enable them to move swiftly, with relative immunity from air attacks. Cheap global positioning system (GPS) receivers have made navigation in the desert -- a major headache earlier -- much simpler. In the last couple of years, the army had also inducted a lot of new equipment -- 2S6M Tunguska, the world's first gun/missile self-propelled air-defence system, the Prithvi missile, Stentor battlefield surveillance radars and a new generation of electronic warfare equipment that can intercept enemy communications or jam them.

The latest in the line of hi-tech equipment the army used were the Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicle(UAV) obtained from Israel. This 327 kg aircraft with a 47 hp engine has a range of 200 km and can stay aloft for 12 hours. Its digital datalinks provide TV-like pictures of the scene below, be it day or night.

The war games were designed to put these advanced machines and equipment through its paces and test the army's skills in using these new technologies. To do this the Indian forces were divided into 'Blue Land' and 'Red Land', the former representing the home forces and the latter the enemy.

BMP infantry combat vehicles await the order to attack

As per plan, Blueland was the attacking force, 55,000-strong with additional logistics support. Redland was a shell outfit of some 5,000 spread out to represent a division. Being in semi-desert terrain, the Redland forces were deployed in a set of strong interlocking nodes, essentially places where the road or desert tracks cross and along which enemy movement could be expected. The Redland commander spaced his artillery to give support to these positions and dug in a lot of his second-line tanks with bunkers prepared by his forces. Battlefield surveillance radars were placed on the high sand dunes to give some warning of the adversary advance. Aware that the numbers did not favour him, he deployed his electronic warfare companies in the most crucial areas to disrupt Blueland communications.

But the actual timing of the attack was a surprise. Instead of the traditional pre-dawn move, the Blueland forces launched themselves across the "boundary" at 10 p.m. on December 2. IAF Jaguars and MiG-27s streaked low over the sky and began a simulated bombardment on Redland air bases. To protect them against Redland Mirages, MiG-29 aircraft flew protective sorties with them. Aircraft used cameras instead of guns to decide the winner in an engagement.

Blueland's combat teams comprised night-vision-equipped attack helicopters and tanks that used GPS receivers to navigate across the trackless desert. Using Jaguars and MiG-27s and his own considerable firepower, the Blueland commander "struck" at three major nodes, preferring to leave the smaller ones for the infantry divisions that followed, and moved swiftly deeper into Redland territory.

T-72 Ajeya tanks in action. When the tanks sensors detect radioactive air, it gets sealed automatically and air filters ensure that contaminated air does not enter the crew chamber.

There were also air-borne commando attacks, many of which were conducted at night. Air cover was provided for armoured battalions; besides, logistical support was provided in the form of transport planes and helicopters. It was a perfect example of "force integration" in practice.

Satellites were used extensively during the exercises. Pictures sent by the IRS-1C 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 headquarters of the Blue Land forces near the Uttarlai air base.

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."

Also used were the DRDO's remotely piloted vehicles(RPV's) launched by both the Red and Blue forces. Made of composite material, they flew at slow speed to 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.

While all the combat was simulated, Blueland's logistics and communications went through a real test. All the fuel, food, water and ammunition that would be needed by a real force were actually moved in the five-day advance, often on specially laid metalled tracks to ensure they did not get stuck in the soft desert sand. Likewise, jamming was used to realistically test the army's mobile communications network used by Blueland.

A massive umpire organisation monitored the show to decide who won or lost. "The umpire organisation is the key to the exercise," said Rathore. Thousands of umpires headed by a major-general were spread out among the opposing forces evaluating every aspect of the exercise. But the performance of the equipment was done by the respective arm of the service itself and the staff officers later filed reports on it to the higher authorities.

Su-30s on a bombing run

The Air Force played a pivotal role in the exercises. Air Marshal S. Krishnaswami, AOC-in-C of the Gandhinagar-based southwestern air command said that the IAF's 'Gajraj' exercise was a "routine annual exercise", the basic aim of which was to train personnel in "a war-like situation". "It is the closest to actual war we can get. The only difference is that there is no fear of getting killed," he said.

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 Krishnaswami.

More than 125 combat aircraft, 30 transport planes and helicopters participated in the exercises. Top-flight combat planes such as the Su-30s and Mig-27s were put into action. The plan was to organise 2,200 sorties, but the Indian Air Force performed 2,300 sorties. Initially only 260 sorties were planned in support of the Army, but the final figure was 500. Nearly 300 pilots, 2,300 technical and support staff and an operational crew numbering 1,300 participated in the exercises.

One-third of the pilots who participated were comparatively junior pilots. The Air Force believes that this kind of exposure is crucial for them. Many of the combat formations were led by junior pilots. The recent exercises were important for the Air Force also because this was the first major exercise after the SWAC moved to Gandhinagar from Jodhpur and the operational and functional commands had to be tested. According to sources in the Air Force, the exercises helped the command staff in terms of logistics and maintenance support.

A senior Air Force officer said it was the largest exercise so far for the Su-30s. The plane was extensively tested for day and night operations. The rate of rotations was very high, its endurance and range were tested to the limits. The Su-30s operated from Ozar in Karnataka and struck at targets deep in Rajasthan. According to the official, the Su-30s maintained a 100 per cent serviceability record throughout the exercises. The overall percentage, with all the aircraft put together, was 95 per cent, which he said was exceptionally high.

The exercises were fully computerised. Computers were used not only for inventory, management and support services, but for air space management and missile safety. Computers played a crucial role in flight safety as 40-odd aircraft flew within the radius of a few kilometres. Computers were also used for mission analysis. Results from the data generated by 2,300 sorties could be analysed at a fast rate.

A target destroyed in aerial bombing by Su-30's

The exercises provided an opportunity to test extensively techniques of airborne reconnaissance during day and night. These flights were used for mission planning and targeting. More than 250 night attacks were conducted. Both attack and air defence were tested. A large number of helicopters were tested at night. Significantly, the Gajraj exercises ended with the actual delivery of live weapons at various ranges in Rajasthan and Gujarat. This was done to test the weapons delivery capabilities in an operational mission and various possibilities in the field of electronic warfare. Infra-red shafts and flayers were used as shields against heat-seeking missiles.

The doctrine of the Air-Land Battle(ALB) was tested and validated during the exercises. However, despite developing futuristic doctrines and possessing requisite hardware, the Army’s top brass still felt that key gaps remained. For instance, the armed forces still did not possess the capacity to strike effectively beyond the enemy's second echelon - the enemy’s reserve elements or its third line of defence. “Ideally we would like to acquire the capability to target the reserve formations of our enemy,” said an Army officer.

The IAF was yet to obtain in-flight refuelling capability and there are only a limited number of Prithvi launchers in service. A key weakness, which the Army conceded, was tactical communication as well as greater use of non-conventional and revolutionary means of waging war like information warfare or advanced battlefield command and control.

The Defence establishment felt that the forces could strike better and acquire deeper penetration with secure communication gear and airborne surveillance platforms. While the former would provide tamper-proof command and control mechanism, the latter give early warning time to counter air raids. Even though the doctrine had been validated, the hierarchy structure in the theatre command was yet to be addressed. According to them, the need for a single theatre commander was felt during the Shiv-Shakti exercises for ensuring smooth command and control.

Naval helicopter practising manoeuvres at sea

Simultaneously with Shiv-Shakti, the Indian Navy and the IAF also held a joint amphibious exercise called 'TriAmph-98' off the western coast. This involved a beach landing to take control of an imaginary population centre. The naval exercises showed that a brigade-size force can be lifted along with its heavy equipment into a hostile zone at short notice.

Finally after the successful completion of the landmark exercises, the Commanders of Shiv-Shakti and TriAmph exercises came together to brief each other on the outcome of their respective efforts.