IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 2

"The lessons must be learnt together, every organisation that was involved in launching IPKF has to throw up lessons collectively without fear. Only then will the truth emerge" opines Gp Capt. A.G.Bewoor

IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 2

Learning From Overconfidence And Bad Accord

Overconfidence in Bad Accord  

It was well reported then, that Indian experts who scrutinise every word and punctuation of international accords had too little time to check the draft of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and advise corrections for protecting India's interests. A clear enough indication of the arrogance and over confidence prevailing in the diplomatic, bureaucratic and political hierarchy of the day, thus 'ahankaar' manifested because of the overwhelming majority in parliament. The Accord was pushed through, 'majoritarianism' at its finest. Observe the abuse of power and bulldozing of an International Accord with military implications that were disadvantageous to Indian Armed Forces. And finally it was the Armed Forces which provided the last nail in the coffine as it were, in pushing through the Accord, by undesirable swagger and overconfident attitude towards the confused military objectives in the Accord. Certitude bordering on cocksureness of a capability that did not exist within the Armed Forces. This false military bravado further augmented the disregard for caution within the nonmilitary and intelligence community, and the Accord was signed in haste without the main protagonist, LTTE. They were unwilling, dissenting and absent. That is how we went into Sri Lanka in 1987, eventually totalling 100,000 men, and came back in 1990 minus 1200, with a bad reputation that wiped away the honour of all earlier military victories of the Indian Armed Forces. It would take nine years to resurrect that izzat on the Himalayan slopes of Kargil.  If only all those notes, minutes, comments, dissents, cautionary warnings were available for educating ourselves,  there would be invaluable lessons for military and civilian personnel.

The high degree and speed of disinformation that was transmitted about the Accord, is exactly similar to the military intervention into Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussain. The media of the day failed in disrobing the emperor and his henchmen both in and out of uniform. Not one PIL was placed in the Supreme Court to halt the Accord because in truth, it was against the supreme interests of India and Indians. Everyone was flowing with the 'majoritarianism' stream of that vintage which said, “anything is possible with 414 seats in Lok Sabha”.  Observe today with 300 + seats the BJP is tarnished as practicing 'majoritarianism’, but when the Congress had 414 seats and practiced majoritarianism by inducting the IPKF via a very poor Accord, the media was silent, and remains silent today? They are culpable too. Is this the freedom our media seeks? In 1987 the IPKF went in with its left hand tied to its left thigh, impairing swift, unimpeded battle tactics, and yet, as is well documented, at the junior levels the 'fauji' proved his vitality with honour. All honour and courage of the IPKF resides at the junior levels. The seniors have written books, the juniors made it possible for them to write those books

Lessons for Civilians  

Do they discuss the political, administrative, intelligence, military goof ups that made the IPKF and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord a debacle, at the IAS Academy in Mussoorie? Unlikely. Do intelligence boffins, career diplomats, administrators, financial experts, historians, analysts from govt, hold frank and free seminars to ensure we do not get sucked into such a mess again? No. But why not, we want a permanent seat at the UN Security Council; we want to be treated as a regional power that can deliberate intellectually and fairly on matters that impact this region. We want to have special commercial equations with nations and union of nations like ASEAN, EU, GCC. We want militaries of friendly nations to train with us on the ground, at sea and in the air. Then we have to show them that India is capable of self introspection and is not afraid to talk about her failures, blemishes, warts, frailties and infirmities. When we can do that, and demonstrate that we do it without fear, everyone will accept India at the High Table in the UN? Regrettably we are reluctant and frightened to do it. In all the grandiose Think Tanks that abound in New Delhi, with patronage from government, there are never seminars to study failures and blunders in our military cum diplomatic cum administrative cum intelligence cum political decision making. Foreign leaders know this infirmity and feebleness of Indian governance and look upon us as pygmies who do not wish to grow into giants. No one likes to sit with men and women, who cannot excogitate and ponder their failures and seek remedy? Changing one‟s mind and admitting you were wrong is not the problem. It is admitting that the others were right that is unacceptable to the leadership of that era, and therein this reluctance to peel the skin and reveal the grand defects of IPKF. We conveniently forget that All Progress made in This World, has been by the Realisation and Discussions of Errors. India is not willing to do that, then why will anyone look at us differently, than they have for the last 70 years? We are stuck exactly where we were, much like the parade ground order of  'jaise the earlier known as you were.' The lessons must be learnt together, every organisation that was involved in launching IPKF has to throw up lessons collectively without fear. Only then will the truth emerge and hopefully none of us will do it again, hopefully.

Interference And Lack Of Seriousness

Misleading Inputs and Interference

And so the first elements of IPKF went in from 30 July 87. About two months earlier, AN-32s with Mirage escorts dropped 25 tons of civil supplies in Jaffna unconcerned that they were violating the air space of an independent nation. Witness the arrogance of Indian leadership, the 'majoritarianism’, all done for Congress to win Tamil Nadu elections, which as everyone knew, would never happen. Witness the misleading inputs to Rajiv by charlatans who live in happy retirement today, they collectively lost Rajiv, did they not? The charter for IPKF was to disarm all Tamil groups including the LTTE, sadly the IPKF could not do it till the very end.

This was a major failure not because the Indian Army was incapable; it was because the fighting elements of IPKF were not permitted to reach that objective due persistent interference from higher formations, including Defence HQs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, and the PMO with countermanding and confusing orders, instructions and 'suggestions'. Many have written about this irritating meddling by those who knew nothing about the true ground situation. The IPKF went in without any genuine intelligence inputs. The intention to intervene in Sri Lanka using Armed Forces was being bandied about among govt mandarins and military leaders for months and was a foregone reality since no other force could have done it.

The Armed Forces were given warning orders to prepare themselves for the task, and all strategic & tactical intelligence was to be supplied by the IB / RAW and their agents, but little came forth. Our High Commission in Colombo gave no concrete authoritative intelligence about Tamil Groups, and at times it appeared that this information was deliberately kept away from the Indian Army. Amazing. The Intelligence Directorate of Army HQ did not have reliable maps / charts for the task. We had months of planning time, we have defence attaches in Colombo along with RAW officers, how did we allow this to happen to an army that had performed so professionally just 16 years earlier in East Pakistan? What and where was the decline? Did no one see it coming? Were warning signals and alarm bells not rung? Both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson would have castigated India for this deliberate wilful negligence, bungling unpreparedness and uncalled for interference in tactical matters by immature strategists. So many authoritative narratives have been published wherein the tactical hindrance generated by interference from New Delhi and Madras caused failures in achieving the aims and goals. And sadly it continued till IPKF withdrew. This is not the real Indian Army

We were Not Serious

So the IPKF entered the arena in 1987 with tourist brochures and shrugged shoulders. What a come down from the meticulous grooming, planning, training and readiness demonstrated in 1971. Many senior and middle level commanders of that '71 war were dismayed at the visible unprofessionalism. Was anyone serious about this? I was asked this by a young major at dinner in Chennai. The Maratha battalion that went in early were given contrary convoluted instructions, one day the then CO who now lives in Kerala may divulge his story. How was it that the strict training that faujis have ingrained was unable to extract worthwhile tactical intelligence before committing troops to battle? Who is responsible for this unserious and callous attitude towards fighting men? One fact is very obvious, the powers that be, both military and civilian, were guilty of disregard for the lives they were placing in the firing line, eventually 1200 such lives would be wasted, because too many leaders were perfunctory in their assessments about the adversary. The enemy was not even identified clearly, nor was his ability to cause devastating damage to Indian forces ever considered during the appreciations.

How many appreciations were done? At what levels were they made? Were any appreciations done at all? Hold it. Was the IPKF ever war gamed? How do you war game a plan when the enemy is not defined? The supreme overconfidence of the few, completely subsumed caution and the need for reappraisal, as the time for induction crept closer. Absence of earnestness is clearly evident. Today the Armed Forces of India are unable to explain to themselves how and why this happened. Journalists, commentators, analysts, historians, military experts, research students are unable to get a closure of the failed IPKF misadventure, why? The absence of sincerity before, during and after the operation is followed by amnesia, there is no genuine desire to force both civilian and military leaders of today to intellectually analyse where we goofed up, how often we erred, what induced the callousness and why those who could bring sanity into the whole game remained silent, or were made to shut up? To paraphrase Churchill with apologies, Never in the History of Human Conflict, Have So Few, Screwed So Many, So Well.  A few examples about the lack of seriousness would be in order.

The Missing Missile And Vertical Envelopment

Fly Low We Are Missing a Missile

One morning in Oct 87, I was at Madras international airport loading a T-72 tank into an IL-76 for Jaffna. The previous day we had inducted T-72s into Jaffna and Trincomalee. (I had a night halt at Madras in an Army Mess, and met that Major who said that people in Delhi are not serious about IPKF). During the loading, I was called to a telephone to speak with IPKF HQs, readers note that there was an IPKF HQs in Madras. The officer at the other end wanted me to change my profile of Approach and Landing at Jaffna when I went in with this T-72. Readers please concentrate.

The HQ did not want me to make a normal approach starting at 600 meters above ground at a distance of about six kms from the runway;  but descend to 100 meters Above Ground at 6 kms from Jaffna and land. Jaffna has a short runway, with gravely surface resulting in inefficient braking, one had to touch-down at the very beginning of the runway to stop easily within its length, and we had been doing it ever since IPKF induction commenced. But to touch down at the beginning, the pilot of an IL-76 must see the runway at a distance of at least 3 kms so that at a speed of 250 km/hr, he gets about a minute to align and stabilize the approach and make a correct touchdown. The IL-76 with a T-72 tank inside would be landing at 150 tons, 10 tons higher than the maximum permitted weight.

I explained all this to the HQs and added that, the IL-76 has a wing span of 50 meters, I cannot see the wingtips from the flight deck, the aircraft is 47 meters long, its16 wheels are 20 feet below me. At 100 meters above ground, I would be avoiding birds with violent turns at that low height, worse, I would see Jaffna runway from just about half a kilometre before touchdown, with no time to re-align with the runway, which would be inevitable with my violent turns to avoid birds. And this circus I would be doing at 150 tons weight. I added that, the IL-76 was not a Big Dakota, but a new class of aircraft to be flown differently. I finally asked him why I should do such a crazy approach? His answer was that the LTTE had got three Shoulder Fired Anti Aircraft missiles. Apparently they had fired one at a Sri Lanka air force aircraft and missed, the

IPKF had found the Third, but were unsure where the Second one was, and were worried that LTTE may use this to shoot at an IL-76 or AN-32. This information naturally unnerved me and I asked a direct question, “Sir, should I then fly into Jaffna or not?” Readers, would you believe the answer, “I am not telling you not to fly to Jaffna?” This was how serious the higher echelons were about IPKF operations.

This was 1987, I served till Dec 1993, today it is 2023, I have never heard about this missile threat from any other pilot in these last 30 years. One does not intervene in another country, even on invitation, sans earnestness to do it right, we were far from serious. Why? In 1987, 40 years after independence and four wars, the Indian Army was a thoroughly seasoned military machine with much insurgency expertise. Why and how did this Force and its leadership fail in Sri Lanka? Why did the faujis, most of whom had tasted both defeat and victory in these 40 years, permit strategic and tactical bullying by non-military civilians? How was the inherent passion of the Indian Army for military preparedness; get smothered and overwhelmed, by the false belief that the supreme majority in parliament would overcome any problem? Could it be as so succinctly and precisely put, that the people who Work For a Living, were Hugely Outnumbered by those Who Vote for a Living in such a scenario, sincerity falls by the wayside, gong-ho attitudes prevail, caution is thrown to the winds, unprofessional solutions start popping up, overconfidence reigns supreme. The words, 'fake news' did not exist in 1987, but sadly, fake news was rampant throughout the life of IPKF.

Take Trincomalee By Vertical Assault

Another harebrained proposal was the capture of Trincomalee (Trinco) airport by dropping paratroopers in case the LTTE take control of it. Now

Trinco runway is aligned 060 / 240, with sea in the East, West, South West and jungles to the North. The approach of runway 06 has a tall tower 2 Kms short of the RW from where one can observe all landing aircraft and even fire at them. Tall Derricks are located just short of the beginning of runway.

The plan reveals incontrovertible evidence of overconfidence and absence of appreciation of employment of airborne troops to capture runways, bridges, economic targets, cross roads, airports, radar units and so on. Trinco was fully accessible by ground to the IPKF, retaking the airport from LTTE would have to be a ground based attack from multi directions, certainly not on 'silk'. The plan gave the impression that a land based attack was impossible to plan or even execute, which was false. Just because there are maroon berets in Agra, and the IAF has aircraft that can drop them, and because we have not done an offensive para-drop since 1971, we must do it now? Did someone forget that paratroopers can also walk? Besides, look at the certainty of most paratroopers landing in the lagoon which surrounds Trinco airport.

Observe the extreme vulnerability of IAF aircraft to all kinds of heavy and small arms fire, from vantage points which the LTTE would most certainly exploit. Did not the events in Jaffna University in Oct 87deter such planning and thinking? Or was it again this all consuming supercilious 'majoritarian' ambience that drowned sane rational thinking? This was a haughty posture which would definitely result in heavy casualties, one wonders whether it was proposed just to prove that the commander is not frightened to commit troops to battle, so do you plan a suicidal operation? There have been many observations by non military experts that the generals were not willing to take on the LTTE. These so called 'experts' swiftly, shamefully  and handily forgot that it is they who had tied the Left Hands of the IPKF generals  to Their Left Thighs,  by neglecting to ensure that the Accord strengthened the Indian Army, and not the Tamil Groups and Sri Lanka Army. The Accord was not the making of the Indian Armed Forces. The huge electoral win of 1984 had permeated and percolated arrogance into the thinking process in our leadership. A situation easily avoided by seasoned bureaucratic and military leaders, since they are trained to exercise caution against political jingoism. But the huge Lok Sabha win of 1984 made the politician and his advisers; oh so powerful and cocksure with unsound overconfidence, that they just brushed aside advice for reappraisal.

Sadly, those who should have put their feet down with firm hands, acquiesced meekly. Why? Besides it was all the more risky and fragile with a rookie prime minister who relied on advisers with very poor experience or knowledge in these matters. This jingoism would again manifest itself in a nonexecutable plan to drop paratroopers in Northern POK on the other side of the Siachin glacier to capture Pakistani positions at 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. This attitude would also encourage a plan to para-drop troopers, on a moonless night, in the island archipelago of Maldives in the middle of the Hind Mahasagar. Both plans completely in-executable, tactically suicidal and strategically fallacious. We were certainly not sincere during IPKF, and demonstrated that callousness many times later too. How did this come about in an Army that has a grand legacy of more than 200 years? An Army that has more battle honours and captured Flags, than many other military forces around the world, indulged in this kind of planning? We need to remedy this malaise before it consumes us. Is it still there in certain military quarters, among veterans, among the armchair strategists, netas, and the generalist ill informed bureaucrats who take on the mantle of defending India


Every person, even remotely associated with IPKF, will accept that there are lessons for all departments of Government. Even now it is not late to dissect IPKF, and extract lessons. India has the largest military force in the region and we need to behave in consonance with this reality. The face-offs with China will remain. Pakistani mischief will continue indefinitely.  Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Seychelles, Indonesia  will keep us on our diplomatic and military toes, even if it is to tell us not to take them for granted. Our 'ahankaar', which surfaces with irritating regularity against our small neighbours, has been the proverbial ditch into which our diplomatic-military-economic efforts fall. Our neighbours know that we have this propensity to ignore failures and cover up blunders, such a nation cannot be looked up to. Witness Maldives ignoring India in the February 2018 crisis. Notice the paralysis that MOD and MHA has shown in making our 'soft' targets secure from terror attacks. If the combined uncoordinated and lifeless efforts of our intelligence wizards –  polished military brass- diplomatic conjurers- bureaucratic illusionists – political misfits and corporate India, cannot be remedied by successive generation of Indian leaders, who will have faith in India's formidability, reliability, dependability? If we collectively plan untidy military operations relying on the overconfidence of leaders who blame failures on others, we will repeatedly make the same monumental blunders.  A highly sensitive military adventure like IPKF should not have started without war gaming and dedicated planning, and we had time to do that. The disdain for the lungi clad LTTE fighters resulted in engraving 1200 names on stone tablets. Our attitude must change, at least to honour those Indians who fell for Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka.

Gp Capt. AG Bewoor was commissioned in the Indian Air Force in 1965 into the Transport Stream. He was one of the pioneer members to induct the IL-76 into the IAF. He flew the first IL-76 into Male during the abortive coup in Maldives in 1988. This, along with the other operations, earned him the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) in 1990. He took premature retirement in 1993 while serving as the COO of 3 Wing at AFS Palam. He regularly contributes to military journals and magazines. He can be reached on Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 1
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IPKF Debacle And Lessons Learnt: Part 1

"By the time IPKF withdrew in 1990, we had lost 1200 officers and men. And for what? The aim, if indeed there was one, was never written or espoused by the Defence Secretary who is the single person in-charge and responsible for the defence of India" Opines Gp Capt AG Bewoor

Mental Blocks & Uniforms
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Mental Blocks & Uniforms

"The army for the first time, has tried to finish this painful wart in the surface, by making at least one platform of visibility an equal playing field." Opines Neil John


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