The army chief at a press conference as a prelude to Kargil Diwas stated, “No act of terror will go unpunished as the Indian Army stands resolute and ready to defend territorial integrity any misadventure by Pakistan army will be repelled with punitive response.”

Pakistan had made multiple attempts to grab Kashmir by force including in 1948, 1965 and 1999. Every attempt was thwarted. Realizing its military efforts were futile, General Zia-ul-Haq launched his policy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts. This policy has also failed as India has been able to restrict Pak-launched terrorism to within a small part of the Kashmir valley. After the attacks in Mumbai and on Parliament, the Indian armed forces were not launched in an offensive role for multiple reasons.

One major reason in hesitating was that governments over the years had failed to provide the armed forces with requisite budgetary support to ensure they had serviceable equipment and adequate ammunition for operations. This was because we were always cowed down by Pakistan’s nuclear threat and never expected an all-out war. Hence, defence budgets were curtailed, DRDO blocked procurements and the Ordinance Factory Board was slow in providing ammunition based on orders.

Yet governments slept. During the UPA tenure, Defence minister A K Anthony, seeing the Bofors ghost behind every door, was unwilling to even spend the defence capital budget. Thus, ammunition holdings fell below acceptable limits. The Modi government in its initial years contracted for equipment, most of which is now flowing in and enhancing capabilities. However, it was only after the Uri attack that it dawned on the government that the concern of shortfall of ammunition continuously being raised by the army was genuine and impacted its preparedness for intense operations.

This led Manohar Parrikar, the then defence minister, to conduct his famous review on holding of ammunition within the country and evaluating the right level of reserves essential for war. This was done by war-gaming quantum of forces in direct contact, likely expenditure of ammunition and possible duration of conflict in the prevailing nuclear environment. Thus, was borne the concept of 10 days’ War Wastage Reserves (WWR) for the entire army from earlier much inflated figures.

Each equipment has its own number of rounds based on the type of operation and level of contact. This determine its one-day WWR. Further, most modern ammunition has a shelf life within which it must be consumed. Ammunition which had expended its shelf life had not been procured, leaving gaps. Within India, holding of ammunition is spread across multiple depots, depending on their utilisation. The systems within service HQs were also lax and in cases, there were gaps in information on true holdings of ammunition stocks. This caused worry in the upper echelons of the service as lack of ammunition implies lack of operational readiness.

For the national leadership, it was an eyeopener as they realized that genuine demands of the armed forces had been ignored. Nations devote intelligence resources to monitor and determine the state of war preparedness of their adversaries. Inputs determining war preparedness include availability of fuel and ammunition apart from the serviceability of equipment and morale of forces.

Shortfalls in ammunition implies that ability of the armed forces to fight a sustained battle is restricted. This could be exploited. Further, the nation expects that whenever there is a threat, the armed forces must possess the capability to strike fast and maintain pace of operations. This can be impacted if the holding of ammunition, mainly for armoured vehicles, artillery and air defence are limited. Infantry ammunition would rarely be in short supply. This reduces confidence of the national leadership on the ability of the armed forces to deliver.

The surgical strike launched after the Uri attack was shallow and aimed at sending a message to Pakistan. Its denial gave the Indian army muchneeded space. Though prepared for operations and escalation, there was always a nagging fear on the holding of ammunition stocks. With the acceptance of 10 days WWR, the scenario changed. The current army leadership, over the last three years, has gone on overdrive to ensure ammunition holding comes to a level where it is prepared to launch prolonged operations to quell any misadventure from Pakistan.

When central funds failed to flow, the army cancelled multiple projects including Married Accommodation Projects and diverted funds for enhancing ammunition stockpiles. Vice-Chiefs were given powers to move ahead with procurement of ammunition at a faster pace. Simultaneously, Ordnance Factories were pressurized to enhance production to meet pending demands. By the time Pulwama happened, the scenario had changed.

This did not go unnoticed by Pakistan, which continues to lack similar capability. Thus, when Pulwama occurred and options were discussed by service chiefs with the national leadership, the army was confident of tackling any escalation as it had ammunition stocks in place. This time, the government could confidently choose a stronger and more hard-hitting option. The selection of Balakote by the Prime Minister implied that he expected escalation to be on the cards.

The confidence of the army that it could respond with force and hit Pakistan hard even along the International Border, in case of escalation, was a guiding factor. It also conveyed the message that in future, the armed forces could strike harder, ignoring Pakistan’s nuclear threat and expand the area of conflict in case it again responded to misadventures.

Pakistan, aware of India’s military capability and preparedness, backed down once again and denied Balakote. The rest is history. Enhanced availability of ammunition of all types has provided senior army commanders the confidence to tackle Pakistan with greater firepower. Thus, there is a stronger response to Pakistani firing and infiltration attempts.

This is one of the factors behind Pakistan improving its behaviour. Such an action should have been adopted much earlier. It was ignored due to lack of understanding between the government and the army leadership as also the belief that all-out wars are a thing of the past in a nuclear environment. Hopefully, with systems set in place, such a situation may never occur again.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)