Scholar Warriors

Sub Title : Application of  Operational Art in Operations of 4 Corps by Lt Gen Sagat Singh

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 3 Jul/Aug 2019

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 61

Category : Regular Features

: July 31, 2019

Late Lt Gen Sagat Singh, PVSM was born on 14 Jul 1919. He joined the military profession as a Naik and rose to be a three star general and one of India’s most successful field commanders. On his birth centenary two seminars were held to celebrate his life with unveiling of busts at appropriate locations in Jodhpur and Jaipur.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) spoke at the Jodhpur seminar on operational art as practiced by

Lt Gen Sagat Singh during the 1971 Indo Pakistan War. Reproduced here are excerpts of his speech

Rarely does the Army take the trouble to celebrate the life of its own iconic leaders and personalities. The event to celebrate the life of Lt Gen Sagat Singh, PVSM, by South Western Command at Jaipur and Southern Command at Jodhpur is indeed the way forward in recognizing the military achievements of some of our own. Lt Gen Sagat Singh was a unique soldier and General and on his birth centenary his family, his regiment (3 GR) and the entire Indian Army should feel proud for having nurtured such a personality. It was an honour to have known him personally courtesy an enduring relationship between him and my father, both old time soldiers linked inextricably to the spirit of 2/3 GR (QAO) the progenitor of the Garhwal Rifles. I learnt much from his personal rendering of the accounts of various battles of 4 Corps and the manner in which he took up the challenges.

The speakers at the Jodhpur seminar spoke extensively of General Sagat Singh’s   personality, his early life and his soldierly qualities but I was happy that a very  professional aspect was left to me to analyze and speak about; the identification of his tremendous skills with which he harnessed the resources of his Corps to adopt ‘operational art’ and deliver the punch, absorbing the overall strategy of the Indian Army and converting it to tactical application which delivered victory in 1971.

Basics of Operational Art

Before coming to dwell on operational art as applicable to conduct of 4 Corps operations in 1971, it may be appropriate to familiarize readers and perhaps remind some of them a bit about the term – operational art. It is not a subject with which officers are usually familiar. In an emerging standoff likely to lead to a show of arms it starts with political direction that the national leadership gives to the military. The military leadership then converts the direction into military strategy. Strategy typically involves two major processes: formulation and implementation. Formulation involves analyzing the environment or situation, making a diagnosis, and developing guiding policies. It includes such activities as strategic planning and strategic thinking. Implementation refers to the plans and action taken to achieve the goals established by the guiding policy, for example the allocation of resources or restrictions. Subordinate commanders are then left to further analyze the guiding policies, the resources available to them including time, and weigh them against the strengths and weaknesses of the adversary as also the challenges of terrain to determine the tangibles and the intangibles which will be necessary to achieve the strategic military aim. In other words the level at which the military strategy is converted to a set of doables on ground is the operational level and the techniques by which the highest commander’s intent is converted to a set of intended tactical actions, coordinated through plans and directions to the tactical level, is called operational art. It is not always sacrosanct at which formation level operational art applies. However, without argument here let us presume both the  Corps and Command  level in 1971 were implementing national strategic planning into a set of tactical manoeuvres through surprise and deception, rapid application of forces, maintenance of momentum, focused attention towards a centre of gravity, harnessing of resources and provision of  logistics to prevent tactical pause. The implementers were the divisions and ad hoc div sized forces.

The questions to ask while practicing operational art are – what military (or related political and social) conditions must be produced in the operational area to achieve the strategic goal? (Ends); what sequence of actions is most likely to produce that condition? (Ways); How should the resources of the joint force be applied to accomplish that sequence of actions? (Means); and what is the likely cost or risk to the joint force in performing that sequence of actions?

There is a whole range of heads under which one can address the application of operational art but we need not stick to all of them. Examples are – synergy, simultaneity and depth, anticipation, balance, leverage, timing and tempo and so on.

Applying Operational Art to the Bangladesh Campaign

Besides the well-known reasons Field Marshal Manekshaw gave for not commencing operations in Apr 2019, which were accepted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the political direction to the Armed Forces was to secure sufficient area within East Pakistan where the provisional government of Bangladesh could be established. This would also permit a safe return passage for close to 10 million refugees from India back into Bangladesh. It was to be achieved rapidly. While these operations were going on in the East, the Armed Forces were to undertake holding action in the West. Capture of Dhaka wasn’t an objective at the planning stage. Progressively it became the eventual centre of gravity; identified as the terminal objective which would cause the caving in of the Pakistan Army.

In 1971 the Indian Army adopted a manoeuvre over an attritional approach.  It planned three Corps sized thrusts into three sub regions of Bangladesh divided naturally by the river system. The largest segment in the NE to SE became the responsibility of General Sagat Singh’s 4 Corps. The HQ had the unique responsibility of reorganizing itself into two parts to look after the Chinese front and take under command additional forces, 8, 57 and 23 Divs from the NE to the SE and move to Agartala. It also had the shortest approach (80 km) to Dacca.

More than anything else it was the unconventional approach of General Sagat Singh and his willingness to take risk, even personal risk, in order to seize the initiative that saw 4 Corps perform optimally. General Sagat Singh’s three recent operational exposures (in just eight years) gave him tremendous advantage and this experience played a major role in determining the intangibles which too contribute to effective operational art. First his confidence dealing with special operations had received a boost after he was placed as Commander 50 Parachute Brigade (even as a non-paratrooper). During his tenure he had the opportunity to participate in the liberation of Goa; getting across water obstacles to be the fastest to reach Panjim was an obsession with him. Later he commanded 101 Communication Zone at Shillong as Maj Gen and handled Mizoram at the height of its turbulence. Gen Sagat Singh’s manoeuvre mind ensured innovative and bold ways to take on the insurgents, effectively introducing operational art to successful CI operations. The big takeaway from these which came handy in 1971 was his ability to work with the Air Force, as Para Bde Cdr and in Mizoram where India used air power against insurgents for the first and last time.  However, before moving to 10 Communication Zone it was his experience as GOC 17 Mtn Div that added even more to his stature, to his experience in handling troops in negative situations and to his operational confidence. The Nathu La standoff with the Chinese in 1967 could have resulted in another disgrace for the Indian Army so soon (five years) after the disastrous defeat of 1962; it is his strong leadership that prevented Indian capitulation to Chinese threats. He gave back the Indian Army its self-respect by the bold handling of the Chinese aggressive stance at Nathu La resulting in almost 350 Chinese soldiers being killed.

A General Officer with such experience in the last ten years before he commands an operational Corps, about to be launched into battle, would obviously be brimming with confidence. The preparatory period was sufficiently long to ensure that the Mukti Bahni was tasked to prepare the ground and intelligence was actually rocking. General Sagat Singh studied the maps and realized that the task allotted to him did not do justice to the capability of 4 Corps, the only Corps with full three divisions. The Corps was to advance from the East and capture all territory East of River Meghna. The main task given to 4 Corps was to destroy Pakistani forces East of rivers Meghna and Bulai. The task for forcing the capitulation of Dacca was given to 2 Corps (once Dacca became the CoG) advancing from the comparatively ‘firmer’ firm base in West Bengal. Even Niazi had appreciated that the weight of the offensive would be biased towards the direction of assured logistics. However, it was Gen Sagat Singh who reversed that by creating the opportunities for a quicker breakthrough from the East and thus the placement of a much larger force into the corridor between the Rivers Meghna and the Jamuna (Brahmaputra).

It was not simple. The break-in operation was initially attritional at nodes such as Akhaura, just across the Tripura border. General Sagat Singh displayed his omnipresence wherever his troops ran into heavy resistance. Thereafter some classic improvisation was resorted to, through heliborne and river crossing operations across water obstacles in the Sylhet and Ashuganj sectors as the static Pakistani defences were outflanked. That was the end of attritional battles. While Sylhet started it all,  it was the crossing of the Meghna River at two points, Raipura and Narsindi  barely 60 km from Dacca, by a brigade of 57 Mountain Division on 10 Dec 1971 that exploited an opportunity. It was followed by a left hook with another brigade heli-lifted to Narainganj 40 km South East of Dacca.  Between 6 and 12 Dec 1971 the three helicopter units of the IAF had landed over 4000 troops, supporting equipment, ammunition and light artillery by flying 350 sorties, including 100 by night. The floating across the 4000 metre wide Meghna by Major (later Lt Gen) Shammi Mehta’s PT-76 Squadron was another means of ensuring the furtherance of the higher commander’s mission and optimum harnessing of resources. By 12 Dec 1971,4 Corps had a division sized force concentrated around Dacca ready to assault from three directions. The depiction was much more because Niazi did not have the means to discern exact orbats or strength. This strength along with 95 Infantry Brigade and the Mukti Bahni based Romeo Force from 101 Communication Zone, was close to five brigades, sufficient to send jitters down the Pakistan Army’s command set up.

Synergy. When examined in depth the operations of 4 Corps throw up various lessons from the angle of operational art. Synergy is among the first of them.  It was a prime example of application of force from different dimensions to shock, disrupt, and defeat the adversary. The Air Force played a huge role and its cooperation was leveraged through General Sagat Singh’s personal rapport. A clear understanding of the desired end state appeared to exist in both forces. Of the 1350 close air support missions flown by the IAF in the campaign over 500 were in support of 4 Corps. The necessity of add on firepower having been fully realized the Tactical Air Centres were pushed to their limits to cater for delivery from the air. Many attribute this to Gen Sagat’s understanding of air power due to his experience as Commander 50 Parachute Brigade.

Simultaneity and Depth were major factors in the 4 Corps scheme of things. Operations were conducted across the full breadth and depth of the operational area, creating competing and simultaneous demands on enemy commanders and resources which they could not meet.

Remaining alert with Anticipation for the unexpected and for opportunities to exploit the situation is the acme of operational art. Situational awareness therefore is a prerequisite for commanders and planners to be able to anticipate opportunities and challenges. The handling of 4 Corps operations perfectly exemplified this. Risk too was a factor to contend with but confidence and experience helps overcome decision making challenges. This was matched by maintaining Balance with an appropriate mix of forces and capabilities throughout.

While operations remained distributed covering a large front in the East Gen Sagat Singh’s tight Control ensured that opportunities were never lost and empowerment of the divisions to conduct their operations too remained intact.

Creativity as an element of operational art remained centre stage. There was no insistence to remain fixated to plans; placing belief in the age adage – ‘plan is the first casualty of a battle’.

Asymmetry was prevalent at the commencement and never squandered at the altar of fixed plans and attrition. Speed, ferocity and flexibility remained the watchwords, while the lay of geography was used to advantage at every stage. Irregular forces were not reined in to fight in the manner of the organized ones.

General Sagat realized that simply reaching the outskirts of Dacca did little justice to the capability of his forces and the rapid movement of his tactical HQ. His availability in the corridor to Dacca meant that a three star officer was available to command the diverse elements present; the forces of 101 Communication Zone, the paratroopers who had landed at Tangail and the elements of 4 Corps. Potentially that could be disastrous in a game of one-upmanship and lack of command and control. There were no clean and neat fronts to look at as resistance was yet on at some locations even as the surrender ceremony was underway. The finishing touch to a campaign is as important as the break-in. It was proved by his effective command and control of the elements in and around Dacca.

While he was master of the tactical operations at the highest level, Gen Sagat Singh simultaneously understood operational art and requirements of theatre level strategy. He had the ability to envision the end state and orchestrate time and resources to achieve that end state. In this he was always ahead of the game.

At the end of it the most important thing was that Gen Sagat proved yet again that he was a victorious general wherever he participated in operations. Such victories are secured by clear thinking which is necessary to convert the higher commander’s intent into actionable plans with application and coordination of forces, optimized by flexibility. This is the acme of operational art, something the good General had mastered.