In the middle of 1986, when Pakistan was heavily occupied in internal matters, reports from across the border emerged that India was organising a major military exercise in Rajasthan, adjacent to the border with Pakistan. In Islamabad, the alarm bells began sounding off — was Pakistan in danger?

The war exercise, named Operation Brasstacks, was being led by General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, an officer who had led an infantry division in the 1971 war. Apart from the Indian army, the navy and air force were also taking part in the war exercise. According to the plan, the exercise was to begin in 1986 and end in 1987.

While India claimed that these war games were merely to test and experiment with new concepts in warfare, about 600,000 troops had been amassed near the border, along with a large number of equipment and ammunition. These exercises were later described as “bigger than any NATO exercise and the biggest since World War II.”

In his memoirs, veteran Indian soldier Lt Gen P.N. Hoon, who fought against Pakistan in the 1965 war, described the war games as having a larger objective. “[Operation] Brasstacks was no military exercise. It was a plan to build up the situation for a fourth war with Pakistan,” he wrote.

This perspective is lent weight in a report compiled by Global Security Inc: “Operation Brasstacks was tasked with two objectives: the initial goal was the deployment of ground troops. The other objective was to conduct a series of assault exercises by the Indian navy near the Pakistan naval base ... An amphibious assault group formed from Indian naval forces was planned and deployed near the Korangi Creek of Karachi Division of Pakistan. However, the most important aim of these war alert simulations was to determine tactical nuclear strategy overseen by the Indian Army.”

Threat of a fourth war looms large as India begins war games close to the Pakistani border

In the backdrop of historical Pakistan-India ties, the Indian military exercise was deemed as alarming for Pakistan. Some considered these war game as a threatening show of force at a very critical juncture in Pakistan-India relations. Independent observers viewed these war games as a psychological move to convey to Pakistan the superior strength of Indian nuclear capability. Some also considered it a plan to infiltrate densely populated areas inside Pakistani territory.

“General Sunderji’s strategy was to provoke Pakistan’s response, and this would provide India with an excuse to implement existing contingency plans to go on an offensive against Pakistan and take out its nuclear bomb projects in a preventive strike,” said Robert Art, an international observer, in 2009.

Military tensions had, of course, been simmering between the two countries since the 1970s. India had begun special efforts to make its armed forces an indomitable force ever since the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1974. In response, Pakistan, too, had redoubled efforts to procure modern arms, ammunition and equipment in an attempt to retain strategic power balance in the region.

In 1979, Gen Zia was provided intelligence information that India wanted to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. He immediately relayed this information to Air Chief Marshal Anwar Shamim, his closest confidant and also the deputy chief martial law administrator. Shamim was among a few four-star officers who had played a key role in developing Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear arms programme.

Air Marshal Shamim responded with the plea that it was necessary to procure very fast fighter jets to keep the Indian planes at bay. The air chief told Gen Zia that since Kahuta was in close proximity to the Indian border, the Indian air force had the benefit of time.

“Indian aircraft can reach [Kahuta] in three minutes whereas PAF can reach it in eight minutes, thereby allowing the Indians to attack the facility and return before the PAF can could defend it,” Air Marshal Shamim told Gen Zia.

It was therefore decided to expedite efforts to acquire F-16s, for which talks with the United States were in an advanced stage. After two years of strong lobbying and exploiting the Afghanistan issue, the United States agreed to supply the F-16 jets.

The first batch of F-16s reached Pakistan in 1983.

“We are now in a position to confirm that India will not attack Kahuta because it is amply clear to them that we will retaliate and launch an attack on their nuclear facility in Trombay. Knowing that they will suffer much more devastation than us, they will desist taking any unwise action,” wrote Air Marshal Shamim in a letter to Gen Zia.

As reports of Operation Brasstacks began pouring in, Pakistan too responded at great pace. While reiterating that the exercises were a threat against Pakistan’s integrity, almost all strategic resources were mobilised.

By mid-January, 1987, both troops stood face-to-face.

At this stage, the Pakistani Foreign Office summoned the Indian ambassador to Pakistan, S.K. Singh, at midnight to meet Foreign Affairs Minister of State Zain Noorani, who had just returned from an emergency meeting with Gen Zia Haq.

According to general Hoon in his book, The Untold Truth, Noorani related the president’s message, to Ambassador Singh that in the event of any violation of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity, Pakistan was capable of inflicting great damage on India. When Singh asked Noorani whether this implied a nuclear attack on Bombay, Noorani replied in the affirmative.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 8th, 2015

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