When India and Pakistan Came So Close To War in 1987

Credits to owners

Indian Air Force’s ‘Gagan Shakti-2018’ is drawing in the serious talk from all corners. With Chinese state-sponsored media hailing the exercise and Pakistan sweating a lot over it, it is clear how much importance strategic exercises play in modern times.

This is the first time that Indian Air Force has scaled up to an exercise to this level, engaging personnel from the whole northern sector. However, back during the 80’s Indian Army conducted an exercise which nearly escalated into a full-scale war.


1986: A Top-Secret conference was undergoing headed by then Chief of Army Staff, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji. Topmost officers and Army Chiefs of respective theatres were present in this high-level meeting.

The agenda of the meeting was to discuss the various contingencies India would face against the growing threat, Pakistan. This was all new to Indian Army. Until 1971 India had fought 3 wars with Pakistan and soon leaders identified the need for a rapid modernization of the army. The Bofors scandal halted any major technological upgrade as it could be again fodder for the political sharks.

General Sundarji, took the army to a new road of transformation involving strategies and well-placed intel. So, in the conference, it was decided that a major level exercise had to be done to deter Pakistan in future from making any more confrontations. The operation was to be held in four phases.

Brass Tack 1: Theoretical war-game exercise. It was to be conducted on the map to ascertain the threats India could face and from which directions. This was held in early 1986 in New Delhi for nearly a day. All senior Military Commanders participated in these war games. Various situations were discussed on how Indian Army could engage effectively in an actual war situation. These discussions were attended by Rajiv Gandhi and the then Minister of State for Defense in the initial briefing.

Brass Tack 2: Conducted at the Western Army Headquarters at Chandimandir. Officers up to the rank of Divisional Commanders (Major Generals) were required to attend this phase. It employed the use of sand models and discussions on war situations at a lower formation level and how counter actions could be taken.

Brass Tack 3: It was more of a compiling process. The lessons from Brass Tacks 1&2 were outlined for operational use in future war-like situations.

Brass Tack 4: This phase saw active participation from the army. This phase was to be conducted in the Western theater in the Thar desert immediately bordering Pakistan. It will see the action of tanks, artillery and other divisions of army pressed out in the deserts of Rajasthan.

Late 1986: General Hoon, Commander in Chief of Western Command was called upon by General Sundarji and asked to mobilize about 3/4 of the total Indian Army to the Western front in Rajasthan. Hoon was very sceptical of this move as he thought it would attract unwanted attention from not only Pakistan but the other military powers around the world. India would be in the centre of their attention. This kind of mobilization happened only during the war-like situations. However, Sundarji was adamant in his decision and urged Hoon to quickly mobilize the army. He also pointed out to him that mobilization would take place in East to West manner employing all possible logistic options. This meant all civil transport facilities like Airlines, Rail and Road would be used for the massive movement of troops, machines and ammo from Eastern sector to Western.  The North Indian transport system came under a halt. Everywhere you look, military convoys were occupying all possible means of travel. It saw the biggest military mobilizations since World War 2 and even bigger than NATO’s biggest exercise. However, then PM Rajiv Gandhi had no idea of the extent of the exercise is going to be.

By January 1987, the crisis escalated to its peak. The Pakistani side was in a state of shock as the relations between India and Pakistan had been quite peaceful lately. The sudden mobilization triggered a sense of war in them too. More and more Pakistani troops were brought close to the Sindhi province. The area was in so much tension that a wrong move could potentially start the 4th war between the nations.

Indian Army’s BMP-2 during a modern war game. Credits to owners

India fielded three strike corps (I Corps-Mathura, II Corps-Ambala and XXI Corps-Bhopal),nine infantry, three mechanised, three armoured and one air assault divisions, and three armoured brigades under these corps were filed for the war-game.

Troops from the North East were moving to Punjab, troops from Central India were moving towards Punjab, troops from South India had moved to Amritsar and troops from Secunderabad, and Hyderabad had been moved to the deserts of Rajasthan. Catching wind of the situation, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force started preparations for a likely war.

At the height of the tensions, almost more than half of Indian Army was stationed as close as 100km from Pakistan.

Pakistan too didn’t sit silently, the moved their Southern Army Reserves and bringing them opposite West and South of Lahore. They were engaged in Signal Interception which will lead to unravelling the mystery behind this quick movement from the Indian side.

Realising the dearth of the situation, Sunderji ordered his subordinate commanders to halt the mass mobilization. He realised that the situation is now very fragile and a single mishappening could send both nations into another ugly war. All troop movement was asked to halt or divert to other places. Troops were ordered to seek any possible means to divert from the Rajasthan region. Some level of troop activity still lingered in the operation area as a distraction to foreign media and political parties.

a T-72 ‘Ajeya’ tank during the exercise

The tensions diminished in March 1987, with an agreement by the two nations to withdraw 150,000 troops in the Kashmir area, followed by a second agreement to withdraw more troops in the desert area was also signed the same month. This was termed as the ‘Cricket Diplomacy’ as, under the cover of a cricket match, Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Huq and Rajiv Gandhi held talks to ease out the tensions.

Rajiv Gandhi with the President of Pakistan, General Zia-Ul-Haq prior to Indo-Pak official talks in New Delhi on December 17, 1985. Credits to Owners

International relations expert, Robert Art noted that “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 to an offensive against Pakistan and take out its atomic bomb projects in a preventive strike.”

The tension also saw some mentioning of nuclear weapons. , Pakistan’s Nuclear Scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan gave an interview to an Indian diplomat, Kuldip Nayar in which he made it clear that “Pakistan would use its atomic weapons if its existence was threatened”; although he later denied having made such a statement. This could be a valid statement as India had already in its possession nuclear strike capability. If the situation had escalated to a few months more, it could have easily led to a full-fledged nuclear war.

From its initial days, General Hoon was against Brass Tacks. He was quoted saying,”Brasstacks was no military exercise. It was a plan to build up a situation for the fourth war with Pakistan. And, what is even more shocking is that the Prime Minister, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, was not aware of these plans.”

Even amidst the controversies, Brass Tacks still remains as the biggest show of strength Indian military has engaged in recent times. A western diplomat was quoted saying,“This was not a third-world army. This was a modern army, fully competent for any mission, easily as good as the Chinese, the Koreans or the French.”

Related Content