When General Sundarji took over as army chief in 1986, he had several ideas for strengthening deterrence in the subcontinent. He was also convinced that a strong, modern and well-trained military was essential if India was to emerge as a leading power. However, barring a brief faceoff in the Rann of Kutchh during the prelude to the 1965 war, Sundarji did not have much combat experience. He made up for that with his varied operational assignments and powerful intellect. With his ideas about manoeuvre warfare and nuclear warfighting, Sundarji felt he was well-prepared to spearhead the transition of the Indian Army into a potent fighting force.
Sundarji planned Exercise Brasstacks as a massive air-land exercise that was conducted in three phases spread over several months with a final culmination by concentrating and exercising his forces in the Rajasthan sector. Sceptics however claim that Sundarji had little time for the air force, deeming it his manoeuvre arm in the third dimension.
In essence, Exercise Brasstacks involved two strike corps (1 and 2 Corps) with one carrying out the main thrust and the other feinting a subsidiary thrust. It was carried out in the Rajasthan and Gujarat sectors to determine whether they could cover good distance by night against moderate opposition. This raised alarm bells in Rawalpindi and Washington, and the Pakistan Army put its own operational plans into unscheduled play by moving its offensive formations towards India’s areas of vulnerabilities in Punjab and Jammu.
Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi was a tank squadron commander in Skinner’s Horse, a T-72 tank regiment. Deployed for months in the desert during both Exercise Digvijay and Exercise Brasstacks, his recollections corroborate the conservative view that Sundarji had no intention of going to war. He says that though 7 Cavalry was the first unit to convert onto the T-72 tanks, Skinner’s Horse was the first to get deployed during Exercise Digvijay. 7 Cavalry joined them in Exercise Brasstacks. They easily covered sixty to seventy kilometres in a night and Bakshi recollects having done 800 kilometres on tracks.