Indian Army

Operation Brasstacks: Biggest Military Exercise Ever

We all have seen the soldiers doing military exercises to overcome any adversaries from any nation. Military exercises also help in better coordination between troops, understanding the military hardware and assets. It is also a way to showcase the power and might of the nation to the world. Military exercise can be categorized in the following:

  1. Domestic- Between the different units within the country eg. Vayu Shakti
  2. Bilateral – Between any two nation eg. Red Flag between India and US
  3. Multilateral – Between many different nations eg. Malabar- India, US and Japan
India, China to hold joint military exercise to counter terror
India-China Hand-in-Hand Military Exercise

But how big can be a military exercise? Can these exercises push some other nation to the verge of war?

This is about the biggest military exercise world has ever seen after World War-II which was executed by the Indian Army and Airforce between 18 November 1986 – 6 March 1987 – Operation Brasstacks.


The exercise started in mid-November 1986 to March 1987 was based on the border of Rajasthan mainly the Thar desert. Around half of the total army strength of the Indian Army (1.1 million) with Air support was deployed within 100-150 KM away from the Pakistan boundary the exact figure of troops is not clear but it is estimated that about 400000-600000 soldiers were part of it, which almost lead to the situation of war between two nations. This exercise was comprised of :

  • Nine Infantry Divisions
  • Three Mechanised Division
  • Three Armoured Division
  • One air assault Division
  • Three Armored brigades under four corps HQ 
Fig 3.1 Position of troops in mid December.
Fig 3.2 Position of troops in early and late January
By- Semantic Scholar

The exercise was planned by CoAS (Chief of Army Staff) and who earlier had commanded the infantry division in the 1971 War- General Krishnaswamy Sundarji. Sir Sundarji was much into the modernization of the Indian Army, he designed the flamboyant all-black uniform of the Indian Armoured Corps. Post his transformation of the Armoured Corps, he went on to create the Mechanised Infantry. With emphasis on speed, technology and mobile weaponry it is now an integral part of the Indian Army’s Strike Corps. In his stint as the Commandant of the College of Combat in Mhow, he practically rewrote the Indian Army war manual with emphasis on speed, decisive action, technology and armor.

Krishnaswamy Sundarji - Wikipedia
General Krishnaswamy Sundarji

Seeing such a mass deployment from the Indian side Pakistani feared the fourth war between the two nations. The Indian army claims that the exercise was to check the logistic support and the mobilization of the Indian Army during any conflict and to show its superiority over the Pakistani military.

Whereas Pakistan claims that this exercise was a direct threat to its existence. Pakistan mobilized an entire Corp, Armoured Corp and Southern Air Command near the border with India. Pakistan was also feared of strikes on its Nuclear sites and put them on high alert. During this time, Abdul Qadeer Khan founder of the Nuclear project of Pakistan who is accused of giving nuclear secrets to Iran, South Korea and Libya and was even convicted for stealing nuclear secrets by a Dutch court gave an interview to Indian diplomat, Kuldip Nayar in which he made it clear that “Pakistan would use its atomic weapons if its existence was threatened”. Although the interview was published on 1 March 1987 when the conflict was nearly ended.

The news was widely covered by western media stating it as the provocation of war. Although General Sunderji maintained that: “This was, is and always has been a training exercise. I can’t answer why there have been misperceptions about it in some quarters.”

Airforce Role

The Indian army troops were also supported by the Airforce. In the winter of 1986 the 35 squadron of IAF moved towards the forward bases of Ambala and Bikaner. They spent two months operating Jaguars and MiG-27 aircraft.On occasions, they even crossed a few kilometres over the border to check the alertness of the PAF’s air defence network. The moment the radar warning receivers beeped or if a warning was received over the radio, the entire formation would turn back.

Current Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria then Flight Lieutenant was also a part of this exercise and led many of those missions.

Withdrawl and Agreements

In January 1987 tensions were at its peak, the idea of cricket diplomacy was used here, the President of Pakistan General Zia-UL-Haq was invited to India for watching the cricket match between India and Pakistan. Where he held talks with the Indian leadership to diffuse the crisis. These talks were followed up by additional talk in Islamabad between Feb 27 and Mar 2 at which point both sides agreed to a phased troop withdrawal to peacetime positions.

pervez manmohan 5
President of Pakistan General Zia-UL-Haq with Kapil Dev

 The 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 signed the same month. To prove its intentions were peaceful, India took the unusual step of inviting diplomats and journalists to observe the operation separately.

Formal and impromptu talks between the leaders of the two countries finally resulted in new CBMs (Confident Building Measures) between India and Pakistan. The Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities was signed on December 21, 1988, in Islamabad by the two foreign secretaries and witnessed by the two prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, respectively. The treaty prevented its signatories to carry out a surprise attack (or to assist foreign power to attack) on each other’s nuclear installations and facilities. Starting in January 1992, India and Pakistan have annually exchanged lists of their respective military and civilian nuclear-related facilities.

Keeping PM Rajiv Gandhi in Dark 

It is said that the PM of India Rajiv Gandhi was kept in dark about this exercise by General Sundarji and Defence Minister Arun Singh. In an interview to Rediff, the writer of “The Untold Truth” and the commander of western command Lt. General P.N Hoon answered a question as follows :

Lt Gen Hoon reveals some 'untold truths' in his book - punjab$chandigarh - Hindustan Times
Lt. General Prem Nath Hoon

You even maintain that General Sundarji and Arun Singh did not inform Rajiv Gandhi about Operation Brasstacks? What would they have gained by that?

Brasstacks was the mobilisation of the entire army of India. It was done with the background that every five years we should do this. So that commanders had time to lick their command into shape. Now, when such a large exercise is conceived, I pointed out at that time to Sundarji that the movement of our forces is going to attract the attention of Pakistan.

Militancy was at its height in the Punjab. According to this plan — three-fourths of the army was going to be in the desert and I had told them that in view of the militancy in Punjab we may get into a situation where it could be war. And with a war-like situation, they (Pakistan) may react. Which they did. He said you don’t worry about that and ask for whatever troops you want, so troops were moved from everywhere. Ammunition was moved. Pakistan also moved. I told him I hope the government has been informed about this, because such a large movement of troops had to be told.

Brasstacks was in 4 parts. Brasstack 1 was an exercise on the map, held in Delhi which Rajiv attended. Brasstack 2 was supposed to be for the military commanders in Chandigarh. This was on a sand model. Brasstack 3 was reduction of all three into writing. And Brasstack 4 was actually with troops in the desert, which would have got a reaction. It appears that Sundarji and Arun Singh did not inform the PM.

I went for the Army Day Parade to Delhi on January 15. I was there for the reception in Sundarji’s house in the evening where the President, PM were there — Rajiv had the habit of walking up and asking me: ‘How is the western front?’ I thought that was a very sharp question, especially when we were moving into a war situation. I said everything was going according to plan and all our troops are moving into their battle location. He asked me: ‘What do you mean by battle location?’ He was holding a samosa in his hand and said, ‘How can we go to war?’ I knew something had gone wrong.

I quickly took my aircraft and went back to the desert where my corps commanders were ready. Rajiv called the defence secretary and I understand he was very upset. Then I started getting calls from the DGMO General Ravi Mahajan that the chief wants you back.

When I went back Sundarji told me that he wanted me to change the configuration. The configuration of the exercise was east to west. He said to change it quickly from south to north. I said I could do it in 10, 12 days, and the forces were pulled back to Bikaner. Then all the MPs were brought to the desert. All military attaches were brought. But I think it was a war, and the PM was not informed.

Global SecurityWikipediaBharat RakshakThe Print

Karan Bisht

A defense aspirant trying to share and gain knowledge with you. Suggestions and corrections are welcomed in comment section.


  1. I Had Read About The Same In The Year 1987 .
    I Think Mr Arun Nehru Was Asked To Step Down From The Post Of Raksha Mantra.
    But Above All Sundarji Was A Great General
    He Also Had Some Action In Arunachal Pradesh In His Career.
    He Was A Great General For India.

    1. Yes Sir Sundarji was one of the greatest leader in Indian Armed forces history. His vision to modernize army with advance equipment and his abiding love for armoured represented Indian army as one of the most powerful army in the world. Yes he gave bloody nose to Pak and China on many occasions. The incident you are talking about is Sumdodorng Chu.
      Also read how China is losing it’s grip over Malacca.
      How China Is Losing Its Grip Over Malacca?

  2. Thank u defence XP for such Vital information of our Indian defence services.i am interested to learn about our Indian Defence services Proud to be an Indian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button
Translate »