India's military is seeking final authorization to invade the Pakistani side of divided Kashmir in the middle of this month to destroy the camps of Islamic militants.
The planned campaign would be similar to the American attack in Afghanistan, in which air strikes would be followed by ground assaults by special forces transported by helicopter, military sources said yesterday.
Smart bombs and other advanced ordnance are reported to have been loaded on to French-made Mirage 2000H and Russian-built MiG-27 aircraft at bases in northern and western India.
An activist of the All India Anti-terrorist Front shouts anti-Pakistan slogans, during a demonstration in New Delhi June 5, 2002. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said Pakistan must act on pledges to crack down on Islamic militants blamed by New Delhi for attacks on India before New Delhi could ease its stand-off with Islamabad. Photo by Kamal Kishore/Reuters
As Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, strengthened his warning to Britons to leave the region, military planners in Delhi expressed confidence that a war would not boil over into a nuclear exchange.
A senior Indian official accused Britain, America and other western countries of "adding their weight to Pakistan's nuclear blackmail" by telling their citizens to leave.
"This is jumping the gun," he said. "Our intention is not to have an all-out war. It would be a limited action."
Most senior Indian officers expect that the conflict would last about a week before pressure from America and other powers forced a ceasefire.
One officer said he believed there was only the "slimmest chance" of nuclear weapons being used. "We will call Pakistan's nuclear bluff," he said. It [the nuclear factor] cannot deter us any more."
The Indians want to move before the arrival of heavy monsoon rains at the beginning of July make military operations impossible.
The tension was underlined by the Foreign Office's second warning to Britons to leave the region.
Last week Mr Straw said they should "consider" leaving. Yesterday he said they "should" do so amid evidence that the first advice had been widely ignored. Officials say there are some 20,000 Britons in India, but unofficial estimates are much higher.
As America issued equally robust advice to its 60,000 citizens, a senior Indian planning officer said that Washington and London knew that action was imminent.
"The US-led move out of Delhi indicates that Washington has been informed of India's intentions of hitting Pakistan and is taking them seriously," he said.
Japan's foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, canceled a trip to the region hours after speaking to Mr Straw. Tokyo refused to give a reason, saying only that "there were various considerations".
India's plan of attack is to seize and hold tracts of Pakistani Kashmir, providing the government with a much-needed military triumph and the military with improved defensive positions against Islamic militants.
Officers indicated that the air force was poised to execute a strategy developed over several years to strike at 50 to 75 militant bases and a handful of other targets in Kashmir.
The Indians would then send troops across the high mountain passes in helicopters. Planners expect major casualties as the helicopters cross four lines of Pakistani air defenses equipped with advanced radar.
Targets will include a bridge across the Karakoram highway connecting China to the region and at least three others linking Pakistani Kashmir to the rest of the country.
Their destruction would prevent China from replenishing its ally Pakistan's weaponry. It would also cut off supply routes from Pakistan to front-line units.
India's broad strategy is to execute air strikes that will induce Pakistan into extending the conflict by opening a wider front.
President Bush telephoned both leaders to urge calm and the crisis dominated talks in London between Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld, the American defense secretary, who is on his way to India and Pakistan.
The two countries have massed more than a million men on their border since the crisis began with an attack by militants on the Indian parliament in December.
Relations worsened after another attack last month in which 22 wives and children of Indian army personnel were killed. In the latest diplomatic rebuff, Pakistan rejected an Indian offer to establish a joint border monitoring force to help halt incursions by Islamic militants into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
India's military believes that it now has political backing for war. An officer said the beleaguered ruling coalition was "fully aware" that backing down at this juncture would mean political suicide.
The Indian armed forces have been losing men for 13 years in fighting in Kashmir. By attacking soon, an officer said, they planned to set back Pakistan's military capability by at least 30 years, pushing it into the military "dark ages". India has assured Washington that its forces would give the American bases at Jacobabad, Pasni and Dalbandin close to the Afghan border a wide berth.
An army officer said: "Casualties in men and machines in such an operation will be high and the military has firmly told the politicians to prepare the nation for losses and delayed results, as fighting will be fierce."
Pakistan has concentrated the majority of its forces in Kashmir and would unleash its Scud-like Chinese M 9 and M 11 ballistic missiles.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002