How Indian Air Force made history with the Kargil War

This Kargil Vijay Diwas, spare a moment for the uniformed heroes who gave their today for our tomorrow.

 |  7-minute read |   24-07-2015
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Operation "Safed Sagar" commenced on May 26, 1999 and concluded on July 11, 1999 after all military objectives were achieved. This was the first time in the history of military aviation that air power was used at a height of upto 32,000 feet by the Indian Air Force.

From April 1999, the Pakistan Army along with elements of Mujahadeen (irregulars) crossed the 168km Line of Control (LoC), along Kargil and occupied high ground and vantage points.

The intrusion was announced by the Indian Army by May 7-8 and had come as a complete surprise to the military as well as intelligence agencies. The decision to induct the IAF was taken on May 24 after due deliberations at the highest levels of the Indian government and instructions were issued to jointly, with the Army, evict the intruders. It was emphasised that the IAF must not cross the LoC.

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The targets were small sangars (shelters made of boulders) and isolated tents. This made close air force support to the army extremely difficult. Initially, the targets were not known to the Indian Army and little or no information was available to the Air Force. The stinger was also formidable. This shoulder fired the missile system, a Canberre aircraft, and managed to hit on a recce mission on May 21. Fortunately, the aircraft returned safely.

mirage-2000_072616021722.jpg IAF's Mirage 2000 aircrafts which played a decisive role in the Kargil War. 

An Mig 21 was lost on May 27 and an MI-17 Heptr the very next day due to stingers. Thereafter, a change of tactics and attack patterns was necessitated to stay above the stinger "bubble". This implied that weapon delivery would need to be above 26,000ft and upto 32,000ft.

At such height, the aircraft performance reduces drastically due to less atmospheric density as also the ballistics of bombs. The piloting skills of the Indian Air Force overcame the difficulties and ensured discernable results.

Also read: On Kargil Vijay Diwas, India must resolve to give her soldiers their due

The first phase of Air Force operations was to conduct a recce to identify the targets, the second was interdiction, which was to hit the logistics and administration camps that supplied ammunition, food, fuel, et al to the occupied posts in the higher mountain reaches. Then the Air Force moved to the final phase -of providing close air support after the target systems were clearly identified. All the phases were executed in close co-operation with the Army.

Credit must be given to the Mig 21 and Mig 27 pilots, who, with primitive navigation/attack systems, were very effective. The use of hand held GPS (Global Positioning System) was an innovation that produced great results when used for area targets. The constant bombardment had a tremendously demoralising effect on the adversary's psyche.

The terrain consisted of the Himalayas running in the northwest-southeast direction, with peaks reaching above 22,000 to 25,000 feet. On the northern side of LoC, the valleys were running in the north-south direction with gradual slopes to the peaks. Most targets were on the northern slopes. This made it rather difficult to evolve a strike pattern without crossing the LoC. Wind speeds were somewhere between 50-100 knots per hour.

The sun rise cast shadows in the valleys from 8AM, when visibility was considerably reduced and targets could not be seen. The clouds engulfed the ridges and peaks by 11AM. Therefore, the window of opportunity was only the three-hour period between 8AM and 11AM.

The tide turned from the middle of June 1999. At this time, the areas of occupation became known. The Army was now in a position to make an attack plan versus the target systems. As a consequence, the Air Force was able to coordinate with the Army the "close Air support" requirements.

The Mirage 2000 aircraft, the pilots and engineers performed exceptionally well.

In a very short period of time, the "Laser Guided Bombs" were made operational. No pilots or engineers and technicians were trained at the beginning of the campaign, but within a week they carried out trials and training.

The accurate delivery of "Laser Bombs" on Tiger Hill - a command post in the Mashkoh sector - was devastating. Innovations like cheating the computers, for different than authorised weapon carriage, were commendable.

The lasing time of the laser pods was altered manually with good results. There were no fuzes available for the 1000lb bombs, so pistol fuzes were modified and used effectively. Clearance for carriage of 1000lbs indigeneous bombs was done at Gwalior, the home base of the Mirage 2000 aircraft.

There were other innovations like using the "laser designator pod" for recce. The largest logistics camps at Muntho Dalo in the Batalik sector and Pt 4388 in the Mashkoh sector were identified through this method and neutralised effectively. The Mirage 2000 aircraft flew a total of 500 missions with only three drops outs.

The IAF flew a total of 1,235 missions, striking 24 major target systems and ensuring air dominance over the area of operations through Air Defence Interceptor aircraft like Mirage 2000 and Mig 29s.

Significant air strikes that altered the course of the conflict:

1. June 13 1999 Tololing Ridge Complex in the Batalik Sector

2. June 17 1999 Muntho Dalo the Main Admin and Lgs camp in the Batalik sector

3. June 24 1999 Command and Control structure on Tiger Hill. Direction Centrefor forward artillery in the Dras Sector.

4. June 23 1999 Logistics Camp at Pt 4388 in Mashkoh Nallah

The Pakistan side's armed intrusion across the LoC during May to July 1999 at the Kargil sector was a misadventure with severe consequences. The Indian side had achieved its final objective of evicting the intruders with the successful Air Force-Army joint operation.

The Kargil conflict was a limited Pakistani effort to internationalise the Kashmir issue, which was seen to be losing its momentum. They had assessed that a counter attack would only last a few days and, thereafter, a ceasefire through international pressure, would allow them to stay in their occupied positions and renew their supplies.

The Pakistani planners failed to assess the involvement of air power, the capability of the IAF and the Indian Army's determination.

The hesitation, at the political and military leadership, for the use of air power, delayed the induction of the IAF for over two weeks. It was nearly a repeat of the 1962 Chinese conflict, where air power was not utilised with disastrous consequences. Perhaps a "declaratory policy" to confirm that there will be no hesitation to use air power for any willful violation of the LoC or the international border is warranted. This would have a deterrant effect.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance capability are of utmost importance to national security and the induction of two Pakistan Army battalions in the region should have been monitored. Gilgit, Skardu and Gulteri in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) should have been under surveillance round the year.

Strategic reconnaissance is a core competency of all Air Force and in India, it is included in external intelligence gathering under R&AW (Aviation Research Centre). The gap between satellite and tactical recce (UAVs, fighters, et al) is strategic recce, which must be with the IAF and resources provided.

The importance of technology cannot be overstated. Induction of technology would give us greater and sustainable capability, enhancing national security considerably. Do we need high tech, well trained and motivated defence forces in smaller numbers or superior forces in large numbers? Higher level military leadership must be selected through merit.

During the Kargil War, it was the middle and junior level leadership that rose to the occassion. The Kargil operation would have never happened if the higher leadership had ensured realistic threat assessment and planning.

There should be greater interaction between the political and military leadership. Thus far, it is non existent. Military leadership does not only include the chiefs of staff, but also the Air Force, Army and Navy commanders who formulate and execute the operational plans. This would expedite and rationalise the decision making process during conflict situations.

In the final analysis, Kargil was a military, diplomatic and political success for India. However, the loss of nearly 500 military men and over 1,100 serious casualties, subdues the success. During this Kargil Diwas, we should spare a moment for the great uniformed personnel who gave their today for our tomorrow. Jai Hind.


PS Ahluwalia PS Ahluwalia

The writer is former Western Air Command chief of Indian Air Force.

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