Airpower at 18,000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War
BENJAMIN LAMBETH REPORT
SEPTEMBER 20, 2012
The Kargil conflict was a milestone event in Indian military history and one that represents a telling prototype of India’s most likely type of future combat challenge.
In the spring of 1999, the world slowly became aware of Pakistan’s foray into the Kargil-Dras sector of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, a provocation that would incite the limited war now known as the “Kargil conflict.” This clash represented a watershed in Indo-Pakistani security relations because it demonstrated that even the presence of nuclear weapons might not dampen the competition that has persisted historically between the region’s largest states. But the conflict distinguished itself in other ways as well, especially in the scale and type of military operations.
Although past struggles for advantage along the disputed borders outside of declared wars invariably involved small infantry elements on both sides, the Kargil conflict was unique both in the number of major Indian land formations committed to the struggle and New Delhi’s decision to employ airpower. The role of airpower, however, was tinged with controversy from the very beginning. Both during and immediately after the conflict, it was not clear whether the Indian Air Force (IAF) leadership of the time advocated the commitment of Indian airpower and under what conditions, how the IAF actually performed at the operational level and with what effects, and whether the employment of airpower was satisfactorily coordinated with the Indian Army at either the strategic or the tactical levels of war. Whether airpower proved to be the decisive linchpin that hastened the successful conclusion of the conflict was also uncertain—but all these questions provided grist for considerable disputation in the aftermath of the war.
What the Kargil conflict demonstrated, however, was that airpower was relevant and could be potentially very effective even in the utterly demanding context of mountain warfare at high altitudes. At a time when India is compelled to think seriously about the security challenges posed by China’s continuing military modernization—especially as it affects India’s ability to protect its equities along the formidable Himalayan borderlands—a critical assessment of the IAF’s contributions to the Kargil conflict is essential and in fact long overdue. Various partial analyses have appeared already; they are indispensable because they address several specific dimensions of IAF operations ranging from the early debates about strategy and the political impact of employing airpower to overcoming the various difficulties that the IAF had to surmount in quick order if its instruments of combat were to make a useful contribution to the success of India’s national aims. The combat capabilities brought to bear in the airspace above the mountain battlefields, obviously, constituted only the visible tip of the spear; a vast and often invisible system of organization and support involving everything from managing intratheater airlift to redeploying combat squadrons to planning and coordinating operations to improvising technical fixes amidst the pressure of combat were all implicated in airpower’s contribution to the Kargil War.
This story has never been told before in depth or with comprehensiveness and balance—yet it deserves telling both because it sheds light on an important episode in Indian military history and because its lessons have implications for managing the more demanding threats that India is confronted with in the Himalayas. This monograph by Benjamin Lambeth advances both aims admirably. It represents a serious scholarly effort to understand how the IAF actually performed at Kargil and is exemplary for the meticulousness of its research, the political detachment of its analysis, and its insights which could come only from one of America’s premier analysts of airpower, who also happens to have accumulated extensive flight experience in more than three dozen different types of combat aircraft worldwide since 1976. Lambeth’s oeuvre—manifested during a distinguished career of over forty years (most of it at RAND)—has always been wideranging: in addition to his many writings on airpower and air warfare, it has included seminal studies on Soviet military thought; nuclear deterrence, strategy and operations; geopolitics in the superpower competition; and the evolution of military technology and its impact on warfighting.
Given his diverse interests and his formal academic training at Georgetown and Harvard, it is not surprising that Lambeth’s study ranges across multiple levels of analysis, from the geopolitical to the tactical. This broad approach permits him to cover airpower’s contribution to the conflict in extraordinary detail. It relies not simply on the published record but also on detailed interviews with the IAF’s leadership and its combat cadres as well as on extensive communications with a host of participants from the other services involved in the war, all brought together in a seamless and coherent analytical narrative. As the result, the report is simultaneously a chronicle of what the IAF actually did and a fair evaluation of both its achievements and its shortcomings. National security analysts in the United States and in India, as well as policymakers in both countries, would do well to read the monograph carefully because of its judgments about IAF capabilities and the paths implicitly suggested for future U.S.-Indian defense (and in particular airpower) cooperation.
The South Asia program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is privileged to publish Lambeth’s report. I am especially grateful to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for supporting the Endowment’s ongoing research on Indian security.
‒ASHLEY J. TELLIS
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
High in the mountains of Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999, India and Pakistan fought in an intense border clash for limited but important stakes. Overshadowed by NATO’s higher-profile air war for Kosovo, the Kargil War ensued for seventy-four days at a cost of more than a thousand casualties on each side. Yet it remains only dimly appreciated by most Western defense experts—and barely at all by students and practitioners of airpower.
Nevertheless, it was a milestone event in Indian military history and one that represents a telling prototype of India’s most likely type of future combat challenge. The Kargil conflict was emblematic of the kind of lower-intensity border skirmish between India and Pakistan, and perhaps also between India and China, that could recur in the next decade in light of the inhibiting effect of nuclear weapons on more protracted and higher-stakes tests of strength.
The experience offers an exemplary case study in the uses of airpower in joint warfare in high mountain conditions and is key to a full understanding of India’s emerging air posture. It is the one instance of recent Indian exposure to high-intensity warfare that provides insights into the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) capabilities, limitations, relations with its sister services, and interactions with India’s civilian leadership.
The Kargil conflict offers an exemplary case study in the uses of airpower in joint warfare in high mountain conditions and is key to a full understanding of India’s emerging air posture.
In the Kargil War, the IAF rapidly adapted to the air campaign’s unique operational challenges, which included enemy positions at elevations of 14,000 to 18,000 feet, a stark backdrop of rocks and snow that made for uncommonly difficult visual target acquisition, and a restriction against crossing the Line of Control that forms the border with Pakistan. Without question, the effective asymmetric use of IAF airpower was pivotal in shaping the war’s successful course and outcome for India. Yet the conflict also highlighted some of India’s military shortcomings. The covert Pakistani intrusion into Indian-controlled Kashmir that was the casus belli laid bare a gaping hole in India’s nationwide real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability that had allowed the incursion to go undetected for many days. It further brought to light the initial near-total lack of transparency and open communication between the Indian Army’s top leaders and the IAF with respect to the gathering crisis.
All things considered, the conflict was a poor test of India’s air warfare capability. Despite the happy ending of the Kargil experience for India, the IAF’s fighter pilots were restricted in their operations due to myriad challenges specific to this campaign. They were thus consigned to do what they could rather than what they might have done if they had more room for maneuver.
On a strategic level, the Kargil War vividly demonstrated that a stable bilateral nuclear deterrence relationship can markedly inhibit such regional conflicts in intensity and scale—if not preclude them altogether. In the absence of the nuclear stabilizing factor, those flash points could erupt into open-ended conventional showdowns for the highest stakes. But the Kargil War also demonstrated that nuclear deterrence is not a panacea. The possibility of future conventional wars of major consequence along India’s northern borders with Pakistan and China persists, and the Indian defense establishment must plan and prepare accordingly.
“Aviators have traditionally been a haughty breed. They are used to spending solitary hours with their machines, aloof, on top of the world, far removed from its mundane troubles. Everything that seemed important on terra firma becomes so much smaller. In the cockpit, few things can humble this pride. The mountains can. When you fly at the roof of the world and still have the impassive peaks of the mighty Himalayas look down on you at Flight Level 200, your perspective changes. The experience of air warfare in mountains teaches stern lessons. The aviator must respect the mountains.”1
‒An Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 pilot who flew in the Kargil War
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the world’s fourth-largest air service, operating more than 1,300 aircraft out of some 60 bases nationwide. It also is one of the world’s oldest continuously functioning air forces, with roots going back to October 8, 1932, when it was established by Great Britain’s Royal Air Force as an auxiliary of the Indian Empire during the time of the British Raj.2 Until the early 1990s, it was principally a support entity for the Indian Army.3 Today, it has acquired independent strategic missions, most notably including those of nuclear deterrence and retaliation, and it is a diversified fighting force with manifest ambitions toward global reach and status. It also is a full-spectrum combat air arm with a precision conventional strike capability, fielding not only fourth-generation multirole fighters, but also force-extending tankers, a recently acquired airborne warning and control system capability, intertheater airlifters, unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with multispectral sensors for longdwell strategic and tactical reconnaissance, and the beginnings of a military space surveillance capability.
The field of strategic regard in which this maturing force most centrally figures now extends from the east coast of Africa to Sumatra and the entire Indian Ocean operating area. Like few other air arms around the world, the IAF operates over the most diverse range of geographic areas, from the Siachen glacier in the north to the deserts, jungles, and oceans that surround India’s periphery. A former air officer commanding-in-chief (AOC-in-C) of the IAF’s Western Air Command well captured the IAF leadership’s now oft-expressed characterization of the steadily modernizing service when he wrote in 2009 of the IAF’s “growing aspirations to transform itself from a mere subcontinental tactical force to an intercontinental strategic aerospace power in conformity with other leading air forces in the world.”4
India’s principal external challengers—and hence the IAF’s main objects of strategic and operational concern—are China and Pakistan, in that order. China is generally regarded by the Indian defense community as posing a more downstream source of potential trouble, whereas Pakistan is deemed both a longer-term and a here-and-now threat to the country’s security.5 Because both India and its two leading rivals all possess well-stocked inventories of readily available nuclear weapons, most planners in New Delhi assess the likelihood of an all-out war on the subcontinent as being quite low. The uppermost concern of the IAF leadership with respect to combat readiness today entails operating decisively at a conventional level against either rival when all sides in any conflict will be within immediate reach of a nuclear response option.
Given this omnipresent risk of escalation, most Indian threat assessors believe that any future combat engagement with either China or Pakistan will, in all likelihood, be sharp and intense but also brief and for limited stakes. In this regard, an official IAF publication released in 2007 frankly acknowledged the “likely short duration” of any war that India may have to contend with in the near-term future.6 The most probable prospect, according to retired IAF Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, is for “prolonged periods of peace with spurts of armed violence of great variety.”7
In a thoughtful enumeration of the diverse conflict possibilities that could confront Indian security planners in the next decade, a retired IAF air marshal in 2007 listed as being among the most plausible of those possibilities an extended border war with China, with little likelihood of nuclear weapons use; a shorter and more intense war with Pakistan entailing a very real chance of nuclear use—unlike India, Pakistan has never proclaimed a nuclear no-first-use policy; a simultaneous war with China and Pakistan operating in collusion; and a prolonged lower-intensity war in Kashmir against both Pakistani regular forces and indigenous Kashmiri insurgents.8
An instructive preview of this last type of conflict scenario can be seen in the Kargil War that unfolded in the high mountains of Indian-controlled Kashmir in May, June, and July 1999. That intense border clash for limited but important stakes, which ensued for seventy-four days at a cost of more than a thousand casualties on each side, was overshadowed by NATO’s higher-profile air war for Kosovo that occurred thousands of miles away in the Balkans at roughly the same time. In large part because of that more attention-getting distraction, the Kargil War remains only dimly appreciated by most Western defense experts—and barely at all by students and practitioners of airpower.
Western defense professionals have much to gain from a closer inquiry into this little-known chapter in the history of air warfare.
Nevertheless, it was a milestone event in Indian military history and one that represents a telling prototype of India’s most likely type of future combat challenge in the immediate years ahead.9 No less important, it offers both an exemplary case study in the uses of airpower in joint warfare and a particularly revealing testament to the special difficulties of modern air employment in high mountain conditions.10 The Kargil experience is key to a proper understanding of India’s emerging air posture because it constitutes the one instance of recent Indian exposure to high-intensity warfare that provides insights into the IAF’s capabilities, limitations, relations with its sister services, and interactions with India’s civilian leadership. The conflict was also emblematic of one type of border skirmish between India and Pakistan, and perhaps also between India and China, that could recur in the next decade in light of the inhibiting effect of the nuclear overhang on more protracted and higher-stakes tests of strength. As retired Air Commodore Singh reflected on the experience six years after its successful conclusion for India, the conflict was “a typical example of a limited war in a nuclear weapons environment.”11 For all these reasons, Western defense professionals have much to gain from a closer inquiry into this little-known chapter in the history of air warfare.
PRELUDE TO A SHOWDOWN
Flare-ups along the border between Pakistan and India have a long history, going back as far as 1947 when British rule of the subcontinent ended and the former British Indian Empire was subdivided into the newly independent Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. That development prompted Pakistan to launch a guerilla incursion into Kashmir in an attempt to establish control over the contested region. The Indian Army and the IAF countered in force by entering Kashmir and driving the Pakistani-sponsored irregulars out of all but a small portion of the high mountain state.12
The seeds of the Kargil conflict were first planted in March and April 1999. Then, determined units of the Pakistan Army crossed the Line of Control (LoC) into the Indian portion of contested Kashmir in the remote and rugged Himalayan heights overlooking Kargil between the Kashmir Valley and the Ladakh plateau. The LoC running through Jammu and Kashmir that separates the Indian-held and Pakistani-controlled portions of the disputed territory (shown in Figure 1) is a long-standing product of the third Indo-Pakistani war that created Bangladesh. It bisects some of the most forbidding terrain to be found anywhere in the world, with most of the main ridgelines being offshoots of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.
While preparations were under way for an upcoming meeting of India’s and Pakistan’s prime ministers in Lahore, Pakistan, senior leaders in the Pakistan Army, led by the chief of the Army Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, and the chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammed Aziz, were conducting initial reconnaissance and laying the logistical groundwork for the impending operation. The most likely aim of the planned gambit, apart from seeking to internationalize the Kashmir issue in Indo-Pakistani relations, was to take control of India’s sole line of communication to troops on the Siachen glacier by obstructing the use of the key two-lane national highway NH1A in Ladakh running from Srinagar through Kargil to Leh. It provided access to the IAF’s airfield at Thoise on the axis to Siachen.13
The incursion’s planners took full advantage of the relaxed atmosphere that had come to prevail in New Delhi after the visit of Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee to Pakistan to help promulgate the Lahore Declaration, which was signed by Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on February 21. With it, the governments of both countries swore their commitment to the vision of peace and stability embodied in the United Nations charter.14 The Pakistan Army leaders chose to exploit the nascent, and ultimately short-lived, feeling of goodwill that had emanated from that declaration in a way that might irreversibly change the status quo along the LoC to Pakistan’s advantage.
Because of the capricious weather that predominates in the area, the Indian Army during the harshest winter months that immediately preceded the Kargil crisis vacated its most inhospitable forward outposts—typically at elevations of 14,000 to 18,000 feet—that were normally manned on India’s side of the LoC throughout the remainder of the year. Since substantial gaps existed in India’s defenses in the segment of Kashmir that lay on both sides of the LoC, a segment featuring very few trails leading off from the main roadways, the Pakistani planners thought the vacated outposts made prime targets for seizure. Adding further to the attractiveness of the planned gambit, the outposts were situated on easily defended high ground that Indian troops would have to attack from below in order to try to recapture them. A clever mix of regular combat troops and local civilian porters would infiltrate the area and present the Indian government with a fait accompli in Kashmir.
Pakistan’s military leaders were all but surely emboldened by their country’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons delivery capability within the preceding year. They may also have been encouraged by a derivative belief that the awareness of that capability in key leadership circles in New Delhi would more than offset any conventional military advantage India enjoyed in the region.15 And even if the operation were to be detected by India while it was still in progress, the incursion’s planners likely judged that the Indian Army’s reaction to it would be slow and limited at best. Most important, they probably took it as a foregone conclusion that were India to seek to conventionalize the ensuing conflict, pressure from the international community would quickly intervene and force the Vajpayee government to cease combat operations within a week, thus leaving Pakistan “comfortably in possession of gains it would make by infiltration,” in the words of retired Indian Army Major General G. D. Bakshi.16
Ultimately, in what turned out to be a phased infiltration in uniquely challenging mountain terrain, Pakistani troops moving by foot and helicopter occupied roughly 130 outposts on India’s side of the LoC before the intruders were first detected by local shepherds on May 3.17 At least eighteen artillery batteries, most of them from across the LoC in Pakistani-controlled territory, were said to have supported the operation. Indian sources later reported that the occupying force numbered from 1,500 to 2,000 combatants, with perhaps four to five times that many troops mobilized to help supply the most forward elements on the Indian side of the LoC. The occupying troop contingent consisted mainly of elements of the local Pakistan Army Northern Light Infantry (NLI) and members of Pakistan’s elite Special Services Group, with many outfitted in civilian garb so as to appear as indigenous Kashmiri mujahideen. The intruders were well armed, well trained in mountain warfare, and accustomed to operating at high elevations.18
India’s security principals and other informed experts have freely admitted that the Pakistan Army achieved “complete strategic and tactical surprise” in its execution of the incursion, owing to its having relied on inplace NLI formations rather than moving in a heavier troop contingent that would have generated a larger deployment signature.19 The incursion’s organizers further sought plausible deniability of any culpability for their aggressive action through the use of a shrewd deception measure. They generated indigenous militant Islamist radio traffic within Pakistani-occupied Kashmir to convince Indian signals intelligence monitors that the incursion was insurgent activity over which Pakistan had no control.20 Finally, the intruders took special care to move only at times that would allow them to avoid detection by periodic Indian winter air surveillance operations.21
As the Indian Army units that had manned the temporarily vacated outposts began returning to their stations during the first week of May, they slowly discovered the full extent of the occupation of those positions by Pakistani troops. The Indian Army’s 121st Infantry Brigade assigned to monitor the LoC above Kargil launched a succession of probing patrols on May 5 that confirmed the infiltration. The full scale of the intrusions was validated on May 8 by IAF pilots in Cheetah light helicopters as they flew surveillance sorties along the Tololing ridge in the Dras subsector of the Kargil region.22
It took more than a week in all for the Indian Army to take stock of its challenge at hand and to develop the beginnings of a course of action to drive the invaders out. Even then, the army’s local commanders grossly underestimated and, accordingly, misreported the full magnitude of the situation they were facing. As late as May 19, Lieutenant General Krishan Pal, the commander of 15 Corps that represented the Indian Army’s main fighting presence in Kashmir, was said to have been “blissfully oblivious [of] the deathly situation.” At a key Unified Headquarters meeting in Srinagar to discuss next steps for addressing the situation, he predicted that in the coming showdown, the incursion “would be defeated locally.”23 Other reporting up the line by the Indian Army offered soothing assurances that “the infiltration will be vacated in 48 hours.”24 Clearly, local ground commanders in Kargil and Srinagar did not appreciate the full gravity of the Pakistani challenge at the start of the gathering crisis.
Once they understood more fully what had transpired along the LoC, the army’s leaders finally responded by moving five infantry divisions, five independent brigades, and 44 battalions from the Kashmir Valley to the Kargil sector, ultimately mobilizing some 200,000 Indian troops in all. Most of this buildup occurred during the three weeks between the initial detection of the incursion and the eventual start on May 26 of a major joint counteroffensive codenamed Operation Vijay (meaning “victory” in Hindi). The avowed objectives were to drive out the intruding forces and to restore the LoC to its previous status. The response was almost certainly more determined than anything the Pakistan Army leaders had anticipated.25
ENLISTING THE IAF’S INVOLVEMENT
After several early firefights with the entrenched Pakistanis that occasioned numerous Indian fatalities in an unsuccessful bid to recapture the closest of the occupied positions, the Indian Army approached the IAF on May 11 and asked it to help turn the tide through a commitment of armed helicopters to support the embattled ground troops.26 Conflicting views persist to this day regarding what happened over the ensuing two weeks after that initial army entreaty with respect to when and how the IAF should become involved in the conduct of India’s looming counteroffensive.
One view maintains that the IAF initiated combat operations over Kargil only “reluctantly” and sought “to avoid involvement in the conflict altogether, claiming inexperience in mountain warfare and unfamiliarity with the terrain, as well as the risk associated with the heightened SAM [surface-to-air-missile] threat in the mountains.” That view holds that the IAF committed itself to the fight only after an insistent demand for such involvement from the Indian Army leadership.27 This interpretation drew much of its claim to veracity from an assessment by an Indian civilian defense writer that appeared shortly after the war ended. The writer alleged that once the extent of the Pakistani intrusions was discovered, the IAF at first “sidestepped requests by the army to attack the infiltrators” and agreed to lend its support to the ongoing fighting only after its leadership “was presented with a fait accompli and pressed [presumably by higher government authority] into making attacks on May 26.”28
In truth, the IAF began conducting initial reconnaissance sorties over the Kargil heights as early as May 10, less than a week after the presence of the enemy incursion was first confirmed by Indian Army patrols. It also began deploying additional aircraft into the Kashmir Valley in enough numbers to support any likely combat tasking, established a rudimentary air defense control arrangement there because there were no groundbased radars in the area, and began extensive practice of air-to-ground weapons deliveries by both fighters and attack helicopters at Himalayan target elevations.29 On May 12, an IAF helicopter was fired upon near the most forward-based Pakistani positions overlooking Kargil and landed uneventfully with a damaged rotor. That hostile act prompted Air Headquarters to place Western Air Command, the IAF unit responsible for the Jammu and Kashmir sectors, on heightened alert and to establish quick-reaction aircraft launch facilities at the IAF’s northernmost operating locations at Air Force Stations Srinagar and Avantipur.30
The next day, IAF Jaguar fighters conducted tactical reconnaissance sorties in the Kargil area to gather prospective target information using their onboard long-range oblique photography systems, and a forward direction center for the tactical control of combat aircraft was established at the IAF’s highest-elevation airfield at Air Force Station Leh.
Concurrently, Canberra PR57 and MiG25R reconnaissance aircraft were pressed into service over Kargil, and electronic intelligence missions began to be flown regularly by the IAF in the vicinity of the detected intrusion and beyond.31 Finally, on May 14, Air Headquarters activated the IAF’s air operations center for Jammu and Kashmir and mobilized its fielded forces in that sector for a possible all-out air counteroffensive.32 At the same time, in close conjunction with their 15 Corps counterparts, Western Air Command planners developed a tailored concept of operations for kinetic air employment in the Kargil heights that included target-selection procedures, force deconfliction and other safety criteria, and an arrangement for conducting and communicating prompt battle damage assessment. From the very start, the IAF expected that it would be engaged in earnest against the intruders just as soon as it and the army leadership could agree on a final course of action. As the AOC-in-C of the IAF’s Western Air Command at the time, Air Marshal Vinod Patney, later affirmed, “we were ready for a full-fledged war and had been for some days before May 25, 1999, when government clearance [to commit the IAF to combat] was received.”33
In an effort to set the record straight once and for all, since-retired Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis, who was chief of the Air Staff at the time of the incursion and who later oversaw the IAF’s response, offered a detailed reconstruction in October 2006 of his own recollections regarding the sequence of events during the high command’s initial deliberations about the Kargil crisis. As Tipnis recalled, on May 10, a full week after the incursion was first detected and the Indian Army had attempted an initial armed response on its own, his vice chief, Air Marshal Prithvi Singh Brar, informed him of a report passed up the line that morning by the IAF’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence that the army “may be in some sort of difficulties in the Kargil area.” Queried by Tipnis as to the nature of the rumored difficulties, the vice chief replied that he was not sure but that “there reportedly was unusual artillery firing.”34
Tipnis learned later that day that the ground force organization responsible for the Kargil sector, Northern Army Command, had communicated nothing of its ongoing operations to its assigned provider of air support in case of hostilities along the LoC, the IAF’s Western Air Command. The next day, Tipnis’s vice chief told him that his army counterpart had indicated that the army “could handle the situation.” Tipnis further learned that Northern Army Command had asked the local air officer commanding (AOC) for Jammu and Kashmir to provide immediate fire support by Mi-25 and Mi-35 helicopter gunships and armed Mi-17 helicopters to “evict a few ‘intruders’ who had stepped across the LoC in the Kargil sector.” The AOC replied that the high terrain over which the requested support was to be provided lay above the effective operating envelope of the helicopters.35 He added that if the army genuinely needed significant air support for its operations, it would need to convey that requirement to higher headquarters for detailed consideration and approval.
In the meantime, Tipnis’s vice chief again pulsed his army counterpart as to whether Northern Army Command really needed help from the IAF. As Tipnis recalled, the army vice “had expressed the army’s ability to manage, but was upset that AOC Jammu and Kashmir had not acceded to Headquarters Northern Command’s fire-support demand.” At that, Tipnis recalled, “there was no doubt in my mind that the situation was desperate.” Because committing airpower in close proximity to the LoC could dangerously escalate the conflict, Tipnis insisted that the army “needed political clearance” before the IAF could provide the requested fire support. He also ruled out any employment of IAF armed helicopters because they would be “sitting ducks” for enemy infrared surface-to-air-missile fire. Fixed-wing fighters, he said, would be essential for mission effectiveness, and the IAF “reserved the prerogative to give fire support in the manner it considered most suitable.” To this, the army vice chief responded that “the army was capable of throwing back the intruders on its own” but, as Tipnis recalled, that doing so would take time and that air support from the IAF would hasten the process. The army vice continued to insist that such support be provided solely in the form of armed helicopters.36
Facing this continued impasse in his dealing with the army, Tipnis called a meeting of his most senior subordinates at Air Headquarters on May 15 to review the known events as they had played out thus far. After being briefed on the situation, the air chief issued this assessment and direction:
I observed that the ground situation was grave. Army required air force help to evict the intruders. Army Headquarters was reluctant, possibly because it was embarrassed to have allowed the present situation to develop, to reveal the full gravity of the situation to the Ministry of Defence. Thus it was not amenable to Air Headquarters’ position to seek government approval for use of airpower offensively.37
Tipnis then reiterated his determination that despite the army’s continued insistence on the use of helicopters in a fire-support role, such use would continue to be denied by the IAF because the helicopters “would be vulnerable in the extreme.”38
The following day, Tipnis met with the army vice chief at the latter’s request (the army chief, General Ved Malik, was out of the country on official travel). The army vice chief once again pressed his request for immediate support by armed helicopters. Air Marshal Patney proposed that Tipnis call a Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting to seek high-level closure once and for all on the IAF’s involvement in the coming counteroffensive. In the meeting, Tipnis reiterated the need for prior government approval for any introduction of Indian airpower into the looming fight, since the chance that such a commitment could trigger a major escalation of the fighting was, in his view, very high.39
As for the manner in which the army had responded to the crisis in its assessment and conduct up to that point, Tipnis recalled that there had been a
total lack of army-air force joint staff work. When the army found itself in difficulties, information/intelligence had not been communicated by Army Headquarters in any systematic manner to Air Headquarters. There had been no call for a joint briefing, leave alone joint planning, both at the service and command headquarters; just repeated requests for armed helicopter support… . There had been no joint deliberations at any level.40
On May 23, General Malik, having since returned to New Delhi, summoned Tipnis and the chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sushil Kumar, to his office. As Tipnis recalled,
His main thrust was that we needed to put up a united front to the CCS [Cabinet Committee on Security]… . Ved said the air force had to join in as the army was in a difficult position. I told him that there was no doubt of that and the air force was very keen to join in, my only reservation being in respect of the use of helicopters—they would be too vulnerable.
After going back and forth with Tipnis on the helicopter issue, General Malik retorted, “If that’s the way you want it, I will go it alone.” Tipnis eventually gave in “against [his] better judgment” out of a desire “to save army-air force relations.”41
The next day, the Chiefs of Staff Committee met and adopted a unanimous stance regarding what should be done with respect to the intrusion. In the end, it took the incontrovertible evidence of the reconnaissance imagery provided by the IAF and by other sources for the army chief to realize the full extent of the problem and to agree to take the issue to the prime minister.42
During a pivotal May 25 meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (whose members were the prime minister, defense minister, home minister, finance minister, and external affairs minister) chaired by Prime Minister Vajpayee, General Malik explained the seriousness of the situation in the Kargil sector and the need for the IAF “to step in without delay.” At that, Vajpayee reportedly said: “OK, get started tomorrow at dawn.” Tipnis then asked the prime minister for permission to cross the LoC while attacking enemy targets on India’s side of the LoC. To that, Vajpayee responded adamantly: “No. No crossing the LoC.”43 With that binding rule of engagement firmly stipulated by the civilian leadership, the die was finally cast for full-scale IAF involvement in the counteroffensive. Later the same day, Tipnis paid an incognito visit to the IAF’s main operating base in Kashmir at Srinagar for an on-scene assessment of the situation. While there, he personally assured the commander of 15 Corps that his troops taking fire would receive all needed air support.44
To be sure, Tipnis’s seemingly conclusive firsthand recollection in no way closed the books on the interservice contretemps over the delay in getting the IAF engaged in the campaign. On the contrary, while not contesting the basic facts as outlined by the air chief, a former Indian Army vice chief lambasted Tipnis for, among other things, having refused to honor Northern Army Command’s request for immediate on-call attack helicopter support, having voiced allegedly baseless concern over the chance that the introduction of airpower could result in escalation, and having delayed IAF involvement in the fighting until political approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security was first sought and granted.45The former army vice chief went on to author an even more outspoken litany of similar complaints in 2009, which prompted, in close succession, a point-by-point rebuttal by a retired IAF air marshal; a riposte against that rebuttal from the former army vice chief; and a more authoritative rebuttal from another retired air marshal who had been the AOC for Jammu and Kashmir during the lead-up to and conduct of the Kargil operation.46Despite the testy interservice back and forth both at the outset of planning for the campaign and later, the IAF was fully prepared for the looming conflict. It had been busy almost from the first day of the incursion’s discovery marshaling its assets and positioning them to show how India’s air arm might make an effective difference in the gathering confrontation.
INITIAL AIR OPERATIONS
Less than a week before the start of Operation Vijay, on May 21, the IAF had launched a Canberra PR57 from 106 Squadron to conduct a reconnaissance of the besieged area that overlooked highway NH1A and the adjacent town of Kargil. While descending to 22,000 feet just two miles from the LoC, which put the aircraft as low as 4,000 feet above the highest ridgelines, the Canberra sustained a direct hit in its right engine by what was later determined to have been a Chinese-made Anza infrared surface-to-air missile.47From that moment onward, the IAF leadership knew without doubt that it was nearing the brink of a major combat involvement.
The initial attacks marked the first time that the IAF had expended ordnance in combat in Kashmir since its early-generation Vampire jet fighters destroyed Pakistani bunkers in the Kargil sector in December 1971.
Kinetic air operations began in earnest at 0630 on May 26 with six attacks in succession by two-ship elements of MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-27 fighters against intruder camps, materiel dumps, and supply routes in the general areas overlooking Dras, Kargil, and Batalik. These initial attacks marked the first time that the IAF had expended ordnance in combat in Kashmir since its early-generation Vampire jet fighters destroyed Pakistani bunkers in the Kargil sector in December 1971. The IAF fighters that were pressed into these first-day attacks conducted 57mm rocket attacks and strafing passes against enemy targets. A second wave of air attacks began that afternoon, followed by high-altitude reconnaissance overflights by Canberra PR57s and subsequent low passes by MiG-21Ms to conduct near-real-time battle damage assessment.48
Nearly all of the targets selected for attack in those initial strikes were on or near jagged ridgelines at elevations ranging from 14,000 to 18,000 feet. (See Figure 2 for a graphic portrayal of the high mountain terrain.) The stark backdrop of rocks and snow made for uncommonly difficult visual target acquisition, complicated further by the small size of the enemy troop positions dispersed against a vast and undifferentiated snow background. Inspired by the unique view from the cockpit of a fighter flying high over the rugged terrain, the IAF codenamed its contribution to the campaign Operation Safed Sagar—Hindi for “white sea.”49
During the second day of surface attack operations, the IAF lost two fighters in close succession. The first, a MiG-27 from 9 Squadron, experienced an engine failure while coming off a target after its pilot had just conducted a successful two-pass attack with 80mm rockets and 30mm cannon fire on one of the enemy’s main supply dumps. The ensuing in-flight emergency resulted in the pilot ejecting safely after several unsuccessful airstart attempts, only to be captured by the Pakistani intruders almost as soon as he hit the ground.50Air Chief Marshal Tipnis later reported that the pilot had fired his rockets well outside the operating envelope stipulated for the weapon, causing the engine to flame out. The sudden loss of power in the thin Himalayan air could have resulted from rocket exhaust gas having been ingested through the engine’s air inlets on either side of the aircraft. (The MiG-27 was flying at an altitude well above that at which the rockets had been cleared to be fired.)51
The second fighter loss, a MiG-21 from 17 Squadron flying top cover for the strikers, sustained an infrared surface-to-air missile hit while its pilot was flying over the terrain at low level to assist in the search for the downed MiG-27 pilot. The pilot, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, also succeeded in ejecting safely but was executed shortly after he was captured following his landing. His body was subsequently returned bearing fatal bullet wounds and clear signs of brutalization.52
The stark backdrop of rocks and snow made for uncommonly difficult visual target acquisition, complicated further by the small size of the enemy troop positions dispersed against a vast and undifferentiated snow background.
The IAF’s pilots quickly understood what the Israelis had learned at great cost during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery downed nearly a third of the Israeli Air Force’s fighter inventory (102 aircraft) before the three-week war finally ended in victory for Israel.54Demonstrating its adaptability, the IAF moved with dispatch to equip all of its participating fighters with flares in order to provide an active counter-measure against any enemy infrared-guided missiles.55It also called a halt once and for all to any further use of slow-moving and vulnerable Mi-17 helicopters in an armed fire-support role and directed that all target attacks by IAF fighters be conducted from outside the lethal threat envelopes of enemy shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. In all, enemy forces fired more than 100 surface-to-air missiles at IAF aircraft throughout the conflict. After the service’s first three days of combat operations, however, not a single one of its aircraft was downed or sustained battle damage.56
Throughout the campaign, whenever IAF reconnaissance or ground attack operations were under way in the immediate combat zone, Western Air Command ensured that MiG-29s or other air-to-air fighters were also airborne on combat air patrol stations over the ground fighting on India’s side of the LoC to provide top cover against any attempt by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to enter the fray in a ground attack role. PAF F-16s to the west typically maintained a safe distance of 10 to 20 miles on the Pakistani side of the LoC, although they occasionally approached as close as 8 miles away from the ongoing ground engagements. The PAF’s director of operations during the Kargil War later reported that there had been isolated instances of IAF and PAF fighters locking on to each other with their onboard fire control radars, but that caution had prevailed on both sides and that “no close [air-to-air] encounters took place.”57 IAF fighters never joined in aerial combat with the PAF F-16s due to the Vajpayee government’s strict injunction that Indian forces not cross the LoC.58 Seven years later, however, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis recalled that he had personally authorized his escorting fighter pilots to chase any Pakistani aircraft back across the LoC in hot pursuit were those pilots to be engaged by enemy fighters in aerial combat.59
In all, the IAF flew some 460 fighter sorties throughout the campaign dedicated exclusively to maintaining battlespace air defense.60 These medium- and high-altitude defensive combat air patrols and offensive fighter sweeps, typically entailing four-ship flights of MiG-29s, took place not only in the immediate area of ground fighting in the Kargil sector but throughout Western Air Command’s area of responsibility. As Operation Vijay’s air component commander later recalled, he was not just concerned about Kargil or the Kashmir region but had a potentially larger-scale war in mind: “I was working on a much bigger canvas… . I was fully conscious that as we hit and killed enemy soldiers, there was every possibility for escalation, possibly outside the immediate combat area, and it was my job to be ready with adequate remaining resources for that eventuality.”61
IAF strike aircraft operated primarily from three northern bases, Air Force Stations Srinagar, Avantipur, and Udhampur. The closest of those to the fighting, Srinagar, was more than 70 miles away from the war zone. Within just days after the full extent of the Pakistani incursion was confirmed and well before the formal start of Operation Safed Sagar, the MiG-21bis squadron permanently stationed at Srinagar was joined by additional MiG-21M, MiG-23BN, and MiG-27ML squadrons, while additional squadrons of MiG-21Ms and MiG-29s deployed northward to Avantipur.
By the time Operation Safed Sagar had reached its full stride, the IAF had deployed some 60 of its frontline aircraft to support the war effort, making for about a quarter of Western Air Command’s combined fighter inventory.62 As they awaited mission tasking, those squadrons committed to the campaign initiated special training aimed at better acclimating their pilots to conducting night attacks under moonlit conditions. Such combat operations by fighters over high mountainous terrain at night had never before been attempted in the IAF’s history.63
Because of their rudimentary bomb sights, the inaccuracy of their unguided weapons, and the ruling against crossing the Line of Control, MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-27 pilots typically achieved only limited effectiveness when attempting to provide close air support against enemy point targets.
Increasingly as the joint campaign unfolded, most Indian Army operations were preceded by preparatory air strikes, each of which was closely coordinated beforehand between 15 Corps planners and the AOC for Jammu and Kashmir.64 Because of their rudimentary bomb sights, the inaccuracy of their unguided weapons, and the ruling against crossing the LoC, MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-27 pilots typically achieved only limited effectiveness when attempting to provide close air support against enemy point targets.
Rapidly adapting to these constraints, on May 30, just four days after the start of Operation Safed Sagar, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis decided to take action to help correct the problem of inaccuracy. He chose to commit IAF Mirage 2000H fighters capable of delivering laser-guided bombs to ground attack operations in the Kargil sector. The fighters first had to be configured to deliver the bombs, so Air Headquarters launched an accelerated effort to do so at Air Force Station Gwalior, where the Mirage 2000Hs were principally based.
India’s Aircraft System Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bangalore was well along in a developmental program to integrate Israeli-made Litening electro-optical targeting pods onto the Mirage 2000H and Jaguar fighters. To support the accelerated effort at Gwalior, ASTE began a full-court press to prepare selected Mirage 2000Hs from 7 Squadron to be fitted with Litening pods for use over Kargil. At the same time, ASTE helped modify the Mirage 2000H’s centerline weapons station to carry 1,000-pound U.S.-made Paveway II laser-guided bombs instead of the IAF’s French-produced Matra precision munitions, which were prohibitively expensive. Concurrently, the IAF’s elite Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment located at Air Force Station Jamnagar took the lead in developing and validating best tactics, techniques, and procedures for delivering the Paveway II.65 By June 12, the upgraded Mirage 2000Hs were ready to commence precision strike operations in anger for the first time in IAF history.
In the meantime, air operations against identified intruder positions and support facilities continued in the Jubar and Mashkoh Valley sectors between May 28 and June 1. Throughout the first week of June, inclement weather hindered such operations and persisted to a point where a cloud deck below the ridgelines precluded air attacks entirely on June 10 and 11. Fortunately, 15 Corps had no urgent target servicing requirements for the IAF during those two days.66
A SUCCESSFUL ENDGAME FOR INDIA
By the time Operation Vijay had reached full momentum in early June, the Indian Army had marshaled nearly a corps’ worth of dedicated troop strength in the Kargil area, including the Third and Eighth Mountain Divisions and a substantial number of supporting artillery units. The overriding objective of those forces was to recapture the high ground from which the intruders had a direct line of sight to highway NH1A, allowing them to lay down sustained artillery fire on it and on adjacent targets. Toward that end, after more than a week of hard fighting, units of Eighth Mountain Division recaptured the strategically important Tololing ridge complex and the adjacent Point 5203 in the Batalik sector on June 13, in what one informed account later described as “probably the turning point” in India’s land counteroffensive.67
Four days later, on June 17, another important breakthrough in the joint campaign was achieved when a formation of 7 Squadron Mirage 2000Hs struck and destroyed the enemy’s main administrative and logistics encampment at Muntho Dhalo in the Batalik sector by means of accurately placed 1,000-pound general-purpose bombs delivered in high-angle dive attacks using the aircraft’s computer-assisted weapons-aiming capability. For this pivotal attack, the IAF waited until the encampment had grown to a size that rendered it strategically ripe for such targeting. The AOC-in-C of Western Air Command at the time, Air Marshal Patney, affirmed later that the essentially total destruction by the IAF of the NLI’s rudimentary but absolutely life-sustaining infrastructure at Muntho Dhalo “paralyzed the enemy war effort, as it was their major supply depot.”68 In characterizing the attack as “perhaps the most spectacular of all the [campaign’s air] strikes,” a serving IAF air commodore reported at the end of 1999 that it resulted in as many as 300 enemy casualties within just minutes.69 Figure 3 shows pre- and post-strike aerial imagery of the enemy camp at Muntho Dhalo. In the first image, a dense array of tents and structures, as well as tracks leading up the hillside from the encampment, are clearly visible. In the second, after completion of the IAF’s attacks, all that remain are bomb craters and rubble.
The following day, Mirage 2000Hs and Jaguars initiated around-the-clock bombing of enemy positions throughout the Batalik and Dras subsectors. Mirage 2000Hs struck as many as 25 separate designated aim points toward the campaign’s end, including at Muntho Dhalo and the equally important Point 4388 overlooking Dras.72
The air support provided by the IAF almost instantly boosted the morale of India’s beleaguered ground troops and facilitated an early recapture of their outposts at Muntho Dhalo and Tiger Hill.
The air support provided by the IAF almost instantly boosted the morale of India’s beleaguered ground troops and facilitated an early recapture of their outposts at Muntho Dhalo and Tiger Hill. After an exhausting struggle, Tiger Hill was retaken on July 4, and by July 8, 15 Corps reported that its units had recaptured 99 percent of the Batalik-Yaldor subsector and 90 percent of the Dras area, leading Prime Minister Vajpayee to declare that “there is going to be a great victory.”73 The next day, the IAF received this congratulatory message from the Indian Army’s field headquarters:
You guys have done a wonderful job. Your Mirage boys with their precision laser-guided bombs targeted an enemy battalion headquarters in Tiger Hill with tremendous success… . The enemy is on the run. They are on the run in other sectors also. At this rate, the end of the conflict may come soon.74
Other than for an inconsequential brief delay due to weather, IAF combat operations continued without interruption for seven weeks. At the height of Operation Safed Sagar, the IAF was generating more than 40 fixed-wing combat sorties a day in both direct and indirect support to 15 Corps. Western Air Command was not the sole provider of IAF assets to conduct these daily missions. Because of its depth with respect to India’s western border, the service’s Central Air Command headquartered at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh has traditionally been the repository of such major IAF strategic assets as the since-retired Mach 3–capable MiG-25R high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the Mirage 2000Hs. It was under Central Air Command’s aegis that the MiG-25R was pressed into a unique medium-altitude tactical reconnaissance role to meet the needs of Operation Safed Sagar. The Mirage 2000Hs of the IAF’s 7 Squadron were also Central Air Command’s assets and were seconded to the operational control of Western Air Command for their use in the Kargil fighting. There was reluctance at first to employ the Mirage 2000Hs, as some in the IAF’s leadership wanted to save the fighters in case the conflict escalated. For that reason, the aircraft were never fully committed to the fight. If they had been, according to the parent command’s AOC-in-C at the time, they might have yielded “even better results than those achieved in Operation Safed Sagar.”75
Aerial strike operations ended on July 12. In all, IAF fighters flew more than 1,700 strike, combat air patrol and escort, and reconnaissance sorties throughout the campaign’s course, including around 40 at night during the final weeks of fighting.
Table 1 presents a breakdown of the total numbers of IAF sorties flown throughout the campaign by aircraft type. Although the IAF’s Mi-17 helicopters were not used in an armed role after one was lost to an enemy surface-to-air missile during the air offensive’s third day, they continued to play a vital part throughout the remainder of the campaign in conducting airlift, casualty evacuation, and reconnaissance missions.76