Operation Safed Sagar- IAF operations during the Kargil war ’99

Indian Air Force tames the Himalayas- The Kargil operations

Mirage 2000- fully loaded

Mirage-20002

Tiger hill bunker destroyed

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Imagine that you are in a gun fight…one of your hands is tied behind your back…one of your legs are tied to a pole…your eyes are not as good as you would want them to be…your enemy is elusive…hidden…scattered…and has the ability to respond with deadly force…to top it all, you are having this fight for the first time, at the mind numbing altitude of 15 to 20 thousand feet.
This is what the Indian Air Force might have felt during the initial days of the Kargil operations but kudos to them for shaking off initial setbacks and getting on with the operations…striking telling blows to the enemy positions and supply lines…hastening the end of what might have proven to be a long and deadly ground operation.

How it all started? Well, we must credit the Pakistani High command for achieving total surprise by taking the initiative to re-draw the LOC in Kargil-Drass sector. They have achieved such surprises in the past too in 65 and 71 wars. But to their ‘debit’, what they fail to learn is that maybe you can spring a surprise or two on the Indian Armed forces…but in the end you shall be beaten black and blue and sent back to where you came from.

In case of Kargil, Indian intelligence failed miserably. No soft way to put that across. Pakistan was clever enough to move its local (based in POK) Northern Light Infantry units to avoid any suspicion. The first intrusions were detected by local shepherds. One fact which most of us don’t know is that even before the hostilities began officially on May 26, an IAF Canberra on photo reconnaissance mission in Kargil sector was hit by a heat seeking, shoulder fired Surface to Air, ‘Anza’ missile. The Canberra received a direct hit on its right engine…but being a highly resilient piece of machinery, she landed back safely. But this incident raise alarm bells in IAF circles about the fact that these were not a bunch of adventurous Mujahedins…but a highly trained bunch of men with heavy weaponry at their disposal. This event happened around Mid-May, 1999 and at this time the Army was still claiming the intrusions to be a minor affair, which would be weeded out in a day or two.

Once more intelligence came in and attacking army formations suffered substantial casualties, they requested Air force to provide close air support using the Mi 25/35 attack Helicoptors. The Northern Army Command (leading the Kargil operations) repeatedly asked for Ground support operations which IAF couldn’t provide as the targets were above the operating ceiling of both these attack Helicopters. This also in a way, displayed insufficient capability awareness among the Army commanders about IAF’s assets.
Then, in the most eventful meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, it was decided to use the Air Force in an offensive manner but a huge limitation was placed…Do NOT cross the LOC under any circumstance. IAF chief later on confessed that he had guided his pilots to ignore this constraint in case of hot pursuit of enemy aircraft. But, for normal ground attack operations this rule was followed to the hilt. This limited to a great extent the elbow room which IAF pilots had in maneuvering and also provided a limited attack funnel for manual dive bombing.

Adding to this was the threat of infrared seeking SAM. After losing an unlucky Mi-17 helicopter to a stinger missile (unlucky because out of a formation of 4 choppers, it was the only one without flare dispensers, which might have saved it), IAF decided to withdraw all rotary wing aircraft and use only fixed wing aircrafts- MiG 21/23/27 for the ground attack. This strategy also suffered a blow when K. Nachiketa, flying a MiG-27, made the mistake of firing his rockets above their operable altitude. It seems the Rocket exhaust got sucked into the MiG’s intake and in the thin Himalayan air, it was enough to cause an engine flame-out. After repeated failed engine restarts, Nachiketa ejected. Sq. Ldr Ajay Ahuja, flying a MiG-21, left his primary operational task and flew low to locate Nachiketa and was shot down by another Stinger. He safely ejected, was captured and brutalized before being shot by the real coward psychopaths.

These setbacks brought IAF back to the operations table. They decided to start using more advanced aircraft like the Mirage 2000 for precision guided bombing. The Migs would now be bombing from a safe altitude, above the striking range of enemy missiles. This meant theoretically, less accuracy in the bombing as the targets were very small and scattered…located on high and narrow ridge-lines…with possibility of friendly forces in close vicinity. Adding to this was the fact the IAF didn’t have extensive practice in delivering bombs in the cold thin air environment which existed over the target area. But being Indians…they came up with ‘Jugaads’. Older Migs which engaged in manual bombing used hand-held GPS for accurate positioning…used video cameras to first recce the target and figure out the best angle of attack. With this sort of adaptation and innovation being practiced, the IAF achieved at least 70 % ‘bombs on target’ as reported by army units closeby.

Advanced aircraft like Mirages had GPS suite and also weapons system with computers figuring out when to release the bombs. For the first time, IAF used LGB (Laser Guided Bombs), when it attacked the Battalion HQ of northern Light Infantry located on Tiger Hill. Mirage 2000 fitted with Israeli made LITENING targeting pods (which were attached and practiced on and mastered within 10 days of the conflict) were used in this raid. Two LGB destroyed the NLI BHQ, killing most of the local military leadership.

Another major attack was on a supply depot at Muntho Dhalo, which destroyed a huge logistical support and killed at least 300 enemy personnel. This was supposed to be the turning point in the war. IAF kept attacking even in the night as MIrage with GPS and other advanced avionics had the capability to do so. Presence of Indian assets in the air also prevented the Pakistanis from using their choppers to replenish forward posts or indulge in any rescue efforts. This was a major psychological blow to the enemy fighting units as many units had run out of food, medicine and ammo and were both physically and psychologically exhausted.

The main reason behind not crossing LOC was to prevent any international intervention (India and Pak both being Nuclear armed) and also keep PAF out of the equation. PAF F-16s kept flying around 10-15 kms from LOC but didn’t try to interfere with IAF’s ground attack operations. Other reason why the F-16s didn’t indulge in any adventurism was top-cover provided by the mighty MiG-29 interceptors. It is said that both Mig-29s and F-16 did get radar locks on each other multiple times during the course of the battle, but better sense prevailed and no escalations happened.

Pakistan high Command had thought that just because they now had nuclear bombs, India would be hesitant in indulging in even a limited conventional war. They had assumed that after some hue and cry, India would accept the status quo and the Pakistanis shall make traveling on NH 1A a more ‘exciting’ experience. They were also shocked by the quantum of Indian response and the fact the IAF also got involved. Even the Indian Army commanders agree that if it was not for the IAF’s stellar performance, the Kargil operations would have taken much longer and cost a lot more in terms of men and material.

There were lessons learned for the IAF and the Army. In future such limited conflicts would be more probable with either of our big neighbors instead of a full blown war and IAF has demonstrated that its a quick and able learner. We can be sure that in case of any such eventualities our air warriors…in their state-of-the-art chariots…shall blow the enemy’s ambitions to smithereens.

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