Indian Air Force in Kargil Operations

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PATRON Lt Gen (Retd) SARDAR F.S. LODI studies Indian Air Force operations in Kargil

The fighting along the Kargil heights in Indian-occupied Kashmir ended in July 1999, nearly four months ago, but the task of defence analysts will go on for some time. Their assigned work is to sift through the evidence, examine details, read the statements and interviews of senior military commanders and to attend their press briefings in an effort to look beyond the rhetoric which is meant to guard military reputations and careers and find the facts. Similarly the politicians in the government have their party interests to guard and keep the nation's 'honour' intact by platitudes and a measure of disinformation, thus making the job of the defence analyst a bit harder. But truth does prevail eventually.

The object of this paper is to study the much heralded operations conducted by the large Indian Air Force near Kargil in Indian-occupied Kashmir, and to examine what contribution it made to the land operations conducted by the Indian Army. An operational debacle where '3,000 infiltrators were able to pin down, 300,000 strong (Indian) force in Kashmir and inflict such heavy casualties on our brave Jawans' wrote the Hindustan Times in its issue of September 29, 1999. Although the figures quoted were much more disproportionate. It was a force of about a thousand Kashmiri Freedom fighters pitched against a 700,000 strong Indian Army and para-military forces stationed as occupational troops in Indian-occupied Kashmir (IOK).

The Indian paper goes on to say that 'we are spending huge amounts on our intelligence outfits like RAW, IB and Military Intelligence, and yet the army had to be alerted by a shepherd about the intrusion of Pakistani infiltrators'. The Indian Army had stationed a heavy brigade at Kargil consisting of five battalions, as opposed to the normal three. These consisted of four regular army and one of BSF (Border Security Force). The paper goes on to pose a question. 'We have several remote sensing satellites as spies in the sky, yet nobody discovered the unusual movement in the Kargil sector. Where were all the rolls of pictures taken by these satellites stored, and did any expert ever scan them carefully.There were established outposts where troops were supposed to be stationed for scouting the border area regularly. Why were these posts not manned'. The paper concludes by saying that, 'these and many more such questions need to be answered honestly'.

One such question being debated in India today is the performance of the Indian Air Force and its lack of willing or adequated support to the army in high altitude operations, in Kashmir. In May 1999 the Indian army started to recover from the shock and humiliation of discovering that the Kashmiri freedom fighters had occupied and were holding around 1500 sq km of territory 10 to 15 km inside Indian-held Kashmir. The Indian army was unable to dislodge the Kashmiri Mujahideen inspite of the assurances given to the Defence Minister. The Indian Air Force was consequently asked for help which was not forthcoming.

'The Indian Air Force is believed to have side-stepped requests by the army to attack the infiltrators'. It is surprising and somewhat astonishing to note that the Indian Air Force justified their unwillingness to help by claiming 'inexperience in mountain warfare, terrain unfamiliarity and inadequate hardware to undertake the task'. Although the first operational mission given to the Indian Air Force after independence in 1947 was to support the Indian army's offensive in Kashmir with transport aircraft and ground support fighters and bombers.

As the Indian Air Force was not willing to operate in Indian-held Kashmir the Government of India took political and diplomatic advantage of this failure. The Indian Prime Minister Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee assured Pakistan that no airstrikes would be undertaken. It meant that the Indian Air Force would not be employed in the conflict. There was therefore an implied assurance that the fighting should be restricted and localized, and therefore prevented from escalating into a larger conflagration. The message was accepted in good faith and arrangements were in the process of being formulated to prevent a larger conflict. Later when the Indian Air Force was forced into action and employed in Kashmir, without any prior intimation or early warning to Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister's earlier assurance was conveniently set side, without a thought. Such are the high politics and mutual dealings between states in South Asia.

As the Indian Army found itself unable to deal with the Kashmiri freedom fighters and was suffering a disproportionate number of casualties in men and material and also finding its lifeline, the Srinagar-Kargil road interdicted and supplies disrupted. 'The Indian Air Force was presented a fait accompli and pressed into attack on May 26' reports THE ASIAN AGE, NEW DELHI in its issue of July 22, 1999. 'After losing three aircraft in as many days the Indian Air Force panicked, changed track and began operating from a 'safe' distance'.

During the first two days of operations the Indian Air Force also used MI-17 helicopter gunships to attack the positions occupied by the Kashmiri freedom fighters. During these missions the Air Force helicopters invariably carried an officer of the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) who operate in the area carrying supplies and evacuating casualties and are therefore familiar with the area and the flying conditions prevalent there. On May 28 when the Indian Air Force MI-17 helicopter gunship was shot down by the Mujahideen, no AAC pilot was on board. This incident brought out the inaptitude of Indian Air Force pilots. The shooting led to the withdrawal of all Air Force helicopters from the area and these were not employed any more. Certainly a case of jitters during active operations.

Rahul Bedi reporting from Kargil on July 21 had written that with the clamour of battle in Kargil abating, the Army is disputing the effectiveness of airstrikes carried out over nearly six weeks. Indian Army Field Commanders in Dras said proficiency of over 500 attack sorties against Pakistani intruders was 'limited', significantly less than the self-congratulatory claims made by senior Indian Air Force officials in New Delhi.

'The sincerity of the Indian Air Force to participate in Kashmir's campaign was in inverse proportion to their hit rates' said an Indian Army Officer in Dras. He said for nearly three weeks after the airstrikes began on May 26, its effectiveness was 'near negligible'. In addition to losing two MIG series of fighters and one MI-17 helicopter gunship on two successive days in an environment which the Indian Air Force monopolised, the Air Force simply failed in destroying Pakistani 'sangars' (rock bunkers) or dislodging the intruders in any significant way. 'They (Air Force) were more show than go', said one Indian Army Officer in Dras.

The 'decisive battle flank' said an army officer in Dras, was the terrain and the high mountains. Sadly, the Indian Air Force pilots were unable to achieve combat effectiveness flying around 5 km above the minuscule targets and releasing their ordinance at 'safe heights'. At one point, early on in the conflict, the Indian Army is reported to have asked the Air Force to call off its airstrikes, which were not only proving ineffective, but were also posing a threat to troops ascending the hill sides.

Rahul Bedi goes on to say that often Army units advantageously poised, were forced to their advance in deference to airstrikes. On many an occasion these sorties never materialised due to the sudden advent of clouds, forcing troops to retreat, regroup and launch a fresh offensive, often taking heavy casualties. 'If the Air Force had been an effective force multiplier, these delays in moving forward would have been acceptable', said one army officer. 'Since they were not, they were an irritant'.

Owing to these Indian Air Force failures, Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis, Chief of Air Staff, who had taken over command of the Air Force four months earlier, himself rushed to Srinagar, the Capital of Indian held Kashmir on June 16, to confer with Army Commanders at 15 Corps headquarters. During his two-day stay in Kashmir he also visited the headquarters of 8 Mountain Division, responsible for the operations in Dras and Mushkoh valley. It was obvious that a new air strategy had to be worked out. 'Thereafter, Mirage-2000's, amongst the most sophisticated fighters in the Indian Air Force's inventory were seriously pressed into service, firing locally-designed laser guided bombs with only relatively greater proficiency'.

Officials admitted a mismatch between the Army and the Indian Air Force in precisely pinpointing targets. While the Army's C 3 & I (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) system was digitalised, the Air Force's Air Defence Ground Environment System was not. Conversions were resorted to and are considered elementary under normal circumstances. But the slightest error in calculation would lead to a wide miss on the ground. 'A miss by a few yards where precision is vital, is as good as a few miles', said an Army officer.

The Indian Air Force's array of weapons are also configured for use at sea level and never having operated at such heights as Kargil, few pilots in the Air Force could accurately estimate their trajectories resulting in rockets and other precision-guided munitions smashing harmlessly into the mountainside. It is reported that these misses did not improve with the increase in mission frequency a few days before the conflict ended.

To cover up their initial reluctance to operate in Kashmir and poor showing when they went in 'senior Indian Air Force officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to prove their force's proficiency through detailed briefings and pictures, a view not shared by troops on the ground'. The Indian Air Force in any case has a different doctrine which states that the fight for 'control of the air should get first priority in every case'. Indian defence analysts say, in case of war with Pakistan the Indian Air Force wants to fight a strategic air battle, targeting economic targets, and destroying the enemy's war waging capability. But any such war, based on past experience cannot last more than 10-12 days, during which it would be impossible to factor in a strategic air battle. Indian military planners said the Indian Air Force was also wary of operating in tactical battle areas, preferring instead the safer option of 'interdicting' operations. Therefore 'the Indian Air Force has not trained itself for close support tasks with the Army' said a senior officer.

During an interview with the Indian Express, New Delhi, published in its issue of July 18, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A. Y. Tipnis was asked as the first question, 'There is a perception that the Air Force could have entered the scene a little earlier and probably swung things much quicker'. After his reply the second question was 'was the Air Force hesitant'. After Air Chief Marshal Tipnis had explained the third question was. 'But there is still a perception that the Air Force was hesitant'. These perceptions are no doubt based on the performance of the Air Force in the Kargil operations and adverse public opinion based on the ground realities.

Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis was also interviewed by the magazine India Today of New Delhi, which was published in its issue of July 26. As an introduction the magazine writes 'wary of joining the battle in Kargil, the Indian Air Force's initial strike rate was average. But its pilots later acquitted themselves well.' The first question was 'why was the Air Force initially reluctant to go to battle'. The papers were reflecting public sentiment and directing their questions accordingly. The second question was 'what did the army want', the third question asked 'what were the reasons for the loss of two jet fighters'.

Rajiv Lather writing in The Pioneer of New Delhi on September 4 under the heading 'Mountain flying' gives the reasons for the Air Force failures in Kargil. The main difficulty he writes, faced by the Air Force was that the MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar and Mirage-2000 are too fast to be used effectively in the terrain of the Kargil sector. The MI-17 helicopters, which have been improvised as gunships, are too slow and their operational ceiling is approximately 17,000 feet, thus hampering their effectiveness. The dedicated helicopter gunships, the MI-24 and MI-35 are not able to operate at high altitudes, which makes them useless in the Kargil sector.

Rajiv Lather goes on to say that the MiG-21, MiG-27 and MI-17 are not fitted with flare dispensers, making them vulnerable to heat-seeking and infrared missiles. These aircraft thus had to stay above the engagement envelops of the Stinger missiles, which made hitting small targets at high speeds difficult. None of these aircraft, with the exception of the Mirage-2000 are fitted with electronic counter-measures or to confuse and Jam enemy radar.

The author suggests that the Indian Navy's Sea Harriers could have done the job better. The Harrier is a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft used by the Navy from its two aircraft carriers, the INS Virat and INS Vikrant. Vikrant has since been decoommisioned and INS Virat is in dry dock at Cochin shipyard undergoing repairs. The two squadrons of Sea Harrier aircraft are presently stationed on a land airbase. The Indian Naval Chief was quoted having said during a visit to Garden Reach shipbuilders that the Navy had sent a batch of 100 naval commandos and some sophisticated aircraft to the Kargil battlefront. Maybe these aircraft were the Sea Harriers' says the author.

After the Kargil fighting a major reshuffle took place in the senior appointments of the Indian Air Force as reported by The Times of India, New Delhi on September 3. The changes included seven Air Marshals, including three Air Officers Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-Iin-C). The Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal S.S.H. Naqvi and the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Plans), Air Vice Marshal M.M. Sehgal submitted applications seeking premature retirement. Air Marshal S.S.H. Naqvi has since been posted to the Air Force training commanded at Bangalore.

The most surprising posting is that of Air Marshal Vinod Patney AOC-in-C Western Air Command responsible for all air operations in Kargil. He is a well qualified professional officer who had also attended a year's senior officers course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. He was the first Air Force officer and the second service officer to be awarded the Sarvottam Yudh Seva Medal (SYSM) for his leadership in Operation Vijay in Kargil. Air Marshal Patney has been sent as head of the relatively low-profile, Central Air Command at Allahabad. His posting speaks volumes about the efficiency of air operations in Gilgit. A service does not change a successful commander but only the one who was unable to deliver the goods. A sad reflection on the Indian Air Force which is the fourth largest in the world.