The bold decision taken by the Indian Government on May 25, 1999 to employ the air force in the Kargil War played an important role in the ultimate victory. Never before in military history had an air force engaged ground targets, well defended by air defence weapons, at heights as high as the mountain peaks of Kargil.
As such, perhaps, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis may have accepted the Government’s order to launch operation “Safed Sagar”, with some reservations. And yet, despite the handicaps, the challenge was accepted in the highest traditions of the IAF. The handicaps were:-
- No exercises had been conducted by the IAF in this area before. Pilots were trained for low-level strikes in the plains and had to be reoriented to strike at targets located at attitudes between 15-18,000 feet. To help in target identification and for general ground familiarisation, fighter pilots were, at times, flown over the target area in helicopters.
- The area of intrusion being only 5 to 12 kms, it was not possible to carry out strikes while flying towards the LoC, in view of:-
- Government’s stipulation that the LoC was not be crossed.
- The turning radius of aircraft is around 6 to 8 km. fighters had thus to fly parallel to the LoC. This made target spotting more difficult.
- Even when a target had been spotted, it was difficult for it to be accurately hit with 500 and 1,000 pound free flight “dumb” bombs and rockets.
To start with, the air force pressed into action MiG 21 and 23 fighters. It also fitted the MI-17 helicopters with machine guns –the gunships, and flew them to engage the intruders. On May 21, air force sent two aircrafts to survey the area of operation. These aircrafts were damaged by enemy ground fire but landed safely at Srinagar airfield. Pilots reported at least eight enemy helipads on the Indian side of LoC and that there were a number of pockets of intrusion.
A conscious decision was now taken to employ the air force primarily for attacking enemy’s supply camps. The aircraft were also to fly at heights above 30,000 feet, as the stinger missiles with which the intruders were equipped could not reach beyond 28,000 feet.
With the high mountainous terrain and the pattern of enemy deployment, the air force could not, however, be as effective in causing large-scale destruction of enemy’s fighting positions, as in the plains. Nonetheless, it rose to the occasion, both in courage and professional competence, to the amazement of flying professionals, the world over.
By the first week of June, the Mirage 2000 had also joined the Kargil war. Thereafter, it became the mainstay for precision attacks, using 1000 pound bombs fitted with laser kits. It was an improvisation carried out by the IAF and it proved effective. In addition, Jaguars and MiG 25’s were used for reconnaissance sorties. Only about 25 per cent of the total strike force of the Western Air Command was employed during operation “Safed Sagar”.
The effective application of air power indisputably saved further casualties. It deprived the intruders of essential supplies, including drinking water. The air operations and artillery bombardment cast demorlising spell on the enemy commanders and troops, affecting their will to give battle. As a result of this moral capitulation the time frame for the ground operations was considerably compressed. Here are some examples of how the air force assisted in the conduct of the land battle:-
- Air strikes on Pak Northern Light Infantry battalion headquarters at Muntho Dhalo and the administrative base in the Batalik sub-sector were a spectacular success. About 100-150 casualties to personnel and considerable damage to equipment and stores was inflicted.
- In addition to the above air strike, repeated bombing of Muntho Dhalo strangulated the Jubbar and Dog Hill complex of defences in the Batalik sub-sector. In particular, a daylight attack on June 28, on a supply camp at Kukar Thang and Muntho Dhalo was a resounding success.
- An effective isolation of the Tiger Hill complex was carried out by destruction of enemy camps located on the hill top and about 2.5 km west of Tiger Hill. In addition, strikes were also carried out along the Sando Nulla.
- Reconnaissance sorties helped in locating the enemy heaquarters, troops, gun areas, administrative bases and build-up taking place inside the Northern Areas.
The following figures are indeed revealing to indicate the extent of air effort that was involved during 60 days of operation Safed Sagar.
- About 6,500 air sorties were flown, fighters flew about 1,200 sorties, of these 550 were strike sorties.
- 10 to 11 strike missions took off daily. The remainder 650 sorties were undertaken for reconnaissance and air defence tasks.
- About half of the total sorties were used for transporting war material to the front.
- Approximately 6,500 tons of load including ammunition, drinking water and other logistic requirements were air lifted.
- A major air lift was undertaken in the form of casualty evacuation and fresh reinforcements, in which the helicopters played a crucial role.