Military & Aerospace

Air Power in decisive role in Kargil War
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Jul , 2023

To cut off the link between Kashmir Valley and Ladakh in April 1999, around 1500 Pakistani army personnel and Mujahedeen invaded Indian territory in Kargil sector of Jammu, and Kashmir. The rugged, jagged and barren highpeaks held by the enemy were assaulted and taken back in well-planned and precise land and air operations. The utilisation of air power played a pivotal and decisive role in the War by providing close air support to ground forces and carrying out precision airstrikes on enemy objectives, thereby significantly influencing the outcome of the conflict. The operation was a singular demonstration of courage, tenacity, and dedication in the face of hostile terrain and weather. The Indian troops were victorious in retaking Kargil Heights by July 23, 1999.[1]

The Kargil Vijay Diwas is widely celebrated on the 26th of July for the triumph of the Indian armed forces, primarily due to its focus on air and land-based warfare. Being engaged in large-scale combat for the first time since the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, the Kargil War of 1999 was a landmark event for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

The military aviation operations conducted in the Kargil area, known as ‘Operation Safed Sagar’, marked a significant milestone in the annals of military history. During the 1990s, the Indian Army and IAF faced significant challenges in conducting military operations in the Himalaya due to concealed intruders positioned at high-altitude peaks, rendering their precise whereabouts unknown.This operation represented a groundbreaking utilisation of air power within a unique and challenging environment.

Background

During a period characterised by the seemingly genuine peace-making endeavours of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a strategic plan was devised by four high-ranking Pakistani military officials. These officials included General Musharraf, who held the position of ‘Chief of Army Staff’, Lt. General Mahmud Ahmad, serving as ‘Corps Commander of the 10 Corps’, Lt. General Aziz, who held the position of ‘Chief of the General Staff’, and Major General Javed Hasan, who served as ‘Commander of the Force Command Northern Areas’ (FCNA). The plan involved advancing and occupying posts located approximately seven kilometres within India. Historically, the Indian troops typically withdraw from these posts during winter. However, upon their scheduled return in late April 1999, they were caught off guard and taken by surprise as those posts vacated prior to onset of the winter were oppupied by enemy forces.[2]

The interdiction of the road to Leh by the enemy directing accurate artillery fire and employing long range heavy calibre machineguns,  had the potential for Pakistani troops to engage in hostile actions against convoys transporting supplies to Indian troops, posed a significant and alarming challenge for India. India responded to the situation by additional brigades and deploying heavy artillery and mobilising the air force to repel the intruders. Later, Nawaz Sharif embarked on a diplomatic visit to the United States to seek assistance from President Bill Clinton in facilitating mediation efforts. Sharif perceived the conflict at hand as having the potential to escalate into a full-fledged armed confrontation between two nations possessing nuclear capabilities. The condition for achieving peace entailed a firm dedication to withdrawing from the remaining positions occupied by Pakistani forces. The withdrawal occurred during July and August and was perceived as a source of humiliation within the Pakistani context.[3]

Pakistan Army’s Lt Gen Abdul Majeed Malik (Retired), a former federal minister, claimed that the Kargil operation of Pervez Musharraf was poorly conceived, faultily executed and politically ill considered. Pakistan endured more casualties during the comparatively confined Kargil conflict compared to the all-encompassing 1971 War. Then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, in a subsequent confession, acknowledged that the ill-fated endeavour resulted in the unfortunate demise of a staggering 2700 soldiers of the esteemed Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry exclusively.[4]

Challenges

The IAF encountered notable challenges due to the geographical and environmental factors in its operational areas. Engaging in operations at high altitudes invariably presents formidable obstacles, such as the notable deterioration of both aircraft and weapon efficacy and its accuracy. The region of Kargil is situated at an approximate altitude ranging from 14,500 to 18000 ft. Hence, aircraft must maintain a cruising altitude of approximately 10000 feet above ground level.

A reduction in weight of 30% is observed due to the decreased air density at altitudes above sea level. The augmented turn radius challenges the pilot’s navigational abilities compared to that at lower elevations. Furthermore, it can alter the operational effectiveness of the aircraft’s propulsion systems and the path followed by projectiles discharged from the weapon.

The Air Force encountered challenges when attempting to engage targets at altitudes ranging from 15,000 to 18,000 feet which,thereby, presented avery small target on the face of the steep rocky slopes of the mountain features. Planes and weaponry exhibit suboptimal performance under conditions of reduced air density. The engine’s combustion and the actions of the onboard computer differ from expected norms. There is a need for enhancement in the aircraft’s performance as a weapon system.

A 1000-pounder bomb dropped 25 yards from its intended target on the plains will severely damage or destroy it. Nevertheless, due to the topography of the mountains and the resulting obscuring phenomena, a slight deviation of a few yards would yield comparable outcomes to a significantly larger distance. The “inaccuracy” of the weapon/delivery would be further exaggerated by the fluctuation in elevation, which would cause the “miss” to be substantially amplified in the linear dimension.[5]

The delivery of a weapon to the target is significantly influenced by weather at higher altitudes. Most of the time, the winds are excessively strong and higher than the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) required ‘minima’.  Given this, manoeuvring is necessary to complete the essential launch.The fighter aircraft were required to operate at altitudes exceeding 30,000 feet to avoid the kill envelope of Pakistani Stinger and Anza. These shoulder-fired missiles were unable to reach beyond the threshold of 28,000 feet.[6]

The primary objective for the pilot is to achieve target acquisition. The lack of familiarity with the terrain in the Kargil area posed significant challenges in identifying targets, particularly when attempting to do so from the ground or a fast-moving aircraft. Consequently, the initial few high-level sorties yielded unsatisfactory outcomes. Nevertheless, after the revision and modification of profiles, tactics, and the way the system was utilised, there was a significant enhancement in the precision of the airstrikes. Consistently, the target’s identification led to a significantly high success rate.[7]

Air Operations

The IAF was first approached to provide air support on 11 May 1999. Chief of Air Staff (CAS) AY Tipnis asked for clearance to operate. This clearance was deemed imperative due to the stipulations outlined in a bilateral agreement signed in 1991 between India and Pakistan. According to this agreement, operating armed aircraft within a 10-kilometre radius on either side of the international border or the Line of Control (LoC) is strictly prohibited. This was followed by a go-ahead given on 25 May by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to the IAF to mount attacks on the infiltrators without crossing the LoC. Air operations led to the degradation of the enemy’s ability to remain in fine mettle. Significant airstrikes that altered the course of the conflict and other vital activities are appended below.[8]

11 May 1999: There was considerable pressure from outside the IAF to operate only attack helicopters; the CAS convinced the Govt that fighter action was required to achieve a certain degree of control of air to create a conducive environment for the helicopters.

14 May 1999:   Air Chief Marshal Tipnis had an intense secret discussion with the top officials. The enemy captured the heights of Kargil, and the Indian army immediately needed air support.

21 May 1999:  The Air Force’s first Canberra aircraft on a reconnaissance mission in the Batalik sector launched. The pictures showed the fortified bunkers and intruders in large numbers with high-power weapons.

25 May 1999:  CCS at New Delhi, the Cabinet Committee on Security authorised the IAF to mount attacks on the infiltrators without crossing the LoC.

26 May 1999: The IAF launched its massive operation in Kargil War with the code ‘Operation Safed Sagar’. The IAF was tasked with providingthe support required for Indian Infantry units in the battle zone.

Flying from the airfields of Ambala, Adampur, Srinagar, Awantipur and Udhampur, ground attack aircraft MiG-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars, and the Mirage-2000 were ready for day and/night strikes on the positions occupied by Pakistan army’s infantry units under the facade of terrorist and intruders. Air Defence cover for the fighter operations was provided from Srinagar and Awantipur.

7 June 1999: Mirage-2000 mission successfully struck Point 5140 (Tololing Ridge Complex) in the Batalik Sector.

16 June 1999: Mirage-2000 mission dropped 24×250 kg bombs on snow-bound Muntho Dalo, having the main Administration and Logistic camp in the Batalik sector. More than 300 Pakistani casualties were reported. A total of seventy tents and their accompanying stores were destroyed. This significantly undermined the morale and resolve of the opposing forces.

24 June 1999-Air Strike on Tiger Hill:One of the noteworthy instances of air power utilisation during the Kargil War involved the IAF’s targeted attack on Tiger Hill. This prominent peak had been seized by Pakistani infiltrators, enabling them to effectively monitor and engage in artillery shelling on NH-1A, the crucial road connecting Srinagar to Leh. On June 24, 1999, the IAF launched a precision strike on the Pakistani positions using laser-guided bombs dropped by Mirage-2000 fighter jets. The enemy, the supply camps, and gun positions in the Drass sector were targeted. These attacks resulted in the successful destruction of the enemy supply chain. The strike was a success, and the Pakistani infiltrators were forced to abandon their positions at the peak. A total of 37 Pakistanis were killed, and nine tentage stores were destroyed.

6 July 1999: Airstrike thrashed logistics camp at Point 4388 in Mushkoh.

12 July 1999: The aerial campaign has been successfully concluded, as all viable targets have been effectively neutralised.

Besides airstrikes, IAF played a significant role in airlifts of casualties, evacuation, and fresh reinforcement, in which MI-17 played an important role. For the first time, an Indian woman helicopter pilot flew into the war zone.

14 July 1999: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister of India, proclaimed Operation Vijay a success.[9]

26 July 1999: The conflict officially ended when India declared victory after successfully regaining control of all the territories that Pakistani infiltrators had occupied.

Every Challenge is an Opportunity

The profound influence of air power lies in the significant transformation it has brought about in ground operations. A prime illustration of this can be found in the communication emanating from the headquarters of a field Army unit (as depicted in the italicised excerpt above), wherein it is conveyed that “owing to the meticulously executed precision air strikes on Tiger Hills, our military forces have effectively traversed the entirety of the Tiger Hills region.” The adversary is on the run….”[10]

The Indian Air Force’s specialised assault helicopters, such as the Mi-35, were found inappropriate for operations at such high altitudes. Consequently, armed and modified Mi-17 helicopters were employed to fulfil this role.[11]

IAF attempted to innovate various weapon launch mechanisms. Laser-guided bombs, a new makeshift innovation for Mirage-2000 by IAF, broke the back of the enemy’s supply lines.

The IAF encountered numerous challenges and constraints, including navigating through elevated terrains, the imperative to refrain from breaching the Line of Control, and the need to operate amidst adverse meteorological circumstances. In addition, they successfully surmounted various other constraints, such as the need for prompt preparation, to contribute significantly to the making of historical events in the region of Kargil. Notwithstanding these formidable challenges, the IAF exhibited remarkable valour, ingenuity, and expertise in executing various missions encompassing aerial bombardments, intelligence gathering, logistical operations, and emergency evacuations.

The IAF demonstrated commendable ingenuity and resourcefulness during the Kargil conflict by introducing several noteworthy advancements.

Modification of Laser-guided Weapon Pods: The laser-guided weapon pods were modified to accommodate 1000-kilogram bombs of World War II vintage, stored for Ajeet aircraft. According to reports, the IAF opted for weapon-impact locations that could trigger a cascading series of events leading to landslides or avalanches.[12]The first time these bombs were fired by Mirage-2000 aircraft after quick modifications.

Development of ultra-high altitude firing parameters:  Evolving optimal firing parameters for rockets and firearms at extreme altitudes necessitates a meticulous process of discerning remote mountain peaks that closely mirror the elevation of adversary strongholds. Subsequently, conducting live firing trials in such environments enables the acquisition of invaluable data to refine and enhance the efficacy of these armaments.[13]

Exploiting Using Laser Designators: Utilising laser designators affixed to MiG-29 aircraft to guide ordnance deployed by Mirage-2000 fighter jets. Implementing this innovative technique significantly augmented the precision and efficacy of the strikes.[14]

Exploring Litening pods:  Litening pods (an advanced airborne infrared targeting and navigation pod) on Mirage-2000 aircraft for target acquisition and the subsequent deployment of precision-guided munitions were added. This marked the inaugural instance wherein the IAF employed cutting-edge targeting systems during combat operations.[15]

Setbacks

During their operational endeavours, the IAF experienced significant setbacks due to the unfortunate loss of a MIG-17, MIG-27, and an MI-17. One of the four Mi-17, attacking the enemy at Peak 5140, was lost on May 28, 1999, after successfully attacking the enemy in the Drass sector. Sqn Ldr R Pundhir, Flt Lt S Muhilan, Sgt R K Sahu and Sgt PVNR Prasad were martyred in the same Mi-17.[16] A change in strategy was required after the adversary forced the destruction of two planes and one helicopter. Consequently, the outcome entailed the withdrawal of militarised rotary-wing aircraft and the subsequent mobilisation of infantry personnel exhibiting recently adapted characteristics. That moment they marked the strategic deployment of the IAF’s trump card—the commencement of aerial strikes executed by the Mirage-2000 fighter jets initiated during the first week of June.

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, a member of the No. 17 Squadron flying Mig-21s, known as the Golden Arrows, tragically lost his life after being shot down while he was trying to fix the crash site of flamed out Mig-27 of Flt Lt K Nachiketa near the border. The heinous act of killing Sqn Ldr Ahuja and the subsequent apprehension of Flt Lt K Nachiketa, whose aircraft experienced a flame-out, incited a fierce reaction from the global community directed at Pakistan.[17]

Takeaways

The competition led to several significant observations on the application of air power, subsequently undergoing analysis and evaluation by military strategists and analysts. The Kargil War resulted in several noteworthy insights regarding the utilisation and effectiveness of air power.

    • Modern warfare relies on air superiority, as seen during the Kargil War. The IAF’s aerial dominance, ground support, and mobility restrictions hindered Pakistani forces.
    • Precision strike capabilities minimised collateral damage and neutralised hostile positions during the battle. Laser-guided bombs and improved targeting systems showed the IAF how accurate munitions are vital in difficult terrain and high heights.
    • The Kargil War showed the need for adequate Air Force-Army cooperation. Joint operations have helped ground forces and air power engage hostile locations.
    • High-Altitude Operations: The mountainous Kargil region makes airborne operations difficult. The combat revealed how aircraft behave at high altitudes, how altitude affects aircraft performance, and how weapons are deployed.
    • The fight showed the importance of strong ISR capabilities for aerial operations. The IAF used timely intelligence to make strategic decisions and execute focused missions with little asset risk.
    • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) performed well in reconnaissance and surveillance during the Kargil War, helping the IAF identify enemy positions and assess aerial assaults.
    • The Kargil War showed the need to build and use an integrated air defence system to safeguard friendly skies and effectively repel aerial threats. Pakistan’s weak air defences allowed the IAF to launch successful strikes.
    • Terrain. The battle showed the importance of adapting air power tactics and techniques to mountainous terrain. The IAF overcame difficult terrain with low-level flying and clever tactics.
    • Psychological Implications: The Kargil War showed that air power may psychologically devastate the enemy. Targeted and continuous aerial bombardment can lower the opposing faction’s morale and cognitive functions, influencing their decision-making.

The Kargil War taught how to use aviation capabilities in challenging, high-altitude terrain. This fight informed air forces’ essential concepts and techniques today.

Nevertheless, the most significant impacts observed in the field were attributed to the interception of enemy radio communications, which exposed critical deficiencies in provisions such as rations, water, medicines, and ammunition. The intercepts also referred to the losses incurred due to airstrikes and the challenges in evacuating casualties. The impact of the IAF’s successful airstrikes was manifested in this way on the ground.[18]

Conclusion

The IAF strategic airstrikes targeting enemy supply camps and other vital objectives resulted in significant dividends. It is worth mentioning that prior to every ground operation, airstrikes were consistently conducted, and these airstrikes were the outcome of coordinated planning between the 15 Corps and the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) in J&K.

The utilisation of aerial force by the IAF against the Pakistan Army’s positions situated at the tall Himalayan heights of 18,000 ft, a feat unparalleled in the annals of aerial warfare, accomplished planned objectives. Firstly, it secured an expeditious triumph for India, establishing an advantageous position. Secondly, it instilled a sense of despondency and diminished the Pakistani military’s morale, undermining their resolve. 

Notes

[1] “Operation Vijay”, National War Memorial, 21 Jul, 2023, https://nationalwarmemorial.gov.in /murals/ totem_details/6#:~:text=The%20Kargil%20war%20was%20a,link%20between%20Kashmir%20and%20Ladakh. Accessed on July 23, 2023.

[2] Dr Tariq Rahman, Retelling Kargil, July 1, 2018, https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/565811-retelling-kargil. Accessed on July 22, 2023.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tariq Butt, “Kargil war was a total disaster, claims Gen Majeed Malik”, The News, November 14, 2012, https://web.archive.org/web/20130201054012/http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-142768-Kargil-war-was-a-total-disaster-claims-Gen-Majeed-Malik. Accessed on July 23, 2023.

[5] “Ops Safed Sagar”, IAF: Our Operations, 2021, https://indianairforce.nic.in/ops-1962/. Accessed on July 23, 2023.

[6] Ibid IAF.

[7] Ibid IAF.

[8] Azad Singh Rathore, “Air Force Day: Operation Safed Sagar – IAF in Kargil War”,  The Financial Express, October 8, 2021, https://www.financialexpress.com/business/defence-air-force-day-operation-safed-sagar-iaf-in-kargil-war-2346352/. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[9] Sunny Singh, “Past Forward: A timeline of Kargil War”, News Hour,  Jul 26, 2019, https://www.newshour.press/blogs/past-forward-a-timeline-of-kargil-war/. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[10] Ibid IAF.

[11] Ibid IAF.

[12] Ashwini Kumar, “How IAF’s air warriors helped turn the tide of the Kargil war”, The India Today, February 28, 2019, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/how-iafs-air-warriors-helped-turned-the-tide-of-the-kargil-war-331972-2016-07-28. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[13]  Arjun Subramaniam, “They Too Fought in Kargil: How IAF 108 Squadron’s Innovative Tactics to Target Enemy Stood Out”, News18, July 25, 2021, https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/they-too-fought-in-kargil-108-squadrons-innovative-tactics-to-target-enemy-stood-out-4004339.html. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[14] Maj Gen Jagjit Singh, “Kargil War: Role Played by the Indian Air Force”, Indian Defence Review, February 2, 2019,  http://www.indiandefencereview.com/interviews/role-played-by-the-indian-air-force/. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[15] “20 years of Kargil war: IAF turns Gwalior Air Base into ‘war theatre’, reenacts milestones”, The Hindu, June 24, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/20-years-of-kargil-war-iaf-turns-gwalior-air-base-into-war-theatre-reenacts-milestones/article28122992.ece. Accessed on July 24, 2023.

[16] Himali Nalawade, “Op Safed Sagar: Remembering IAF at Kargil War”, News Bharati, Jul 26, 2022, https://www.newsbharati.com//Encyc/2022/7/26/Kargil-Op-Safed-Sagar.html. Accessed on July 22, 2023.

[17] Ibid Ashwani.

[18] Ibid IAF.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt (Dr) DK Pandey (Retd.)

is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies.

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One thought on “Air Power in decisive role in Kargil War

  1. Typical mumbo-jumbo by the Air Force hiding behind so called technical limitations and “challenges”.
    Facts:-
    1. MI-17 shot down by Manpads due to lack of fitiing of countermeasures.
    2. Mig27 lost due to pilot error.
    3. Mig 21 shot down by Manpads.
    Thats three aircrafts in a row without even the PAF being present.
    Subsequent attacks on enemy “lines of communication or Logistics nodes” had NO effect on the battlefield.
    The Kargil War of 1999 was won by sustained and accurate artillery fire directed by Forward Observation Teams and then the objectives were taken at the point of the bayonet by gallant Infantry assaulting uphill against great odds.
    Air Force should stop making lame excuses of being caught wanting and unprepared while at the same time wanting to hog glory in postscript hindsight by concocting stories.

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