On 12 June 1999, Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz hastily arrived in New Delhi, ostensibly to discuss ways of ending the Kargil War. Aziz, who deeply resents India, had landed with a single agenda – he implored India to “stop its airstrikes”.
Here was a conservative hawk, who is known to attack India in the most vicious manner, begging New Delhi to call off the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) round-the-clock barrage on Pakistani positions. You don’t get more desperate than that.
Aziz’s desperation was a result of the incredible display of firepower that the IAF – in tandem with the Indian Army’s 24/7 artillery barrage – had brought to bear on the Pakistanis. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16s had been repeatedly buzzed by India’s MiG-29s, and the PAF pilots had simply refused to offer combat. This had allowed the Indian Army and the IAF’s ground attack jets to blast away with impunity.
Aziz hadn’t come to buy peace; he had come to buy time, and Pakistan Army lives. It wasn’t ‘international’ (read American) pressure that made him dash to New Delhi but the desire to save the Pakistani military establishment from a humiliating 1971 war-like defeat. Had Aziz known that India was hours away from bombing Pakistan, he would have probably offered Baluchistan in exchange.
The IAF over Kargil
The IAF had deployed 16 fighter jets, mostly MiGs, to carry out attacks deep into then enemy territory. Although the final clearance to cross the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir was never given by the political leadership, the IAF was able to inflict considerable damage on Pakistani forces while operating within the confines of its own airspace.
Employing its massive airpower against the Pakistan Army’s positions at the Himalayan heights of 18,000 feet – unprecedented in the history of aerial warfare, the IAF achieved three key objectives: an early Indian victory, demoralising the Pakistani military and showing the limitations of nuclear deterrence.
Because of the aerial superiority achieved by the IAF in the war – and later during the 2002 border standoff – the PAF’s “psyche took a big beating”, says a Strategy Page report.
While a number of IAF aircraft took part in the Kargil campaign, it was the cover provided by the MiG-29 Fulcrum armed with beyond visual range (BVR) missiles that exposed the PAF’s plight. “Analyses by Pakistani experts revealed that when the rubber met the road, PAF simply refused to play any part in support of the Pakistan Army, angering the latter,” says the report.
“While PAF fighters did fly combat air patrols (CAP) during the conflict, they stayed well within Pakistani air space. On occasions, IAF MiG-29s armed with the deadly R-77 BVR air-to-air missiles were able to lock onto PAF F-16s, forcing the latter to disengage. In the absence of a PAF threat, the IAF was able to deliver numerous devastating strikes on intruder positions and supply dumps.”
The situation changed little during the 2002 border crisis between India and Pakistan. Strategy Page adds:
“One Pakistani military expert observed that the PAF’s perceived inability to defend the country’s airspace and even put up a token fight against the IAF was the biggest driver for Pakistani leaders’ warnings that any Indian attack would lead to an immediate nuclear strike by Islamabad. It would be no exaggeration to say that after the Kargil and 2002 experiences, PAF’s psyche took a big beating.”
Calibrated counter offensive
In the report ‘Airpower at 18,000 feet: IAF in the Kargil War‘, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2012, Benjamin Lambeth explains in detail how the IAF ground down both the Pakistan Army and the PAF:
“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 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 eight miles away from the ongoing ground engagements.”
Lambeth quotes Air Marshal (retired) Vinod Patney, the then head of Western Air Command:
“I think my insistence to mount CAPs across the (command’s entire area of responsibility) at different heights and times to give the message that I was ready and angling for an enlarged conflict helped. It was akin to throwing a glove, but it was not picked up.”
Although IAF fighters never joined in aerial combat with the PAF F-16s due to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s strict injunction that Indian forces not cross the LoC, years later Chief of the Air Staff (COAS) Anil Tipnis recalled he had “personally authorised 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”.
From the very beginning of the conflict, India had exposed the Pakistani military’s limitations. In the early hours of 26 May 1999, six attacks in succession by MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27 fighters were launched against intruder camps, materiel dumps and supply routes in the areas overlooking Dras, Kargil and Batalik.
The MiG-21bis squadron at Srinagar was joined by additional MiG-21M, MiG-23BN and MiG-27ML squadrons while more squadrons of MiG-21M and MiG-29 deployed northward to Avantipur. While the MiG-29s kept the F-16s at bay, the other IAF aircraft carried out ground sorties.
An example of Indian jugaad – or improvisation – was the use of stopwatches and handheld GPS receivers in their cockpits by MiG-21 pilots lacking sophisticated onboard navigation suites. According to Prasun K Sengupta in “Mountain Warfare and Tri-Service Operations”, another novel technique developed by the IAF for use in the campaign entailed selecting weapon impact points so as to create landslides and avalanches that covered intruder supply lines.
Air Marshal Patney said one of his younger pilots decided to carry a small video camera with him in a fighter and to film the area of interest so that an immediate reconnaissance report was available and at an expanded scale. On another instance, the IAF used the MiG-25R – which normally operates at 80,000 feet – in a medium altitude role to improve the resolution of its pictures, something that the aircraft’s Russian designers may not have thought possible.
However, the MiG-21s, MiG-23s and MiG-27s – lacking modern weapons – were not making a significant impact to locate enemy positions. MiG-23 and MiG-27 pilots were used to manual dive bombing runs, and this tactic wasn’t suited in the rarefied atmosphere of the Himalayas. At this point, the IAF introduced the Mirage 2000H equipped with day and night laser-guided bomb delivery pods.
On 24 June, two Mirage 2000Hs, in the first-ever combat use of laser-guided bombs by the IAF, struck and destroyed the Northern Light Infantry’s command and control bunkers. According to Lambeth, “For this pivotal attack, the IAF waited until the encampment had grown to a size that rendered it strategically ripe for such targeting.”
The IAF reported at the end of 1999 that it resulted in as many as 300 enemy casualties within minutes. Radio intercepts by Indian intelligence revealed severe shortages of ration, water, medical supplies and ammunition, as well as an inability of the occupying enemy units to evacuate their wounded, writes DN Ganesh in “Indian Air Force in Action”.
As stated in US air manuals, “Air power produces physical and psychological shock by dominating the fourth dimension of time. Shock results in confusion and disorientation.” At the same time, the Indian Army was pounding away at the Pakistani positions with its heavy artillery. The continuous barrage of bombs exploding around them day and night had a devastating effect on the Pakistani intruders.
That was the tipping point that forced Aziz to rush to New Delhi.
Was the IAF late to the party?
The IAF offensive commenced on 26 May, nearly three weeks after the Indian Army launched operations against the Pakistanis. It is an indication of how little intelligence was made available to the IAF that on 10 May the COAS left on an official visit to Poland and the Czech Republic. In fact, the army seems to have underplayed the seriousness of the intrusions.
Upon his return, the COAS asked the army chief to get political clearance for deploying air power. Political clearance was necessary because as per a 1991 agreement between India and Pakistan, armed aircraft are prohibited from flying 10 km either side of the international border or the LoC. To be sure, such an agreement becomes void during a conflict but nevertheless without New Delhi’s approval the IAF could not launch strikes.
Former Pakistani federal minister and Lt-Gen (retd) Abdul Majeed Malik, who was an insider during the then Nawaz Sharif government, says Pakistan suffered more casualties in the limited Kargil conflict than in the full-fledged 1971 War. Sharif himself later admitted the misadventure led to the deaths of 2,700 soldiers of the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry alone.
“India quickly mobilised its army and air force and inflicted heavy damage to Pakistan. Had the war continued for another couple of months, Pakistan would have faced more damage. In this tough situation when Pakistan was in no position to fight India in that area, the Nawaz Sharif government initiated the diplomatic process by involving the then US president Bill Clinton and got Pakistan out of the difficult scenario.”
The Pakistani generals, who planned the Kargil intrusions, were no different from those responsible for the 1965 and 1971 fiascos. In Kargil, Pakistan initiated the conflict, hoping that India would be restrained by outside powers. India pulled back but only after badly bruising Islamabad.
(Again, on 26 December 2008 – a month after the Mumbai attacks – Pakistani intelligence officials concluded that Indian warplanes were being positioned for an air raid. The country’s national-security adviser at the time, Mahmud Durrani, telephoned American officials in alarm.)
Pakistani diplomat Khalid Mahmood wrote in The News (29 September 1999) that to a “limited extent, the Pakistan planners had formulated an innovative military operation which faltered due to an anticipated and hard-hitting response”.
Pakistan was so acutely embarrassed by the failed invasion that it refused to accept the dead bodies of its soldiers and officers. The Indian Army buried them with honours befitting a soldier. This is the difference between us and them.
However, the most telling statement on the war was made by India’s defence minister George Fernandes. In January 2000, he observed that in precipitating the Kargil War, Pakistan “had not absorbed the real meaning of nuclearisation – that it can deter only the use of nuclear weapons, but not all and any war”.