Lt Gen Harwant’s article “Kargil Controversy : Sorry State of Higher Defence Management”, published in October-December 2009 issue of the Indian Defence Review is laudable for its comprehensive and all encompassing critique. Though written with an advantage of hindsight after a long span of ten years, he somehow ends up making the issue still more controversial, especially with regard to the role of the Indian Air Force. One does not have to berate the other merely to prove a point, that the Chief of the Defence Staff is an urgent need of the hour if Higher Defence Management is to improve. I have no reason to believe that the article is a deliberate misrepresentation of facts. I am in fact inclined to attribute it to inadequate understanding of fundamental precepts of air power. I would therefore dwell on some of these issues raised by the General and hopefully set the records straight in the interest of inter service bonhomie.
Except against China in 1962, the IAF played significant roles in support of the army in all past conflicts since independence. It may be mentioned here that it was the government that held the air force back for fear of widening the scope of the war. Apparently, it was the American ambassador John Galbraith who advised Prime Minister Nehru not to commit the air force, for the Chinese might attack industrial complexes in and around Calcutta. Besides, it was also the intelligence input or lack of it that led the government to decide not to use air power. Forsaking the use of air power was in fact a miscalculation on the part of the political leadership. The Chinese did not have any significant capability then.
“…the air force could ill-afford to repeat history merely three and half decades later by rushing into a war situation with an aggressive enemy without preparing for it adequately.
The General’s assertion that” the IAF by staying out of 62 war abandoned the army when everything was in its favour is therefore not only factually incorrect but an unfortunate conclusion. Surprisingly, he goes on further to highlight Royal Navy’s evacuation of the British army stranded in Greece during WW-II, despite severe threat from German U boats, thereby questioning IAF’s loyalty in leaving the army to fend for itself against heavy odds. One can’t help but question such a preposterous allegation against a sister service that has stood by the army always and everywhere.
I may mention here that in 1947-48, the fledgling IAF played a significant role against Pakistan in J&K that turned the tide in favour of India. The timely induction of troops by the IAF direct into Srinagar airfield and a later into Leh where hastily prepared landing strip on the river bed was used helped save the situation. In 1965 too, the IAF responded within an hour to beat the fast advancing Pak armour in Chhamb-Jaurian sector before ensuing darkness on 5th September 1965 by launching as many as 28 sorties in mere 100 minutes available before sunset and averted a major national disaster. Seeing the gravity of the situation, the then army Chief Gen, Choudhary rushed to the Defence Minister late in the evening and sought clearance for the IAF to get into the fray post-haste. Despite the time constraint, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh did not hesitate and promptly agreed to induct the air force from Pathankot which was the nearest air base.
No doubt, the IAF paid the price for this hasty induction but all the same it managed to prevent a major disaster involving severing of a part of J&K from the rest of the country. It was the air force again that helped to pre-empt Pak action in Siachen by inducting a platoon into Bilafond La on April 17, 1984. One wonders how the recent history can be forgotten so soon or is it because of some sort of selective amnesia.
The General goes on to questions as to “why the IAF showed such hesitancy to come on board” in support of the army in Kargil. It must be mentioned here that Kargil was a unique operation and a milestone in the annals of military aviation. Never before, had any air force in the world been tasked to achieve such unprecedented military objectives as the Indian Air Force in this conflict. It was not the hesitancy but other vital considerations that had to be taken care of before air power could be committed in the conflict.The employment of air power has all pervasive implications. It opens up the entire country to enemy air threat. Military, economic and the industrial assets become vulnerable instantly. And therefore wide ranging measures to protect national assets have to be instituted before committing the air power. Let it be understood that the employment of air power has to be judicious and without haste. And it requires political clearance invariably.
The argument that use of air power within own territory did not require government’s clearance does not hold good in this case. Here, air power was required to be employed against an external enemy along a highly sensitive LoC. Any error in engagement of targets along the LoC could have lead to unwanted escalation. Constrains imposed by the government on the air force that literally restricted the optimal use of air power is an indication of the nature of this sensitivity.
Secondly, the air force could ill-afford to repeat history merely three and half decades later by rushing into a war situation with an aggressive enemy without preparing for it adequately. The IAF suffered heavy losses during the initial days of the 1965 war for want of adequate preparation to take on the enemy air threat across the entire expanse of the country. It needs to be mentioned here that Pakistan was fully ready for limited escalation before it went in for Kargil. It had its army and the air force on “high alert” and fully deployed operationally.Air Chief Marshal Tipnis’ insistence on political clearance and his contention for time for adopting requisite measures cannot be therefore faulted. It is rather unfortunate that this genuine caution on part of the IAF has been misconstrued in some quarters and over played by vested interests as IAF’s reluctance to enter the Kargil conflict. Any allusion arises out of inadequate understanding and incomplete information about the nature of events that unfolded before the IAF agreed to commit itself in aid of the army. Prima–facie there is nothing to substantiate the alleged charge of reluctance on part of the IAF to enter the conflict in Kargil. In fact, the IAF has always stood by the army in times of need.
Restraining the air force from crossing the LoC led to loss of its reach and the flexibility of striking where it hurt the enemy most.
The delay came about primarily because the air force could not convince the army that only fixed wing fighters could deliver the goods. In IAF’s perception, the task was well beyond the capabilities of helicopters. In all likelihood, army’s insistence on the use of armed helicopters arose out of its inadequate comprehension of the nature and the extent of Pak’s intrusion on the one hand and lack of understanding of helicopter’s capabilities and the vulnerabilities on the other. But the army continued to press for the helicopters right from May 11 onwards when the request for armed helicopters was first made to the air force.
Apparently, the VCOAS did not want to go to the government, despite the urgency as did General Choudhary in 1965 and tell them that the situation was bad. All along, the nation had been told that the ingress was a minor affair and that the enemy would be thrown out soon. The problem in fact was how to manage the contradiction. Use of helicopters would have saved the embarrassment. It was not the “scanty information” at this stage as brought out that deterred the VCOAS from going to the government but the embarrassing situation in which he found himself holding the can. Interestingly, some important three star players at the helm of affairs and the army chief himself were all away on various errands.
The air force was not giving in because of the constraints of environment in which the helicopters were required to operate. It is worth recalling here that the Americans having inducted Apache (AH-64) armed helicopters into Greece did not commit them in Kosovo because of their vulnerability to hostile ground environment. More than that, it was the hilly terrain that deterred the Americans from risking the lives of their pilots. Thus, valuable time of nearly two weeks was lost in this inter service imbroglio. The government had remained in dark during most of this period.
The allegation that “IAF had long contended that the use of air power in direct support of ground battle is its most inefficient utilisation” is right…
However, by May, 22, the situation had become almost perilous. The Chiefs of Staff Committee finally met on May 24 and accepted the air force’ view point. The chiefs then went to the government on May 25. The government gave the go ahead after long deliberations. The IAF was air borne early next morning at 0630 hrs.
Here it must be conceded that the air force was indeed faced with a nebulous task of engaging targets at heights ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 ft. Reduced air density has adverse effect on the aerodynamics of the aircraft and the weapons. Even the engine combustion and on board computers do not conform to normal behaviour. The aircraft as a weapon system does not perform to the specifications. Having realised the challenge, the air force did not take long to recover from this consternation and meet the seemingly impossible task. Understandably, it took some time before honing the skills and becoming effective. Type of aircraft, weapons and the delivery mode were all modified and adjusted to match the target environment. But to quote my article in Hindustan Times to suggest that in the light of the above, the air force was not prepared to support the army is nothing but twisting the logic to prove a point. It was the unusual nature of the task that had the air force contemplating and not its incapability or the reluctance as has been implied.
The political constraints imposed by the government made the air force task all the more difficult. Restraining the air force from crossing the LoC led to loss of its reach and the flexibility of striking where it hurt the enemy most. The aircraft and the weapons had to be selected carefully so as not to cause undue provocation or proliferation of war parameters. Only if the air force had attacked targets across the LoC that were sustaining Pak intrusion into Indian territory, the conflict would have concluded much earlier and with much less loss of life. The application of air power in its classical sense was thus precluded.
Before deciding to impose such debilitating operational restrictions, the government must necessarily consult the military leadership to ascertain whether imposition of restrictions being contemplated would in any way make national objectives unattainable. The dialogue is therefore imperative if adequate appraisal of the impact of such constraints is to be done. It’s a well known secret that the government took the decision unilaterally and merely informed the service chiefs around May, 16 or 17. Knowing the politico-bureaucratic penchant for keeping the armed forces out of the loop did not surprise the chiefs. And that perhaps restrained them from approaching the government for review of its decision, despite severe handicap of terrain and the nature. No nation in the world displays such disregard towards loss of human life as we do in this country
Though MI-17 helicopters were not employed in armed role, they were however used extensively on equally important primary role like air logistics, casevac and recce missions. In all, these helicopters flew a total of 2500 sorties, transporting 2000 troops, 600 casualties and close to 300 tons of other loads. They also air lifted part by part a number of 105 mm artillery guns in the absence of other means of transportation in the mountains. The transport fleet was too in the business of carrying men and material from one place to another. IL-76s and AN-32s together with helicopters flew over 3400 sorties in logistic support operations. A total of 6650 tons of load and 27500 personnel were air lifted during these operations.
Shortage of ration, water, medicine and ammunition in the field was aired repeatedly by the enemy in his radio transmissions. Losses due to air strikes and the inability to evacuate the casualties were too acknowledged now and then.
The allegation that “IAF had long contended that the use of air power in direct support of ground battle is its most inefficient utilisation” is right perhaps but it seemed to have been forgotten that the army in its zest to acquire armed helicopters gave a commitment to the air force that it would not ask for close air support from the air force in the future. Taking the army’s commitment seriously, the air force cut short close air support training of its fighter pilots which was subsequently stopped altogether by the successor CAS.
Also at one time, when the army was in the process of enhancing its force level, the IAF too projected the matching increase in the strength of fighter squadrons for the purpose of providing close air support to the additional newly raised army Divisions. The MOD referred the case to the army which did not support IAF’s case. One can only wonder at the wisdom of the powers that be then.
Notwithstanding, the air force supported the army in Kargil fully and effectively, except for the initial few days. Mirage aircraft introduced with effect from Jun, 6 onwards with their laser guided bomb attacks from stand off ranges proved very effective. Continuous attacks on Mushkoh valley storage dump and bunkers, Muntho Dhalo, the biggest enemy staging cum supply camp and Tiger Hill were literally flattened with very heavy enemy casualties and loss of assets. These attacks were persisted with equal ferocity which almost decimated the enemy. Enemy radio intercepts revealed clearly how IAF attacks eroded their morale and resources.
Shortage of ration, water, medicine and ammunition in the field was aired repeatedly by the enemy in his radio transmissions. Losses due to air strikes and the inability to evacuate the casualties were too acknowledged now and then. Congratulatory message received from our own army after attacks on Tiger Hill was the best compliment the army could have paid to the IAF. Air operations led to degradation of enemy’s ability to remain in fine mettle. It would not be off the mark to say that the air force played an important role in the overall success achieved by the army.
Compelling propensity to underestimate the enemy and overestimate own virtues led Pak strategists to presume that the IAF would not be able to play any worthwhile role against it in the inhospitable heights of 15,000 ft and above was a fateful error. The use of air power by India put Pakistan totally off balance. It was unable to cut off the Srinagar-Leh highway to constrict the Indian army in Leh and Siachen.
IAF’s air operations in Kargil were indeed trail blazing effort and a lesson for the world’s air forces. No air force in the world has ever carried out air to ground strikes at eights of 4 to 6 km. Innovation and inventiveness became our creed’ said the AOC-in-C, WAC. Technological deficiencies were made up with the help of improvisation. Air force commitment and the unflinching support to the army were important factors in achieving overall national objectives.