While Air Marshal Bedi in his article ‘KARGIL-AN IAF PERSPECTIVE’ has tried his best to educate readers, in his words, “inadequate understanding of fundamental percepts of air power… and hopefully set the records straight in the interest of inter service bonhomie”, he perhaps has also taken recourse to sift inputs from plethora of material available on Op VIJAY. Even after ten years, controversies keep on erupting on the conduct of this operation. These will continue in the future as well because certain facts have not come out in the open.
Bedi has written: “Apparently, it was the American Ambassador John Galbraith who advised Prime Minister Nehru not to commit the Air Force.” It is astonishing to note that the Service Chiefs, and the Air Chief in particular, were mute spectators in the 62 Sino–Indian conflict. He later goes on to say, in his own words: “The Chinese did not have any significant capability then.” Did the Air Chief at that time give his professional advice to the Government or did he go to the Prime Minister seeking employment of air power? Do you depend on a diplomat’s advice for professional employment of a particular service? Why then have the Service Chiefs?
“At the time of the Chinese invasion of India last year, one of the aircraft carriers of the US Seventh Fleet was ordered to the Bay of Bengal to help defend the Calcutta Zone if the need arose”, informs the Times of India of the 19th December 1963. It goes on to say, “The Chinese withdrew because they feared that the West would retaliate.” Did the Service Chiefs especially the Air Chief know this? Who was directing the military operations? Certainly not the Ambassador! It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War. Where was the jointmanship or bonhomie then? Obviously, there was a total lack of inter service understanding and planning.
The Air Chief would have become a hero had he rendered professional advice to the Prime Minister no sooner he had a grip over the operational situation as the Chairman COSC.
In his article in Indian Defence Review, Air Vice Marshal AK Tewary has stated that India could have defeated China in 1962 War had Indian Air Force been used. In his article, he says that the Air Chief was not even consulted due to the ‘politico-bureaucratic combine’. Tewary further writes: “In the final analysis, the use of combat power would have turned the tables on the Chinese and the 1962 War could well have been a debacle for China.”
The IAF did show hesitancy to come on board in the initial phase of the Kargil Operations. During the absence of the Army Chief from 10 May to 20 May 1999, the Chief of Air Staff took over the duties of the Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) as well. In one of the early COSC meetings held at the Military Operations Room, Air Chief Marshal Tipnis almost gave a shut up call to the VCOAS who was requesting for air support. He advanced a theory that use of air power, even use of the armed helicopters (well within own territory) would escalate in to a total war between India and Pakistan. We in the Military Operations Directorate were aghast at such a reaction from the Air Chief especially when he was performing the duties of the Chairman COSC as well. At this juncture, how could the VCOAS go to the Government as suggested by Air Marshal Bedi.
In fact, in all requests for armed helicopters made by HQ 15 Corps/HQ, Northern Army, the Air Headquarters always made sanction from the Government a prerequisite. Within our own territory, while the Army was suffering casualties, it was being asked to take permission from the Government! Army was advised that they should first use artillery to its fullest. The Air Chief would have become a hero had he rendered professional advice to the Prime Minister no sooner he had a grip over the operational situation as the Chairman COSC. This would have been an excellent example of inter-service cooperation and camaraderie.
While Operation Badr took place due to intelligence failure at all levels, it was remarkable of Arvind Dave the then R&AW Chief to have admitted candidly to the Prime Minister Vajpayee in the Cabinet Committee of Security meeting in the Operations Room that the R&AW had failed.
For a moment, if the armed helicopter had been employed in the initial stages in Batalik Sector to our advantage as asked for by HQ 15 Corps, the Government would not have asked the Chief for his explanation! What inter service bonhomie are we talking about? Far too many questions/doubts were being raised by the Air Headquarters. Chief of Air Staff’s reluctance to employ air was good enough reason to delay the Government’s decision. The theory put forth nearly amounted to misleading the ‘powers that be’.
In the fog of war, especially in the initial stages, very little is known about the enemy’s intention and the correct operational situation. While Operation Badr took place due to intelligence failure at all levels, it was remarkable of Arvind Dave the then R&AW Chief to have admitted candidly to the Prime Minister Vajpayee in the Cabinet Committee of Security meeting in the Operations Room that the R&AW had failed.
After the return of the Army Chief from his foreign tour, in one of such CCS meetings, there was a verbal dual between the Army Chief and the Air Chief about employment of Air Force in Kargil Sector. Here again the Air Chief propounded his theory of use of air power resulting in open war between India and Pakistan. Coming from the head of the Indian Air Force, this view impacted all those who were part of the meeting.
The Prime Minister had to intervene and tell both of them that they should come to an understanding. So the contention of Air Marshal Bedi that the Government took the decision unilaterally is wrong. If the Air Chief had been giving divergent views right since the break-out of the intrusion till the above incident happened, what does the Government do? Consultations from the military leadership are relevant when the three Services are on board! I vividly recall that hardly any views were ever given by the Naval Chief in such meetings.
In one of the CSC meetings, the Defence Minister Fernandes and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh also participated. On 18 May, Jaswant Singh also towed the line of the Air Chief for not employing air power for reasons best known to him. So, in a nutshell, valuable time and opportunity was lost from 5 May till Government intervened to direct the IAF to join the battle with effect from 26 May. Who is responsible for this? It gave the Pakistani troops the time to entrench themselves fully. Were we attending a Sand Model Exercise or a War Game? Let us not blame the ‘politico-bureaucratic penchant’ for keeping the armed forces out of the loop. If the advisors are not in unison, this is bound to happen.
It is surprising to read in the article that had the IAF attacked targets across the LoC that were sustaining Pak intrusion into Indian territory, the conflict could have been concluded much earlier. I wish that the Air Chief had felt the same way when he took over the responsibility as Chairman of COSC during Army Chief’s absence! It is surprising to note, going by what Bedi says, that by May 22, the situation had become perilous and the COSC accepted the Air Force point of view. What was this point of view? In the initial stages, it was only resistance to employ air power except use of helicopters for transport support!
It was this factor and lack of professional advice to the Government and especially the Prime Minister that the Air Force was restrained from crossing the LoC. Of course, there were other compelling reasons as well. So it is wrong of Bedi to surmise that had the Air Force attacked targets across the LoC, the conflict would have concluded much earlier and with much less loss of life. When you are not even prepared to use air power in an offensive role then how can you preclude the application of air power in its classical sense? Surprisingly, the author agrees with all this as he says: “Notwithstanding, the air force supported the army in Kargil fully and effectively, except for the initial few days.” These few days were 21 days — full three weeks — the crucial days that made the enemy stronger and fortified, and the Army continued to suffer casualties. It took three weeks time for the Air Chief to realize that non-application of air power, even though at this belated stage, may ultimately result in the intruders not being completely evicted prior to setting in of winters!
The IAF once committed, rose to superhuman heights and their contribution was intangible in terms of psychological ascendency by raising morale of our troops.
HQ 15 Corps had wanted air operations to commence immediately to lower the morale of the enemy and show our resolve to escalate. Despite many demands placed, air operations were cleared only on 25 May and finally began on 26 May after the Government intervened. This sorry state of affairs could have been totally avoided had the Air Chief in his capacity as Chairman COSC acted professionally and not waited for the Army Chief to return from his foreign tour.
Targets selected for the air operations were enemy’s administrative bases, routes of maintenance and objectives of assaulting troops. With a view to ensure that the degree of error was minimized, demands for air support were passed on telephone by the ground formation commanders direct to G Staff of Corps HQ since they best knew the ground situation. At the same time, this procedure maintained surprise. Thereafter, priority for neutralization was given by Corps Headquarters. The subject airfields controlled the tasking.
A total of seven squadrons were available excluding adequate number of Mi-17 armed helicopters for ground attack. Two aircraft were lost in Yaldor Sub Sector on 27 May whereas one Mi-17 was lost while attacking Tololing on 28 May. Post downing of the aircraft, the IAF took to flying at heights above nine km above MSL. Due to rarified atmosphere resulting in jet stream effect and air craft computer not designed to operate at these heights, the accuracy suffered.
The Air Force now used Laser Guided Bombs (LGB). Here again the success rate was very limited. A couple of bombs did however fall on the Tiger Hill. While the cost of each LGB was more than Rs one crore at that time, the cost factor had no meaning since the Nation’s integrity was challenged and frontiers violated.
Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft were used for directing artillery fire through the Forward Air Controllers. At this juncture, as the aircraft were flying at altitudes of 25-30 km from the objective, the effect of neutralization on ground could not be ascertained. The Air Force now exploited the potential of Thermal Imagery. This was a success. It was good to see innovations being carried out and efforts made to neutralize targets.
After Pakistan defenses in Yaldor, Dras and Mashkow Sub Sectors crumbled and Tiger Hill taken, defeat of Pakistan was inevitable. At this juncture, the Indian Prime Minister spoke to his counterpart in Pakistan and gave him an option of accepting unilateral cease fire, which he did. The Pakistan DGMO Lt Gen Tauqir Zia asked for withdrawal. This happened on 9 Jul when both DGMOs met at Attari. The Indian DGMO asked the Pakistan DGMO to commence withdrawal with effect from 0600 hours on 11 July.
Up to this time, approximately 85–90 missions had been flown. Out of this effort, only a small percentage was effective/partially effective. Missions on enemy’s administrative base at Munthodhalo were very effective and a huge success. This enemy base was eliminated. Other enemy administrative bases located near Pt 4388, Tiger Hill, Padma Go and Pt 5060 were partially damaged. Effect of other missions was either not known or not observed by ground troops due to high altitude terrain and bad visibility at times.
The IAF once committed, rose to superhuman heights and their contribution was intangible in terms of psychological ascendency by raising morale of our troops. The IAF was like a Damocles sword on the enemy’s head. However, the level of air support available in Kargil Sector should not be taken as a yard stick for future operations. The IAF had full freedom of action here as there were no other operational commitments elsewhere to meet.
Artillery played a significant role in the success of operations. Destruction/damage caused to the enemy by artillery significantly facilitated the recapture of several objectives.
Gen Malik in his book KARGIL has not written about the events that took place in his absence especially about the CSC and CCS meetings, since he was physically not present. Bedi in his article has again been unfair when he writes: “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.”
In the national polity labyrinth, the Indian Armed Forces is the only institution loved, admired and respected by our countrymen. I quote words of Air Marshal K Krishnaswamy, “Being the youngest service of this esteemed institution, the Indian Air Force has an added responsibility of living up to the reputation built by sister services and further the traditions of the armed forces.”
I am sanguine that in any future operations, the three Services will fight as a Team and the respective Service Chiefs forget their personal likes or dislikes and rise to the occasion since the stakes are very high. Tipnis lost this opportunity of setting an example of jointmanship. He would have been a Hero! This would have been a fine and shining example of inter service bonhomie!
While each Service has to maintain its individual identity and glory, its culture, customs and traditions, at the same time, they must fight like a well knit war machine whenever they are called upon by the Nation to prove their mettle.
Those who attended these meetings would bear testimony to the veracity of the above facts. In the Armed Forces, we should be truthful and honest, and professional to the core. Our progeny will not forgive us for lack of professionalism and avoidable mistakes since they have total trust upon us. India simply loves her Armed Forces and it is for us to pay back to our Mother whenever the occasion demands.
Artillery played a significant role in the success of operations. Destruction/damage caused to the enemy by artillery significantly facilitated the recapture of several objectives. The major highlight was the employment of artillery in direct firing role. 155 mm FH 77 HOW (BOFORS) were easily the star performers of Op VIJAY. Use of BOFORS in direct firing role at a range of 6-8 kilometers from the target matched precision guidance. This gave the advantage of shooting in infantry at a very close range and adjustment of guns at points of decision.
And before I write off, this is what Group Capt AG Bewoor has to say in his article on Close Air Support in 1962: “I am therefore extremely skeptical about the IAF getting involved in CAS in the mountains, during the 1962 Operations, during the 1967–68 Sikkim tensions or in 1971. This belief gets validated with what we actually did in Kargil in 1999.”
I would earnestly urge the IAF to train, devise ways and means, practice drills and procedures, and create adequate infrastructure along sensitive border areas to support ground operations if the Nation is threatened both from the West, North and North East in all types of terrain configurations. We must see the writings on the wall!