When the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry, officered by the regular Pak Army, reeling under incessant day and night attacks, both from air and surface, fled in complete disarray from the occupied heights during the Kargil war, they left behind the bodies of their comrades-in-arms, an act considered most shameful in the annals of warfare. The bodies were later buried with full military honours, in an exceptional demonstration of humanitarianism, by the Indian Army, because the perpetrators of this failed campaign refused to even acknowledge them.
It would have been appropriate if the restless spirits of these abandoned souls had risen fom their graves to trouble the collective conscience of the Pakistani Army. In an ironic twist of events, it is the Indian military, which came out victorious from this short but bloody conflict, that is being haunted by the ghosts of Kargil. And going by the space accorded to this issue in all forms of media, it is unlikely that these ghosts will be laid to rest anytime soon.
The Attack Helicopter is a potent and effective weapon, but not for the terrain and altitudes that obtained at Batalik and Kargil heights.
Two articles on Kargil, written by senior army officers, were published in the Apr–Jun 2010 issue of this magazine. The article byLt Gen Harwant Singh, while responding to Air Mshl Bedi’s writings, atempts to look at IAF’s performance over the years and focusses on the Kargil operations at some length. He points out a few factual errors in Air Mshl Bedi’s article and pays backhanded compliments to the IAF, though his displeasure in general about the Air Force permeates the article.His comments about the 1947–48 war need correction. The Dakotas flew a total of 28 sorties on the 27th October, 1947, ferrying 400 troops into Srinagar and that saved the day for India. One aircarft force-landing at Jammu made no impact on the overall operations.
In 1965, the IAF first sent out three waves of four Vampires each Of these, one was shot down from the first wave and three from the second. Subsequently Vampires were withdrawn and Mysteres employed. There were cases of ‘blue-on-blue’ kill during this operation and IAF also lost aircraft on ground. The hard lessons learnt from the 1965 war were put to effective operational use during the 1971 war.The Lt Gen, while discussing the Kargil war states that the helicopter gunship would have been the better weapon platform to employ to stike at the intruders. I have written in an earlier article that the Chief of Staff HQ Northern Command called me for a meeting on 8 May 99 to discuss ‘a few operational aspects’. As the Air Officer Commanding J&K, I went to HQ NC where, for the first time, IAF learnt about ‘ a dozen or so intruders’ in the Batalik area having occupied ‘one or two’ heights and needed to be taken out by air action! I explained to the COS and his staff that the Mi-25/35 attack helicopters had never crossed the Zojila pass because of performance limitations and there was no question of their deployment for this purpose.
The Lt Gen claims that ,”It is specious to argue that the army is not aware of the full capabilities (limitations) of the attack helicopter. These were integral to my Corps as far back as 1989-91.” It is obvious that the Lt Gen had not been briefed properly about the AH and their employment. The Attack Helicopter is a potent and effective weapon, but not for the terrain and altitudes that obtained at Batalik and Kargil heights. Readers may be interested to know that a ‘stripped down’ AH (an operationally vulnerable weapon platform) was flown across the Zojilla in 2000 winter to assess its performance outside the manufacturer provided ‘performance envelope ‘.
All fighter squadrons are multi-tasked and the IAF does not allot squadrons or even a specific number of sorties for close air support.
After a couple of sorties, the entire exercise was called off as being operationally unviable. During the Kargil war, Mi-17 helicopters were employed in the offensive role apart from its usual freight and casevac roles. The Mi-17 is essentially a transport helicopter which can also be utilised in the attack role. It can carry bombs, rockets and gunpods. Because of rotor vibrations weapon accuracy is affected, though in the two days they were used for attacks against Pakistani positions at heights, they performed exceedingly well. Unlike the Mi-25/35 AH, the Mi-17 is not designed to carry guided missiles which limits their effectiveness. On May 26 and 27 the Mi-17 carried out a large number of missions. Their relatively low speeds, large silhouettes and restricted manoeuvrability rendered them vulnerable to enemy air defence weapons. After the loss of a Mi-17 to an array of ‘Stinger’ surface-to-air missiles they were taken off the offensive role. They continued to operate in the war zone in other roles.
The comment about there being no chance of our fighters straying across the LOC reveals a lack of understanding about aircraft operations at altitude and the degrading effect on performance due to rarified atmospheric conditions. The power available is reduced and turn radius increases as the density of air is low.
Lt Gen Harwant’s contention that of the available number of squadrons with the IAF, ‘x’ squadrons are authorised for close support for the Army indicates the fixation the ‘old guard’ of the army has with numbers. Close air support or Battlefield air strikes, as these missions are presently termed, form only one part of the various tasks of the IAF. All fighter squadrons are multi-tasked and the IAF does not allot squadrons or even a specific number of sorties for close air support.
The army elements indicate the targets to be destroyed and the air force decides the force type and weapon configuration. But there were many in the army who believed that ‘some squadrons have to be under control’ or at least the air force should allot ‘x’ number of fighter sorties per day for close air support. The present day MO staff are comfortable with IAF point of view but right upto Mar 2000, during the debrief of Ex Brahmastra, there were senior Army officers who held fast to the number theory. A senior IAF officer had to set the record straight at the debrief but not before words were exchanged.
As regards the Tiger Hill episode narrated by Lt Gen Harwant, where the army took casualties, I would like to quote from my own article in the IDR some years back:
A political go-ahead was necessary as there also existed an agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1991 about prohibiting armed aircraft from flying 10 km either side of the IB or the LoC.
“A case in point is the counter attack by Pak Army on Tiger Hill on 6 July, 1999 in which our troops suffered casualties. This target – junction of the spurs from Tiger Hill and Trig Height 4875 – was recommended to be attacked on the night of July 5/6 at 0330 hrs by the Air Force representative. Aircraft were loaded and readied, but at 2130 hrs on July 5 the Corps HQ called off the attack without assigning any reason. After the counter attack by the enemy on July 6 the Corps HQ requested an air strike on the same target which was carried out on July 7 by Mirage-2000 aircraft armed with PGMs.
Had the air strikes been carried out as planned earlier, the enemy’s capability to counter attack would have been diminished. During planning if the full picture had been revealed to the IAF, then other options could have been explored to the benefit of our troops. This inexplicable reluctance to share information/intelligence was something that I continued to perceive in my later appointment as Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations).”
The Lt Gen has laughed away the Muntho Dhalo success claimed by the Air Force, but he must look a few pages ahead in the same magazine in which his ‘laughable’ quote is printed to get the truth. Lt Gen Bhandari, who was in the MO Dte at the time of Kargil ops writes that Muntho Dhalo was ‘ huge success’. Obviously Lt Gen Bhandari is more qualified to comment on the subject. Lt Gen Bhandari’s version is the authentic one and the ‘laughable’ quote of Lt Gen Harwant can be disregarded.
But Lt Gen Bhandari’s article also carries many inaccuracies and the record needs to be set right.
Bhandari criticises the CAS for not bringing the IAF into action when asked by the Army. He states that valuable time from 5 May till 26 May was lost and this gave time for the Pakistanis to entrench themselves. These are untenable accusations and assessments. Firstly, the IAF did not know anything about the incursions till 8 May when I was informed about it in a rather oblique manner. Secondly, even after advising HQ Northern Command about the unsuitability of AH for the intended area of interest, why did the MO Dte continue to insist on these helicopters? And thirdly, at that time the Army did not indicate that the situation was so serious or critical to warrant immediate intervention by the Air Force. It is only after the war was over that this alleged delay by the IAF was articulated.
The fiat of remaining within our side of the LoC meant that the original profiles had to be abandoned and sub-optimal attack directions adopted. The army too had similar compulsions…
All this post-victory brouhaha about IAF’s ‘hesitancy’ as Bhandari terms it, begs the question, “How serious was the situation if it was not serious enough to necessitate a postponement or later, a recall of the COAS from his visit to Poland and the Czech Republic?” The army knew about some incursions on 3 May, The IAF was informed, along with a request for air strikes on 8 May and the COAS left only on 10 May. The COAS was also the Chairman COSC and he should have had the best possible knowledge of what was going on. In any case, Poland and the Czech Republic do not figure very high on India’s military priority list and the trip should have been curtailed and the burgeoning crisis dealt with.
Is it possible that this did not happen because the lower formations deliberately underplayed the whole issue for reasons known only to them? It is interesting to read what the COAS has to say in his book ‘Kargil-From Surprise to Victory’, page 109, “ On 17 May I asked the DGMO and the VCOAS if I should return to New Delhi immediately. Both advised me that as the situation was well within the capability of 15 Corps and Northern Command, there was no need for me to do so.” Or in other words, the situation was not ‘serious’ even on 17 May.
The Chief of the Air Staff wanted the Army to get the go-ahead from the government about employing air power. He was also very clear that action would be initiated by fighter aircraft and not by helicopters. In case of interference by the PAF the helicopters would have been defenceless. A political go-ahead was necessary as there also existed an agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1991 about prohibiting armed aircraft from flying 10 km either side of the IB or the LoC. While the agreement may not have been valid under conditions of declared hostility, informing the government which was a signatory would have been mandatory when no alert had yet been sounded.
In the initial days of Kargil operations, there was confusion and ambiguity in the Army’s appreciation of what was going on. In this fog of uncertainty, patrols were sent out somewhat indiscriminately, resulting in casualties. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s comment at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on May 18 is revealing. He stated, “The army is engaged in getting out the intruders without having quite established the nature of intrusion or the identity of the intruders.” Brigadier Devinder Singh, Commanding 70 Brigade at Batalik during the Kargil war, in one of his recent television appearances has stated that the additional troops given to him were understaffed and ill-equipped but quick results were demanded.
The ex-Brigade Commander added that the Army should have taken its time, gathered the required forces (10-15 to 1 numerical superiority in that terrain), ensured they were fully equipped, collated all available intelligence, prepared the battlefield and then gone for the offensive. In the light of these statements by experts, the retrospective criticism of IAF not joining battle early enough sounds a bit hollow.
The quantum of joint training based on realistic scenarios has to increase considerably. And ‘Close Air Support’ will be one among the tasks that the Air Force will concentrate on in any future conflict…
Both Lt Gen Harwant and Bhandari refer to India’s problems along its borders being in mountainous regions. This is a truth staring at us for many decades and very little has been done about it. Why has the army not made a hue and cry about the deplorable state of infrastructure in these areas? How is it that the Chinese and Pakistani armies have far greater and easier access to their sides of the borders? Why is it that they can move heavy equipment and stores along Class 9 or better roads while our troops are dependant on mules for sustenance?
The answer probably lies in the skewed priorities that we have established in force creation. The powers that be have woken up now and infrastructure build-up along our borders is being undertaken on priority. But the fact that it has taken more than 60 years and many wars for us to be jolted out from a state of complacency is a stinging indictment of the lack of a strategic culture in India.
Without a clear enunciation of our national interests and security imperatives, resources have been frittered away in the ongoing turf wars among the armed forces and other security agencies. The armed forces are yet to reach agreement of what is best for the country, though each service fights fiercely for what it considers best for itself. A clever but military knowledge challenged politico-bureaucratic nexus finds it expedient to dole out resources on the basis of earlier precedents giving the go-by to any long-term national objective of capability building. As regards the army the focus has been on armour while mountain divisions and mountain-compatible weapon systems get low priority.
The exercises planned with the Air Force are mostly in plains whereas the probability of war across the IB involving an armoured thrust has diminished from unlikely to remote. The tanks may look macho on Rajpath, but it is the soldier from a mountain division and mountain-compatible artillery that will face the brunt in the next conflict.
The Air Force, unhindered by geography, terrain, time or weather is far better placed to operate in the mountains. Flexibility and adaptation are inherent in the employment of air power. The quantum of joint training based on realistic scenarios has to increase considerably. And ‘Close Air Support’ will be one among the tasks that the Air Force will concentrate on in any future conflict. Muntho Dhalo demonstrated how an effective strike on a logistics build-up of the enemy can impact favourably on the outcome of war. In future wars too, it should be the interdiction targets that take priority. Destroying enemy command and control centres, supply concentrations and surface communication networks would be far more operationally beneficial to the army than taking out a medium machine gun emplacement. For all this to happen, the mind-sets have to change so that jointness in its true sense can be achieved.
Sometime before the Kargil episode, Western Air Command had conducted a large scale air exercise code-named ‘Trishul’. This involved the entire WAC gearing upto a full ‘war alert’ status. All aspects of flying operations, maintenance activities, logistics sustenance and administrative support were exercised under simulated conditions of war. As the Chief Umpire, my team and I visited all stations in the command, while the overall tasking for various aspects was controlled by a designated group at WAC HQ. The outcome of “Exercise Trishul” was quite satisfactory. A debrief held at its culmination brought out the glitches and negatives that were observed during the exercise. This allowed the field commanders to initiate corrective actions. As a result, when the Kargil operations began, WAC was in fine fettle and the overall operational status was high.
Each service has structured its own secure communication network with ‘interfaces’ to other services. This is an unworkable solution that needs to be rectified without further delay…
The period till the government go-ahead was received on 26 May was utilised to practice and refresh high altitude weapon delivery techniques at the Toshe Maidan air-to-ground range near Srinagar. The IAF was quite confident of taking on Pakistan Air Force, had that eventuality arisen. The limitations imposed by the government of not crossing the LoC adversely affected air operations. We had planned, with intelligence inputs provided by the army representative, the best attack profiles against the intruder positions and these mostly involved breaching the LoC. The fiat of remaining within our side of the LoC meant that the original profiles had to be abandoned and sub-optimal attack directions adopted. The army too had similar compulsions and the entire process of dislodging and throwing out the intruders was adversely affected. If the military had been able to convince the government about the imperatives of going across the LoC, the duration of Kargil war, and therefore the losses suffered by us would have been reduced.
Some have questioned the accuracy and effectiveness of air strikes during the Kargil War. As regards accuracy, it has to remembered that there was not even a single case of ‘blue-on-blue’ kill. Here I would like to quote from an article written by the then Group Captain Kaiser Tufail, Director of Operations at PAF HQ:
“The Mirage-2000s scored at least five successful laser-guided bomb hits on forward dumping sites and posts. During the last days of operations which ended on 12 July, it was clear that delivery accuracy had improved considerably. Even though night bombing accuracy was suspect, round-the-clock attacks had made retention of posts untenable for Pakistani infiltrators. Photo-recce of Pakistani artillery gun positions also made them vulnerable to Indian artillery.
The IAF flew a total of 550 strike missions against infiltrator positions including bunkers and supply depots. The coordinates of these locations were mostly picked up from about 150 reconnaissance and communications intelligence missions. In addition, 500 missions were flown for air defence and for escorting strike and recce missions.
While the Indians had been surprised by the infiltration in Kargil, the IAF mobilised and reacted rapidly as the Indian Army took time to position itself. Later, when the Indian Army had entrenched itself, the IAF supplemented and filled in where the artillery could not be positioned in force. Clearly, Army-Air joint operations had a synergistic effect in evicting the intruders.” Unquote
In the earlier part of the article Kaiser Tufail states that during the initial first few days of air strikes, the accuracy of attacks was poor probably due to incorrect intelligence about the target co-ordinates. The fiat of not crossing the LoC was another factor.
But 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.’ The continuous barrage of bombs exploding around them day and night would certainly have had a devastating effect on the Pakistani intruders.
Despite the difference in perceptions between the Army and the Air Force at the conceptual level, the desired degree of jointness was achieved at the functional level, resulting in the unceremonious ouster of the Pakistani army from Indian territory.
The truth of this is evident from their Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz’s shrill demand on 12 Jun 99 that air strikes be called off as a pre-requisite for Pakistan to initiate steps to end the conflict.
A post-Kargil War analysis carried out by the Air Force indicates that many of the Army’s successes in recapturing intruded heights came after that target had been visited by IAF fighters. The details of this analysis may be found in the ‘daily war summary’ sent by my staff to HQ WAC and Air HQ.
Despite the difference in perceptions between the Army and the Air Force at the conceptual level, the desired degree of jointness was achieved at the functional level, resulting in the unceremonious ouster of the Pakistani army from Indian territory. The young leadership and the jawans of the Indian Army demonstrated outstanding fighting prowess under extremely difficult environmental conditions and in co-operation with the Indian Air Force, successfully accomplished national objectives.
The western nations have realised that ‘inter-operability’ will be a major factor deciding the outcome of future conflicts. Commonality of equipment, communications and procedures are among the many factors that are a pre-requisite to achieving an acceptable state of ‘inter-operability’. Our armed forces prefer to take the individual route and communications are a prime example. Each service has structured its own secure communication network with ‘interfaces’ to other services. This is an unworkable solution that needs to be rectified without further delay if operational jointness is to be achieved. The Kargil war provided an example of how things are likely to be in the future and the armed forces have to work towards achieving true jointness to survive stronger adversaries. This can happen only when we respect each others strengths and capabilities in an ambience of professional trust. That state is yet to be achieved. And till then, even if the ghosts of Kargil go away, the skeletons will keep rattling out of the cupboards.