Military & Aerospace

Kargil Controversy: An IAF Response
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol 25.1 Jan-Mar2010 | Date : 09 Jul , 2023

Author with the Army Chief

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.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal RS Bedi

Former Director General Defence Planning Staff.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

14 thoughts on “Kargil Controversy: An IAF Response

  1. The IAF lost one Mig-27 due to pilot error, one-Mi-17 due to improper assesment of enemy threat levels and non-fitting of countermeasures and one Mig-21 to enemy ground fire . Thats three aircrafts without even the PAF appearing on scene.
    The fact that the IAF in 1999 was caught unawares for fighting in mountains would be an understatement. They were completely unprepared.
    Subsequently using LGBs etc and grand claims of direct hits on enemy second echelon dumps is just a meek reclaimer. It had no direct bearing on the ground battle.
    The Kargil war of 1999 was won by sustained and accurate Artillery fires directed by highly competent Forward Observation Teams and gallant and valorous Infantry attacking uphill against death defying odds to take the objectives by the bayonet.
    Thats the reality.

  2. India you have a problem the argument that use of air power the Army is not allowed to use airpower because the Indian politicians do not understand what air power can do. China in 196 could have been pushed back out of India by the IAF but staying out of 62 war was abandoned the army but Nehru did not use the IAF instead he was begging the America can you give us some fighters. Kargil the Army tried to use their Artillery to remove the Pakistani Army from Tiger hill but they were unsuccessful. I remember the Army asking the IAF for help but the IAF said they did not have anything they could use to helps the Army. I don’t know who reminded the IAF that they have Aircrafts? I believe the IAF was thinking about using the Harrier AC to for bombing at 26000 feet, what a joke the IAF is, THIS IS a small ground attack fighter. They relies that they could use other Aircraft for Bombing then they began train crews using how to use the French Myster fighter to do the bombing.
    The IAF has no idea how to protect it Aircraft from enemy or it no Idea how to support the Army in the Himalayas or the ground I would say to the IAF learn from the Americans, they will attack all enemy forces from the air and when they have destroyed most the enemy strength then send the Army in to finish the Job.

  3. India never understood Air Power. In 1962 Nehru grounded the Air force on US advise and my Dad’s eldest brother’s (Air Commodore R. Sitaram) career came to an end because of his vigorously championing the commitment of Air Power against China. In 1965 my Dad’s second eldest brother (Air Marshal Rajaram DFC) was sacked by Shastri for smashing Pakistan’s reserves (both men and materials) at Peshawar by surprise and bringing the war to a quick and abrupt conclusion. Peshawar was almost out of range for the bombers and there were no long range fighters to provide escort, so he called for volunteers when the met report was favourable. He did not inform Air HQ or MoD of the plan as this would have immediately leaked to Pakistan and doomed the mission. (He was reinstated by Indira Gandhi). After the Peshawar bombing the then Chief of Air Staff (ACM Arjun Singh) was summoned and admonished by Shastri. The exact words used were “Aisa kabhi nahi hona tha”, to which the COAS replied “Phir kabhi naheen ho saktha hai” as the element of surprise was not replicatable. I heard this tale from FM Manekshaw and this was corroborated by Air Commodore Sitaram. (The Air Marshal had passed on from Leukemia a few days before he could take over as COAS long before I got to hear this story) Air Marshal Rajaram, DFC, was given a Padma Bhushan along side Vijayanthimala with Indira Gandhi, as Prime Minister, in attendance at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. He was always embarassed by the Padma Bhushan which pulled an Air Officer down to the level of politicians and entertainers.The fact remains that Kargil was an unblemished fiasco. For India. So, everybody is busy re inventing History in the best Nehruvian traditions.

  4. The fact remains that Kargil was an unblemished fiasco. For India. So, everybody is busy re inventing History in the best Nehruvian traditions.

    Kargil was a fiasco that show cased the vacuum in integrity and competence in both India’s military and civilian “leadership” The Air Force and artillery should have pounded the Pak positions BEFORE the infantry were ordered to retake the fortified heights. NOT after they were already within 50 yards (OR less as per eye witness accounts) from the bunkers. Kargil is a cover up of India’s inadequacies. India lost thousands of soldiers (covered up and made out to be less than five hundreds) to recover land that was India’s own to begin with. It was a failure in intelligence, in logistics (the ammunition for the artillery arrived after the soldiers had been sacrificed to recover the heights from Pakistan’s entrenched and fortified “Northern Light Infantry” and there were no Anti-Sam decoys leading to the downing of a MiG, a chopper and the withdrawal of the Air Force), in command and control (the infantry battalions was ordered to retake the heights without air or artillery cover while even a Platoon commander knows to lay a mortar barrage and smoke screeen before ordering bayonets to be fixed), and the pusillanimity of the leadership (Vajpayee, in a Nehru redux, squealed to the US and took their advise to ground the IAF and proscribe their flight over Pakistan). At the end of the day, the poor infantry, who are “paid to die”according to India’s Neta-Babu-Milard-Cop-Crony Kleptocrats had to take the brunt. My junior from the NCC came out with just four survivors and a basket full of gallantry awards from his Battalion, 1/XI GR (approx 1000 soldiers) after retaking just one of the promontories.

  5. An outsider to the Air force need not be well versed in the percepts of air power and the nitty-gritty of its internal working; there is a definite role and charter for the AF and it is the duty of the AF to organize its internal working so that it effectively supports the ground or naval forces. While trying to justify the inadequacies of his force, the author brings in incorrect arguments, besides ascribing the lack of knowledge of others about its ‘percepts’. In Siachen, he says that it was the ferrying of troops by IAF that pre-empted Pakistan; it was actually the troops of 5 Kumaon that marched all the way on foot to Siachen, suffering heavy casualties en route that preempted the Pak design. Again, quoting Galbraith to support its reluctance to get involved in 62 War with Chinese is not borne to fact. The reason that he says is the fear of counter attack by the Chinese AF! Any way how did AF come to know of such a classified discussion between the PM and the US ambassador, if at all it happened the way the author states? ‘”It was also the intelligence input or lack of it that led the government to decide not to use air power”, he says; will he care to elaborate?

    Weare aware that IAF wanted to withdraw from the Kargil operations soon after suffering initial casualties and how some tough talk by the then Defence minister, George Fernandez to the AF chief AY Tipnis made them back to the battle field. And after the war ended, wasn’t it really an insult to the hundreds of soldiers died and injured in Kargil, when the AF propagated that it was the Air Force that ‘tilted the war in favour of India’?

  6. I am sorry to say that IAF entered late and went out early from Kargil imbroglio where Army had failed to assess the actual situation correctly or some cunning/clever self centered responsible senior officers had hidden the information due to the fear of getting personally exposed of their short comings. Junior officers and jawans suffered casualties and became martyrs. IAF does not fully co-operate with Army even for smaller peacetime requirements like transporting of troops from Udhampur to Srinagar and back.

    • Very True. This is the harsh reality on ground. There is no-jointmanship,nothing. This is just eyewash being parroted by diplomatic and politically correct senior officers who are actually projecting a facade and doing great disservice to the nation.
      At the ground level there is hardly any “cooperation”. There are pre-planned scheduled flights(couriers to J&K and Guwahati) (duh?even civil airlines do this better and more often than not most troops are nowadays buying civil airlines tickets because it is less of a buggery than going through the torture of getting aboard an Air force courier) or Op training which is invariably cancelled by the Air Force citing some technical mumbo-jumbo.
      This is the very reason that ARMY needs to have its own tactical aviation expanded very urgently with light,medium and attack helicopters and at some point even tactical ground attack fixed wing aircrafts.
      The present cumbersome system will never work in todays fluid battlefield.
      Harsh reality is that Air Force works in its own bubble of comfort and if any requirement comes from the Army which is at it 24/7 and it falls ouside the purview of our AF 9 to 5 office syndrome they simply dont do it, citing flimsy reasons.
      In fact they dont cite any reasons, they simply ignore and dont respond.
      This is the real state of affairs in so called Army-AF “co-operation”.



    don’t cross the international line
    we will not be first to fire
    dont fire till you see whites of the eye
    no use of Air force

  10. It is said rightly that IAF has acted as per the COS resolutions. Carrying out operation in hostile conditions was the order of the doctor. But the services provided by the IAF was high note of the entire operation.We have got some learning lessons for our future also resulting development of HAL DRUB and HAL Rudra and HAL Tejas…….

    • What “high note”. Kindly give specifics where any AF operation helped in capturing any objective.
      Dont cite the eyewash propoganda of bombing “logistical centres” .It made no difference to the battle..

  11. There is little doubt Both the Army and Airforce Chiefs did exactly the same. Their immediate response to the surprise was to ” Stay away” . The Army chief stayed away abroad whilst the Air force chief stayed away from the war! Response from both the chief was blunted probably due to ‘yes sir 3 bags full sir towards their political and IAS Masters and there was no quick uptake to the crisis

    The Ranks from the second in commands to both chiefs all th way downwards to the foot soldiers did their job and thats why we got back status quo. We never won the war, as any war history tells us that a war can only be said to be won if and when the enemy is neutralized in a way where it cannot carry out another attack for atleast a decade, whilst in reality the soldier gets killed everyday, as done previous to the kargil war. The chiefs failed here too and thats why we are the only country not at war though soldiers get killed everyday. Proxy war is a war where neither the politician nor the IAS nor the civilian nor the chiefs face a bullet. But then one of the chiefs wanted to segregate the air force and thus pay of fighters v/s helicopters and then engineers. The importance of choppers are validated in every force of the world including our own history of heliborn ops during 65 mizo/naga ops to the ARC deputing choppers to the SFF in 71 and the megna bridge episode.

    But to belittle the bigger frame work by referring the failure on the part of the Air force or the Army only damages further. Psychologically then, it draws all ranks in the varied uniform to support their force and belittle the other. I guess the ones who are analyzing the failures are getting so entrenched in their battle against the other chief’s procrastination that with the good intentions the analysts are only paving the road to further segment the brotherhood between the forces i

    • There is no”belittling”. Its the fact,.
      Kindly give one concrete example in 1999 Kargil of how an Air Force mission helped the ground troops in retaking an objective. NONE.
      All that rubbish of accurate strikes at Muntho Dhalo and “logistical centres” being parroted by Air Force had NO effect on the battlefield. NOTHING,NONE.
      Take it from me,i was there . Our boys became casualties assaulting uphill against fortified defences that ideally should have been reduced to rubble by Air Force. enemy defences were all intact and had to be taken out grenades and bayonets.
      There was NO enemy air opposition. The PAF did not come into play,and yet own AF lost three aircrafts in quick sucession and could do nothing to assist the Army in the course of the battle.That by itself speaks volumes of incompetency.
      And now in retrospect by reinventing history these fellows trying to hog credit is heights of shamelessnes and insult to the memory of our indomitable troops.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments