Military & Aerospace

Operation Safed Sagar
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Issue Vol 16.3 July-Sep 2001 | Date : 12 Aug , 2015

In the aftermath of Lahore, Feb 99, India was looking forward to easing of tensions with Pakistan. Various confidence building measures were being toyed with. There was hope.

The phoney peace was shattered rudely within a few months. The Pakistani intrusions detected by the Army in the Batalik sector initially seemed like not something extraordinary. The numbers suspected to have intruded were initially thought to be very small, and the task of evicting them was also assessed as relatively easy. It was in this context that the Indian Air Forces (IAF) was asked by the Army on 11 May 99 to send in a few attack helicopters to rocket the intruders. Assessments were made. It was clear that attack helicopters of the class held would not be able to operate in the area reported. Even until much later in May 99, the full nature and extent of the intrusion remained unclear. The IAF also opined that if the intrusions were serious, adequate force with use of properly equipped fixed wing aircraft would have to be used as part of a well orchestrated, thoroughly prepared operation across the frontier. The IAF had also taken note of the large losses taken by helicopters to ground fire in the Vietnam and Afghan wars.

Op Safed Sagar

Operation Safed Sagar, as the Air Force operations in the Kargil area were called, was indeed a milestone in the annals of military aviation as this was the first time air power was employed on such a scale in mountainous and hostile terrain at forbidding altitudes.

After the IAF was first requested on 11 May 99 to carry out counter surface force operations with armed helicopters against enemy intruders, the Air Force went into immediate preparations for hostilities, commenced large scale airlift of troops, ammunition and stores into the sector. The IAF also commenced aerial reconnaissance and strike aircrew familiarisation. While the Air Force is always capable of mounting limited offensive operations within a few hours, rapid mobilisation ensured that it was ready for undertaking wide ranging full scale military operations by the morning of 15 May 99. The Air Chief as well as the COSC, having fully assessed the situation, formally asked the government on 25 May 99 to permit the IAF to go into operations. The permission was promptly given, with the caveat that the Air Force was not to cross the LoC.

From 11 May 99 to 25 May 99, ground troops supported by air logistics support by the Air Force tried to contain the threat, assess the enemy dispositions and carried out various preparatory actions for what appeared to be a long drawn battle. Entry of the Air Force into combat action on 26 May 99 represented a paradigm shift in the nature and prognosis of the conflict. It was only a matter of time that the rout of the intruders would be truly complete. Diaries of Pakistani soldiers recovered after the operation bore ample testimony to the severe damage and demoralistation caused by IAF, air attacks over the Pakistani intruders.

The Air Force went about its business in a systematic and integrated operation with the Army. Every single place attacked by the Army was preceded by a “friendly” visit by the IAF strike aircraft, whether by day or by night, in all kinds of weather. It is perhaps not very well known that while undertaking Operation Safed Sagar, the Air Force actually used only a small fraction of its power. The air operations were synchronised with those of the Army and were paced accordingly. The Air Force was also ready simultaneously to engage in a full scale war, if the enemy had chosen to escalate the hostilities by introducing his Air Force into the fray. That he chose not to do so could have been due to several factors.

The thought of taking on the full might of the Indian Air Force was not professionally advisable for the lesser .adversary and he chose to stay away. While carrying out the attack operations, the IAF also simultaneously maintained a powerful presence in the air with its superior fighters, carried out reconnaissance of the entire area to locate enemy camps, supply dumps and op tracks. This collation of data and analysis took a little while, as the exact disposition of the enemy was not clear.

The air logistics flights, casualty evacuation tasks also continued. Reconnaissance paid rich dividends when the Air Force subsequently decimated the supply camps, important key heights held by the enemy such as Tiger Hill and attacked its logistics columns and bases. Indeed, destruction of the logistics camps rendered the enemy frequently hungry, cold and short of ammunition. He had no other option but to face annihilation at the hands of the Indian Army or the IAF, which is what happened to about 3000 of them, as stated recently by former Pak PM Benazir Bhutto.

The effectiveness of air attacks, and of course the attacks by the Army, can be judged by the fact that the enemy lost about 3000 personnel in a defensive operation – it is usually the attacker, especially in such terrain where the heights were held by the enemy – who suffered greater casualties. Regretfully the Indian Armed Forces lost about 500 personnel but still only a fraction of the total losses suffered by the enemy in his misadventure. Eventually, fearing total rout and annihilation, the enemy sued for ceasefire and withdrawal through a third party. Why the adversary repeatedly underestimates the will of the Indian nation, the indomitable fighting spirit of the Indian Armed Forces and specifically the effectiveness and lethality of India’s air power is best known to him, but it is evident that a macho mindset is no substitute for quiet and mature professional analysis and planning. The latter is what the Indian Air Force has traditionally adopted.

In Operation Safed Sagar, the Air Force carried out nearly 5000 sorties of all types of operations over the 50 odd days of war. AF had the capacity to launch many times this number. However, this was not necessary. Operations in this terrain required special training and tactics. While the IAF is able to maintain, in normal peacetime, an acceptable level of training for its aircrew to operate in different kinds of terrain including mountains, jungles, plains, deserts, salt flats and over sea, in this Operation, it was soon realised that greater skills and training were needed to attack the very small! miniature targets extant, often not visible to the naked eye.

A small bunker of a few feet cannot be seen from great heights. The shoulder fired missile threat was omnipresent. There were no doubts that an IAF Canberra recce aircraft was damaged in mid May 99 by a Pakistani Stinger fired possibly from across the LoC. On the second and third day of the operations, still in the learning curve, the IAF lost one MiG-21 fighter and one Mi-17 helicopter to shoulder fired missiles by the enemy. In addition, one MiG-27 was lost on the second day due to engine failure just after the pilot had carried out successful attacks on one of the enemy’s main supply dumps.

These events went to reinforce the well established concepts and tactics of carrying out attacks from outside the Stinger SAM envelope and to avoid using helicopters for attack purposes unless it was impossible to attack the target by fixed wing fighters due to terrain constraints. Attack helicopters have a certain utility in operations under relatively benign conditions but are extremely vulnerable in an intense battlefield. The fact that the enemy fired more than a 100 shoulder fired SAMs against IAF aircraft indicates not only the great intensity of the enemy air defences in the area but also the success of IAF tactics, especially after the first three days of the war during which not a single aircraft received even a scratch from over 100 enemy SAMs launched, plus the ack-ack guns and even small arms. It is a different matter that immediately after the operation, the enemy went scouting in the world market for shoulder fired missiles. Possibly his stocks were running low!

As time went by, reconnaissance data accumulated and the tempo of ground operations picked up. The Air Force was able to adopt large scale attacks by day and night resulting in much of the enemy force not getting any sleep by day or night. With food, fuel and ammunition stocks destroyed or degraded, and a sleepless and fatigued force, little wonder that the armed intruders chose discretion as the better part of valour. The air attacks were called off in mid July 99 when the enemy was in full retreat.


Far from being an off-the-cuff quick-reaction affair, each air strike is the end result of a carefully planned chain of events spanning across several areas of specialisation. Broadly speaking, an airstrike would have the following components:

  • Recce mission(s)
  • Airstrike mission(s)
  • Battle Damage Assessment (BOA) mission(s)
  • If so dictated by results of BOA, or by follow-up recce, repeated air strikes.

The importance of aerial recce was again underscored during the Operation. Even during World War II, the “back-room boys”- that anonymous bunch of faceless experts who lived their lives poring over reconnaissance photographs, noting detail after painstaking detail, provided the target information that ultimately formed the basis of the bombing missions. In Operation Safed Sagar, all national resources were used in constructing the bigger picture.

End Game

As a result of air attacks, severe damage to enemy personnel and equipment became apparent in various areas. Air strikes contributed to a significant portion of the enemy’s casualty list. However, the most telling effects on the ground became evident from intercepts of enemy radio revealing severe shortage of rations, water, medicines and ammunition. Losses due to air strikes and inability to evacuate their casualties were also mentioned in the intercepts. A message received from one of the HQ of the Indian Army reads:

“You guys have done a wonderful job. Your Mirage boys with their precision laser guided bombs targetted an enemy Battalion HQ in Tiger Hill area with tremendous success. Five Pakistani officers reported killed in that attack and their Command and Control broke down – as a result of which our troops have literally walked over the entire Tiger Hills area. The enemy is on the run. They are on the run in other sectors also. At this rate the end of the conflict may come soon.”


Small though Operation Safed Sagar was, significant lessons are there to be drawn. Firstly, incessant and successful attacks on the enemy’s logistics chain resulted in serious degradation of the enemy’s ability to sustain operations. The series of attacks against pt 4388 in the Oras sector were an excellent example of how, lethal air strikes can be. Timely reconnaissance also detected the subsequent enemy plans to shift to alternate supply routes, which were once again effectively attacked. The IAF succeeded in strangling the enemy supply arteries. The primacy of interdiction targets, as opposed to Battlefield Air Strikes (BAS) targets was clearly brought out, as also the fact that air power need not be committed on insignificant targets like machine gun posts and trenches, but against large targets of consequence (like the logistics camp at Muntho Dhalo, enemy HQrs on top of the Tiger Hill, Dras, Mushkoh, etc). Gone are the days of fighters screaming in at deck level, acting as a piece of extended artillery. The air defence environment of today’s battlefield just does not permit such employment of air power.

The second lesson is the impact of air power on casualties. Normally, an enemy attacking a well fortified position may suffer between 3-6 times the casualties of the defender. However, this operation saw the reverse, with the enemy in defensive fortified positions suffering casualties far in excess of those suffered by the Indian side. Without employment of air power, our own casualty numbers would have been very different.

The third is in the field of attack helicopter operations. IAF’s dedicated attack helicopters like the Mi-35 were incapable of operating at those altitudes. This prompted the thought of using armed and modified Mi-17s for the role. Besides the capability of the machine itself vis-a­vis the area of operation, creation or existence of the right air defence environment is crucial to the success of employment of this platform. Effectiveness versus vulnerability would need to be examined. During Operation Safed Sagar, abundance of man portable SAMs in enemy-held areas precluded effective employment of attack helicopters. Consequently, helicopters were restricted to operations in SAM-free areas.

The fourth lesson lies in the enormous difference air power made to the ground operations. No better example of which exists than the message from the HQ of a field Army unit, mentioned earlier, stating that “as a result of the precision air strikes on Tiger Hill, our troops have literally walked over the entire Tiger Hills area. The enemy is on the run.”

Fifthly, night operations were carried out using ingenuity and imagination. These operations had a significant effect on the enemy’s resilience, stamina and the very will to fight. Night operations will make a significant difference to the fighting ability of the adversary.

Sixthly, the effort put into air defence escorts and area Combat Air Patrolling by day as well as night proved an effective deterrent, which ensured total air superiority. On a few occasions, Pakistani F-16s did venture to orbit a scant 15 km (on their own side of the LoC) from our strike formations attacking Pakistani targets. These aircraft were kept at bay by our own air superiority: fighters flying offensive patrols. The rules of engagement were clear, “If safety of the strike is in doubt, take him out”. The enemy aircraft stayed away.

The seventh point is the high degree of imagination, flexibility and IAF-Army coordination, which marked every phase of the operation. This will always be necessary.

In the final analysis, effective application of air power indisputably saved the day for India and prevented an embarrassingly long operation. In this context, the basic functions and impact of air power only got re­emphasised, though on a much larger scale, when compared to the IAF’s operations in this area during 1947-48, when IAF Tempests carried out strafing and rocket attacks on the intruders; Dakotas ferried in as well as paradropped troops and supplies. Then and now, when called upon by the nation, the IAF together with the Army and the Navy has played an equal role in the defence of the country. The only war after 1947 the country lost was the one where the IAF had the required capability, but was not called in.


The immense experience gained from this operation would stand in good stead in the future. These lessons would be applicable to all the air forces of the world, for it is the first time in the history of military aviation that such an air operation took place in such an environment. While conventional, long-accepted air power theories still largely hold good, a new set of operating paradigms had to be evolved almost overnight to cope with the situation.

Operation Safed Sagar was truly a turning point in the history of military aviation. This operation will, no doubt, be discussed and dissected for many years. This is the first time the IAF fought a limited war, hitherto thought to be an unlikely eventuality. These kinds of operations may be seen again. However, even in the future, the possibility of rapid escalation would need to be reckoned with. The deterrent effect of air power has been underscored. Nevertheless, to derive full effectiveness, the Air Force has to be able to operate in an unrestrained manner, interdicting the enemy forces, supplies and logistics at their very origin. This altruism would need to be taken note of for the future. The nation would also need to comprehend the dominant role and dynamics of air power, both as peacetime deterrent as well as the “Brahmastra”, the final arbiter in war. The need to nurture the Air Force is evident. The nation can permit its air power force levels and potency to deplete only to its peril. In its millennium year, the Indian Air Force looks forward with confidence to the force upgrades on the anvil in the coming years.

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