Air Operations over Kargil

09 Jun, 1999    ·   197

N. K. Pant, Wg. Cdr.(Retd) analyses the strategies of Indian Air operations in Kargil and its impact

The Pakistani troops who have infiltrated into the Drass-Kargil-Batalik axis in a joint operating with Islamic militants have taken positions of advantage on high ridges ranging from 13000 ft to 20000 ft which are difficult to neutralize by ground action alone. The Indian Air Force (IAF) in its ground support role had to assist the army in ‘Operation Vijay’ to encircle and flush the heavily-armed and well-entrenched intruders. The first wave of air attacks was launched in the morning hours of May 26, 1999.



The terrain where infiltration’s has taken place is extremely inhospitable and lies on a ridge line forming part of the Ladakh subsidiary range of the Karakoram mountains in the western Himalayas . It is indeed a herculean task to position troops round the year in the region which may suit professional mountaineers to  test their endurance and grit. The strategic importance of the region lies in the fact that NH 1A linking Srinagar with Leh passes through the Drass-Kargil-Batalik area. Further north, the ridge line merges with 80 the kilometer long Siachen glacier where Indian defensive position have been maintained for almost two decades after ‘Operation Meghdoot.’ The highly undulating, rocky and snow covered terrain is not ideal for an air force basically oriented to fight over the plains. Air Marshal P Singh, formerly Air Officer Commanding-in Chief of the Western Air Command and a very experienced fighter and test pilot estimates a sixty per cent success rate in the air campaign despite absence of enemy air opposition in the region owing to difficult terrain.



On the first day, the IAF launched over 40 strike mission using MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27 aircraft from its Srinagar and Avantipur bases in the Kashmir valley to pound the infiltrators’ positions while MiG-29s provided air defence cover. On subsequent days, IAF pressed into service Mirage-2000 multi role aircraft to provide electronic counter measure (ECM) support to the strike aircraft. Despite a lot of constraints, air power has satisfactorily been utilised to interdict lines of communications, logistics, camps supply depots and storage sites. The IAF tactics have generally been to use armed helicopters after the fighter jets have softened the targets.



In contrast to US Apache attack helicopters, which have been positioned in Albania , but not used in the Kosovo theatre for fear of losing them to the Serbian ground fire, the IAF has taken a daring step in improvising MI-17 freighter helicopters into gun ships and deploying them against intruders armed with deadly heat-seeking shoulders-fired Stinger missiles. Though the air force has MI-24 and MI-35 attack helicopters in active squadron service, these have not been designed for high attitude roles. Hence such ingenuity in converting MI-17s into rocket firing machines has become integral to battle field success in the Karakoram heights. The MI-17’s capability to hover over an area and scan for infiltrators’ hideouts despite the presence of shoulders fired Stinger missiles gives the hovering machine an edge over fast flying fighter aircraft in pounding enemy positions in mountainous terrain. The pilots have devised their own techniques to evade Stinger missiles. In order to outmanoeuvre them, the pilots first fire flare dispensers to deflect the heat-seeking Stingers and then home on to the targets with their assorted bomb load. Indian army’s intense pressure on the intruders and clearing several positions in Batalik sub-sector by the Indian army is a fine example of co-ordination and daring team effort by aircrew and soldiers in the fiercest of air-ground combat.



In such a scenario where the deceitful enemy has taken us unawares, initial shocks and losses are bound to occur and the nation and armed forces will have to accept a toll of valiant men and their flying machines in their stride. But their heroic combat flying skills coupled with the soldiers’ will to fight and recover the lost ground have already started yielding the desired results. It is only a matter of time before the enemy will get trapped in the quagmire of its own creation.