Efficacy of Air Strikes in Mountainous Terrain

10 Jul, 1999    ·   221

Wg.Cdr. N. K. Pant (Retd.) discusses the various elements that interplay between the onset and completion of a mission, especially on high and rocky mountainous terrain

The unbearable loss of precious young military lives in Operation 'Vijay' even after intense bombing of Pakistani intruders by IAF pilots indicates that the air offensive on the high and rocky mountain ridges in Kargil sector did not have the desired effect in soften enemy targets for carrying out subsequent ground operations. The IAF has of late restored to day and night attacks on the fortified bunkers of the Pakistani soldiers followed by heavy pounding by our artillery. These actions, no doubt, facilitated our valiant infantry in mounting ground assaults but the cost in human terms has been enormous for a localised conflict.



Close Air support (CAS) to ground troops is an absolute necessity to tilt the scales against the enemy in today's battlefield situations. But it becomes a very difficault proposition when the battlefield is situated in high mountains with rocky and snow covered ridges where the enemy is not only deeply entrenched but has natural camouflage to his advantage. Moreover, it becomes a Herculean task for the air force pilot flying a combat sortie at near supersonic speed to spot his target and maneuver his aircraft for a bombing run in view of explicit instructions given to him at the preflight briefing that he is not to violate the Line of Control (LOC) which runs perilously close to his site of action. Another problem in a fast moving battle is that targets keep moving forwards or backwards as the troops gain or lose ground. The pilots, therefore, have to be doubly sure before pressing the button to release their bombs, rockets or missiles lest they inadvertently hit their own troops.



In the ground support role, aircraft, after spotting the target, has to executor a low level dive to release free fall bombs. But the forbiddingly high mountain peaks in the vicinity make it almost suicidal for the air crew to fly low over the enemy posts for achieving accurate hits. As a result, bombs released form a considerable height can miss their intended targets. On the other hand, bombing has yielded much better results in the relatively plain terrain of the Mushkoh valley, which is used by infiltrators to enter the Drass sector.



In the realm of military aviation, the weather gods play an important role in executing air strikes. The unreliable weather conditions over the Drass–Kargil–Batalik sector of the Karakoram ranges have also been a factor in determining the effectiveness of IAF's reconnaissance and combat air missions. During the summer months, the peaks specially during the day time, are generally enveloped by clouds, and present a big hurdle to aviators in spotting and strafing enemy positions. Since the air action commenced on 26 May 1999 the region has witnessed several bad weather days forcing the IAF to abandon the air strikes planned meticulously beforehand.



In the high altitude battle areas, achieving the element of surprise again a determined enemy perched on camouflaged mountain tops is a rare possibility. The deafening roar of jet engines or the drone of helicopter rotors alerts him well in time to take evasive action and train his air defence guns and Stinger missiles at the attacking aircraft. In spite all these odds presented by tricky terrain comprising peaks, ridges, gorges, undulating valleys, steep rocky slopes and snow covered higher reaches, the IAF has done its best to inflict heavy losses on the enemy and softened targets to facilitate infantry assault. It has launched search and destroy sorties whenever reconnaissance missions have indicated enemy activity, including the movement of troops and supplies on our side of LoC. A few direct hits on the Pakistani army camp and supply routes have also come to light. Round the clock interdiction operations aimed at cutting off the flow of enemy reinforcements and supplies have also been executed with satisfactory results.



The IAF authorities have been candid enough to acknowledge the problems faced in target acquisition. The treacherous mountainous terrain presented enormous obstructions to the combat air crew in spotting the enemy targets but in all cases whenever the targets were spotted, their annihilation from the air was a foregone conclusion. The ongoing air action over the complex high attitude combat zone certainly offers a unique opportunity to the IAF to assimilate the lessons learnt and translate the experience gained into sound combat techniques.