“Our first strike was on May 26, 1999 - with our hands tied, as we were instructed not to cross the Line of Control (LoC),” Air Marshal Anjan Kumar Gogoi PVSM AVSM VSM (retired) says while recalling the role played by the Indian Air Force in the Kargil war. Twenty years on, Air Marshal Gogoi calls it India’s “big tactical victory” that had “huge strategic implications”.
How it Started
Air Marshal Gogoi narrates the tale of what led to the terse confrontation between the Indian and Pakistani camps. The beginning of his story runs parallelly with the time Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a bus to Lahore in February 1999.
“…the infiltrators were already sneaking up the hills. From what I gather, they started in October-November 1998. India got to know of it only when some shepherds reported to the army about some of our posts being occupied by unknown people.”
According to Air Marshal Gogoi, the Pakistanis were able to take over 143 posts because of the absence of Indian forces. “They entrenched themselves, kept their supply lines going till we discovered them on May 3, 1999,” narrates the air marshal.
He then goes onto explain why the scenario that played out was not a typical one since Pakistan could not engage them in a full-blown confrontation.
“So, when we retaliated with our Air Force, they could not do the same, because all the while they kept calling them (their soldiers) Mujahideen or militants. It was not a typical war scenario in which the classical approach to warfighting is taken,” he adds.
Role Played by Indian Air Force
Remaining confident that India would have won the 1962 Sino-Indian war had they deployed their Air Force, Air Marshal Gogoi says that even during the Kargil operations, it took some time (May 25, 1999) for the government to decide on using its airpower.
“The Air Force was not used because there was the thinking that involving the Air Force would escalate the whole thing.”
Several including Gogoi now say that the decision taken by the Indian Government to use Air Force in Kargil operations played an important role in the country’s ultimate victory. This was the first time in the history of the Indian military that the Air Force engaged ground targets from such high altitudes, well defended by air defense weapons.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army worked in close coordination, and airpower inflicted heavy damage on the intruders and also reduced casualties on the ground.
“The effective application of airpower saved us from further casualties. The air operations deprived the intruders of essential supplies and it cast a demoralising spell on the enemy commanders and troops, affecting their will to fight."
Gogoi says that as a result of this moral capitulation, the time frame to achieve the objectives through ground operations was considerably reduced. “With a target area of just 5-12 km from the LoC (Line of Control), it took a higher degree of precision flying to avoid crossing the LoC and unleashing the lethal arsenal on the Pakistani intruders,” he says.
Reaching New Heights
For the Indian Air Force, firing from great heights that reached upto 20,000 feet was a “learning process” as the average height of the mountains in Kargil ranges from about 5000-6000 feet.
“There are some hills, which are bare, and some snowbound. It is a very difficult terrain, and the Pakistanis were sitting on top, occupying our posts. In such a scenario, if you tell the Air Force not to cross the LoC, it meant that we could not attack from a certain direction - because after firing, we would have to cross the LOC due to the large radius of turn, there is no other way,” explains Air Marshal Gogoi.
He says that 20 years back the military did not possess the required number of smart bombs and it mainly had dumb bombs, where the accuracy of the target is much larger.
“If we used just dumb bombs, then the Circular Error Probable (CEP) is quite large. That is at sea level and at those altitudes even larger. We had never fired from those heights. No Air Force in the world has fired from those heights.
Gogoi explains that for a target at 15,000 feet the bomb needs to be released from 25,000 feet and through all this, you have to be careful not to head into the hills or across the LoC.
“The decision not to cross the LOC and the requirement of achieving greater accuracy led to the use of smart bombs – the Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) at that time were available with the Mirage 2000 aircraft only,” recalls Air Marshal Gogoi.
Types of Mission Flown
The fighters flew 1730 sorties, the transport aircraft flew 3427, and the helicopters flew 2474 sorties in Kargil Operations. Around 25% of the total strike force at the disposal of the Western Air Command was utilized, which delivered a serious blow to the morale of the enemy. The IAF aircrafts carried out about 6,500 sorties for strike, reconnaissance, evacuation, transportation and logistic support.
The MiG-21 aircraft, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars and helicopter gunships had struck insurgent positions. The initial strikes had the Air Defense versions of the MiG-21s, and later MiG-29s provided the air defence cover while also keeping Pakistan's F-16s in check.
Subsequently, the Mirage 2000 was deemed the best aircraft in the IAF inventory as its capability of optimum performance in high-altitude conditions was used extensively, even with dumb bombs.
Four crew members of a Mi-17 helicopter unit had sacrificed their lives at perilous heights of Tololing on May 28, 1999.
“When we were cleared on May 25, we first decided to use the helicopters. There were numerous missions flown by Mi-17 gunships, which were initially used in offensive role. However, it was realized that the battlefield had a high density of Stingers or Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS), and subsequently, the role assigned to the helicopter fleet was reviewed,” says Air Marshal Gogoi.
Why Helicopters Were Not Used
Air Marshal Gogoi was then the Station Commander at Suratgarh where the attack helicopter squadron is based. “We were ordered to practice firing from 5km altitude, which is around 16,000 feet. We had never fired from a helicopter at that height. We used to carry the Shturm missile, which had a range of about 5-6 km, and we practised firing.
Gogoi says that they soon realised that Pakistanis had Stingers, which is effective at an altitude of 30,000 feet, “It was a very tricky situation. No Air Force team had faced a situation like this. So, it was only the fighters – ultimately, the Mirage 2000s with smart bombs were used extensively in the operations.
The Air Force went onto launch recce sorties, like Jaguar and Canberra, to identify the latitude and longitude of the targets, keeping in mind the terrain and other factors. An additional challenge was the lack of digital cameras. Gogoi explains that film-based cameras had to be used and identifying gun positions or logistic nodes involved a cumbersome process.
“But ultimately, we were able to identify it all – Muntho Dhalo was a big logistics base, in which our attack was so effective that the whole base got destroyed,” recalls Air Marshal Gogoi.
On May 27, 1999, Group Captain Kambampati Nachiketa from No. 9 Squadron of IAF flew a mission to the Batalik sector on his Mig-27 fighter aircraft, but had to eject due to engine failure. He was the first and only prisoner of war of the 1999 Kargil war. Squadron leader Ajay Ahuja of No. 17 Squadron, who was on a photo recce mission in his MiG 21 was struck by Pakistani air defence missile.
Turning the Tide of Kargil Ops: Mirage 2000
The receding snowline in June laid bare the camouflaged enemy positions, opening them to non-stop day and night attacks by the Mirage 2000 and, subsequently by all aircraft.
The Mirage 2000 was looked upon as the aircraft that turned the tide of the Kargil Operations. The fighter jet initially armed with the dumb bombs, and later with LGBs, repeatedly struck the heavily defended enemy posts. On June 16, the enemy’s primary supply depot was pin-pointed at Muntho Dhalo in the Batalik sector.
The next day, the Mirage 2000s destroyed the Muntho Dhalo administrative and logistics base of the enemy using the 1,000-pound dumb bombs that were dropped using the onboard Computer Controlled Release Point (CCRP) sighting technique.
“It was a Mirage attack at Muntho Dhalo- using a combination of LGBs and dumb bombs. We estimate there must have been at least 100-150 casualties that very day in the area,” Air Marshal Gogoi recalls with a sense of pride, explaining how the supply chains of the enemy were struck tactically at several locations, leaving them completely isolated in the battlefield.
Withdrawal of the Enemy
According to Air Marshal Gogoi, in addition to the relentless Air and the ground assault by the Indian Forces and heavy Pakistani losses, it was political and international pressure that forced the withdrawal of the enemy.
“When I was in service, I used to curse their decision to issue an order against the crossing of the LoC, but as I went higher up the ranks, and today, I realise this elevated India’s stature before international eyes. There has been so much of neech harkat from the Pakistani side, but we still maintained our calm and resolve of not escalating further.”
Busy Hours at Air Force Station
Fondly remembering his time at the Suratgarh Air Force Station, Air Marshal Gogoi recalls the activities that went on at the base during that time.
“When there was peace, all ammunition would be stocked at the bomb dump. A lot of operational assets are kept within the Station. When orders were given, there were some units which had to move out, and some units that flew in, and we had to host them. The initial 72 hours was mayhem –but orderly, because we had practiced for this.
Gogoi says that the Air Force had a 3-tier ground defense plan - the Home Guards, Territorial Army and Defence Security Guards. “What’s fantastic is that the families, even the ladies would form groups to guard the perimeter. People volunteered to do this, quite unbelievable!”
The biggest boon of the Kargil War as far as India is concerned was the ‘Kargil Committee Report’. This, Gogoi says, was a wake-up call for the Air Force making them realised the need to upgrade their systems.
After Suratgarh, Gogio was posted to Air HQs, in the offensive operations. He was given the task to sort out the War Wastage Reserve (WWR), which is the reserve of armament and ammunition that one must have to fight the required length of battle as mentioned in the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive.
“We have to stock accordingly, and it is a massive exercise. During the war we received a lot of stuff from Israel. After the war, the arms and ammunition requirement for the Air Force alone at that point in time came to about Rs 60,000 crore. At the time, we only had 10% smart weapons against the 50-50 theory today of having both smart and dumb weapons. And it’s very expensive,” says Air Marshal Gogoi who had served in the Indian Air Force for 40 years.
Encouraging the younger generation to join Indian Air Force, Air Marshal Gogoi says it an ‘extremely challenging’ profession.
“Every profession is an opportunity to serve the nation one way or the other. But joining the Armed Forces is unique. It is a fantastic opportunity to serve the country. It is challenging, and when you launch a mission in support of our national security objectives, it is a different ballgame. It is a matter of life and death, not for you alone but for so many other people.”