Kargil - 10 Years After

Around 3 pm on May 8, 1999, I was on my way from HQ AOC J&K at Air Force Station Udhampur to HQ Northern Command at the request of the Chief of Staff (CoS).

Sitting beside me was the Commanding Officer of a Mi-17 Sqn based at Udhampur. He had flown fighters earlier but had converted to helicopters on medical advice. He was coming along as the CoS had 'something' to discuss on deployment of helicopters.

Unlike other Army Command HQs where the IAF has established 'Advance HQ' of the concerned Air Command, HQ AOC J&K was different. Apart from being the representative of the AOC-in-C Western Air Command at HQ Northern Command, AOC J&K also had operational control over the air bases and other IAF units north of Pathankot. The IAF's air logistics network covering the Indian Army and PMFs deployed in the J&K Valley and Kargil/Siachen sectors was also controlled and coordinated by HQ AOC J&K in liaison with HQ WAC.



The author, then Air Vice Marshal Narayan Menon, AOC J&K and his Staff Officer at a forward air force station in the Kargil sector. Air Vice Marshal Menon received the Uttam Yudh Seva Medal (UYSM).

In the CoS's presence, we were briefed about 'a few intruders' who had come across the Line of Control (LoC) and occupied some points vacated by our Army during the winter. These intruders were interfering with the vital Srinagar-Leh road and interdicting the supply lines. There was a need to airlift troops, ammunition and other essential supplies to augment the forces at Kargil.

It was also briefed that the army had lost two long range patrols in the previous few days. There was urgency to build up force levels and evict the intruders. A request was also made for Mi-25/35 gunships to attack the points occupied by the intruders. This request was made with increased urgency again on May 10. It was then explained that these gunships had not, till then, crossed the Zojila Pass due to their weight/altitude restrictions (Well after the Kargil Ops, the IAF successfully flew a stripped down Mi-35 across the Zojila Pass during winter when temperature and air density conditions are favourable, and carried out firing practice).

The additional Mi-17s required were immediately ordered to Thoise. On May 11 the Army asked for armed Mi-17 helicopters to attack the occupied points. The extent of intrusions or the numbers involved from across the LoC continued to be a mystery. Employment of armed aircraft/helicopters within 10 km on either side of the IB/LoC is prohibited as per an air agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1991. I transmitted Army's request upwards as it was outside my jurisdiction to say 'Yes' or 'No'.

Much has been written about the period between 12 May and the day the IAF went into action. Some have claimed that this alleged delay enabled Pakistani forces to expand and reinforce the occupied territory. This to my mind is pure conjecture, as news of the extent of intrusions was trickling in each day and even the Army had only a hazy picture of what was going on.

Also, anyone familiar with the topography of the region would be aware that movement on foot along those rugged inhospitable mountainous terrains carrying war-making equipment would have been a slow and torturous process. To have created the 'sangars'- stone and earth structures of the type from where our forces were fired at, in such a short time would have required resources far greater than what the enemy possessed.

In all probability the occupation was carried out immediately after our Army had vacated the points the previous winter giving the intruders enough time to build strong defences and get acclimatized. The vacated posts are supposed to be regularly patrolled on foot as well as observed from the air.

The task of observation from the air is with the Reconnaissance and Observation (R&O) Flights of the Army's aviation wing equipped with Cheetah helicopters based at vantage places in the J&K. That both the ground and air elements could not detect the presence of the intrusions is something that the Army has to ponder over. The IAF, apart from air logistics and casualty evacuation has the added responsibility of providing special winter reconnaissance missions when requested by the Army. In the run up to Kargil such requests were not made.

The two major IAF bases in the Kashmir Valley can support full-scale fighter operations, and all bases can support helicopters. I was ordered to 'activate' all the bases in the J&K and prepare them for operations. Additional Mig-21, Mig-27 and Mig-29 aircraft were moved into Srinagar and Awantipur bases. Pilots began refreshing their high-altitude weapon delivery skills on both fighters and helicopters.

To protect the airbases in case of enemy air strikes Pechora Sqns equipped with medium range surface to air (SAM) missiles were deployed as were the quick reaction missiles (QRMs) in the OSA-AKM combat vehicles. Shoulder fired IGLA-1M missiles and the mobile observation units moved into positions and radar vigilance was stepped up. Combat aircraft were armed and moved into hardened shelters. We had a problem of providing some protection to Mi-17 gunships in the open and the only option, apart from dispersing them, was to build sand bag walls in a semi-circular shape around them. This proved to be a slow and unwieldy task and the end result was less than satisfactory.

Along with four of my staff, I had relocated to Srinagar airbase to be able to liaise directly with the Corps HQ there. With the Army Command HQ in Udhampur, the two Corps HQs in Srinagar and Jammu, the Divisional HQs in Leh and Kargil, I was almost continuously on the move during these operations so as to keep abreast of the events.

A most positive aspect was the complete trust and confidence that the AOC-in-C, to whom I reported, reposed in me. A no-nonsense officer, he was renowned for his professional excellence and whiplash repartee. There was no interference of any kind and he reportedly supported my decisions in the heated discussions that took place in Air HQ.

Much against his wishes two events took place that probably could have been avoided.

The first was the arrival at Srinagar of a Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) from another command to brief the assembled air crew of his experiences in 'hill flying' operations during a much earlier air campaign flown in Vampire aircraft in the North-east. This happened on the day prior to IAF commencing offensive operations. Once he began talking it quickly became clear that his experiences had very little relevance to the type of missions planned in the Kargil area. My staff were impatient as they had to carry out refresher briefings on survival, Geneva Conventions and mission plans. It was with some difficulty that I persuaded the SASO to leave the rostrum.

The second event was the repositioning of a previous Air Officer Commanding of the air base at Srinagar. The incumbent protested to me and I had to devise tasks for the newcomer that kept him away from the base.

On May 21 a Canberra aircraft on a photo reconnaissance mission lost its starboard engine and carried out a safe precautionary landing on Srinagar runway.Inspection revealed large-scale damage to the engine caused either due to a hit by an anti-aircraft gun or by a missile. The Chief of Air Staff who was visiting Srinagar was convinced that it was a shoulder fired SAM that had targeted the Canberra and as later events revealed, his analysis was correct.

By now there were nearly 60 combat aircraft in the Valley. Mig-21, Mig-27 and Mig-29 Sqns were at full war alert and eager to go into action. Mi-17, Cheetah and Chetak helicopter units were also chafing at their bits to get a move on. The Mi-17 and Cheetah helicopters also continued to carry out their air logistics missions as did the IL-76 and AN-32 aircraft operating out of Chandigarh to Leh and Thoise airfields.

While a lot of focus generally attaches to fighter operations, the helicopter and transport aircrew carry out, what I believe is a magnificent job in delivering essential supplies to remote areas manned by our Army and PMFs. They operate their flying machines to the limits of the performance envelope while they drive their bodies to the extremes of human endurance.

On May 25 we received the codeword to commence offensive operations from the nextday. But there was a caveat. Under no circumstance could our aircraft cross the LoC.

Given that the known intruded area was about 140km along the LoC with depths varying between 1 to 8 km, the constraint of not crossing the LoC posed considerable problems, the most severe being the restrictions on attack profiles of fighter aircraft. A fighter aircraft must sight the target, get into a dive to achieve weapon release parameters, release the weapons and pull out of the dive while maintaining visual contact with other mission members. Restricting attack direction, as this caveat of not crossing the LoC imposed would lead to sub optimal weapon delivery and our difficulties would be compounded by the irregular alignment of the LoC.

Manyof our mission plans had to be revised in consultation with Army representatives who provided target coordinates and exact location of our own troops in the targets' vicinity. On May 26 strike missions commenced their attacks on designated targets. The fighter aircraft attacked a particular target and were immediately followed by the Mi-17 helicopter gunships. The targets were gun emplacements, enemy supply lines, firm bases and launch pads having igloo type or normal tents and 'sangars'. These 'sangars' proved to be very strong and as we learnt later almost immune to the impact of rockets or front gun ammunition delivered with pin-point accuracy, both by fighters and by helicopters.

These target systems were not the conventional ones that Air Forces are trained to engage. There were no mobile forces, no armoured columns, bridges/dams or industrial targets. The biggest target engaged during this operation was a supply camp at Muntho Dhalo. This target system, in a normal all-out war would have been among the smallest targets considered to be neutralised from air. Enemy radio intercepts on May 26 evening revealed that the Pakistani forces were quite unsettled by the air attacks and had suffered casualties and material losses during the strike missions.

May 27: two Mig-27 aircraft armed with rockets attacked a target just two kilometers south of the LoC. The No 2's aircraft flamed out immediately after weapon release and the pilot had to eject prior to his aircraft impacting with a mountain side. During parachute descent he drifted across the LoC, was taken as POW by the Pakistani forces and was returned to India on June 3, 1999.

The leader of a Mig-21 mission on hearing of the ejection on his radio set decided to carry out an airborne search for the Mig-27. While orbiting his aircraft was engaged and struck by a shoulder-fired missile of the 'Stinger' class or its Chinese equivalent. The pilot ejected safely, but after two days the Pakistanis handed over his body, bearing injury marks, to Indian Army personnel at a pre-arranged point.

On May 28, a Mi-17 mission of four helicopters attacked a target from where our Army units were being engaged. During the attack a large number of SAMs were fired at the mission as reported by the aircrew and confirmed later by the gun cameras. The No 3 in the mission was turning away after the attack when a missile hit its engine and the helicopter went down with the loss of all the four aircrew. It became clear that the Pakistani forces had a much larger number of these shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles than we had estimated.



The Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis visits the Kargil area accompanied by the Chief of Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik. Brigadier Amar Aul, Kargil Brigade Commander and Air Vice Marshal Narayan Menon, AOC J&K are also in the picture.


It had also been thought by many including me that there would be a reduction in the performance of these missiles when fired from the heights of 3 km and above. This turned out to be wrong as the performance envelope of the missile expands because of the increased temperature differential between the missile seeker head and the jet exhaust of aircraft. The numbers of missiles available with the enemy and their improved performance posed greater threat to our aircraft than envisaged earlier and a change in strategy was obviously necessary. Another aspect was that the counter measure dispensing system (CMDS) fitted on the helicopters, that ejected flare cartridges to lure away heat seeking missiles had been rendered unreliable due to disuse and these slower gunships had become vulnerable.

A decision was taken to suspend air operations temporarily.

Subsequent brainstorming sessions threw up many options, with a young Flight Lieutenant coming up with the idea of using the 'Global Positioning System' as an aid to carry out high level bombing. The aircraft were to fly at 9 km height, out of range of the missiles, and release the bombs at a predetermined GPS indicated point arrived at after having calculated for the forward trajectory of the bomb and wind pattern.

It was indeed an innovative suggestion. Trials were carried out on May 29, and fighters carried out the first of these high altitude release (HAR) missions the next day. Initially the effectiveness of HAR missions was low, but within three to four sorties our pilots had gained confidence and accuracy of weapon delivery improved considerably as evident from Army Intelligence reports and enemy radio intercepts. Performance limitations precluded helicopters from being utilised in these type of missions. HAR missions could be flown over clouds and at night. Under such conditions weapon delivery could be from lower altitudes as the threat from SAMs was nearly eliminated. Lower altitude attacks improved accuracy. From 4 June onwards night HAR missions were mounted.

The intruded areas now stretched from Mushkoh Valley to Muntho Dhalo and Jubar. The enemy soldiers received support from across the LoC from places like Gultari, Olthingthang and Skardu. On June 6, Mirage-2000 aircraft and Jaguars operating out of Adampur were inducted into the operations. Armed with precision guided munitions (PGMs) these aircraft had a very high rate of success against targets that included enemy positions at Muntho Dhalo, Tiger Hill and Tololing.

All our strike missions were escorted by Mig-29, Mig-21 Bis or Mirage-2000 aircraft. This had to be done as there was no radar cover for our strike aircraft in the areas they were operating in. The Mig-29s flew the escort mission in a manner that enabled them to 'look' through the strike aircraft to the airspace beyond and on a few occasions picked up airborne radar activity across the LoC. But our attempts to airlift and establish a ground radar west of Leh met with success only towards the end of operations.

By the third week of June, our Army had started making considerable progress in recapturing the intruded areas. The fact that on most occasions recapture had been preceded by air strikes was testimony to the skill of our pilots and effectiveness of air power even under severe constraints. On July 12 it was decided to call off the use of air power in offensive role but 'war alert' was maintained till July 28.

The fighter aircraft in the Valley flew more than 2,000 sorties including 250 by night. Mirages and Jaguars flew 150 sorties. Helicopters flew 23 strike sorties and 2,100 sorties for other tasks. Our aircraft targeted enemy positions with approximately 330 tonnes of bombs, 4,000 rockets and many thousands of gun ammunition. IAF's tasks comprised missions involving strike, interdiction, air defence escorts, Electronic Intelligence or ELINT, reconnaissance, casualty evacuation and air logistics. For the first time after 1971, IAF personnel were exposed to a war environment and the experience would be beneficial to all those involved.

We realised our shortcomings and weaknesses in communications, training and equipment maintenance. The unsatisfactory state of our intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing also came to the fore.

The subject of planning for joint operations or joint planning for operations has received a lot of attention both in professional circles and the media. I would like to recount my experiences during Kargil operations and thereafter.

Planning for joint operations requires an environment of trust and confidence in each others abilities. The Indian Army is as fine a professional fighting force as any, but when it comes to sharing intelligence there is, as I have perceived, a level of reluctance on its part. In the initial phase of Kargil operations this could be explained away by the fact that army also did not know much of what was happening. But even during later briefings and planning sessions I had a distinct impression that only a part of the picture was being revealed, i.e. the minimum required for the conduct of air strikes.

A case in point is the counter attack by Pak Army on Tiger Hill on 6 July, 1999 in which our troops suffered casualties. This target - junction of the spurs from Tiger Hill and Trig Height 4875 - was recommended to be attacked on the night of July 5/6 at 0330 hrs by the Air Force representative. Aircraft were loaded and readied, but at 2130 hrs on July 5 the Corps HQ called off the attack without assigning any reason. After the counter attack by the enemy on July 6 the Corps HQ requested an air strike on the same target which was carried out on July 7 by Mirage-2000 aircraft armed with PGMs.

Had the air strikes been carried out as planned earlier, the enemy's capability to counter attack would have been diminished. During planning if the full picture had been revealed to the IAF, then other options could have been explored to the benefit of our troops. This inexplicable reluctance to share information / intelligence was something that I continued to perceive in my later appointment as Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations).

During the Kargil operations there were daily planning sessions held either at the Corps HQ or at the airbase. It is possible that the army officers found shortcomings in the Air Force approach to joint sessions, but these were not expressed or discussed with me or my staff. Despite all this the outcome of our jointness was positive and national objectives were accomplished.

The victory in Kargil operations resulted from the raw courage and indomitable will of the young leadership and soldiers of the Indian Army. But the impetus, the trigger to prise out the Pakistani forces from the occupied heights of Kargil was provided by the accuracy and effectiveness of the Indian Air Force.

Air Vice Marshal Narayan 'Nana' Menon was the Air Officer Commanding, Jammu & Kashmir during the Ops (Thus the theatre commander). He was awarded the Uttam Yudh Seva Medal for his role (The war time equivalent of AVSM). He later retired as Air Marshal.

This article was first published in the Indian Defence Review