Summer of 1999 : View from 5th Floor Air HQ

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd) was the Staff Officer to Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis, CAS during the Kargil Operations. He shares his unique experiences of the events that unfolded into the sharp and decisive acts undertaken by the Indian Air Force in the Kargil fighting of 1999.


 

On the 14th anniversary of the Kargil conflict, a view from the 5th floor of IAF HQs  The fifth floor of the head-quarters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is the power centre of the air force. On a hot summer morning in 1999, I, a wing commander then was busy, with my nose dug deep in some file when the buzzer sounded twice in quick succession. That was unusual. As a staff officer to the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), and whose job was to manage his secretariat, two quick buzzes meant the boss was in a hurry. I yanked the phone from its cradle and said, “Sir?” Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis said, “Get JD (H) and you too come along with him.”  On the intercom I asked Group Captain Anthony, the joint director of the helicopter fleet, to come quickly to the Chief ’s office; he queried, “What’s up?” as the Chief normally doesn’t call a joint director for consultation. I said that I didn’t know but the Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) had asked for an urgent meeting and was inside the office with him. It was around 10 in the morning on Friday, 14 May 1999. While the IAF knew that something was not right up North, it was about to learn that things were really amiss in the desolate heights over Kargil. 

As I waited for Groupie Anthony to arrive, the Chief buzzed again and wanted to know how many troops could be slithered or dropped in the hills. Before he could be asked further details like altitude of the helipad, its size, fuel on board etc., he cut the line. ‘Tan,’ as Groupie Anthony was known as, walked in and in the same incredulous voice  that I had heard on the intercom, asked, “What’s happened?” After quickly discussing the Chief ’s query, we decided to ask for further details without which an answer could not be given.   

We walked into the Chief ’s office. He and the VCOAS were seated on the sofa with an army map lying on the table in front — the fancy one that the army makes with red, yellow and blue squares, rectangles, triangles et al. The same questions were shot at us to which we responded that the carrying capacity would depend on a host of factors like the time of the day (as it would affect temperature), height of the helipad, distance to the nearest refueling point (as that would determine the fuel on board) and size of the landing or drop-off area. We were told it would be around 15 thousand odd feet. Location? Somewhere in the Northern sector. Nearest refueling point? To which the Chief looked at the VCOAS who asked, why we wanted to know that. On being told that if the helicopter carried extra fuel it would mean greater weight and that would determine the  number of soldiers that it could carry, the Chief interjected to say that it would be around 20 minutes flying away. There was another question that was equally important — would the area be clear for the helicopters to hover close to the ground so that the troops could jump off or would they have to hover high due to trees and vegetation and the troops would slither down on ropes? It was getting a bit too technical so the Chief decided to let us in on the actual problem; there are some intruders, he said, who had occupied a few peaks near Kargil and army troops were to be dropped  to evict them. Now things were clearer, for Kargil and another place Dras (to be equally famous very soon) had refueling facilities and were not far from the scene of action. We said we would take a little time and come back with the details along with a map marked out with all the information.

As we came out of the Chief ’s office ‘Tan’ angrily said, “Now I know why the army has been after me this past week. Officers from the military operations (MO) have been coming and asking the same question and we have been asking for the same details, but they have been very evasive. They have just been asking for utilisation of armed helicopters at high altitude.” In the event, quick calculations were done and ballpark figures sent in to the Chief. While Groupie Anthony departed, I was left thinking that we could be in ‘real’ business very soon.

May 16 was a Sunday and VCOAS again asked to meet the Chief; the ops staff and AOC-in-C of Western Air Command (WAC) were present. While the air force was going ahead with its readiness for all eventualities, there was still a doubt whether the situation was as grave as it was being made out to be. WAC had information that the Northern Command Army Commander was planning to go to Pune, and this obviously would not happen if there was an emergency on hand. The conference got over around mid-day and CAS left for South Block for an urgent Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting that had been convened, while C in C WAC left for his Command HQ at Delhi Cantonment. I was manning the office; the RAX rang and AOC-in-C of WAC came on the line, “I say Bahadur, go and tell the Chief that the Army Commander has just taken off for Pune.”

The Sunday activation was a precursor to many meetings that gained in intensity and frequency. As a need to know policy, it was only the ops staff and some others who were in the loop. However, one knew that air assets were being moved in anticipation of ‘something’ happening in Kargil. The question doing the rounds was, were the intruders Pakistanis or were they insurgents who had occupied some peaks?

With the Navy at Goa

The scene fast forwards to 20 May 1999 when the CAS left for Goa to review the passing out parade of the Naval Academy at INS Mandovi. The weather had started deteriorating and the Chief was a little worried that his Sea Harrier sortie planned the next day may not go through. ACM Tipnis, the keen flier that  he was, really wanted to fly the Harrier, perhaps one of the few on the inventory of the armed forces that he had not got airborne in. May 21 dawned with cloudy skies and as the Chief strapped up in the Harrier on the tarmac at Dabolim, it started pouring. I was in the corridors of the Naval Squadron, watching the activity. The Chief ’s mobile phone rang; on the line was Air Vice Marshal ‘Teju’ Asthana, then assistant chief of air staff (Operations). On being told that the Chief was in the Harrier cockpit waiting to taxi out, he told me to inform the CAS that a Canberra on a recce sortie in the Mushko valley had been hit by ground fire and that it had made a safe single engine landing at Srinagar – all was ok otherwise, he said. He also wanted the Chief to be told that the vice chief would attend a special COSC meeting that had been called on May 23 by the Army Chief, who had returned from Poland. The rain, meanwhile, intensified and the Chief ’s sortie had to be cancelled. When told about the Canberra hit he spoke to the vice chief, Air Marshal ‘Ben’ Brar and asked for a map of Kargil. When the naval guys were told about the map requirement, they were flummoxed! A map of Kargil op area in Goa? The nearest any naval aviator had been to the hills were those in the Western Ghats. Remember, there was no Google Earth those days from where a commercial grade map could be downloaded. But, they did produce a one million scale map of Kargil from somewhere and a proper one at that! The hit on the Canberra had altered the dynamics as understood then and the Chief decided to cut short his visit after reviewing the passing out parade the next day and return to Delhi to attend the special COSC meeting.

May 22 dawned and the heavens really opened up. The parade at INS Mandovi was held in pouring rain and the  Air Chief, typical of him, refused an umbrella and got as wet as the newly commissioned trainees. After a quick lunch we took off in the An-32 that had been hurriedly positioned and reached Delhi in the evening.

Visit to Srinagar

Meanwhile, the seriousness of the situation had become evident to all, with frenetic activity all round - and as they say the rest is history. Many an account of subsequent events, including one by ACM Tipnis, referred to in an article that appeared in the October issue of FORCE in 2006, is well documented. My account of those initial days, however, would not be complete without going through the sheer thrill and romance that came from being a part of the Chief ’s incognito visit to Srinagar on May 25 just after he returned from Cabinet Committee meeting on security. As we were to know later, the go-ahead for operations to commence on May 26 had been given by the Prime Minister. The air assistant to CAS, air commodore Ajit Bhavnani asked me to manage a pair of wing commander rank badges for the CAS, “….the Chief is going incognito to Srinagar and you will accompany him”! Wow! This is like in the movies, I remember thinking.

I rushed to Wing Commander Suneel Soman, the staff officer to VCAS and told him, “Give me your rank badges.” He knew something was on for he readily obliged without asking any questions and, for the first time ever, a coursemate de-tabbed another course mate! I called up my wife and told her to send a light jacket in a vehicle that would be reaching home soon. “A jacket in the month of May in Delhi?” she enquired. I made some excuse about it being required by an officer who had to go to Shillong at a short notice, and that was that. What about lunch? The lunch box of the other staff officer, Group Captain Sistla, was hijacked and along with my own I dashed to Palam. Chief was already in the aircraft that had been held back to take some ‘special load.’ As the Chief has written in his article, the young flight lieutenant who was lounging near the aircraft nearly threw a fit on seeing a familiar ‘wing commander’ getting down from an unmarked Ambassador car and walking straight in. As I ran into the An-32, I saw a young Sikh officer, a flight lieutenant and five or six other airmen who were traveling as passengers, equally stunned by the happenings of the past few minutes. The An-32 soon got airborne. As it leveled off at top of climb, some plates from the lunch box that was carried by the crew were managed; one spoon surfaced from somewhere and we offered Chief the dosa that Mrs Sistla had sent for her husband and some roti-subzi kept by my wife. All tiffin boxes opened up and after a community type of lunch a few guys fell asleep, as the aircraft droned on to Srinagar and landed uneventfully.

The Air Traffic Control (ATC) had been asked to request the air officer commanding (AOC) of Srinagar to receive the aircraft in person as there was an important parcel to be handed over. The rear ramp of the An-32 opened and out walked the Chief with wing commander stripes on his shoulders. But how does one hide one’s shock of thick grey hair? The AOC had a cane in his hand, he squinted a little as if to focus properly and then the reality struck. As ACM Tipnis has written in his article, “I could see the AOC standing akimbo, with his dog on a leash, a picture of local top authority. When I walked down the ramp of the aircraft, the AOC had walked around to the back of the aircraft, doing nothing to mask his impatience. If the situation were not what it was, I would have burst out laughing to see a figure of authority instantly transform into that of a subordinate. Senior air officers are tough customers and he recovered quickly.” The Chief ’s description is a little misplaced here. The AOC was not standing with the dog. As the AOC opened the door of the Maruti Gypsy jeep for the CAS, his dog jumped out at the Chief and thereafter started running around on the tarmac. I agree with the Chief (I better), “had it not been for the circumstances, it would have been hilarious!” And ACM Tipnis then writes that the dog disappeared — No Sir, it did not! The AOC’s Gypsy was a two door vehicle and since the Chief had already sat down in front and the AOC had literally dived into the driver’s seat, there was little else I could have done but to yank open the luggage door at the back and sit on the floor — with the AOC’s dog!

Air Chief Marshal Tipnis during a visit to Kargil during the height of the fighting. Air Vice Marshal N Menon, the AOC of Jammu and Kashmir is seen in the foreground. The Author - then Wing Commander M Bahadur can be seen in the center of the photograph behind the CAS.

The visit was very exciting, to say the least. There was a lot of aircrew in the briefing room in the ATC building. Being from the helicopter fleet, I knew many rotary wing guys who crowded around me asking whether we were ‘going-in’ for real. I really didn’t know,  but a Chief doesn’t come incognito for nothing. He spoke to everyone present, got the Corps Commander of 15 Corps over for a face-to-face chat and left no one in doubt that the country meant business. As ACM Tipnis has written, ‘it was the prerogative of AOC-in-C, Western Air Command to give the actual order,’ which duly came for action to commence on May 26.

Were the guys raring to go? They sure were — and there is no doubt about that. Were they all mentally tuned to the fact that it was serious business and one could get hurt? I am not too sure, for when I asked whether they had planned for survival in the hills (16-17,000 feet, unlike the wonderful weather that prevailed in May in Srinagar), I noticed that some had not. I did give the supervisors a piece of my mind for not ensuring this. Very soon, of course, we realised that guns fired in anger invite retaliation of the violent kind. After the initial aircraft losses, the tactics were adapted to the peculiarities of delivering ordnance at 16-17,000 feet. Helicopters, after their initial employment, were not utilised in the armed role because of their limitations at those altitudes. That it led to some bad blood and intemperate comments is a fact, but those in the know of high altitude flight operations know that it was a decision taken after a clinical and professional assessment of the realities, as emotions have no place in matters of life and death the fact that there were no further losses testified to the soundness of the decision.

There were many lessons to be learnt from Kargil, the foremost being that ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ Too many people who were supposed to monitor the frontier didn’t do their job. Much has been written about the failure of intelligence agencies (both military and civilian) and the turf wars and lack of coordination between them, but surely, how could our spymasters have missed activities like the one at Skardu? Air Commodore (retd) Kaiser Tufail, who was director of operations of Pakistan Air Force in 1991 has written, “Helicopter flying activity was feverishly high as Army Aviation’s Mi-17s were busy moving artillery guns and ammunition to the mountain tops. Troops in battle gear were to be seen all over the city. Interestingly, messes were abuzz with war  chatter amongst young officers. In retrospect, one wonders how Indian intelligence agencies failed to read any such signs, many weeks before the operation unfolded.” Had we not slept and had our people in powerful positions remembered what Kautilya had written two and a half millennia ago — ‘intelligence should underpin all aspects of governance,’ we would not have been caught silly, as we were.

I was later to visit Kargil along with CAS and the army chief, when both went there to review the progress, half way through the two-month long conflict. The altitudes at which the Indian jawans and officers were fighting were simply awe inspiring. Having spent the major part of my career in Srinagar and Leh sector, those hills were not at all new for me. But I remembered the words of my seniors when I joined 114 Helicopter Unit in 1978 as a young flying officer (114 was later christened The Siachen Pioneers): “No harm will come your way if you respect the mountains. They are permanent, we are just transitory.” The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force got the tricolour back to where it belonged, above the hills of  Dras and Kargil but the country paid a heavy price, as many of her sons never returned and quite a few were maimed for life. One can only marvel at those brave Indians, exemplified by the likes of Captain Vikram Batra who said, ‘yeh dil maange more’ and went up those daunting hills again for another mission, never to come back.

May your souls rest in peace, dear comrades, for you have done your duty, but let your selflessness trigger the conscience of our countrymen so that they too put India first before everything else. The nation owes you a debt of gratitude that can never measure up to your bravery and sacrifice. Post Script: Did my wife catch on to the May 25 incognito trip to Srinagar with the Air Chief? No she didn’t, as on returning home I quietly put back the jacket she had sent me after smuggling it in my briefcase. Next day, when the air strikes went in and started getting reported on national TV, she got the plot!;


 

(The author was assistant chief of Integrated Defence Staff in-charge of tri-Service perspective planning and force structure. Earlier, he was assistant chief of air staff [transport & helicopters] at Air HQ.) . This article was originally published in FORCE Magazine and is reproduced here by permission.