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The Rediff Special/Ved Shenag

Kargil air operations: a turning point in military aviation

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1. Operation Safedsagar, as the air operations in the Kargil area were called, was, indeed, a milestone in the history of military aviation, as this was the first time that air power was employed in such an environment.

Effect of Environment

2. The severe degradation of aircraft and weapon performance is still not completely appreciated by the layman. No aircraft has yet been designed to operate in a Kargil-like environment. At high altitudes, a crucial factor in aircraft performance is the reserve of power available, which, for the MiG and Mirage fleets, was a strong point in their favour. In comparison, the Fairchild A-10, which was widely quoted as being the ideal platform, would have been a misfit. It is widely (and incorrectly) stated that using Mach 2 aircraft would not produce results; the layman needs to understand that all air-to-ground attack speeds are approximately the same (750-950 kilometre per hour) for all fixed-wing aircraft.

3. Due to the very different attributes of the atmosphere, even weapons do not perform as per sea-level specifications. Variations in air temperature and density, altering drag indices and a host of other factors (which have never been calculated by any manufacturer for this type of altitude) cause weapons to go off their mark; for the same reasons, normally reliable computerised weapon aiming devices give inaccurate results.

4. In the plains, a 1000-pounder bomb landing 25 yards away from the target would still severely disable, if not flatten, it. In the mountains, however, a miss of a few yards would be as good as the proverbial mile, due to the undulating terrain and masking effects.There is, thus, a need for pinpoint accuracy in conditions where that very attribute is severely degraded by the factors mentioned above.

The First Few Days

5. While there was considerable pressure from outside the Indian Air Force to operate only attack helicopters, the chief of air staff succeeded in convincing the government that in order to create a suitable environment for the helicopters, fighter action was required. Notwithstanding this, the loss of one fighter and one Mi-17 chopper to enemy action indicated the need for a change of tactics, resulting in withdrawal of armed helicopters and employment of fighters in modified profiles out of the Stinger surface-to-air missile envelope.

By itself, the change of tactics is nothing unusual, and is an inherent part of the qualities of flexibility and adaptability; in fact, a far more serious lapse would be a dogged tendency to persist in sacrificing assets when, clearly, there was a need for a re-assessment. It is for this reason that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, after deploying 100 Apache attack helicopters in Greece, reconsidered bringing them into Kosovo till the shooting was over, as they felt the environment didn't justify it. Unfortunately, IAF Mi-25/35 attack helicopters were not able to operate in this terrain.

6. One of the many facts that have emerged clearly is that target acquisition by the pilot is the bottom line. Totally unfamiliar surroundings made target recognition difficult from the ground, let alone from a fast moving aircraft. As a result, the initial few sorties from high levels were not as effective as desired. However, once revised and modified profiles, tactics and manner of system usage had been perfected, the accuracy of the airstrikes improved dramatically. Any time the target was spotted, a success rate of close to 100 percent invariably resulted.

The Increasing Effects of Airstrikes

7. As a result of these attacks, severe damage to enemy personnel and equipment became apparent in various areas. It is surmised that airstrikes contributed to a significant portion of the enemy's casualty list, as apparent in the numbers. However, the most telling effects on the ground were from intercepts of enemy radio revealing severe shortage of rations, water, medicines and ammunition. Losses due to airstrikes and inability to evacuate their casualties were also mentioned in the intercepts. This was the actual manifestation on the ground of the result of effective airstrikes by the IAF. The effect of accurate attacks is best summed up by a message received from one of the HQs of the army:

"You guys have done a wonderful job. Your Mirage boys with their precision laser guided bombs targeted an enemy Battalion HQ in Tiger Hills area with tremendous success. Five Pakistani officers reported killed in that attack and their Command and Control broke down -- as a result of which our troops have literally walked over the entire Tiger Hills area. The enemy is on the run. They are on the run in other sectors also. At this rate the end of the conflict may come soon."

IAF airstrikes: the results

8. IAF airstrikes against enemy supply camps and other targets yielded rich dividends. A noteworthy fact is that there was not a single operation on ground that was not preceded by airstrikes. Inevitably, some army personnel at some locations who did not actually see these missions harbored, understandably, the feeling that the IAF was not as effective as they had hoped. While that would happen in any operation, it is a fact that each and every airstrike was the result of co-ordinated planning between 15 Corps and the Air Officer Commanding, Jammu and Kashmir.

9. Firstly, in the area of interdiction of enemy supplies, the successful and incessant attacks on the enemy's logistic machine had, over the last few weeks, culminated in a serious degradation of the enemy's ability to sustain himself in an increasing number of areas. The series of attacks against Point 4388 in the Dras sector was an excellent example of how lethal airstrikes combined with timely reconnaissance detected the enemy plans to shift to alternate supply routes which were once again effectively attacked. In this the IAF succeeded in strangling the enemy supply arteries, amply testified to by enemy radio intercepts.

The primacy of interdiction targets as opposed to Battlefield Air Strikes targets was clearly brought out, as also the fact that air power is not to be frittered away on insignificant targets like machine gun posts and trenches, but on large targets of consequence (like the supply camp at Muntho Dhalo, enemy Battalion HQ on top of Tiger Hill, etc). Gone are the days of fighters screaming in at deck level, acting as a piece of extended artillery. The air defence environment of today's battlefield just does not permit such employment of air power anymore, a significant fact that needs to be understood by soldier and civilian alike.

10. The second major impact of air power in this operation was in the area of casualties. Normally, an enemy defending a well-fortified position (in this case, Pakistan) suffers between three to six times less casualties than does the force on the offensive. However, this operation has seen the reverse, with the enemy casualties far in excess of those suffered by us. One significant fact must not be lost sight of; of the two warring sides, it is the Pakistani Army that suffered airstrikes, which, obviously, contributed significantly to its casualties. It is felt that without the use of air power, our own casualties could have approached if not exceeded four figures.

11. The third aspect is that of attack chopper operations. Besides the capability of the machine itself vis-a-vis the area of operation, the creation of the right air defence environment is a crucial factor which would determine the employment of this platform. Effectiveness versus vulnerability would need to be examined; during Operation Safedsagar, the abundance of man-portable SAMs in all enemy-held areas precluded the effective employment of attack choppers. As a result, whether army or IAF, choppers were constrained to operate in SAM-free areas. Nevertheless, IAF Cheetahs were instrumental in carrying out frontline roles like providing a platform for the Airborne Forward Air Controller, a fighter pilot who guides the fighters into the attack against ground targets.

12. The fourth major impact of air power is in the enormous difference it made to the ground operations, no better example of which exists than the message from the HQ of a field army unit, mentioned above.

13. Fifthly, night operations were carried out using ingenuity and imagination; at times, excellent results were achieved by aircraft like MiG-21s.

14. Sixthly, the effort put into air defence escorts and area Combat Air Patrolling by day as well as night proved an effective deterrent which ensured total air superiority. At times, Pakistan Air Force F-16s orbited a scant 15 kilometres (on their own side of the Line of Control) from our strike formations attacking Pakistani targets, kept at bay by our own air defence fighters flying a protective pattern above the strike.

15. The seventh aspect is the high degree of imagination, flexibility and IAF-army co-ordination which marked every phase of the operation; at one stage, fighters, while staying within our side of the LoC, were even spotting and directing artillery fire targeting enemy positions across the LoC!

16. In the final analysis, the effective application of air power has indisputably saved further casualties as well as compressed considerably the timeframe in which our army has made such progress on the ground. In this context, the basic functions of air power have been repeated, though on a much larger scale, when compared to the IAF's operations in the area during 1947-48, when IAF Tempests carried out strafing and rocket attacks on the intruders and Dakotas ferried in as well as para-dropped troops and supplies. As then and now, when called upon by the nation the IAF has joined as an equal partner to the army to meet the national objective.


17. Almost from the very beginning of the operations, IAF intellects were busy ticking over in a near constant brainstorming session aimed at deriving lessons from Operation Safedsagar. Being an ongoing process, the immense experience gained from this operation would stand in good stead in the times to come. These lessons would be applicable to all the world's air forces, for it is the first time in the history of military aviation that such an air operation took place in such an environment. While conventional long-accepted air power theories no longer held good, a new set of operation paradigms had to be evolved almost overnight to cope with the situation.

18. Operation Safedsagar was, therefore, a turning point in the history of military aviation, and an operation that will, no doubt, be discussed and dissected for the next few years.

Ved Shenag is a defence analyst.

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