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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan in Srinagar

The going is tough in Kargil

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A week after India started air-strikes against intruders along its northern border, how much has it succeeded?

Ask the Union defence ministry and you are flooded with patriotic replies: Of course, our boys are going great guns! The operation is a great success! Our fighters have helped dislodge the intruders from heights in the Batalik area, pushing them back right till the Line of Control!

Yeah, sure. But that is not the rosy picture that the men on ground -- read: troops in Drass, Kargil, Batalik and Srinagar -- paint. The strikes, they admit in private, hasn't been "very effective." Not that they expected them to be phenomenally successful, no -- every military officer worth his stars know that air-operations have limited scope in mountainous terrain.

The first indication had come last Thursday, 24 hours after fighter operations began, from an officer in Kargil.

"Fighters are devastatingly effective in plains and open areas where the targets are easily visible. But they are known to have little impact in mountains," he told Rediff On The NeT, "In terrain like this with snow-bound ridges, they will find the going tough."

Other officers along the road to Srinagar endorsed the view. But the clinching comment came from none less than GoC-in-C, Northern Command, Lieutenant General H M Khanna. He didn't parrot Delhi's view -- "very effective and successful" -- but limited himself to:

"They (air-strikes) are a help... They are effective."

Which leads us to two questions. One, why are air operations not successful in such terrain? Two, if the top defence brass knew that these were not going to be successful, a fact which they couldn't have missed out, why did they bring in the Indian Air Force?

The answer to the latter seems easy: India wanted to utilise all necessary means to contain the threat.

Now for the former.

Air-strikes, so far as India is concerned, are mainly dependent on three vehicles: Fightercraft like MiGs, gunships and MIs. Gunships and MIs are choppers fitted with weapons like rocket launchers, guns and bombs. But as these are slow moving, the chances of a hit are much more than that to on a fighter. However, they do have an advantage. They get more time to home in on a target and, hence, are, according to the army's air observation wing, more accurate than the MiGs.

"A fighter pilot's reaction time is very short," an army pilot, who has been guiding air-attacks and artillery fire from his Cheetah helicopter for the last one week, told Rediff On The NeT, "He has to home in from a height, 8 to 9 km away. In the mountains, where visibility is poor, that is a constraint. He may get half a second or one second to react to the target."

The pilot, who has flown over 400-odd hours over the affected Drass-Batalik ridges, said the slow moving MIs have been more effective than the rest.

Another factor limiting the air-attacks is the clever positioning of the intruders. As it is, the visibility is not satisfactory. Army sources say that the intruders are, in most cases, "sitting on razor sharp ridges at 5,000-plus (metres), some of them just 3 to 5 metres broad."

Thus, the fighters have to be guided in. And unless they are extremely accurate, they stand to miss the target completely -- a few metres this side or that would see the bombs falling on the steep slopes, sometimes long down, and bursting harmlessly.

The intruders, the pilot said, have camouflaged their tents well. "Surprisingly, they are using dark clothes and dark tents," he added, "But they have built snow walls around their tents to make it difficult to spot. We would have expected them to use white camouflages... may be, they never thought they would be detected."

The cushioning effect of the snow too has to be considered. If it has been snowing -- like it had been the past few nights in the higher reaches -- the ridges are soft and would absorb much of the blast.

"I have seen it happen," says an officer who has served in Siachen Glacier, "The shells would just land in the snow, sink down and burst. There would be a crater but not much harm done otherwise."

This, he points out, could be a reason why the Indian artillery too is proving not very effective.

When a shell or bomb bursts, its impact is supposed to travel in 45 degree arcs ahead, explains an artillery officer. But in the higher reaches, unless there's hard ice, this doesn't happen.

The effectiveness of the air force has also been constrained by the fact that they are operating in unfamiliar terrain. Unlike the army pilots who know the area like the back of their hand, the fighters need time to adjust themselves. One week, army officers feel, is not enough.

"Now they are becoming more effective." one said.

Then again, the direction from which a fighter can approach. The choppers can home in from anywhere, but the fighters can only come at their targets only parallel to the LoC.

"The operations are very close to the LoC. If they (the fightercraft)approach perpendicular to the targeted ridge, they would breach Pakistan's airspace after their pass," explains the army pilot, "Unlike a chopper, they cannot turn tight -- they need some 8 km to do it."

Another reason why the army says that the operation is going to be a prolonged one is because, while Pakistan is using men trained for fighting in high altitudes, the majority of Indian troops are from the plains. The additional brigades and the whole division that have gone in from Srinagar and central India needs acclimatisation.

"You need 2 to 4 weeks to get used to the altitude," says an officer, "Our troops have not had that luxury. They will be more effective once they are acclimatised."

Till then, it is a fight in unfamiliar terrain, short of breath and low of height.

This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.

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