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June 15, 1999
Kargil exposes an ill-equipped IAF
George Iype in New Delhi
The three-week-old high-altitude air strikes in the Kargil sector aimed at flushing out Pakistani infiltrators have exposed how inadequately equipped the Indian Air Force is.
IAF officials say lack of high-technology weapons like electronic warfare cover and early warning systems, and the inadequate fleet of fighter planes for the mountainous terrain have made 'Operation Vijay' the most difficult one in the force's history.
IAF, the world's fourth largest air force, has five operational commands across the country consisting of some 45 fixed-wing squadrons, 20 helicopter units and numerous surface-to-air missile squadrons, with unit establishments varying from 12 to 18 aircraft.
The IAF has a total aircraft strength of nearly 1,700, including training and support types, manned by some 120,000 personnel. Its mainstay are some 800 combat aircraft comprising MiGs, Mirages, British Jaguars, Hawker Hunters, Canberras, Sea Harriers and SU-30s.
"But for the first time we are feeling the pinch of waging a high-altitude war in Kargil because we are faced with an acute lack of modern electronic warfare," a senior IAF officer told Rediff On The NeT.
He admitted that the IAF is handicapped and hamstrung on many aspects in the ongoing Kargil operations.
But the official felt that the Kargil mission has been a blessing in disguise for the IAF. "We have been demanding the induction of state-of-the-art fighter planes into the IAF for many years now. We hope the government will agree to our demands after the Kargil operations," he added.
IAF top brass now believes that the air force's "limitations" in Kargil will force the Central Government to decide on one of its vociferous demands -- the induction of Advanced Jet Fighters and transonic planes like the French Alpha and the British Hawk into the IAF.
In an attempt to train new pilots and fly the transonic jets in combat operations, the government has been planning to buy some 66 AJTs since 1983 for a nearly US $ 1.25 billion. But it has not yet happened.
IAF officials point out that AJTs could have made the Kargil task much easier for the air force. Though the IAF hoped to test the Sukhoi-30s in the Kargil battle, it could not be done as the heights of "war-zone" are totally unsuited for the Russian-made jets.
Moreover, the IAF suffered losses in the Kargil mission. First, a Canberra jet on a reconnaissance mission was hit and completely crippled by a Pakistani missile.
Then, a MiG-21 fighter jet was downed by Pakistan army while another MiG-27 crashed due to an engine failure. A Mi-17 helicopter was also destroyed by a Stinger missile fired by Pakistan.
Even though the IAF is now regularly deploying Mirages to jam Pakistani radar units and MiGs to bomb the Kargil hills, air force officials concede that the aircraft flown in the heights are unsuited for that particular area.
"Kargil will teach new lessons to the government. IAF could have performed marvellously if we had the early warning systems and electronic warfare cover, especially since our battle with Pakistan in Kashmir is a long-drawn out one," an official pointed out.
The IAF has been requesting successive governments in the past to speed up the modernisation of the force by inducing state-of-the-art planes. But the government has stuck to modifications of the IAF's mainstay, the MiGs, some of which are 30 years old.
"Modifications cannot sustain the IAF now that the battlefields, environment and technology are changing fast," the official said, adding that only "modernisation can help."
IAF has carried out three major operations in the past, which many defence experts say, have stretched the capacity of its transport force and helicopter fleet to the maximum.
The first, Operation Meghdoot in 1984, was in support of the Indian Army and paramilitary forces in Northern Ladakh, to secure control of the heights predominating the Siachen glacier.
The second, Operation Pawan, in 1987 was for the Indian Peace Keeping Force in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
The third, Operation Cactus, in 1988, was in support of the Maldives government's appeal for military action against a mercenary invasion of the island country.
The IAF top brass hopes their fourth biggest mission -- Operation Vijay -- will help the air force to move forward in future in a new direction of high-technology fighting, if the government is willing.
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