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'The Pakistanis had state of the art anti-aircraft missiles to shoot us down'

By Air Commodore NITIN SATHE (Retd)
July 16, 2020 09:11 IST
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Twenty one years ago, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force fought a bloody and bitter war to evict Pakistani intruders from the icy heights in Kargil.
Air Commodore Nitin Sathe (retd) salutes the lesser known heroes of the Kargil War.
A new series.

Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo (retd), Vishist Seva Medal

IMAGE: An Indian Air Force Jaguar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wikemedia Commons

My earliest memories of Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo are from Gorakhpur.

He was posted as the Station Flight Safety Officer and was known to be a hard taskmaster.

I was in Gorakhpur, practicing for a six helicopter formation flypast for a colour presentation ceremony.

The President of India was to award colours to the 17 Squadron and 114 Helicopter Unit.

It was a matter of honour for all to see that the show went off flawlessly.

While I led the six helicopters, Bhakoo Sir sat atop the ATC and controlled the formations of helicopters and fighters.

He ensured that we were always bang on target -- passing over the dais as the parade commander presented the salute to the Supreme Commander.

IMAGE: An Indian Air Force MIG-29. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wikemedia Commons

In May-June-July 1999, Bhakoo Sir was the commanding officer of 14 Squadron at Ambala flying Jaguars.

The role of the squadron was bombing and photo reconnissance in those turbulent times.

Bhakoo Sir was involved in leading a number of missions during the Kargil conflict; spearheading intelligence gathering efforts to determine the positions of enemy infiltrators.

Pakistani troops had infiltrated the Kargil heights and taken up vantage positions.

The Pakistanis overlooked the road to Drass and could play hell with our logistics chain when they wanted to.

"Whether it was an intelligence failure or not is another point of discussion, and I won't go into that," says Bhakoo Sir. "But the fact of the matter is that the army thought it was a minor incursion and therefore did not ask the air force to check what was the actual position on the ground."

"When things got a little hot and the confusion cleared, the army finally asked for a recce mission which was flown by a Canberra aircraft piloted by Wing Commander Perumal Alagharaja," Bhakoo Sir recalled.

Wing Commander Alagharaja, who retired from the IAF as a group captain, sadly passed away in January 2012 after a heart attack.

IMAGE: Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo with officers and men during the Kargil War. Photograph: Kind courtesy Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo

During this sortie, Bhakoo Sir recalls, Wing Commander Alagharaja's Canberra was hit by a Stinger missile and had lost power in one of its engines.

The brave wing commander nursed his aircraft back to Srinagar without any instruments to carry out a safe landing and was later awarded a Shaurya Chakra.

Wing Commander Alagharaja made history by piloting the first IAF aircraft to have returned home after a missile hit.

IMAGE: An article in Sakal Times. Photograph: Kind courtesy Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo

"This incident told us the Pakistanis were there on the hilltops in good numbers and they were not the mujahids or terrorists as claimed initially. They were trained soldiers who held state of the art anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down our airplanes," remembers Bhakoo Sir.

"We were now in business well before the actual ops had started. In fact, without our recce missions, further operations could not be planned at all, so important was the requirement," Bhakoo Sir points out.

The squadron was given very little time to prepare for the missions which were to fly from Ambala and carry out reconnissance flights along the Line of Control.

The photographic evidence the flights brought back were to be analysed immediately and the reports rendered to the commanders and decision makers at Army and Air HQ.

Some of the sorties had been flown by MiG-21 aircraft with photo pods and the results were not encouraging.

Later, the MiG-21s also tried an innovative method of filming with a portable video camera being carried in a trainer aircraft (which had two pilots) on a mission.

With this better resolution filming, preliminary analysis suggested that the enemy were there in big numbers at various points along the LOoC.

"We decided to fly low and in a formation of 4," recalls Bhakoo Sir. "We were equipped with some self defence equipment like 'Chaff' and 'Flares' (which can fool radar controlled/heat seeking missiles) and some rounds of front guns for self defence."

"We did the complete run from Srinagar to Siachen maintaining radio silence and being escorted by the potent MiG-29 as air defence escorts," he adds.

"We flew pretty low, sometimes at just about 400 feet above the crest line. At the end of the mission we had captured enough evidence for planning future action."

"In all our missions, we had a threat of the F-16s who used be scrambled from across the border," he says. "But our MiG-29s could ward them off and we were able to do our missions unhindered."

"Right through the Kargil conflict, we flew these missions and got valuable information for the strike missions to go through with pin-point accuracy."

IMAGE: Group Captain Ashwani Bhakoo (retd), VSM.

The squadron flew more than 60 missions during the conflict and continued to do so even after the guns fell silent at the end of July 1999.

"Our information on the enemy positions was important to our artillery, who, with this information, were able to deliver devastating attacks on enemy gun positions," says the IAF veteran.

"We had special pods which could look deep inside enemy territory even while maintaining the sanctity of the border as we were ordered to do," he adds.

The IAF had clear orders not to violate the LoC because the leadership felt it would lead to escalation of the conflict.

The missions were flown at low and high levels depending on the level of clarity/detail required.

"My boys in the squadron were so full of josh," remembers the then commanding officer.

"We had an augmentation of pilots to the squadron in those times. There used to be a huge tussle amongst all of them to get their names on the missions," Bhakoo Sir remembers.

The squadron's engineering and administrative staff were not to be left behind.

Tents were deployed inside the squadron complex and the men refused to go home even for their meals, recalls Bakhoo Sir.

"All that was left for me to do was to plan the missions in consultation with Western Air Command."

"When I asked the men how they were going to manage the food, water and ration requirements whilst staying inside the technical area, they replied: 'Sir, you do the missions, leave everything to us, we will manage everything else on ground!'

Group Captain Bhakoo lives in Pune and often lectures at schools, colleges and other educational institutions.

"My retired Jaguar now operates within a radius of 500 km from Pune!" he says with a chuckle.

Air Commodore Nitin Sathe retired from the Indian Air Force in February 2020 after 35 distinguished years of service in the IAF.
He is the author of three books including Tsunami 2004: The IAF Story: a Few Good Men & the Angry Sea about how the IAF rebuilt its Car Nicobar airbase after the December 26, 2004 tsunami completely devastated it.

Feature Production: Aslam Hunani/

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