26th July, Vijay Diwas, is a significant day celebrating our victory in the Kargil conflict, as also a day of remembrance for those valiant warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the nation. Stirring stories to abound, and rightly so, of the valour shown by the officers and men of the Indian Army.
Treacherous terrain, inhospitable weather, inaccessible heights and an unseen enemy, deeply entrenched and camouflaged amongst the commanding heights of the now-famous Tololing Ridge, Pt 4812, Pt 5287, Tiger Hill, etc. — it was literally an uphill task for the Indian Army to evict the Northern Light Infantry of the Pakistan Army that had established itself in this advantageous position. There are other lesser-known stories, which received only fleeting mention but had an immense impact on the final outcome of the Kargil war. One such was the tide that came “out of the blue”—the Indian Air Force.
Enough has been written and more, of the initial disregard of the use of airpower in the conflict, its subsequent employment under severe limitations imposed by the government and finally the efficacy of the IAF in support of the Army in the terrain that existed. Whatever be the conclusion, if at all (in the never-ending turf debates), the relevance of airpower in engaging ground targets at altitudes of 14-18,000 ft (higher than the two highest peaks in the European Alps, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc) has been endorsed.
Pushed into the background by the war in Kosovo (where NATO demonstrated state-of-the-art technology), the fact that never in the history of airpower had ground targets at such high altitudes been engaged was lost but to the sharp aficionados of the subject. Critical comments by ill-informed senior staff on the ground underplayed the true dimensions of the air war.
Compressing the issues into context and sharpening the perspective will bring into focus the goldfish bowl inside which the IAF was operating for most of the conflict.
The absolute lack of intelligence and information, the government restriction not to cross the LOC for fear of escalating the conflict into a full-scale war, the out-dated (by NATO and Kosovo standards) sighting and bombing systems, isolated and well-camouflaged targets amongst rocks and crevasses, the lethal SAM threat, the changed ballistics of all weapons (operating at the limits of their envelope), the frantic modifications to fit the Israeli Litening targeting pods and the earnestly acquired Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs) for precision targeting — but for the professional approach and competence of air warriors, from the Chief to the lowest-ranked airman who loaded the bombs, the air war could not have achieved what it did, with telling effect. But war, as they say, brings out the best in a warrior.
The continued rancour in Indo-Pak relations, with four conflicts since independence, ensures that Pakistan remains a constant irritant for national security. China, after giving India a tight rap on the knuckles in 1962, has maintained a sustained pressure on the border with India, with intermittent skirmishes highlighting their ominous presence.
It has long been admitted by the connoisseurs of international politicking that while Pakistan will remain an adversary, the bigger threat which casts its shadow is the Chinese dragon.
The recent stand-off with China on the Dolam plateau and the escalating tensions have suddenly brought the Kargil conflict to mind. And pray, why? In the event of a military confrontation and possible war, the warfighting similarities cannot be discounted.
The high altitude terrain, the likely target systems, operating constraints (if any), weapon effectiveness, helicopter operating limitations and so much more. But this time the situation may not offer allowances and time to tailor the battle to suit one’s needs so easily. The enemy is different, their weapons are different, the enemy forces vast in numbers, the frontage could be in hundreds of miles, they would in all likelihood have airpower support and all backed by a formidable rocket force.
Diplomatic pow-wows have been initiated. International relations and strategic alliances have been reaffirmed and the PM with his team from the MEA have fostered goodwill with the nations who matter. There is seemingly or relatively some lead preparatory time. Let us not get caught in an embarrassing and ill-prepared situation once again. So many lessons have been learnt and many brought out by the Kargil Committee Report. These must be under our belt.
The warfighting will be the tip of the spear. What we must professionally address are intelligence and its dissemination issues, the planning and conduct of effective Joint Operations and very importantly, the inventory. With China it will be a wide frontage war and assets will have to be distributed accordingly.
Notwithstanding the fact that the war may be short and swift, the enemy has a vast reservoir of resources, which we do not possess. We need to get our act together this time. We need to douse the dragon’s fire and give him a bloody nose which he will forever remember.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.