By Azad Singh Rathore
On Friday, 14 May 1999, at the Indian Air Force headquarter in New Delhi, Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis had an intense secret discussion with the top officials. While the IAF knew that something was not right up in the north along the Line of Control, it was about to learn that things were really amiss in the desolate heights over Kargil, The heights of Kargil were captured by the enemy and Indian army immediately needed air support. In the early day of May, the army commanders were stumped and had no idea about the area of intrusions and number of intruders. Army headquarter asked the air force’s help to know the actual position of intruders on the peaks, what type of logistic support and supply chain they were attached with beyond the position they were holding on Indian side of LOC. On 21 May, the air force sent their first Canberra aircraft on a reconnaissance mission in the Batalik sector.
The pictures captured from were more than enough for army HQ to feel an earthquake of 10.0 magnitude. Photographed clearly showing the fortified bunkers and intruders in large numbers with high power weapons.
After the meeting on 24 May of CCS at New Delhi, the Cabinet Committee on Security authorised the IAF to mount attacks on the infiltrators without crossing the LOC. Air Chief Marshal Tipnis immediately responded, and the air force launched its operation in Kargil War, with the code name of Operation Safed Sagar. It was a massive task for IAF to give support required for Indian Infantry units in the battle zone. Flying from the fields of Srinagar, Avantipur and Udhampur ground attack aircraft MiG-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars, and the Mirage 2000 were ready now to strike on the positions occupied by Pakistan army’s infantry units under the facade of terrorist and intruders. The very first time, fighter aircrafts were given order to fire on enemy after the 1971 war.
The terrain and environment was the biggest challenge for IAF. No aircraft has yet been designed to operate in a Kargil-like environment. The terrain of Kargil is around 4,500 to 5,500 metres above sea level. The aircraft are, therefore, required to fly at altitudes of about 6,100 metres.
The density is around 30 per cent less than that of the air at sea level, causes a reduction in the weight. It also tests the pilot’s ability to navigate as the turn radius is higher here than at lower levels. Also, it affects aircraft’s engine performance, and the weapon’s trajectory.
Initially, the IAF got major setbacks by losing a MIG-17, MIG-27, and a MI17 in operations. The loss of two fighters and one chopper to enemy action indicated the need for a change of tactics, resulting in the withdrawal of armed helicopters and the deployment of fighters with newly modified profiles. That was when IAF played its trump card—the air strikes by fighter jet Mirage were started by the first week of June.
Laser-guided bombs, a new makeshift innovation for Mirage by IAF, broke the back of the enemy’s supply lines. In fact, only at Muntho Dhalo, a Pakistan Army supply base, suffered more than 180 casualties in deadly strikes of the Indian Air Force.
Significant airstrikes that altered the course of the conflict were —On13 June, Tololing Ridge Complex in the Batalik Sector, On17 June, Muntho Dalo, the main admin and Logistic camp in the Batalik sector, On 24 June, command and control structure on Tiger Hill, On 23 June, logistics camp at Point 4388 in Mushkoh. Other than airstrikes, IAF played a significant role in airlifts of casualties, evacuation, and fresh reinforcement, in which MI-17 played a major role. For the first time, an Indian woman helicopter pilot flew in war zone.
On 4 July, strikes were made on enemy supply camps and gun positions situated in Drass sector. These attacks resulted in the successful destruction of gun position, the enemy supply chain, too, was shattered. Further attacks were continued with Mirages on the sixth and tenth of July. These attacks broke the enemy backbone with a high casualty rate. A noteworthy fact is that there was no single operation on the ground that was not preceded by airstrikes. Till the date of 12 July 1999, IAF pilots had flown approximately 580 strike missions, supported by around 460 air defence missions like Combat Air Patrol and escorts, and about 160 reconnaissance sorties, amounting to a total of approximately 1,200 sorties.
Almost from the beginning, IAF was busy in a constant brainstorming session for the new challenges deriving in Operation Safed Sagar. The first time the IAF fought in a limited war zone, with the challenge of operating within Line of Control. For it is the first time in military aviation history that such an air operation took place in such an adverse climate and environment. While conventional long-accepted airpower theories no longer held good, a new set of operating patterns and ‘at the moment make shift changes in machine’ had to be evolved to cope with the situation.
Operation Safed Sagar was, therefore, a turning point in the history of aviation warfare, an operation that will, no doubt, be discussed in air warfare study for the next generations.
(Azad Singh Rathore is a writer/author from Barmer, Rajasthan and a politician, actively working for Indian National Congress. He is a defence and foreign policy analyst and author of two books, Kargil The Heights of Bravery and Balochistan The Heights of Oppression. )