Kargil and airpower

From Airpower at 18,000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War, Benjamin Lambeth’s recent report for Carnegie:

”Because committing airpower in close proximity to the LoC could dangerously escalate the conflict, [then Air Chief Marshall] Tipnis insisted that the army “needed political clearance” before the IAF could provide the requested fire support. He also ruled out any employment of IAF armed helicopters because they would be “sitting ducks” for enemy infrared surface-toair-missile fire. Fixed-wing fighters, he said, would be essential for mission effectiveness, and the IAF “reserved the prerogative to give fire support in the manner it considered most suitable.”

To this, the army vice chief responded that “the army was capable of throwing back the intruders on its own” but, as Tipnis recalled, that doing so would take time and that air support from the IAF would hasten the process. The army vice continued to insist that such support be provided solely in the form of armed helicopters […]

After going back and forth with Tipnis on the helicopter issue, [army chief] General Malik retorted, “If that’s the way you want it, I will go it alone.” Tipnis eventually gave in “against [his] better judgment” out of a desire “to save army-air force relations.” […]

In their clear inclination at first to go it alone in countering Pakistan’s incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Indian Army’s leaders failed to honor the reasonable proposition advanced four years earlier in the IAF’s first published air doctrine that “wars are rarely won … by a single component of military force.” (pp. 11-13, 36)

On the target-poor environment during Kargil:

As one IAF airman later pointed out, the target complex did not consist of troop concentrations, command posts, and logistical supply lines, but rather “nearinvisible humans well dug into hideouts … on various hilltops and slopes,” where “only their tents and earthwork structures were identifiable” from the air when not masked by the natural camouflage that was provided by “the ubiquitous black and white color combination of the terrain.”

By this account, the largest target struck by the IAF during Operation Safed Sagar, the enemy’s supply camp at Muntho Dhalo, “would normally have been the smallest target considered for the use of airpower during a normal all-out war.” (p.24)

Kargil jugaad:

As the command’s AOC-in-C at the time later recalled, “when the conflict started, there was only one squadron fitted with GPS. We [accordingly] acquired hand-held GPS instruments from the market and fitted them in the aircraft,” which allowed for “a somewhat ad hoc system … With the target coordinates available, on approach to the target, pilots dropped their bombs at the determined distance from the target. We knew that if the coordinates were accurate, the results would be reasonable” […]

Further innovative real-time adaptation by the IAF occurred when MiG-21 pilots lacking sophisticated onboard navigation suites resorted to the use of stopwatches and GPS receivers in their cockpits for conducting night interdiction bombing (pp. 29-30)

On the correlation of aerial forces (the subtext being the India-China balance):

Without a doubt, the air balance throughout the Kargil War stood markedly in India’s favor, with an overall fighter force ratio of 750 to 350. With respect to the most cuttingedge fighters then fielded by the two sides, Pakistan’s inventory of just 26 U.S.-provided F-16As was greatly outmatched numerically, and perhaps qualitatively as well, by the IAF’s 145 highest-performance aircraft (70 MiG-29s, 45 Mirage 2000Hs, and 30 Su-30s) (p.40)

Finally, on the balance of missions performed by the IAF during the war:

From Benjamin Lambeth, ‘Airpower at 18,000’: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War’, Carnegie, September 2012, p.22


2 responses to “Kargil and airpower

  1. your observations regarding PAF F-16 inventory may not be correct. PAF bought 40 F-16s back in the 80s and by the time Kargil took place the numbers of the same aircraft stood at around 38!

  2. These are Lambeth’s figures, not mine; I’d need to check the numbers. But, on the question of F16s, see here:

    F-16 CAPs could not have been flown all day long as spares support was limited under the prevailing US sanctions. Random CAPs were resorted to, with a noticeable drop in border violations only as long as the F-16s were on station. There were a few cases of F-16s and Mirage-2000s locking their adversaries with the on-board radars but caution usually prevailed and no close encounters took place. After one week of CAPs, the F-16 maintenance personnel indicated that war reserve spares were being eaten into and that the activity had to be ‘rationalised’, a euphemism for discontinuing it altogether. That an impending war occupied the Air Staff’s minds was evident in the decision by the DCAS (Ops) for F-16 CAPs to be discontinued, unless IAF activity became unbearably provocative or threatening.

    Those not aware of the gravity of the F-16 operability problem under sanctions have complained of the PAF’s lack of cooperation. Suffice it to say that if the PAF had been included in the initial planning, this anomaly (along with many others) would have emerged as a mitigating factor against the Kargil adventure. It is another matter that the Army high command did not envisage operations ever coming to such a pass. Now, it was almost as if the PAF was to blame for the Kargil venture spiralling out of control.

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