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Combat Over Kargil - How The IAF Emerged On Top
The defining takeaway from Kargil is that it was innovation on the fly and superior tactics that helped the IAF dominate the skies over Kargil. Had the service been pressed into battle early, the war would have finished a lot sooner, and hundreds of Indian casualties could have been avoided, reminds Rakesh Krishnan Simha.
Rakesh Krishnan Simha

In February 1999, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Badr, with soldiers from its Special Service Group, Northern Light Infantry and Sind Regiment along with heavily-armed Afghan mercenaries occupying the posts in Kashmir vacated by the Indian Army at the end of summer. Numbering well over 4,000, these infiltrators established 196 posts at elevations of over 16,000 ft and up to 14 km deep into Indian Kashmir.

The Pakistanis established fortified dugouts overlooking the Srinagar-Leh National Highway – the main supply route for Indian troops deployed in Ladakh and further north in the strategic Siachen Glacier.

What was Islamabad hoping to achieve? Contrary to general opinion, Kashmir was not even on the agenda, reveals Air Commodore M Kaiser Tufail. The retired Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officer, who was closely involved in Operation Badr, writes in ‘Role of the Pakistan Air Force During the Kargil Conflict’ that the primary goal of Pakistan Army Chief Pervez Musharraf was to capture Siachen.

The plan was that by shutting down the Srinagar-Leh Highway, the Pakistanis would cut off supplies to the sizeable Indian Army detachment in Siachen. Artillery fire would choke off the Indians for a month, after which the monsoons would prevent vehicular movement due to landslides. One of the co-conspirators, Lt Gen Mehmud Ahmad, had boasted: “Come October, we shall walk into Siachen – to mop up the dead bodies of hundreds of Indians left hungry, out in the cold.”

In the end, the intellectually-challenged Pakistani generals – their decision making blinded by delusions of easily defeating the “Hindu baniya” – sent thousands of their own soldiers to icy deaths. In a Newsweek article titled, ‘The Kargil Clique’, Pakistani writer Khaled Ahmed explains the outcome of Pakistan’s misadventure in a nutshell: “As reports of these gains spread, the media and nation at large in Pakistan cheered. But when the Indian Army responded to this penetration, the Kargil ‘operation’ quickly wilted, revealing glaring flaws in its planning and execution. The troops, trapped in their high-altitude dugouts, were forced to survive on grass before having to surrender. The Pakistan Army soon realised the ‘critical problems of logistical stretch’ this operation had presented them with. In its loss, Pakistan had snatched another defeat from the jaws of flawed strategy.”

Dissecting Kargil

Kargil happened due to India’s intelligence failure. It took the world’s fourth largest army weeks to even acknowledge there was largescale grabbing of Indian territory by heavily-armed enemy soldiers.

Despite a massive build-up of enemy soldiers in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the Indian Army was blissfully unaware. Indian spy satellites that were quickly manoeuvred over Baghdad and took the first images of the American bombing of the Iraqi military HQ in December 1998 were not utilised for monitoring the world’s most infiltrated border. IAF officer M P Anil Kumar wrote in the article ‘My Father Was a Patriot – He Died For Our Country’, “Kargil happened because the agencies charged with intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance failed to smell what was cooking on the other side of the Line of Control despite Skardu and its precincts turning into a beehive of military activity.”

Badly equipped

After the intelligence failure, the Indian Army tried to save face by throwing large numbers of men against well-entrenched enemy soldiers. It was trench warfare of World War I being played out on the mountains. These needless tactics led to the deaths of 533 Indian soldiers.

Indian soldiers were ill-equipped and lacked night-vision aids as they clambered up vertical cliffs amid gunfire and blustery winds. Their Indian-made INSAS rifles often jammed on the icy peaks even as the Pakistanis rained accurate fire on them using the most advanced sniper rifles from Europe.

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October 2019

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