New Delhi: One of the developments that turned the tide of the Kargil war 17 years ago was the audacious decision – taken by the government on May 25, 1999 – to employ fighter jets of the Indian Air Force for precision air strikes against the entrenched enemy.
The very next day, IAF began a series of relentless air strikes over the icy heights of the Kargil sector. The decision yielded unprecedented rewards in operation ‘Safed Sagar’, which continued for 60 days.
The going, however, was far from easy. IAF pilots faced hostile conditions, flying perilously close to the border at heights of over 30,000 feet, with strict orders from the PMO to not cross the Line of Control (LoC).
Apart from this, they overcame a number of operational limitations, including preparing at short notice, to help create history in Kargil. Not only did the deadly MiGs and Mirage-2000s of the IAF deal a destructive blow to the enemy, their bombing runs left the invading troops battered and demoralised.
According to defence spokesman Colonel S D Gowswami, the IAF provided ground and logistics support in addition to crucial evacuations to clear the otherwise desolate and deserted Kargil sector of the Pakistani infiltrators, which included crack troops of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry and Special Services Group.
Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the No. 17 Squadron of Mig-21s, the Golden Arrows based at Bathinda, made the supreme sacrifice when he was shot down near the border. He was posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra for gallantry. In fact, the cold-blooded murder of Sqn Ldr Ahuja and the capture of Flt Lt K Nachiketa whose jet suffered a flame-out, led to an unprecedented wave of public anger and also triggered an angry response from the international community towards Pakistan.
Interestingly, Ahuja’s squadron was under the command of then Wg Cdr B S Dhanoa who happens to be the current Vice-Chief of Air Staff. IAF lost three of its officers and two airmen in the conflict. The force was awarded with two Vir Chakras and 23 Vayu Sena Medals for its role in the war.
As many as 17 IAF squadrons relentlessly carried out dangerous photo reconnaissance and strike missions during the war. In fact, the skilful pilots of the IAF engaged ground targets at high altitudes that were well shielded by Pakistan’s air defence weapons. No exercises or practice runs had been carried out by IAF in this area or even at these heights.
With the target area just 5-12 km from the LoC, it took a high degree of precision flying to avoid crossing the LoC. Without crossing that crucial line, the IAF unleashed its lethal arsenal at the Pakistani intruders. The IAF fleet of MiG-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-25s, MiG-27s, MiG-29 Fulcrums armed with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles, Jaguars and Mirage-2000s armed with laser-guided bombs was pressed into attack. These fighters had to fly at heights above 30,000 feet since the missiles of the Pakistanis could not cross 28,000 feet. To add to this fleet were the numerous missions flown by Mi-17 helicopters.
This fleet was just 25 per cent of the total strike force at the disposal of the Western Air Command and it dealt a serious blow to the morale of the enemy. IAF inflicted serious damage to Pakistan’s intruder posts, material and supply dumps after exhaustive sorties. Amid all this, its MiG-29 air superiority fighters also kept Pakistan’s US-built F-16s in check with reports mentioning missile locks on the enemy jets by IAF MiGs.
IAF’s MiG-21s operated without modern navigation equipment and pilots actually managed with handheld GPS gadgets. Engineers innovated and modified laser-guided weapon pods to carry 1000-kg bombs from Word War-II era.
IAF reportedly selected weapon impact points which would snowball into landslides or avalanches. IAF and Army worked in close coordination and air power inflicted heavy damages on the intruders, apart from reducing casualties on the ground and playing a key role in while wiping off the enemy from Dog Hill and Tiger Hill.
IAF pilots carried out 6,500 sorties including strike, reconnaissance, evacuation, transportation and logistic support. Aerial missions cut off supply lines of the enemy to such an extent that even the wounded could not be evacuated.
So exhaustive was the planning that IAF inflicted 300 enemy casualties in mere two minutes in one of the air strikes by two Mirage-2000s at a Northern Light Infantry.