Immediately after Kargil, the significant process of converting the IAF from a sub-continental tactical force to an intercontinental strategic aerospace power was started. All platforms, henceforth, had inbuilt requirement for operations above 6 km. The process to create tri-service agencies has begun

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd) 

Twenty years after the Kargil war, Pakistan continues to follow the Zulfikar Bhutto dictum of ‘Bleed India with a thousand cuts’, repeatedly striking India through its vowed proxy terror war. 

In May 1999, the two newly minted nuclear neighbours went into the one-of-its-kind conventional war in Kargil, one of the highest battlegrounds of the world. A few months earlier, on February 19, 1999, PM Vajpayee had undertaken a bus journey to Lahore for a summit with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. In October 1998, Gen Pervez Musharraf, mastermind of the Kargil war, had overtaken two seniors to become Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff. After every peace overture, Pakistan stung India through gruesome terror acts. Kargil was Pakistan’s fourth attempt to wrest a part of Kashmir from India. 

Kargil and Dras are among the coldest inhabited regions of the world. It was traditional for Indian and Pakistan armies to vacate high posts in the sector in winters and reoccupy them around May. In 1999, the Pakistani army started occupying posts in February itself, and they also occupied 132 Indian posts. India realised this only when shepherds informed of some activity on the high posts.

India’s Operation Vijay, from May 3 to July 26, 1999, took 84 days to evict them. India lost 500 soldiers and Pakistan 700 by the time the war ended. The Indian Army was clearly taken by surprise. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared the Indian Air Force (IAF) on May 25 to mount unrestricted attacks on the infiltrators, but with a proviso, not to cross the Line of Control (LoC). The IAF faced early losses and had to learn the hard way. It had to review its tactics and employment of air assets.

India as a nation learnt many lessons. The Kargil conflict represents a prototype of India’s most likely future wars that will have to be fought at 14,000-18,000-ft altitude. 

Whether we understood and made amends remains the question. There was clearly a failure to monitor intrusion as intelligence and reconnaissance was found wanting. The infiltrators, apart from being equipped with small arms and grenade launchers, were also armed with mortars, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. Many posts were also heavily mined. This happened undetected. 

Vulnerability of NH1 at some points close to the LoC highlighted the need for alternative and wider roads. Some of these roads have come up now, including to Leh from the Rohtang pass. 

Pakistan was already using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). India had to still build up a UAV force. Since most operations were at night, the high wind chill factor showed clothing was an issue. The artillery was effective, and guns like the Bofors FH-77B field Howitzer played a significant role. But further acquisitions remained mired in red tape for long.

The IAF lost three aircraft within two days to Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM). Thereafter, it had to remove helicopters from attack role and replace the MiG-21 and MiG-27s with Mirage 2000 and resort to high-altitude bombing. Most IAF aircraft and weapons were unsuitable for high-altitude weapon delivery. 

Immediately after Kargil, the significant process of converting the IAF from a sub-continental tactical force to an intercontinental strategic aerospace power with fourth-generation fighters, aerial tankers, airborne early warning and control capability, inter-theatre airlifters was started. All platforms, henceforth, including attack helicopters, had inbuilt requirement for operations above 6 km. The IAF also initiated the process to acquire 126 MMRCA-class aircraft, but unfortunately after 20 years, only 36 Rafale will start getting inducted and the IAF is at an all-time low of 30 fighter squadrons. With the current acquisition processes, the numbers may start improving only around 2025. The IAF invested in precision guided weapons. Of them, the SPICE 2000 were used in the Balakot strike. The process to convert SU-30s for precision strike has just begun. The BrahMos and Astra missile programmes are a success.

The IAF had not trained sufficiently for strike operations in the high altitudes as faced in Kargil. Even today, the IAF lacks high-altitude firing ranges. The Kargil air operations again confirmed the higher dividends that interdiction of supplies pay vis-a-vis close support to the troops at the forward edge of the battle. Electronic and infra-red counter-measures are critical to safeguarding from SAMs. Air power employment greatly reduced ground casualties and compressed victory timelines.

Inter-services jointmanship was an issue. It took days of heated discussions between the IAF and the Army to decide what role each service would play. The need for closer joint Army-IAF planning and consultations from the beginning is important. Intelligence assets of all services need to be used in coordination. This will now be possible with the formation of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). Though the integrated defence staff (IDS) has since been created, the inter-service rivalries seem to continue to dissipate scarce energies.

The politicisation, bureaucratisation, and seniority syndrome of key appointments play a negative part in national security. More joint operational training is required. The process to create tri-service agencies, as a prelude to full-fledged commands for special forces, cyber, and space has begun.

The Kargil Review Committee chaired by strategic affairs analyst K Subrahmanyam was set up within days of the war. A GoM was set up thereafter. These reports highlighted the role of RAW, IB and the military intelligence just prior to the war, and the lack of inter-agency coordination. RAW’s human intelligence was found to be weak. The report suggested possible Siachenisation of Kargil by maintaining a permanent presence at high-altitude posts, and the same has been done. A review of the entire national security system by a credible body of experts was recommended. A full time National Security Adviser (NSA) has been instituted. Improved aerial surveillance using RISAT satellites and UAVs have been put in place.

A centralised communication and electronic intelligence agency — the National Technical Research Organisation — was set up in 2004. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the Nuclear Command Authority, the Strategic Forces Command, the Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare, the Defence Technical Council, and the Defence Acquisition Council were set up.

The Naresh Chandra task force set up in 2007 had recommended a permanent Chairman of Chief of Staff Committee and integration of service HQ with MoD with cross postings.

Both these are still pending. Some recommendations are held up due to persistent differences between the three services, and the unwillingness of the political class to enact the binding legislation. The GoM had recommended the formation of the post of a Chief of Defence Staff and was accepted by the CCS, but has not yet been implemented.

This was the first and only serious clash between two nuclear powers that had a clear winner. The issue of nuclear overhang on a conventional conflict had been well settled after Kargil. India can expect and must train for future short conventional wars in the mountains with Pakistan and China. A new set of operating paradigms had to be evolved in Kargil almost overnight to cope with the situation. Lessons from this high-altitude war are being read by various militaries of the world.