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Inspired overnight integration of 5 laser-guidance kits with IAF Mirage-2000 fighters to enable precision bombing changed the course of the Kargil War, Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command, reveals in an exclusive interview to Vishal Thapar of SP's Aviation
The grainy black-and-white video of IAF bombs hitting Tiger Hill, and Pakistani intruders scampering for life as bombs rained on their position, is one of the defining images of India's determined fight back, which set it on the course to victory in the Kargil War in 1999. This video was captured from the aircraft of Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, who flew intrepid, game changing sorties as a Wing Commander during the War. He narrates the story of how the IAF used laser-guided bombs for the first time, without any prior training, to deliver a knock-out punch to Pakistani soldiers occupying the Kargil heights. It is a story of military enterprise and daring on the battlefield. The text of the interview:
Vishal Thapar (VT): Air Marshal Nambiar, should we introduce you as the Man who Bombed Tiger Hill?
Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar (AMRN): Yes, that's right. That was on the 24th of June. I was flying a Mirage 2000. My back seater was Squadron Leader Manish Yadav, and we were tasked with dropping a laser guided bomb on Tiger Hill. While there was just two of us in the aircraft, there were over a hundred of us on the ground. It was total teamwork. A lot of people strived long and hard, put in a lot of effort to make sure we were up in the air and dropping our bomb on this place.
"We had just procured the Litening pod. It had not been integrated on the Mirage and it was in tests. We had 5 pods at this time. All 5 were developmental pods, with various versions of software with a lot of glitches and bugs.... We had to first work on the pod, work on a new weapon which we had not dropped from the Mirage before, never been trained on. And most importantly,... this was the first time the Indian Air Force was employing a laser-guided bomb"
VT: Give us a sense of how you pulled it off? Precision bombing was very new for the IAF, which was in the process of integrating the Litening targeting pods...
AMRN: There was a big element of luck in this. At that point in time, we had just procured the Litening pod. It had not been integrated on the Mirage and it was in tests. We had 5 pods at this time. All 5 were developmental pods, with various versions of software with a lot of glitches and bugs. And, therefore, one of the biggest challenges for us was to make sure that they functioned in a proper manner...We had to first work on the pod, work on a new weapon which we had not dropped from the Mirage before, never been trained on. And most importantly,... this was the first time the Indian Air Force was employing a laser-guided bomb. The challenge was to make sure it went well. There was a huge amount of anxiety, big worry that probably things would not go right.
VT: Did you have the time to simulate it (dropping of laser-guided bombs)?
AMRN: Oh, no, we had to take on this operation on our feet. The War had started. This was the 24th of June. Tiger Hill, which had a very important place in Kargil (sector) along that Valley which overlooked NH 1A - which is the National Highway. We had intruders sitting on top, very accurately telling (reporting target information) back the Artillery on the Pakistani side.... and (this) was causing havoc on our National Highway. It was very important for us to put a stop to that, (which is) why finally on the 24th of June, the IAF was tasked to get in and attack Tiger Hill.
"You must remember that Litening was contracted for in 1997 and delivery had just started (when the War broke out). So, there was a lot of forethought involved in our leadership who had decided 4 or 5 years earlier that we required a capability like the Litening. So, it is not something which happened because we wanted it so in 1999. There was a lot of thought, there was a lot of planning involved in getting us the weapon in 1999"
VT: What's your memory of flying those precision bombing sorties over Kargil, seeking tiny targets while flying supersonic at high altitude?
AMRN: Tiger Hill had 9 Arctic tents which were pitched on a small plateau at its very tip, just about 150 feet from the top. We were coming all the way from Adampur, that is just next to Jalandhar. The Mirages were based there and we had about 35 minutes of navigation to make it to Tiger Hill. While Tiger Hill looks very spectacular from the ground, from the air, the big hills which stand out in the area are Nungkung and also K2. These were clearly visible, and Tiger Hill was a sort of puny feature in front of it. Finding Tiger Hill was not as simple as it looked because it was one peak among many in the near neighbourhood. And I must tell you that being in a Mirage 2000 with a very accurate navigation system made it relatively easy. Now laser guided weapon delivery requires the aircraft to be accelerated to about 1000 km per hour speed. And at those speeds, things happen very fast. We had lots of action to complete before the weapon was actually dropped, and all this required a lot of team effort and team work. Both (Squadron Leader) Manish and I had known each other for some time. Manish was a very bright youngster, very capable, and he was a big asset to have in the cockpit, and the close coordination between the two of us is the reason why we hit the targets right.
VT:. So, these precision bombing missions took away from the Pakistanis the ability to sight and target the Indians ....
AMRN: The observing capability which is essential for accurate artillery firing was removed.
"The turning point was Muntho Dhalo. While Tiger Hill got all the attention because of a very spectacular video, the fact is that the Muntho Dhalo operation was the turning point. I don't think ever before in the history of our Air Force or in fact of the armed forces have we managed to achieve so much as we did in Muntho Dhalo. In one single attack with four Mirage 2000s dropping six 250kg bombs each, we killed about 300 Pakistani soldiers"
VT: There was the danger of the shoulder-fired Stingers (surfare-to-air misiles), which had already brought down two Indian aircraft. How low were you flying (above the bombing targets)? What were you doing to make sure that the fighters did not get hit?
AMRN: Tiger Hill is at a height of about 16,800 feet. The number of Tiger Hill - like many other places have trigonometric height (for identification) was 5062 metres. We were flying about 10,000 feet above that to keep ourselves safe from the Stingers. We were safe.
VT: The IAF had a hesitant start. There were the initial losses. How did you get into gear? What convinced the leadership that these kind of precision strikes would work? After all, there was no precedent in the history of air warfare for anything like this....
AMRN: I think the attack on Muntho Dhalo on the 16th of June had convinced the leadership that the Mirage was very potent, and therefore, when the Litening and Paveway combination was available to us, finally, and had proven itself capable of being delivered, it was but natural that they would take us for such an important target. And I think I must credit the leadership with taking the right decision, making the correct choices, and making sure that we were equipped with all this weaponry. You must remember that Litening was contracted for in 1997 and delivery had just started (when the War broke out). So, there was a lot of forethought involved in our leadership who had decided 4 or 5 years earlier that we required a capability like the Litening. So, it is not something which happened because we wanted it so in 1999. There was a lot of thought, there was a lot of planning involved in getting us the weapon in 1999.
"The logistic support for Tiger Hill used to flow through the Valley of 4388 from Gultari and come up the slope to Tiger Hill. That was also the way the battle was being progressed. So, 4388 was next in line after Tiger Hill. We had discovered 4388. There were lots of intrusions, there were lots of hangers which had been built into that valley and we went after them hammer and tongs. We dropped something like 100 Thousand pounders in that Valley...Yes, a hundred 500 kg bombs"
VT: We'll go back to the spectacular video which was taken by the equipment on your aircraft. We saw the Pakistanis scampering, running for dear life when the precision bombs were raining on them. Could you see something like that from your eyes?
AMRN: No, not at all. All we had was a four by four inch display which is just about the size of 2 phones - that was the screen dimension - and that too with very poor resolution. I think today we are talking of 4K displays and retinal displays and things like that. That was a very poor display. The quality was not at all good. So what used to happen is after we used to carry out filming of these places, we used to take it back to our crew rooms and look at them very closely with large sized televisions to make out exactly what we saw and confirming for ourselves whether what we saw was what we thought it was.
"They (Pakistan Air Force) were nowhere on the scene. They did not even dare come close to us. We had a major asymmetrical advantage over them. We had BVR missiles, they had none. And therefore, they did not dare come close to us".
VT: From an airpower perspective, how far have we come in these 20 years?
AMRN: Oh, we've travelled a long way. We've made a huge amount of progress in every which way. Some of things which (which I'm)...very proud about is our communications. What we were in 1999 and what we are today is a world of difference. We have the AFNET deployed. We have the capability to now securely message each other with a huge modicum of safety and security and that is just one facet. Our weapon systems have improved tremendously. The LGBs (during the Kargil War) could go 7,8, 10 km from the aircraft. Today, we have stand-off weapons like the Spice 2000 and the Crystal Maze which go (across) a much longer range. The Brahmos for example can go up to 450 km. I mean that is the IAF capability today. We've made a huge jump in capability terms.
VT: So, is the air-launched Brahmos now an operational weapon?
AMRN: It is undergoing a set of trials. But it is working and it has shown itself to be very spectacular, very accurate and we're in the process of operationalising it. It is just a matter of maybe weeks or months before we have a capability.
VT: Tell us about what happened at Muntho Dhalo and Point 4388 which were the other big events in Operation Safed Sagar.
AMRN: Let me tell you, the turning point was Muntho Dhalo. While Tiger Hill got all the attention because of a very spectacular video, the fact is that the Muntho Dhalo operation was the turning point. I don't think ever before in the history of our Air Force or in fact of the armed rorces have we managed to achieve so much as we did in Muntho Dhalo. In one single attack with four Mirage 2000s dropping six 250kg bombs each, we killed about 300 Pakistani soldiers. I think it was a spectacular and very successful attack, and it was the turning point. Muntho Dhalo is located in the eastern part of the Kargil sector. To my mind after the 16th of June, when we hit Muntho Dhalo, from then onwards, the entire Pakistani infiltration attempts in the eastern sector had come to a standstill. Tiger Hill still stood, but that was on the western side. And the Valley leading into Tiger Hill which had a trigonometric height located on the Valley floor was 4388. So, the logistic support for Tiger Hill used to flow through the Valley of 4388 from Gultari and come up the slope to Tiger Hill. That was also the way the battle was being progressed. So, 4388 was next in line after Tiger Hill. We had discovered 4388. There were lots of intrusions, there were lots of hangers which had been built into that valley and we went after them hammer and tongs. We dropped something like 100 Thousand pounders in that Valley...Yes, a hundred 500 kg bombs. There was a huge quantity of weapons thrown into that place.
"While we had bought 10 Litening pods for the Jaguar, they had not yet been integrated...(Also) The Jaguars had a problem of thrust. It was not possible for that aircraft to operate with the sort of relative freedom which the Mirage enjoyed at that altitude. Muntho Dhalo proved that the Mirage could target accurately even with dumb bombs. And having been equipped with the Litening pod, we were the only aircraft really capable of doing business in guided bombs at that high altitude"
VT: So, this was the kind of firepower which the Pakistanis were subjected to which perhaps broke their will. Sir, you were flying under tremendous constraints, not just on the edge of your operational envelope with precision equipment which you were flying for the first time but there was also this big embargo not to cross the LoC. How big a challenge was it?
AMRN: I must tell you something. The Mirage was not the first aircraft which I flew the Litening pod in. I'd flown the Litening pod in, at that point in time, two other aircraft. I'd flown the Litening on the F-16 and I'd also flown it on the Phantom 2000. Both of them in Israel while I was evaluating the Litening pod. That was in 1996-97. The pod was not yet fully ready and we were evaluating it on behalf of the Indian Air Force. So, when the Litening pod actually started inducting into the Indian Air Force, at that point, I was lucky enough to be...at the right place at the right time. I was available (for) flying. I was at that time a Wing Commander. I was posted into Gwalior and I was responsible for Flight Safety. And in a jiffy, when the war broke out, I was catapulted - without being asked when or where or how - into battle. Therefore, the first challenge was getting used to the fact that we were in hostile airspace, there were lives at risk, we were going harm's way. But it was thrilling all the same. I can still feel the hair on the back of my hand stand. I can still recall that experience. It was like something really out of this world.
VT: Could you see the Pakistanis flying operational combat patrols (during the Kargil War)?
AMRN: No, they were nowhere on the scene. They did not even dare come close to us. We had a major asymmetrical advantage over them. We had BVR missiles, they had none. And therefore, they did not dare come close to us. That's a fact.
"Our weapon systems have improved tremendously (since 1999). The LGBs (during the Kargil War) could go 7,8, 10 km from the aircraft. Today, we have stand-off weapons like the Spice 2000 and the Crystal Maze which go (across) a much longer range. The Brahmos for example can go up to 450 km. I mean that is the IAF capability today. We've made a huge jump in capability terms"
VT: The Jaguars had the Litening targeting pods in greater numbers at that point in time. But could you explain why the Mirage-2000 was selected for these missions?
AMRN: While we had bought 10 Litening pods for the Jaguar, they had not yet been integrated. The Mirages were ahead in the integration chain. And that is why the Mirages got used. And the Mirage moreover had great advantage when flying over those heights. The Jaguars had a problem of thrust. It was not possible for that aircraft to operate with the sort of relative freedom which the Mirage enjoyed at that altitude. Muntho Dhalo proved that the Mirage could target accurately even with dumb bombs. And having been equipped with the Litening pod, we were the only aircraft really capable of doing business in guided bombs at that high altitude. And therefore there was this sense that we could do anything. We were like Tigers. We were the only ones who could do it, and were proud of doing what we did.
VT: So, you were the Tigers at Tiger Hill. A lot has been said about inter-service friction during the Kargil War. How were those hiccups overcome? The IAF even had a separate name for its operation. It was Operation Safed Sagar for the IAF and Operation Vijay for the Army.
AMRN: That's not true. Westen Air Command fought this war on behalf of the IAF. Western Air Command's Operation Safed Sagar was part of Operation Vijay, which was the overall national war effort. Operation Safed Sagar was the airborne part of it. And therefore, the question of not being integrated does not arise. Western Air Command has an Air Officer Commanding Jammu and Kashmir specifically deputed with the Army to look after integration between the two of us. He is very much is the theatre. He is operating out of Srinagar. He was full coordinating the operation with the Corps Commander of 15 Corps and we had great visibility of what the Army was doing. We had excellent visibility of what the Army task was and how we could support it. We worked in close coordination with the Army, and all these reports of us having a tiff are all unfounded and baseless.
"We learnt from (the USSR's) Afghan operations..., the Kosovo operations, whether Iraq, our own operations in 1971, in 1965 and the operations in Kargil. All of them help finally formulate our doctrine. Our doctrine says that we do not go (into) harm's way unless there's a calculated chance to get us victory"
VT: If here was a Kargil kind of situation today, is it a given that air power will be employed at a much earlier stage than what it was 20 years ago, and, in fact, there would be a preponderance of air power to rid India of the kind of situation we had in 1999?
AMRN: We had a preponderance of air power in Kargil in 1999 and we will have a preponderance of airpower even today. That will always happen. We will put our best foot forward. We'll have assets which will come from anywhere to anywhere in India....All our assets will be in place. And I don't believe there will be any shortage of any weapon systems, which are probably available somewhere, that we will not be utilising to achieve victory.
VT: The Pak Air Force (PAF) is far better equipped today. Has the re-equipping of the PAF been catered for in Indian planning?
AMRN: Oh yes, we have our plans in place. we're getting the Rafale shortly. It will be equipped with the Meteor. And we will have better weapons, definitely much better weapons than what our adversary will have. The induction of the Rafale will be a game changer in this area. The delivery of the first aircraft will take place in September of this year and a squadron will be available from May of 2020. So, we have our plans in place. We have taken care of the issues which you have brought out. I think this is behind us now.
VT: What difference will two Rafale squadrons bring to the operational capability of the IAF?
AMRN: The Rafale will not be an end in itself. we will be looking at more aircraft of various types. You may be aware that the IAF is looking at 114 new fighters..., it's called the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft. The Government has ably supported this requirement. We believe that in the near future, we will have a procurement process in place which will get us these weapons and these will be acquired under what we call the Strategic Partnership Model, in which we will have an Indian entity which will be given the technology and which will develop and make this aircraft for us. This is a win-win situation for the nation and for Industry.
VT: I'll go back to the intial reverses faced by the IAF at Kargil and the loss of aircraft to shoulder-fired Stinger missiles. We also know that during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviets lost 350 aircraft to Stinger hits between 1979 and 1989. I am extrapolating this to Kargil 20 years ago and the situation today. There were many more Stingers (with Pakistanis) on the Kargil heights (in 1999) than what we anticipated. In terms of planning for counter-actions, how well are we prepared today?
AMRN: Once we factored in that the Stingers were in the battlefield, we catered for them. We kept ourselves safe from them. Today, our challenges are different. They (anti-aircraft missiles) are probably more advanced, more capable, and have a bigger envelope. We cater for them as well. It's just a cat and mouse game where one technology on one side improves to a certain extent, we cater for it. We get electronic warfare into the game plan, we get in so many other variables which exist, and we fight to win.
VT: But if it was that simple, if it were just a question of tactics, why did the Russians lose 350 aircraft in Afghanstan (to Stinger hits by the Taliban)?
AMRN: Probably they were a bit dogmatic about the way they went about fighting that war. What their compulsions were, I'm not really sure of it but the fact is when you face the challenge of a Stinger, it will probably kill you without you being even aware of it. So, there's a requirement to take a step back, probably look at the problem from a different angle, and find a solution. I think probably people (Soviets in Afghanistan) at that point in time were not of a similar thought process. I cannot speak about what they did not do, but this is something we took a lot of lessons from. We learnt from Afghan operations, we learn from every operation, even if it's not fought by us. We look at each of these operations with a lot of detail. We have out think tanks which look at these operations. we try and imbibe whatever possible lessons whether (from) the Kosovo operations, whether Iraq, our own operations in 1971, in 1965 and the operations in Kargil. All of them help finally formulate our doctrine. Our doctrine says that we do not go (into) harm's way unless there's a calculated chance to get us victory.
VT: So, lessons have been absorbed. I heard you quote Churchill on air power being the supreme expression of warfare. How important will be the role air power will play in a future scenario?
AMRN: Air power allows you to concentrate. It's possible for me, as a nation, to focus air power into one particular sector and take it into some other sector the next day. It's very mobile, very flexible. The response time is very low. These are some of the traits of air power which the other services do not really enjoy. It would take the Navy probably two days to deploy from the East coast to the West coast and maybe take even longer to be really effective. It would take the Army a month to probably move a division from one place to the other, from the eastern theatre to the western side. The Air Force does not work with the same time frames. We work to a very fast tempo. Within 48 hrs, (from) wherever we are, we can be deployed (into an operational zone) and (are) ready for fighting a war at instant notice. This makes us very flexible, makes us very quick in response. That's our inherent advantage in having air power.
VT: So, for short, intense wars of the future, it is air power which will make a critical difference.
AMRN: I won't like to say that airpower will be the only way to fight... There will be multiple ways of fighting but I do believe airpower will play a very important role and the role will be just as important as it is today. It will not change.