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PAF Role in Kargil War by PAF Officer

Pakistani writings on Kargil conflict have been few and, those that have
come out were largely irrelevant and in a few cases, clearly sponsored.
The role of the PAF has been discussed off and on, but mostly
disparagingly, particularly in some uninformed quarters. Here is an
airman’s perspective, focusing on the IAF’s air operations and the PAF’s
position.

Operational Planning in the PAF

Since an important portion of this write-up pertains to the PAF’s
appreciation of the situation and the decision-making loop during the
Kargil conflict, we will start with a brief primer on PAF’s hierarchy
and how operational matters are handled at the Air Headquarters.

The policy-making elements at Air Headquarters consist of four-tiers of
staff officers. The top-most tier is made up of the Deputy Chiefs of Air
Staff (DCAS) who are the Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) of their
respective branches and are nominally headed by the Vice Chief of Air
Staff (VCAS). They (along with Air Officers Commanding, the senior
representatives from field formations) are members of the Air Board,
PAF’s ‘corporate’ decision-making body which is chaired by the Chief of
the Air Staff (CAS). The next tier is made up of Assistant Chiefs of Air
Staff (ACAS) who head various sub-branches and, along with the
third-tier Directors, assist the PSOs in policy-making; they are not on
the Air Board, but can be called for hearings and presentations in the
Board meetings, as required. A fourth tier of Deputy Directors does most
of the sundry staff work in this policy-making hierarchy.

The Operations & Plans branch is the key player in any war, conflict
or contingency and is responsible for threat assessment and formulation
of a suitable response. During peace-time, war plans are drawn up by
the Plans sub-branch and are then war-gamed in operational exercises run
by the sister Operations sub-branch. Operational training is
accordingly restructured and administered by the latter, based on the
lessons of various exercises. This essentially is the gist of PAF’s
operational preparedness methodology, the efficiency of which is amply
reflected in its readiness and telling response in various wars and
skirmishes in the past.

In early 1999, Air Chief Marshal Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi was at the helm
of the PAF. An officer with an imposing personality, he had won the
Sword of Honour at the Academy. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, as a young
Flight Lieutenant, he was on a close support mission in erstwhile East
Pakistan when his Sabre was shot down and he was taken POW. He
determinedly resumed his fighter pilot’s career after repatriation and
rose to command PAF’s premier Sargodha Base. He was later appointed as
the AOC, Southern Air Command, an appointment that affords considerable
interaction amongst the three services, especially in operational
exercises. He also held the vitally important post of DCAS (Ops) as well
as the VCAS before taking over as CAS.

The post of DCAS (Ops) was held by the late Air Marshal Zahid Anis. A
well-qualified fighter pilot, he had a distinguished career in the PAF,
having held some of the most sought-after appointments. These included
command of No 38 Tactical Wing (F-16s), the elite Combat Commanders’
School and PAF Base, Sargodha. He was the AOC, Southern Air Command
before his appointment as the head of the Operations branch at the Air
Headquarters. He had done his Air War Course at the PAF’s Air War
College, another War Course at the French War College as well as the
prestigious course at the Royal College of Defence Studies in UK.

The ACAS (Ops) was Air Cdre Abid Rao, who had recently completed command
of PAF Base, Mianwali. He had earlier done his War Course from the
French War College.

The ACAS (Plans) was the late Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz, a brilliant officer
who had made his mark at the Staff College at Bracknell, UK and during
the War Course at the National Defence College, Islamabad.

There is no gainsaying the fact that PAF’s hierarchy was highly
qualified and that each one of the players in the Operations branch had
the requisite command and staff experience. The two top men had also
fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, albeit as junior officers.

First Rumblings

As Director of Operations (in the rank of Gp Capt), my first opportunity
to interact with the Army’s Director of Military Operations (DMO) was
over a phone call, some time in March 1999. Brig Nadeem Ahmed called
with great courtesy and requested some information that he needed for a
paper exercise, as he told me. He wanted to know when had the PAF last
carried out a deployment at Skardu, how many aircraft were deployed,
etc. Rather impressed with the Army’s interest in PAF matters, I passed
on the requisite details. The next day, Brig Nadeem called again, but
this time his questions were more probing and he wanted some classified
information including fuel storage capacity at Skardu, fighter
sortie-generation capacity, radar coverage, etc. He insisted that he was
preparing a briefing and wanted to get his facts and figures right, in
front of his bosses. We got on a secure line and I passed on the
required information. Although he made it sound like routine contingency
planning, I sensed that something unusual was brewing. In the event, I
thought it prudent to inform the DCAS (Ops). Just to be sure, he checked
up with his counterpart, the Director General Military Operations
(DGMO), Maj Gen Tauqir Zia, who said the same thing as his DMO and,
assured that it was just part of routine contingency planning.

After hearing Gp Capt Tariq’s report, Air Marshal Zahid again got in
touch with Maj Gen Tauqir and, in a roundabout way, told him that if the
Army’s ongoing ‘review of contingency plans’ required the PAF to be
factored in, an Operations & Plans team would be available for
discussion. Nothing was heard from the GHQ till 12 May, when Air Marshal
Zahid was told to send a team for a briefing at HQ 10 Corps with regard
to the ‘Kashmir Contingency’.

Air Cdre Abid Rao, Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz and myself were directed by the
DCAS (Ops) to attend a briefing on the ‘latest situation in Kashmir’ at
HQ 10 Corps. We were welcomed by the Chief of Staff (COS) of the Corps,
who led us to the briefing room. Shortly thereafter, the Corps
Commander, Lt Gen Mehmud Ahmad entered, cutting an impressive figure
clad in a bush-coat and his trademark camouflage scarf. After exchanging
pleasantries, the COS started with the map orientation briefing.
Thereafter, Lt Gen Mehmud took over and broke the news that a limited
operation had started two days earlier. It was nothing more than a
‘protective manoeuvre’, he explained, and was meant to foreclose any
further mischief by the enemy, who had been a nuisance in the Neelum
Valley, specially on the road on our side of the Line of Control (LOC).
He then elaborated that a few vacant Indian posts had been occupied on
peaks across the LOC, overlooking the Dras-Kargil Road. These would, in
effect, serve the purpose of Airborne Observation Posts (AOP) meant for
directing artillery fire with accuracy. Artillery firepower would be
provided by a couple of field guns that had been heli-lifted to the
heights, piecemeal, and re-assembled over the previous few months when
the Indians had been off-guard during the winter extremes. The target
was a vulnerable section of Dras-Kargil Road, whose blocking would
virtually cut off the crucial life-line which carried the bulk of
supplies needed for daily consumption as well as annual winter-stocking
in Leh-Siachen Sector. He was very hopeful that this stratagem could
choke off the Indians in the vital sector for up to a month, after which
the monsoons would prevent vehicular movement (due to landslides) and,
also suspend all airlift by the IAF. “Come October, we shall walk in to
Siachen – to mop up the dead bodies of hundreds of Indians left hungry,
out in the cold,” he succinctly summed up what appeared to be a new
dimension to the Siachen dispute. It also seemed to serve, at least for
the time being, the secondary aim of alleviating Indian military
pressure on Pakistani lines of communications in the Neelum Valley that
the Corps Commander had alluded to in his opening remarks. (The
oft-heard strategic aim of ‘providing a fillip to the insurgency in
Kashmir’ was never mentioned.)

When Lt Gen Mehmud asked for questions at the end of the rather crisp
and to-the-point briefing, Air Cdre Saleem Nawaz opened up by inquiring
about the type of air support that might be needed for the operation. Lt
Gen Mehmud assured us that air support was not envisaged and that his
forces could take care of enemy aircraft, if they intervened. “I have
Stingers on every peak,” he announced. Air Cdre Saleem tried to point
out the limited envelope of these types of missiles and said that
nothing stopped the IAF from attacking the posts and artillery pieces
from high altitude. To this, Lt Gen Mehmud’s reply was that his troops
were well camouflaged and concealed and, that IAF pilots would not be
able to pick out the posts from the air. As the discussion became more
animated, I asked the Corps Commander if he was sure the Indians would
not use their artillery to vacate our incursion, given the criticality
of the situation from their standpoint. He replied that the Dras-Kargil
stretch did not allow for positioning of the hundreds of guns that would
be required, due to lack of depth; in any case, it would be suicidal
for the Indians to denude artillery firepower from any other sector as
defensive balance had to be maintained. He gave the example of the
Kathua-Jammu Sector where the Indians had a compulsion to keep the bulk
of their modern Bofors guns due to the vital road link’s vulnerability
to our offensive elements.

It seemed from the Corps Commander’s smug appreciation of the situation
that the Indians had been tightly straitjacketed in Dras-Kargil Sector
and had no option but to submit to our operational design. More
significantly, an alternate action like a strategic riposte by the
Indians in another sector had been rendered out of question, given the
nuclear environment. Whether resort to an exterior manoeuvre (diplomatic
offensive) by the beleaguered Indians had crossed the planners’ minds,
it was not discernable in the Corps Commander’s elucidation.

Perhaps it was the incredulousness of the whole thing that led Air Cdre
Abid Rao to famously quip, “After this operation, it’s going to be
either a Court Martial or Martial Law!” as we walked out of the briefing
room.

Back at the Air Headquarters, we briefed the DCAS(Ops) about what had
transpired at the 10 Corps briefing. His surprise at the developments,
as well as his concern about the possibility of events spiralling out of
control, could not remain concealed behind his otherwise unflappable
demeanour. We all were also piqued at being left out of the Army’s
planning, though we were given to believe that it was a ‘limited
tactical action’ in which the PAF would not be required – an issue that
none of us agreed with. Presented with a fait accompli, we decided not
to lose any more time and, while the DCAS (Ops) went to brief the CAS
about the situation, we set about gearing up for a hectic routine. The
operations room was quickly updated with the latest large-scale maps and
air recce photos of the area; communications links with concerned
agencies were also revamped in a short time. Deployment orders were
issued and, within the next 48 hours, the bulk of combat elements were
in-situ at their war locations.

IAF – By Fits & Starts

The IAF deployments in Kashmir, for what came to be known as ‘Operation
Safedsagar’, commenced on 15 May with the bulk of operational assets
positioned by 18 May. 150 combat aircraft were deployed as follows:
> Srinagar – 34 (MiG-21, MiG23, MiG-27)

> Awantipur – 28 (MiG-21, MiG29, Jaguar)

> Udhampur – 12 (MiG-21)

> Pathankot – 30 (MiG-21, MiG-23)

> Adampur – 46 (Mir-2000, MiG-29, Jaguar)

One-third of the aircraft were modern, ‘high-threat’ fighters equipped
with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles. During the
preparatory stage, air defence alert status (5 minutes to scramble from
ground) was maintained while Mirage-2000s and Jaguars carried out
photo-reconnaissance along the Line of Control (LOC) and aging Canberras
carried out electronic intelligence (ELINT) to ferret out locations of
PAF air defence sensors. Last minute honing of strafing and rocketing
skills was carried out by pilots at an air-to-ground firing range near
Leh.

Operations by IAF started in earnest on 26 May, a full 16 days after
commencement of Pakistani infiltration across the LOC. The salient
feature of this initial phase was strafing and rocketing of the
intruders’ positions by MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27. All operations
(except air defence) came to a sudden standstill on 28 May, after two
IAF fighters and a helicopter were lost – a MiG-21 and a Mi-17 to Pak
Army surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), while a MiG-27 went down due to
engine trouble caused by gun gas ingestion during high altitude
strafing. (Incidentally, the pilot of the MiG-27 Flt Lt Nachiketa, who
ejected and was apprehended, had a tête-à-tête with this author during
an interesting ‘interrogation’ session.)

The results achieved by the IAF in the first two days were dismal.
Serious restraints seem to have been imposed on the freedom of action of
IAF fighters in what was basically a search-and-destroy mission. Lt Gen
Mehmud’s rant about a ‘Stinger on every peak’ seemed true. It was
obvious that the IAF had under-estimated the SAM threat. The mood in Pak
Army circles was that of undiluted elation, and the PAF was expected to
sit it out while sharing the khakis’ glee.

The IAF immediately went into a reappraisal mode and came out with
GPS-assisted high altitude bombing by MiG-21, MiG-23BN and MiG-27 as a
makeshift solution. In the meantime, quick modification on the
Mirage-2000 for day/night laser bombing kits (Litening pods) was
initiated with the help of Israelis. Conventional bombing that started
incessantly after a two-day operational hiatus, was aimed at harassment
and denial of respite to the infiltrators, with consequent adverse
effects on morale. The results of this part of the campaign were largely
insignificant, mainly because the target coordinates were not known
accurately; the nature of the terrain too, precluded precision. A few
cases of fratricide by IAF led it to be even more cautious.

By 16 June, IAF was able to open up the laser-guided bombing campaign
with the help of Jaguars and Mirage-2000. Daily photo-recce along the
LOC by Jaguars escorted by Mirage-2000s, which had continued from the
beginning of operations, proved crucial to both the aerial bombing
campaign as well as the Indian artillery, helping the latter in
accurately shelling Pakistani positions in the Dras-Kargil and Gultari
Sectors. While the photo-recce missions typically did not involve
deliberate border violations, there were a total of 37 ‘technical
violations’ (which emanate as a consequence of kinks and bends in the
geographical boundaries). Typically, these averaged to a depth of five
nautical miles, except on one occasion when the IAF fighters apparently
cocked-a-snoot at the PAF and came in 13 miles deep.

The Mirage-2000s scored at least five successful laser-guided bomb hits
on forward dumping sites and posts. During the last days of operations
which ended on 12 July, it was clear that delivery accuracy had improved
considerably. Even though night bombing accuracy was suspect,
round-the-clock attacks had made retention of posts untenable for
Pakistani infiltrators. Photo-recce of Pakistani artillery gun positions
also made them vulnerable to Indian artillery.

The IAF flew a total of 550 strike missions against infiltrator
positions including bunkers and supply depots. The coordinates of these
locations were mostly picked up from about 150 reconnaissance and
communications intelligence missions. In addition, 500 missions were
flown for air defence and for escorting strike and recce missions.

While the Indians had been surprised by the infiltration in Kargil, the
IAF mobilised and reacted rapidly as the Indian Army took time to
position itself. Later, when the Indian Army had entrenched itself, the
IAF supplemented and filled in where the artillery could not be
positioned in force. Clearly, Army-Air joint operations had a
synergistic effect in evicting the intruders.

PAF in a Bind

From the very beginning of Kargil operations, PAF was entrapped by a
circumstantial absurdity: it was faced with the ludicrous predicament of
having to provide air support to infiltrators already disowned by the
Pakistan Army leadership! In any case, it took some effort to impress on
the latter that crossing the LOC by fighters laden with bombs was not,
by any stretch of imagination, akin to lobbing a few artillery shells to
settle scores. There was no doubt in the minds of PAF Air Staff that
the first cross-border attack (whether across LOC or the international
border) would invite an immediate response from the IAF, possibly in the
shape of a retaliatory strike against the home base of the intruding
fighters, thus starting the first round. PAF’s intervention meant
all-out war: this unmistakable conclusion was conveyed to the Prime
Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, by the Air Chief in no equivocal terms.

Short of starting an all-out war, PAF looked at some saner options that
could put some wind in the sails after doldrums had been hit. Air
Marshal Najib Akhtar, the Air Officer Commanding of Air Defence Command
was co-opted by the Air Staff to sift the possibilities. Audacious and
innovative in equal parts, Air Marshal Najib had an excellent knowledge
about our own and the enemy’s Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE). He
had conceived and overseen the unprecedented heli-lift of a low-looking
radar to a 14,000-ft mountain top on the forbidding Deosai Plateau. The
highly risky operation became possible with the help of some courageous
flying by Army Aviation pilots. With good low level radar cover now
available up to the LOC, Air Marshal Najib along with the Air Staff
focused on fighter sweep (a mission flown to destroy patrolling enemy
fighters) as a possible option.

To prevent the mission from being seen as an escalatory step in the
already charged atmosphere, PAF had to lure Indian fighters into its own
territory, ie Azad Kashmir or the Northern Areas. That done, a number
of issues had to be tackled. What if the enemy aircraft were hit in our
territory but fell across, providing a pretext to India as a doubly
aggrieved party? What if one of our own aircraft fell, no matter if the
exchange was one-to-one (or better)? Finally, even if we were able to
pull off a surprise, would it not be a one-off incident, with the IAF
wisening up in quick time? The over-arching consideration was the BVR
missile capability of IAF fighters which impinged unfavourably on the
mission success probability. The conclusion was that a replication of
the famous four-Vampire rout of 1st September 1965 by two Sabres might
not be possible. The idea of a fighter sweep thus fizzled out as quickly
as it came up for discussion.

While the PAF looked at some offensive options, it had a more pressing
defensive issue at hand. The IAF’s minor border violations during recce
missions were not of grave consequence in so far as no bombing had taken
place in our territory; however, the fact that these missions helped
the enemy refine its air and artillery targeting, was, to say the least,
disconcerting. There were constant reports of our troops on the LOC
disturbed to see (or hear) IAF fighters operating with apparent
impunity. The GHQ took the matter up with the AHQ and it was resolved
that Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) would be flown by the F-16s operating out
of Minhas (Kamra) and Sargodha. This arrangement resulted in less
on-station time but was safer than operating out of vulnerable Skardu,
which had inadequate early warning in the mountainous terrain; its
status as a turn-around facility was, however, considered acceptable for
its location. A flight of F-7s was, nonetheless, deployed primarily for
point defence of the important garrison town of Skardu as well as the
air base.

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.

It also must be noted too that other than F-16s, the PAF did not have a
capable enough fighter for patrolling, as the minimum requirement in
this scenario was an on-board airborne intercept radar, exceptional
agility and sufficient staying power. F-7s had reasonably good
manoeuvrability but lacked an intercept radar as well as endurance,
while the ground attack Mirage-III/5s and A-5s were sitting ducks for
the air combat mission.

In sum, the PAF found it expedient not to worry too much about minor
border violations and instead, conserve resources for the larger
conflagration that was looming. All the same, it gave the enemy no
pretext for for retaliation in the face of any provocation, though this
latter stance irked some quarters in the Army that were desperate to
‘equal the match’. Might it strike to some that PAF’s restraint in
warding off a major conflagration may have been its paramount
contribution to the Kargil conflict?

Aftermath

It has emerged that the principal protagonists of the Kargil adventure
were the Chief of Army Staff (COAS): General Pervez Musharraf, Commander
10 Corps: Lt Gen Mehmud Ahmed and Commander Force Command Northern
Areas (FCNA): Maj Gen Javed Hasan. The trio, in previous ranks and
appointments, had been associated with planning during paper exercises
on how to wrest control of lost territory in Siachen. The plans were not
acceptable to the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to whom the
options had been put up for review more than once. She was well-versed
in international affairs and, all too intelligent to be taken in by the
chicanery. It fell to the wisdom of her successor, Mr Nawaz Sharif, to
approve the Army trio’s self-serving presentation.

In an effort to keep the plan secret, which was thought to be the key to
its successful initiation, the Army trio took no one into confidence,
neither its operational commanders nor the heads of the other services.
This, regrettably, resulted in a closed-loop thought process which
engendered a string of oversights and failures:
Failure to grasp the wider military and diplomatic ramifications of a
limited tactical operation that had the potential of creating strategic
effects.

Failure to correctly visualise the response of a powerful enemy to what was, in effect, a major blow in a disputed sector.

Failure to spell out the specific aim to field commanders, who acted on
their own to needlessly ‘capture’ territory and expand the scope of the
operation to unmanageable levels.

Failure to appreciate the inability of the Army officers to evaluate the capabilities and limitations of an Air Force.

Failure to coordinate contingency plans at the tri-services level.
The flaws in the Kargil Plan that led to these failures were almost
palpable and, could not have escaped even a layman’s attention during a
cursory examination. The question arises as to why all the planners got
blinded to the obvious? Could it be that some of the sub-ordinates had
the sight but not the nerve in the face of a powerful superior? In
hierarchical organisations, there is precious little room for dissent,
but in autocratic ones like the military, it takes more than a spine to
disagree, for there are very few commanders who are large enough to
allow such liberties. It is out of fear of annoying the superior – which
also carries with it manifold penalties and loss of promotion and perks
– that the majority decide to go along with the wind.

In a country where democratic traditions have never been deep-rooted, it
is no big exposé to point out that the military is steeped in an
authoritarian, rather than a consensual approach. To my mind, there is
an urgent need to inculcate a more liberal culture that accommodates
different points of view – a more lateral approach, so to speak.
Disagreement during planning should be systemically tolerated and, not
taken as a personal affront. Unfortunately, many in higher ranks seem to
think that rank alone confers wisdom and, anyone displaying signs of
intelligence at an earlier stage is, somehow, an alien in their
‘star-spangled’ universe.

Kargil, I suspect, like the ‘65 and ‘71 Wars, was a case of not having
enough dissenters (‘devil’s advocates’, if you will) during planning,
because everyone wanted to agree with the boss. That single reason, I
think, was the root cause of most of the failures that were apparent
right from the beginning. If this point is understood well, remedial
measures towards tolerance and liberalism can follow as a matter of
course. Such an organisational milieu, based on honest appraisal and
fearless appeal, would be conducive to sound and sensible planning. It
would also go a long way in precluding Kargil-like disasters.

Tailpiece

Come change-over time of the Chief of Air Staff in 2001, President
Musharraf struck at PAF’s top leadership in what can only be described
as implacable action: he passed over all five Air Marshals and appointed
the sixth-in-line who was practically an Air Vice Marshal till a few
weeks before. While disregarding of seniority in the appointment of
service chiefs has historically been endemic in the country, the
practice has been seen as breeding nepotism and partiality, besides
leaving a trail of conjecture and gossip in the ranks. Given Air Chief
Marshal Mehdi’s rather straight-faced and forthright dealings with a
somewhat junior General Musharraf particularly during Kargil conflict,
there is good reason to believe that the latter decided to appoint a
not-very-senior Air Chief whom he could order around like one of his
Corps Commanders. (As it turned out, Air Chief Marshal Mus’haf was as
solid as his predecessor and gave no quarter when it came to PAF’s
interests.) Whatever the reason of bypassing seniority, it was
unfortunate that PAF’s precious corporate experience was thrown out so
crassly and several careers destroyed. Lives and honour lost in Kargil
is another matter.

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