Revealed: IAF’s innovative use of airpower during Kargil conflict

A new report by Dr. Benjamin Lambeth on the Indian Air Force’s role in the Kargil conflict has revealed how the IAF employed innovative use of airpower to speed up the eviction of the Pakistani intruders from the Indian territory.

Dr Lambeth is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US and has written extensively on air warfare and other defense-related matters.

The report, Airpower at 18,000: The Indian Air Force in the Kargil War, states that:

“The experience offers an exemplary case study in the uses of airpower in joint warfare in high mountain conditions and is key to a full understanding of India’s emerging air posture. It is the one instance of recent Indian exposure to high-intensity warfare that provides insights into the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) capabilities, limitations, relations with its sister services, and interactions with India’s civilian leadership.”

The report reveals some innovative use of airpower employed by the IAF during the conflict. While quoting a senior IAF official, the report states that when the conflict started, there was only one squadron fitted with GPS which would have aided accurate boming from safer altitudes. Also, this would have helped IAF aircrafts stay away from the effective reach of enemy’s man-portable infrared surface-to-air-missiles.

“Further innovative real-time adaptation by the IAF occurred when MiG-21 pilots lacking sophisticated onboard navigation suites resorted to the use of stopwatches and GPS receivers in their cockpits for conducting night interdiction bombing.105 Yet another novel technique developed by the IAF for use in the campaign entailed selecting weapon impact points so as to create landslides and avalanches that covered intruder supply lines.106 Finally, to note just one of many additional examples that could be cited, the IAF pioneered during its Kargil campaign what has since come to be called nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance through its use of electrooptical and infrared imaging targeting pods for conducting high-resolution aerial reconnaissance of the battlespace,” the report further states.

Dr Lambeth’s report also throws light on the perception that IAF “reluctantly” initiated combat operations during Kargil and sough “to avoid involvement in the conflict altogether, claiming inexperience in mountain warfare and unfamiliarity with the terrain, as well as the risk associated with the heightened SAM [surface-to-air-missile] threat in the mountains.”

“In truth, the IAF began conducting initial reconnaissance sorties over the Kargil heights as early as May 10, less than a week after the presence of the enemy incursion was first confirmed by Indian Army patrols. It also began deploying additional aircraft into the Kashmir Valley in enough numbers to support any likely combat tasking, established a rudimentary air defense control arrangement there because there were no ground-based radars in the area, and began extensive practice of air-to-ground weapons deliveries by both fighters and attack helicopters at Himalayan target elevations,” the report states.

However the report also states that overall, the Kargil conflict was a “poor test of India’s air warfare capability”. The report adds: “Despite the happy ending of the Kargil experience for India, the IAF’s fighter pilots were restricted in their operations due to myriad challenges specific to this campaign. They were thus consigned to do what they could rather than what they might have done if they had more room for maneuver.”

Click here to read the entire report

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