India and Pakistan on the brink?

On may 26, 1999, India launched — for the first time since the 1971 India-Pakistan war — a series of air strikes against non-aligned Islamic forces intruding into India’s sector of the disputed Kashmir region. It now appears that these forces were armed, equipped and trained by India’s rival, Pakistan. Moreover, as this article was being written, evidence emerged that troops from the Pakistani Army had also crossed into Indian territory. The Islamic irregulars are largely Pakistani nationals, but include many former Taliban fighters from Afghanistan and other hard-line Islamic countries. They have demanded a withdrawal of all Indian troops from Kashmir — a demand supported by Pakistan’s government. Now that these forces have been joined by large numbers of Pakistani regular troops, the whole intrusion has taken on a new and dangerous perspective.

The Indian air strikes, launched after an initial under-estimation of the numbers of intruders and the scale of the infiltration, represent a major step backwards in attempts to reduce tension between South Asia’s nuclear rivals -India and Pakistan.

The Infiltration.

It appears that since February, while India’s Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was in Lahore trying to calm tensions with Pakistan, Pakistan’s armed forces and intelligence agencies were preparing an audacious operation to send large numbers of heavily-armed personnel across the Line of Control

(LoC) into Indian-administered Kashmir — the Kargil, Dras and Batalik sectors which overlook the Srinagar-Leh highway. The infiltrators were supposed to threaten this vital road link -possibly control it.

Pakistan’s movement of armed personnel across the LoC was assisted by the routine withdrawal of Indian troops from the high-altitude posts overlooking the sector during the winter. Kargil is an extremely inhospitable place in winter (it is only marginally less so in summer!) and as such, the Indian withdrawal was not surprising. During winter, no ground patrols are posted and aerial reconnaissance is virtually non-existent. India’s intelligence agencies detected some signs of infiltration but were unsure of its size and nature. Moreover, no action was taken until the weather improved and the first Indian patrols moved into the area and right into a series of ambushes.

After the initial surprise of finding the infiltrators across the LoC — well entrenched and supplied — the Indian Army undertook a series of raids to dislodge the intruders. For this task, Indian troops were supported by artillery, but there was no air support, other than a few Army Aviation Corps’ Chetaks armed with 7.62mm MAG machine-guns. These attacks made little headway, since the intruders had the advantage of good defensive positions at high altitude (peaks reaching up to 18,000ft [5,480m]) and because meteorological conditions change in Kargil every half-hour it is extremely difficult to achieve accurate artillery fire.

An IRS-1C/D satellite photograph showed that at least 600 — possibly up to 2,000 -infiltrators were well established on the heights overlooking Kargil. To verify this, India dispatched a single Canberra photo-recce aircraft which was engaged by a number of ‘Stinger’ man-portable SAMs and suffered damage to one of its engines. It became clear to the Indians that air power was needed to soften-up the enemy positions before the occupied Indian territory could be recaptured.

Air Strikes Begin.

At dawn on May 26, 1999, the Indian Air Force launched its operation. Three IAF squadrons — one each of MiG-27s, MiG-23BNs and MiG-21Ms — and one Mi-17 Helicopter unit, were committed to battle. These aircraft have since borne the brunt of the air operation and have performed remarkably well in such hostile conditions.

India initially refrained from using any of its laser-guided munitions, napalm or fuel-air explosives and has not bombed any of the infiltrators’ supply lines across the LoC. These factors have limited the success of the air campaign but they are in keeping with the political requirement to confine the conflict and keep costs down.

However, as the campaign dragged on, the IAF began using 1,0001b (454kg) bombs fitted with laser-guidance kits from Mirage 2000s and possibly MiG-27s (these are apparently different from dedicated LGBs — at least according to IAF spokesmen). These were fired from altitudes of up to 30,000ft (9,100m) and had a devastating effect on enemy supply bases and defences. These highly successful raids have assisted the Indian Army to keep the number of casualties to a manageable level, despite heavy resistance in difficult terrain from well-trained and well-equipped intruders.

IAF Mirage 2000s and MiG-29s have been used. The MiG-29s are flying combat airpatrols to deter any intervention by the Pakistani Air Force, while the Mirage 2000s have flown a number of highly successful strike sorties but have principally been utilised for reconnaissance and electronic countermeasures support — jamming Pakistani radars supporting the infiltrators. The MiG-29s had one encounter with Pakistani F-16s — the F-16s allegedly turning back after being ‘painted’ by the MiG-29s’ radar.

IAF Mi-25/-35 gunships have not been used, because their engines underperform at high altitudes. Only a few of the lAF’s Jaguars have been committed to offensive operations. Army Aviation Corps’ Cheetahs have been extensively used for ‘casevac’ duties — their crews being issued with assault rifles for self defence, as well as MAG machine-guns. Chetaks fitted with machine-guns are, as previously mentioned, in widespread use.

Normally only a single army unit — 121 Infantry Brigade — operates in the Kargil sector.

This has now been reinforced to division strength (and over), supplied with large quantities of artillery. All across the India-Pakistan frontier, security has been strengthened to prevent further infiltration.

Infantry units have been issued with Igla-IM (SA-16) SAMs to shoot down any intruding Pakistani helicopters or attack aircraft. A substantial number of 23mm ZU-23-2 and 40mm Bofors L-40/70 anti-aircraft guns have been deployed and have engaged a number of Pakistani Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

The Indian Army has occupied the defensive fortifications along the India-Pakistan border and has moved to bolster ammunition stocks and spares.

The IAF has placed all bases on full alert, and air defences have been ordered to treat any unidentified object coming across the border as hostile. Combat air patrols are being mounted and all leave has been cancelled.

India’s Western, Eastern and Southern Naval.

Commands have moved their units to a high level of alert and the Naval Air Arm is conducting patrols on a more regular basis. Moreover, the INS Viraat — India’s sole aircraft carrier which is undergoing modernisation and life-extension — has been put on ten-days notice to sail if needed.

In Pakistan, the army has taken up defensive positions along the frontier and the air force is on alert. Moreover, according to Indian sources, Pakistan’s troops along the LoC are deploying into an offensive pattern.

Losses.

The IAF has lost only three aircraft to date — all within the first 72 hours of the air campaign.

The first loss was a MiG-27 flown by F/L К Nachiketa Rao. The pilot reported an engine flame-out due to technical problems and ejected. He was later made a PoW by the Pakistani Government and released after eight days in captivity.

The second loss was of a MiG-21M (C-1539) flown by S/L Ahuja (India-Pakistan tension rises, July, p5). This aircraft was orbiting Nachiketa’s crash site in order to provide assistance. In doing so, Ahuja’s aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile — believed to be a ‘Stinger’ — and was downed. Some controversy surround what happened to S/L Ahuja. Pakistan claims that he was killed in the crash. However, a post-mortem examination conducted by the Indians after his body was returned revealed at least two bullet holes in the body, allegedly including one to the back of the head. The Indians have accused Pakistan of murdering Ahuja — a charge Pakistan denies. However, a BBC correspondent who was taken to the crash site, noted that five or six rounds had been fired from Ahuja’s service revolver indicating that he was still alive after ejecting.The lAF’s final loss was of an Mi-17 operating in the gunship role with four packs of 57mm rockets. This aircraft was attacked by between five and ten Stingers according to press reports in India. The Mi-17 was able to evade all but one of the missiles, which brought it down killing all four personnel on board.

There have been no further losses, despite heavy fire from anti-aircraft artillery and man-portable SAMs — principally Stingers — because the IAF is now making extensive use of flare dispensers and IR decoys. It has been estimated that well over 100 SAMs, of various types, have been fired at Indian aircraft. In addition to SAMs, the IAF is the first air force in the world to operate continuously in high altitude terrain in excess of 15,000ft (4,500m) — that in itself presents great dangers.

The Air Operation to Date.

To date, the IAF has flown 550 strike, 150 reconnaissance and 500 escort sorties against the intruders, along with 2,185 helicopter sorties. This involved no more than 25% of the strength of India’s vast Western Air Command. In the latter stages of the conflict, the air attacks were conducted around the clock, with each strike carefully planned to avoid hitting advancing Indian infantry who were climbing up sheer rock to get to the well dug-in intruders. The Indian Army has suffered very heavy casualties — over 400 killed — but the IAF and Indian artillery have claimed over 600 Pakistani regulars, according to reports in the Indian press. How many Islamic irregulars have been killed is unknown, but is believed to be in the region of 150.

At the time this article was written, the Indian army had successfully evicted the infiltrators from a number of positions, thus ending Jhe need for IAF attacks. Indian infantrymen, showing great courage and endurance together with a very high degree of skill, had scaled peaks of over 15,000ft (4,500m) under heavy fire and had recaptured several key positions, thus relieving pressure on the Srinagar-Leh highway. A daring IAF strike against a large supply base, located at 14,600ft (4,450m), caused heavy casualties among the infiltrators and severe damage was inflicted on the ammunition stocks and other stores located at the site. Having cleared the Batalik sub-sector and captured of a number of huge peaks, including the massive 16,000ft (4,870m) Tiger Hill, the Indian armed forces were now close to evicting all the intruders from Indian territory. The Indian Army estimated that 85% of all strategically important areas had been cleared, while 65% of the total territory occupied by the intruders had been retaken.

IAF strikes ended with signs of a Pakistani withdrawal from Indian territory starting on July 11, 1999. However, reconnaissance missions continued to be flown and Indian troops continued to be fired at from Pakistani territory. By July 17, it was reported that virtually all the infiltrators had left Indian territory. To date, India has scrupulously avoided crossing the LoC, while Pakistan’s denials of its involvement in the intrusion are increasingly being met with great scepticism.

War?

Public opinion in India has been incensed by the apparent murder of S/L Ahuja — outrage which was further intensified when Pakistan returned the mutilated remains of six Indian soldiers. Their bodies bore clear signs of torture.

India presented the identity cards and equipment of three soldiers from Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry, alleged to have been killed on the Indian side of the LoC as clear proof of Pakistan’s involvement. A recent story in the Far Eastern Economic Review seemed to confirm India’s claims that several hundred Pakistani regulars had in fact crossed the LoC. Brigadier Rashid Qureshi, of the Pakistani Army, admitted in an interview with the LA Times that Pakistani troops were fighting Indian forces. Furthermore, Pakistan’s generals have made a number of statements that have practically confirmed their involvement in the intrusion.

In addition, India released intercepted telephone conversations between Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership during which Pakistan’s orchestration of the whole event was discussed. Pakistan has claimed that the audio intercepts were forged, but Indian press reports have indicated that when the United States examined copies of the intercepts provided by the Indians they were deemed to be authentic. India scored a major propaganda coup when a Pakistani soldier — Corporal Inayat AN — was captured on July 4, in the Batalik sub-sector. With his capture and the retrieval of a large number of documents belonging to soldiers from four separate battalions of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry, proof of Pakistan’s involvement is mounting.

Neither India nor Pakistan wants a war. Pakistan is nearly bankrupt and India’s prospects of a strong economic performance this fiscal year could be jeopardised. The nuclear factor has also given cause for concern, with India fearing a possible Pakistani first strike and the whole world fearing a full-scale nuclear conflagration.

An initial attempt at forging a negotiated settlement on June 12, 1999, failed, and the success or even the possibility of future talks seems remote. It was only the fear of a full-scale war that seemed to be preventing a major escalation of the situation.

In a desperate attempt to obtain a face-saving solution, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to meet President Clinton. This meeting produced an agreement for a Pakistani withdrawal and follows on the heels of similar demands from the G-8 countries. Pakistan was hoping that the Kargil incursion would result in foreign mediation in the long-running Kashmir dispute. However, an enraged and completely united India (all political parties in India have a united position on most national security issues, especially Kashmir) is now more likely than ever to resist any attempts at foreign meddling in the issue.

It remains to be seen if Nawaz Sharif can deliver on the promises made in Washington. Soon after, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, appeared to renege on the agreement and demand that India withdraw its troops before any withdrawal of Pakistani forces and their guerrilla allies takes place. Of far greater concern, Aziz threatened ‘more Kargils unless India complied with demands raised by the guerrillas. As might be expected, this has not gone down well with India.

India does not trust Pakistan’s commitment to the withdrawal and has maintained its forces on high alert despite calling a halt to air strikes. The risk of a war breaking out before the end of the year is not being ruled out by Indian officers. Meanwhile, neither side seems to be taking any chances. Ammunition and spares stocks are being bolstered, critical deficiencies are being rectified, internal security forces are on alert and the armed forces have moved to their defensive positions along the entire frontier.

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