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1999 Kargil Conflict

The 1999 Kargil War took place between May 8, when Pakistani forces and Kashmiri militants were detected atop the Kargil ridges and July 14 when both sides had essentially ceased their military operations. It is believed that the planning for the operation, by Pakistan, may have occurred about as early as the autumn of 1998.

The spring and summer incursion of Pakistan-backed armed forces into territory on the Indian side of the line of control around Kargil in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian military campaign to repel the intrusion left 524 Indian soldiers dead and 1,363 wounded, according to December 1 statistics by Defense Minister George Fernandes. Earlier Government figures stated that 696 Pakistani soldiers were killed. A senior Pakistani police official estimated that approximately 40 civilians were killed on the Pakistani side of the line of control.

By 30 June 1999 Indian forces were prepared for a major high-altitude offensive against Pakistani posts along the border in the disputed Kashmir region. Over the previous six weeks India had moved five infantry divisions, five independent brigades and 44 battalions of paramilitary troops to Kashmir. The total Indian troop strength in the region had reached 730,000. The build-up included the deployment of around 60 frontline aircraft.

The Pakistani effort to take Kargil occurred after the February 1999 Lahore summit between then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bahari Vajpayee. This conference was believed to have de-escalated the tensions that had existed since May 1998. The major motive behind the operation was to help in internationalising the Kashmir issue, and for which global attention had been flagging for some time. The intrusion plan was the brainchild of Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, Gen Pervez Musharraf and Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz, the Chief of General Staff. They obtained only an 'in principle' concurrence, without any specifics, from Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister.

Pakistan's military aim for carrying out the intrusions was based on exploitation of the large gaps that exist in the defences in the sector both on Indian and Pak side of the Line of Control (LoC). The terrain is extremely rugged with very few tracks leading from the main roads towards the LoC. During winters the area gets very heavy snowfall making movement almost impossible. The only mountain pass connecting the Kargil area to the Kashmir Valley, Zoji La, normally opens by the end of May or beginning of June. Thus, moving of reinforcements by surface means from Srinagar would not have been possible till then. Pakistan Army calculated that even if the intrusions were discovered in early May, as they were, the Indian Army's reaction would be slow and limited, thereby allowing him to consolidate the intrusions more effectively. In the event, however, Zoji La was opened for the induction of troops in early May itself. The intrusions, if effective, would enable Pakistani troops to secure a number of dominating heights from where the Srinagar-Leh National Highway 1A could be interdicted at a number of places. The intrusions would also draw in and tie down Indian Army reserves. The intrusions would, further, give Pakistan control over substantial tracts of strategic land area across the LoC, thereby, enabling Islamabad to negotiate from a position of strength. The intrusions would irrevocably alter the status of the LoC.

Apart from keeping the plan top secret, the Pakistan Army also undertook certain steps to maintain an element of surprise and maximise deception. There was no induction of any new units or any fresh troops into the FCNA for the proposed operation. Any large-scale troop movement involving even two or three battalions would have drawn the attention of the Indian Army. The Pakistan Army artillery units, which were inducted into the FCNA during the heavy exchange of fire from July to September 1998, were not de-inducted. Since the exchange of artillery fire continued thereafter, though at a lower scale, this was not considered extraordinary. There was no movement of reserve formations or units into FCNA until after the execution of the plan and operations had begun with the Indian Army's response. No new administrative bases for the intrusions were to be created, instead they were to be catered for from those already in the existing defences. The logistic lines of communication were to be along the ridgelines and the nullahs well away from the tracks and positions of the Indian Army troops already in position.

After it was finalised, the plan was put into action towards the end of April. The main groups were broken into a number of smaller sub groups of 30 to 40 each for carrying out multiple intrusions along the ridgelines and occupy dominating heights.

The terrain of the Kargil and surrounding regions of the LOC is inhospitable in the best of times. Some of the characteristics of the region are jagged heights of up to 18,000 feet and harsh gusts of wind and temperatures plunging to about -60 degrees Celsius in the winter. The battle terrain of 'Operation Vijay' is dominated by high altitude peaks and ridgelines most of which are over 16000 ft. This region is part of the 'cold desert' region of Ladakh. Dry, and at the same time very cold, the Kargil Mountains are a formidable constituent of the Greater Himalayas. Unlike other similar high altitude areas, the Kargil Mountains lose snow cover rapidly as the summer progresses. Below the peaks and the ridgelines are loose rocks, which make climbing extremely difficult. If it is not the snow cover, then it is the rocks, which cause extreme hardships on the troops.

There had existed a sort of "gentleman's agreement" between India and Pakistan that the armies of either side will not occupy posts from the 15 September to 15th April of each year. This had been the case since 1977, but in 1999 this agreement was cast aside by the Pakistani army in hopes of trying to gain the upper hand in Kashmir and plunging the Indian subcontinent in brief and limited war and raising the spectre of nuclear war.

As events unfolded, Zoji La opened early on account of the unseasonal melting of snows and the Indian Army's reaction was far swifter than Pakistan had expected. Further, Pakistan also did not expect the reaction of the Indian Army to be as vigorous as has been demonstrated manifested.

Indian Army Patrols detected intruders atop Kargil ridges during the period 8-15 May 1999. The pattern of infiltration clearly established the participation of trained Mujahideen and Pakistan Army regulars in these operations in areas east of Batalik and north of Dras. Pakistan resorted to artillery firing from across the border both in general areas of Kargil and Dras. Indian army launched operations which succeeded in cutting off the infiltrators in Dras sector. Infiltrators were also pushed back in Batalik sector.

The Intruders on the heights were an amalgam of professional soldiers and mercenaries. They included the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 12th battalions of the Pakistan Army's Northern Light Infantry (NLI). Among them were many Mujaheddin and members of Pakistan's the Special Services Group (SSG). It was initially estimated that there were about 500 to 1,000 intruders occupying the heights but later it is estimated that the actual strength of the intruders may have been about 5,000. The area of intrusion extended in an area of 160km. The Pakistani Army had set up a complex logistical network through which the intruders across the LOC would be well supplied from the bases in POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). The intruders were also well armed with AK 47 and 56, mortars, artillery, anti aircraft guns, and Stinger missiles.

Indian Army Operations

The Indian Army detected the intrusions between May 3-12. From May 15 - 25, 1999, military operations were planned, troops moved to their attack locations, artillery and other equipment were moved in and the necessary equipment was purchased. Indian Army's offensive named Operation Vijay was launched on May 26, 1999. Indian troops moved towards Pakistani occupied positions with air cover provided by aircraft and helicopters.

Operation Vijay in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir during the summer months of 1999 was a joint Infantry-Artillery endeavour to evict regular Pakistani soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) who had intruded across the Line of Control (LoC) into Indian territory and had occupied un-held high-altitude mountain peaks and ridgelines. It soon became clear that only massive and sustained firepower could destroy the intruders' sangars and systematically break their will to fight through a process of attrition and, in the process, enable the gallant infantrymen to close in with and evict the intruders. Thus began a unique saga in the history of the employment of Artillery firepower in battle.

The first major ridgeline to fall was Tololing in the Drass sub-sector on June 13, 1999 which was captured after several weeks of bitter fighting. The attacks were preceded by sustained fire assaults from over one hundred Artillery guns, mortars and rocket launchers firing in concert. Thousands of shells, bombs and rocket warheads wrecked havoc and prevented the enemy from interfering with the assault. The 155 mm Bofors medium guns and 105 mm Indian field guns in the direct firing role destroyed all visible enemy sangars and forced the enemy to abandon several positions. The arcs of fire trailing behind the Bofors high explosive shells and the Grad rockets provided an awesome sight and instilled fear into the minds of Pakistani soldiers.

The capture of the Tololing complex paved the way for successive assaults to be launched on the Tiger Hill complex from several directions. Tiger Hill was re-captured on July 5, 1999 and Point 4875, another dominating feature to the west of Tiger Hill and jutting into Mashkoh Valley, was re-captured on July 7, 1999. Point 4875 has since been re-named "Gun Hill" in honour of the stupendous performance of the Gunners in the Drass and Mashkoh sub-sectors.

Over 1,200 rounds of high explosive rained down on Tiger Hill and caused large-scale death and devastation. Once again, the Gunners of the Indian Artillery fired their guns audaciously in the direct firing role, under the very nose of Pakistani artillery observation posts (OPs), without regard for personal safety. Even 122 mm Grad multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) were employed in the direct firing role. Hundreds of shells and rocket warheads impacted on the pinnacle of Tiger Hill in full view of TV cameras and the nation watched in rapt attention the might of the Regiment of Artillery .

While the nation's attention was riveted on the fighting in the Drass sector, steady progress was being made in the Batalik sector despite heavy casualties. In the Batalik sector, the terrain was much tougher and the enemy was far more strongly entrenched. The containment battle itself took almost a month. Artillery OPs were established on dominating heights and sustained Artillery fire was brought down on the enemy continuously by day and night allowing him no rest.

Point 5203 was re-captured on June 21, 1999 and Khalubar was re-captured on July 6, 1999. Within the next few days, further attacks were pressed home against the remaining Pakistani posts in the Batalik sub-sector and these fell quickly after being pulverised by Artillery fire. Once again, Artillery firepower played an important part in softening the defences and destroying the enemy's battalion headquarters and logistics infrastructure.

The Indian Artillery fired over 250,000 shells, bombs and rockets during the Kargil conflict. Approximately, 5,000 Artillery shells, mortar bombs and rockets were fired daily from 300 guns, mortars and MBRLs. Such high rates of fire over long periods had not been witnessed anywhere in the world since the second World War.

Air Operations

From May 11 to May 25, ground troops supported by the Air Force tried to contain the threat, assessed the enemy dispositions and carried out various preparatory actions. Entry of the Air Force into combat action on May 26 represented a paradigm shift in the nature and prognosis of the conflict. In operation Safed Sagar, the Air Force carried out nearly 5,000 sorties of all types over 50-odd days of operations.

The Western Air Command conducted the three-week-long exercise Trishul three weeks before Kargil. During Trishul, the IAF flew 5,000 sorties with 300 aircraft using 35,000 personnel and engaged targets at high elevation in the Himalayas. The IAF claimed to have flown 550 sorties in Kargil, though just about 80 were on or close to the target. Soon after Kargil, both the commander-in-chief and senior air staff officer of the Western Air Command were mysteriously transferred to the Central and Eastern commands.

Operations in this terrain required special training and tactics. It was soon realised that greater skills and training were needed to attack the very small/miniature targets extant, often not visible to the naked eye.

The shoulder-fired missile threat was omnipresent and there were no doubts about this. An IAF Canberra recce aircraft was damaged by a Pakistani Stinger fired possibly from across the LoC. On the second and third day of the operations, still in the learning curve, the IAF lost one MiG-21 fighter and one Mi-17 helicopter to shoulder-fired missiles by the enemy. In addition, one MiG-27 was lost on the second day due to engine failure just after the pilot had carried out successful attacks on one of the enemy's main supply dumps. These events only went to reinforce the tactics of the IAF in carrying out attacks from outside the Stinger SAM envelope and avoiding the use of helicopters for attack purposes. Attack helicopters have a certain utility in operations under relatively benign conditions but are extremely vulnerable in an intense battlefield. The fact that the enemy fired more than 100 shoulder fired SAMs against IAF aircraft indicates not only the great intensity of the enemy air defences in the area but also the success of IAF tactics, especially after the first three days of the war during which not a single aircraft received even a scratch.

The terrain in the Kargil area is 16,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level. The aircraft are, therefore, required to fly at about 20,000 feet. At these heights, the air density is 30% less than at sea level. This causes a reduction in weight that can be carried and also reduces the ability to manoeuvre as the radius of a turn is more than what it is at lower levels. The larger radius of turn reduces manoeuverability in the restricted width of the valley. The engine's performance also deteriorates as for the same forward speed there is a lesser mass of air going into the jet engine of the fighter or helicopter. The non-standard air density also affects the trajectory of weapons. The firing, hence, may not be accurate. In the mountains, the targets are relatively small, spread-out and difficult to spot visually, particularly by pilots in high speed jets.

The Indian airfields nearest to Kargil were Srinagar and Avantipur. Adampur near Jalandhar was also close enough to support air operations. Therefore, the IAF operated from these three bases. The planes used for ground attack were MiG-2ls, MiG- 23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars and the Mirage- 2000. The Mig-2l was built mainly for air interception with a secondary role of ground attack. However, it is capable of operating in restricted spaces which was of importance in the Kargil terrain.

The MiG-23s and 27s are optimised for attacking targets on the ground. They can carry a load of 4 tonnes each. This could be a mix of weapons including cannon, rocket pods, free- fall and retarded bombs and smart weapons. It has a computerised bomb sight which enables accurate weapon delivery. These planes were, therefore, ideal for use in the mountainous terrain of Kargil.

However, on May 27, the MiG-27 flown by Flt Lt Nachiketa, while attacking a target in Batalik sector, developed an engine trouble and he had to bailout. Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja, in a MiG-2l, went out of the way to locate the downed pilot and in the process was hit by a Pakistani surface- to-air missile (SAM). He ejected safely but his body bearing gun- wounds was returned subsequently. The state-of-the-art Mirage-2000s were used for electronic warfare, reconnaissance and ground attack. This fighter delivers its weapons with pinpoint accuracy. In addition to carrying free-fall bombs, it also fires the laser-guided bomb with deadly effects. In fact, it was this weapon that caused considerable devastation to Pakistani bunkers on the ridges at Tiger Hill and Muntho Dhalo. In the Mirage attack on Muntho Dhalo, Pakistani troops suffered 180 casualties.

Because of the need to engage Pakistani targets in the valleys and on ridges, the slower helicopter gunship became an important requirement. The load-carrying Mi-17 was modified to carry 4 rocket pods with air-to-ground rockets. This helicopter proved effective in engaging Pakistani bunkers and troops. On May 28, while attacking Point 5140 in Tololing sector, one helicopter and its crew were lost to a Stinger heat-seeking missile. Thereafter, because of the number of SAMs being fired, helicopters resorted to evasive tactics but persisted with the attacks.

The operations restricted to Kargil area did not lend themselves to the use of air power. There was a constraint of not crossing the Line of Control (LoC) to the Pakistan side. The IAF was, therefore, not at liberty to destroy the Pakistani supply lines and smash the logistic bases across the LoC. However, such attacks were done on Pakistani facilities on the Indian side of the LoC. The targets were identified along with the Army and engaged by day and by night in precision attacks by Mirage 2000s and Jaguars. Supply lines, logistic bases and enemy strong points were destroyed. As a result, the Army was able to pursue its operations at a faster rate and with fewer losses.

To obviate the threat from SAMs, bombing was done accurately from 30,000 feet above sea level or about 10,000 feet above the terrain. In these high level attacks, the infantryman does not see his own fighters and, therefore, feels that air support is not there. It is estimated that in operation Vijay, about 700 intruders were killed by air action alone. The IAF has intercepted a number of enemy wireless transmissions indicating the effectiveness of IAF attacks.

Pakistan Air Force fighters were picked up on the airborne radar of our fighters but the PAF planes did not cross to the Indian side of the LoC. Nevertheless, as a precaution, IAF , strike aircraft were accompanied by fighter escorts. After all, in the recent past no war has been won without control of the air space in which operations are conducted.

Naval Operations

While the Army and the Air Force readied themselves for the battle on the heights of Kargil, Indian Navy began to draw out its plans. Unlike the earlier wars with Pakistan, this time the bringing in of the Navy at the early stages of the conflict served to hasten the end of the conflict in India's favor.

In drawing up its strategy, the Navy was clear that a reply to the Pakistani misadventure had to be two-pronged. While ensuring safety and security of Indian maritime assets from a possible surprise attack by Pakistan, the Indian imperative was that all efforts must be made to deter Pakistan from escalating the conflict into a full scale war. Thus, the Indian Navy was put on a full alert from May 20 onwards, a few days prior to the launch of the Indian retaliatory offensive. Naval and Coast Guard aircraft were put on a continuous surveillance and the units readied up for meeting any challenge at sea.

Time had now come to put pressure on Pakistan, to ensure that the right message went down to the masterminds in that country. Strike elements from the Eastern Fleet were sailed from Visakhapatnam on the East Coast to take part in a major naval exercise called 'SUMMEREX' in the North Arabian Sea. This was envisaged as the largest ever amassing of naval ships in the region. The message had been driven home. Pakistan Navy, in a defensive mood, directed all its units to keep clear of Indian naval ships. As the exercise shifted closer to the Makaran Coast, Pakistan moved all its major combatants out of Karachi. It also shifted its focus to escorting its oil trade from the Gulf in anticipation of attacks by Indian ships.

As the retaliation from the Indian Army and the Air Force gathered momentum and a defeat to Pakistan seemed a close possibility, an outbreak of hostilities became imminent. Thus the naval focus now shifted to the Gulf of Oman. Rapid reaction missile carrying units and ships from the fleet were deployed in the North Arabian Sea for carrying out missile firing, anti-submarine and electronic warfare exercises. In the absence of the only aircraft carrier, Sea Harrier operations from merchant ships were proven. The Navy also readied itself for implementing a blockade of the Pakistani ports, should the need arise. In addition, Naval amphibious forces from the Andaman group of islands were moved to the western sea-board.

In a skilful use of naval power in the form of 'Operation Talwar', the 'Eastern Fleet' joined the 'Western Naval Fleet' and blocked the Arabian sea routes of Pakistan. Apart from a deterrent, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief later disclosed that Pakistan was left with just six days of fuel (POL) to sustain itself if a full fledged war broke out.

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