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Heroes: Eagles over Kargill - Indian Air Force and summer of 99.

This small post is a salute to the Indian Air force for its role in the `99 Kargil conflict. There are numerous stories all documented , shown, published and even telecasted with regards to the heroics of the Indian Army…there is not that much about the Indian Air force in any of the media and whatever is there is mostly fragmented or even too technical. This post is stitching together all that events which happened during the summer of 99. 

This is also a breakaway from the usual poetry mode of narratives which are usually a feature of these posts in the Heroes series.... 

Even before the air force opened up its doors for woman combat pilots as fighter pilots, 2 women were already a part of the war in the summer. Flt. Lt. Gunjan Saxena and Flt. Lt. Vidya Rajan were providing support as air observation officers in their cheetah helicopters, well within the range of pak artillery and shoulder fired missiles range. They were well engrossed in the job giving target information and damage assessment to the Indian fighters.

The IAF lost few air warriors in the process – Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja was captured and killed in cold blood after he had to do an ejection while providing cover to the name many must have heard then- Group capt. Nachiketa who was the only POW from the IAF to have been captured and then returned to India. Nachiketa and Ajay Ahuja were on a strike mission when the rocket salvo fired by Nachiketa in his MIG 27 from heights well at the very limits of such weapons in the very thin air of Kargill, led to an engine flameout and he had to eject. Ajay Ahuja decided to provide cover to Nachiketa for the rescue while being in the range of SAM ( shoulder fired surface to air missiles). His MIG 21 was hit and he had to eject as well. He never made to india alive as his bullet ridden body was handed over to India days later. 

The current Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, was the boss of Ajay Ahuja and on 27.5.2017 BS Dhanoa flew the missing man formation in MIG 21 to honour Ahuja and all the fallen comrades during the war.

What happened at Muntho Dhalo : On 27 May 1999 at about 10.30 am in the morning, six aircrafts -- four MiG 27 fighters on attack role and two MiG-21 fighters in escort role -- took off from Srinagar. Their mission was to bomb Muntho Dhalo, the biggest Pakistani supply base in the Batalik Sector. As the MiG-27 fighters struck Muntho Dhalo, first with bombs and then with rockets, the engine of the MiG-27 flown by Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa would flame out, forcing him to eject. Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and Flying Officer Reddy were following-in on the attack in two separate MiG-21s to assess the damage caused by the bombing. Their mission was to photograph the damage. "Squadron Leader Ahuja had Global Positioning System (GPS) on his aircraft -- something not very common those days -- and therefore he decided to locate where Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa had ejected and send back the GPS coordinates so that he could be rescued," said a senior IAF officer who was part of the mission but didn't want to be named. He added, "A little later Flying Officer Reddy was low on fuel was sent back to base by Squadron Leader Ahuja. He knew that Muntho Dhalo was defended by missiles but decided to carry on and try and locate Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa. The worst would follow. Squadron Leader Ahuja was hit by Stinger missile. Although, he would eject safely and parachute down, he was shot dead by Pakistani soldiers."

The 1st mission of the force was over Tololing where the Wing Commander of the Squadron himself flew in the very first sortie. Tololing attack was the same time when IAF was employing attack choppers. 4 choppers with 128 rockets in total were on a attack run when one was shot by a SAM and IAF lost 4 air warriors. 

Srinagar Airport was off limits for civilian transport and was in under complete control of the army and the airforce. Elsewhere too, the various airbases were a buzz of activity too. Ground crew did not care about their work timings as they worked well past their time and into the overtime loading fighters with weapons and eventually came the reply, “ Overtime can be worked out later on, fighters need to be prepared right now.” The force also gave permission to them to post various graffiti on the bombs which were to be dropped, something which happens rarely. 

The fighters used to create avalanches and landslides in majority of cases because of the very steep slope of them coming into the targets and the target being just tiny dots in the snowy terrain. Bombs on target were dropped from as high as 5-6 kms because below that the fighters were in range of counter fire. Bombs were dropped at points where the resultant explosions would create avalanches and landslides at supply lines and therefore destruct the enemy logistics system. The IAF worked in seemingly tight restrictions as they were not allowed to cross the LOC and also the fact that they were fearful that any munition might hit the friendly forces who were almost eyeball to eyeball at various places. The workhorses like the MIG 21, 23, and the various other strike fighters who did not have updated avionics and target guidance systems for targeting of bombs, the pilots in those crafts carried handheld GPS systems to bring in a wave of innovation when close fire support was needed to be provided to the infantry.

The MIG 29 were tasked to provide interceptor and top cover support to the strikers and they also had the authorisation from the high command to chase down any enemy F-16 fighters which may try to engage the strike force. Thankfully, the F-16 never engaged once during the Kargil conflict. 300 sorties were flown alone by the MIG 29. Jaguars, who are primarily used to neutralise attacks over land and sea were also pressed into service when they were fitted with cameras and pressed into photo recon missions.

The 3 main turning points in the conflict were the bombing of an oil dump at Kukartham, the striking of the logistics camp at Muntho Dhalo and the now iconic image of a laserguided bomb striking the top of Tiger Hill from a mirage 2000. Dhalo was a major supply camp, which supplied to a lot of forward posts in the area. Mirage were actually on a different mission when the cameras picked up a cluster of huts and settlements in the blinding snow. Within a few hours the same fighters dropped in 24 , 250 kg bombs and totally destroyed that area. At 16,500 feet Tiger Hill was an important feature to be captured and a mirage dropped in a laserguided bomb totally destroying that bunker and making the intruders think that they were under the hammer now. These fighters flew normally 40 sorties a day from the inception till the end of the war. After the bombing of Tiger Hill, this is the message the IAF received from the Army headquarters-

You guys have done a wonderful job. Your Mirage boys with their precision laser-guided bombs targeted an enemy battalion headquarters in Tiger Hill with tremendous success… . The enemy is on the run. They are on the run in other sectors also. At this rate, the end of the conflict may come soon.

Laser designator at tiger hill

These all might be small incidences which people might not have known or forgotten in the last 18 years but these are such small important clogs in the wheel which complete the bigger picture. You might read them in bits and pieces over the Internet but when you look at it overall, would you realize that what part the IAF played in the whole conflict and what losses they also had to incur on their side.

We at Memories salute the contribution of each and every air warrior right from fighter pilots, chopper pilots to every last ground crew who did their bit in helping us take back what was rightfully ours. A salute to them all.

Heroes: Eagles over Kargill - Indian Air Force and summer of 99. Heroes: Eagles over Kargill - Indian Air Force and summer of 99. Reviewed by Shwetabh on 9:09:00 PM Rating: 5

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