In 2024, the Kargil War fought between India and Pakistan will be a quarter century old. One of the most contentious modern skirmishes continues to be the subject of debate and renewed interest, since it took place on the cusp of multifarious transformations in warfare, the way the Indian Air Force in particular approached battle, and precluded the existence of several technologies taken for granted today. In 2022, the IAF’s Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) published a Golden Jubilee volume containing several accounts of the Bengaluru-based institution’s contribution to warfare. The air campaign to precision bomb Pakistan Army positions on the Kargil heights is one such. With permission from the Indian Air Force, we publish here in full an account of the improvisation and skill that was brought to bear by the Indian Air Force in order to execute a capability that it previously didn’t possess. Here is that account in full:
On 24 Jun 1999, the Indian public were mesmerised by the images of the precision attack by the IAF on Tiger Hill being played out on national television. Already, the dynamics of the military operations, being beamed into living rooms by a proactive media, was keeping viewers glued to their television sets like never before. This detail and clear images of precision guided air strikes became a defining moment of the Kargil war. But, unbeknown to many, the work to make it all happen started much before and many miles away from Kargil; in Bangalore and in Gwalior.
Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) is a premier organisation of the IAF, entrusted with testing and acceptance of new weapons and systems for the IAF. It is based in Bangalore, the centre of aerospace activity in India, and is also home to the IAF Test Pilots’ School (the only one in Asia and one of the six recognised such schools in the world). In 1996, it was entrusted with the task of integrating the M-2000 and Jaguar aircraft with laser guided bomb (LGB) kits on general purpose 1000 lb Mk 83 bombs. Over the course of a year, it was successfully integrated on the M-2000 and Jaguar aircraft. The M-2000 aircraft was already cleared for carrying the 2200 lb (1000 kg) Matra LGB. For guidance of the bomb, it used the Patric laser designation pod (LDP).
During the integration, two issues of concern came up. One was the fuse (used to trigger the detonation of the bomb) was an electrical one (already in use by the IAF but available only in limited quantity). The other pertained to extending the laser illumination time on the Patric pod, since that was essential to ensure guidance of the new 1000 lb with LGB kits till impact. Since proprietary software to modify the laser illumination time was not available to the IAF, additional modifications were done to make it happen. Around the same time (1996-97), the IAF contracted to integrate the Litening LDP on the M-2000 and Jaguar aircraft.
Litening LDP, manufactured by Rafael Industries of Israel, was a highly capable LDP that provided a great many obvious advantages. Firstly, it provided for commonality between the M-2000 and Jaguar aircraft. Essentially, it meant that it could be flown without any modification on both the aircraft. It also provided a much needed night precision bombing capability, since the pod was equipped with an infrared seeker, capable of picking up targets by night. Lastly, the pod software could be modified to designate different kinds of laser guided bombs. These capabilities greatly improved the flexibility of employment of both the pod as well as laser guided bombs.
Over, the course of the next one and a half years, the team from ASTE, carried out much of the ground work and the flight trials to successfully integrate this pod on the M-2000. Sqn Ldr N Tiwari (Tiwi), a test pilot with ASTE at that time, was one of the key players in the integration team. It culminated in successful release of modified LGBs with the Litening LDP in Mar 1999. However, a new fuse, integrated on the modified bombs, failed to function as designed. So this issue was left open for the next phase of trials. The software was also not frozen, as integration work on Jaguar aircraft was still not completed.
On 26 May 1999, the decision to employ the IAF in the Kargil war was formally approved. On 27 May, Sqn Ldr N Tiwari, who at that time was an instructor at the Test Pilots’ School, was augmented to Air Force Station, Gwalior. Landing at 0200 h on 28 May, he soon got down to work to ensure the availability of the Litening pod for use by the M-2000, should the need arise. Under the aegis of the then AOC of Gwalior, Air Cmde PS Ahluwalia, a quick plan was drawn to operationalise the pod. While a couple of pods were available in Gwalior, the rest were airlifted from ASTE, Bangalore. The team was strengthened with the presence of Sqn Ldr J Mishra and Sqn Ldr VR Mantha, a test pilot and a flight test engineer respectively.
Since the pods were still in trial configurations, it was essential to freeze it to the last tested configuration, so that it could be released to the squadron for operational use. This required the availability of the manufacturer’s engineers. Early morning of 28 May, the programme manager of Rafael was contacted for help. To the credit of the programme manager of Rafael, he immediately understood the gravity of the situation and assigned his most competent engineers to the job. They were available on site within two days, something of a record in any test programme. With the availability of the team, quickly all the pods were configured with a standardised software and tested. The trial flights were conducted by Tiwi, most of them along with Air Cmde Ahluwalia in the back seat. These flights also served as a medium to demonstrate the capability of the pod by both day and night. Representative target sets were created around Gwalior airfield to check if they could be picked up using the pod by both day and night. Since little was known about the pod at that time, it was important to showcase the capability of this pod to the powers that be. Even the AOC-in-C of Central Air Command, Air Mshl Bhatia, came to Gwalior to fly a sortie to see for himself the capability that this pod provided.
While the pod provided a good capability for reconnaissance by both day and night, its strength lay in its ability to successfully guide laser guided bombs. Accordingly, integration of laser guided bomb along with this pod became a critical requirement. The team worked day in and day out to come up with a workable solution. The primary issue was the integration of a new fuse, since the fuse in the previous trials had failed. Having searched far and wide, the team was able to successfully integrate an old fuse lying in one of the bomb dumps. Along with some mechanical modifications on the bomb kits and the carriage pylons, these were successfully demonstrated for use by the operational squadron. A quick set of trials were undertaken to prove the end to end integration of the entire modification, in order to clear it for operational use. This included a release of a laser guided bomb at an air force range. It was to the credit of the entire team that worked in Gwalior, the pods and LGBs were ready to be deployed on 4th Jun 99.
Tiwi landed up on 5th morning at the base where M-2000s were forward deployed. He quickly went about training a small team from 7 Sqn on the new pod. Within days it was deployed for reconnaissance missions to locate enemy targets on the icy heights of the Himalayas. The first real success came on 16 Jun, when the logistics camp on Muntho Dhalo was located using the pod’s reconnaissance capabilities. While earlier intelligence photographs showed the camp to be much smaller, its location at the base of a cliff made it difficult to spot visually and thus target it with accuracy. However, with the pod, not only was the camp visually located (it had grown substantially in size) but the pilots were able to plan optimum directions of attack to inflict maximum damage. The go ahead to target the camps was given on 16th Jun itself. The morning of 17th Jun saw a wave of attacks on the target, led by four M-2000s carrying 250 kg bombs. The attack was quickly followed by a bomb damage assessment (BDA) sortie using the Litening LDP, which confirmed the extensive damage to the camp. It was a major success for the Indian armed forces, as not only did the Pakistani forces suffer heavy casualties, it also dented their capabilities for reinforcing their forces in the Batalik sector. The use of the Litening pod for target acquisition and BDA proved its utility in the ongoing operations. Similar template was used in many other subsequent attacks in other places, most notably in the Mushko valley.
On 24th Jun, the first use of LGBs was made against enemy targets on Tiger Hill. Located north of Drass, Tiger Hill was an imposing feature that dominated the Srinagar-Leh road. Because of the presence of Pakistani soldiers on Tiger Hill, accurate artillery fire was being directed on our military positions around Drass. It also rendered the highway unusable. Intelligence available had indicated the accurate position of enemy bunkers and tents. Considering its height of over 16000 ft, its importance as a target and difficulty in putting a conventional attack, it was decided to target the enemy positions using LGBs. Accordingly a two ship formation with Tiwi and Sqn Ldr Mohan Rao in one two seater and Wg Cdr Nambiar with Sqn Ldr Yadav in another two seater went for a planned attack on 23rd Jun. However, they had to return because of drifting low clouds that covered the target, making deployment of laser guided bombs risky (our troops were in close proximity). Therefore, the attack was planned for early morning of 24th Jun. In the meantime, the CAS, ACM Tipnis landed up at the base on the evening of 23rd and was keen to fly a mission with the Litening pod. Tiwi flew a sortie at night with the CAS. The sortie was flown overhead as the target area was covered with clouds. After the sortie, the CAS expressed his desire to fly in the Tiger Hill mission next morning. Considering the risk involved, it was decided to put him in another two seater with the CO, Wg Cdr Chabra. He was following the main formation and maintaining a higher height. As usual, the escorts for the mission was provided by 1 Sqn. The mission went as planned, with the same team as the previous day. Tiger Hill was clearly visible from more than 50 miles. The army troops had also provided markers at the base of the hill (for easy identification). Since our own troops were in close proximity, this was always important to avoid fratricide. Both aircraft were able to acquire the targets easily through the pods. Both the aircraft launched near simultaneous attack from two different directions. The LGBs were being dropped at altitudes beyond the limit of their envelope. The targets were hit accurately and resulted in significant casualties. It also paved the way for an easier assault by our own ground troops subsequently.