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"Morality of Altitude"

By Srinjoy Chowdhury © 2000

I asked a young flight lieutenant about his first mission, early on 27 May, the morning Nachiketa flamed out. It would be the first big operation and officials in Srinagar briefed Nachiketa and three MiG-27 pilots about a Pakistani supply dump in the mountains, a treasure trove of fuel and ammunition and food and water, sustaining the NLI Infantrymen in their bunkers in Batalik and Kaksar. It was called Muntho Dhalo.

'I fired the first rocket at Muntho Dhalo,' said a young flight lieutenant leading the mission that morning. It was easy to spot, 'a flattish area among sharp hill features. I went in, fired my rockets and pulled out. Two other flight lieutenants attacked the target, and then, it was Nachi's turn. I heard him on the wireless. "Engine flamed out. Trying to relight." After a couple of seconds, he said: "Not successful. Ejecting!" There was a bit of panic. I was close to Drass by then.'

He would fly twenty four more missions till 11 July, over Tiger Hill, Tololing and Jubar. One night, in July, he was flying over Tiger Hill. 'It was like daylight. Our ground troops were going in and one of my friends, a major, was part of the assault. The enemy had lit up the place with flares.' He attacked Tiger Hill with rockets and 500 Kg bombs before Mirage-2000s entered the fray. He struck Jubar one eventful night. And he blasted Tololing.

'There were times when the army illuminated targets with artillery fire. One time over Jubar, I had a direct hit; I could see the explosions, the target in flames.'

At night, he saw the artillery shells, vignettes of a fearful Diwali. He saw the trails of smoke from the missiles aimed at them.


Despatches from Kargil
By Srinjoy Chowdhury

Purchase from Penguin Books India

First Published: 2000
ISBN: 0140295925
Edition: Paperback

'We saw them going past, we saw the trails. I remember a rear guy shouting over the radio transmission set. "They are firing missiles," he was saying. You never see them of course. The one you see is the one that gets you. You only see the smoke. There isn't time to feel scared then, but when you get back, you do.'

The fighter pilots didn't have to climb up the mountains under fire, but they worried about the 'endless calculations about what speed to fly at and at what height to drop the bombs'. The MiG-27s aren't that sophisticated, that computer driven like the Mirage-2000s. There were control panels in the cramped cockpit, and on the control stick, below the red autopilot and the trimmer buttons, a little switch that says OH in Cyrillic. When the pilot pressed the switch, the fires of heaven would rain on the enemy. I also spotted a television screen on a MiG-27, for the TV guided bombs. This was the mathematics of death; accuracy was about saving our own troops; a little error could lead to mission failure.

'You would miss the target altogether and hit the Indian soldiers.'

This was the nightmare.

'We were told again and again: Don't hit the ground troops, for God's sake, don't hit our boys.'

Were they making a difference? Were their missions just expensive morale boosters for the ground troops? Was the enemy bleeding? Was he hurting? The pilots had the answers.

'We see wisps of smoke when an enemy bunker gets a direct hit. Otherwise, we depend on army intelligence and radio communication intercepts for information.'

They heard about Pakistani distress signals and took credit for them. They had film of enemy dumps bombed to charred rubble.

'They say they are being pounded. They need ammunition and reinforcements. They say they don't want to die in a foreign land.'

'We call it battle assessment,' an IAF officer said about the films. It was another comfortable euphemism for hi-tech mayhem.

You don't see much at first, just hazy images from high above, black rock and ice. It is 16 June, 7:45 am. The cameras zoom in towards a dark patch in the ice and you see the igloos and fortified bunkers, like black warts on skin, all close together, the tracks leading somewhere, long lines on the ice. This Muntho Dhalo, now hidden under smoke as 1000 lb bombs, of WWII vintage, helped on their way by Israeli laser guided kits, smash the bunkers. When the smoke lifts, the igloos have disappeared, the tracks have gone; there is nothing, just an inky patch. It was all over in two minutes.

Cut to Tiger Hill on 24 June, 7:12 am. The hill is at first hidden by heavy clouds but a break in the cover allows the Mirage-2000s a crack at the dugouts and weapons emplacements on the precipitous eastern side, just below the peak, little black dots on the ice. We are a week away from the final assault. It is 7:12:40 on the camera clock when the weapons are readied. The cameras search for movement and there they are, tiny ants scurrying over the ground. The Pakistani soldiers have spotted the fighter-bombers; they are scampering towards their bunkers through the snow; their lives depend on it. It is 7:13 on the camera clock when the direct hit, a cloud of fire, razes the ridge. The fires have consumed the little black ants. You don't feel a thing. They weren't Pakistani soldiers who carried photographs of Neelam in their wallets, who wrote letters home every evening, who fired at our soldiers as they fought their way up Tiger Hill; they were ants, only ants. Talk of the morality of altitude. (Video)

On infra-red film, shot at night, the western spur of Tiger Hill explodes, the white smoke is dark, the black rock, white. There is more, footage of the fires over Mushkoh Valley, the destruction of Pt 4388, a Pakistani supply point. In the background, you see the snow-covered mountains and right ahead, a patch with some warts, the same eruption of igloos and snow tents. You watch the bombs fall, seconds after each other, and you see the flashes and count the six clouds of destruction, light grey to sooty black on black and white film. The ants appear for a second, desperately running away from the high explosives. It is the last second of their lives.

'We delivered thousands and thousands of pounds of bombs. Only two didn't explode,' said an air force officer.

'How many of them contained petroleum jelly?' I asked.

'None,' he replied, giving me a long look. 'We don't use those things.'

In the early days of the war, a senior army officer at Army HQ tipped me off.

'The air force is going to use a bit of napalm tomorrow,' he said. Officially at least, it never happened.

An Mirage-2000H flies over a rocky cliff high in the Himalayas. They were the IAF's most sophisticated aircraft on strike missions, and subsequently participated in many celebrated actions of Op Safedsagar.

© India Today

MiG-27ML [TS524] flies over the icy frontier of the Himalayas. Though not as advanced as the Mirage, they were indispensable throughout the campaign.

Close-up of an Atlis-II Laser Designation Pod (LDP) mounted on a Mirage-2000H [KF105], displayed to the public at AeroIndia 2003 at Yelahanka AFS. Also visible are training rounds of Matra Super 530D AAM (left), Matra BGL LGB (centreline) and Belouga Cluster Bomb (Background)

© Jagan Pillarisetti (Bharat Rakshak)

Mirage-2000H belonging to the No. 7 Sqn Battle Axes in a unique green-brown scheme. The visible loadout comprises of one centreline droptank, a Paveway LGB and a Remora ECM Pod. (File)

© Bharat Rakshak

An IAF MiG-27ML viewed from the 'chin', on the nose are sensors for laser ranging. Note the wing mounted droptanks; while fixed to the aircraft, the pilot cannot change the variable sweep of the wings.

Kargil War : Daily Progress of Op Safedsagar
Kargil War : Assault on Tiger Hill
Other Ops & Incidents : Kargil-II Incident

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