Mission Victory India spoke to Air Marshal Narayan Menon (Retd), who served as the Air Officer-in-Charge, Jammu and Kashmir, during the 1999 Kargil War and led the Indian Airforce’s Operation Safed Sagar for which he was awarded the Uttam Yudh Seva Medal the same year. The senior veteran recounts the IAF's instrumental role in turning the tide of the Kargil War in India's favour favour as part of 'Operation Safed Sagar' following intial set backs in this no holds barred interview.
Excerpts from the Conversation
Q. Could you tell us about Operation Safed Sagar, and the IAF’s overall role in the Kargil war?
Ans: Operation Safed Sagar is the name given by the IAF to the Kargil war of 1999. It is congruent with Operation Vijay. IAF began shooting operations on 26th May after the clearance from government. The objective was to, jointly flush out and with the Indian Army (IA), eject the Pakistani forces from the heights they had captured along the Line of Control along the area north of Kargil.
Q. What were the operational restraints and political limitations imposed upon the IAF and how did it affect its performance in the conflict and what were the technical challenges that pilots faced while operating in the conflict? Could you explain it in a way that even the lay person can understand?
Ans: On 25th May we received the code-word to commence offensive operations from the next day. But there was a caveat. Under no circumstance were the aircraft to go across the LOC. Given that the known intruded area was about 140 km along the LOC with depths varying between 1 to 8 km, the constraint of not crossing the LOC posed considerable problems, the most severe being the restrictions on attack profiles of fighter aircraft. A fighter aircraft must sight the target, get into a dive to achieve weapon release parameters, release the weapons and pull-out of the dive while maintaining visual contact with other mission members.
Restricting attack direction, as this caveat of not crossing the LOC imposed would lead to suboptimal weapon delivery and our difficulties would be compounded by the irregular alignment of the LOC. Many of our mission plans had to be revised in consultation with Army representatives who provided target coordinates and exact location of our own troops in the targets’ vicinity. On 26th May strike missions commenced their attacks on designated targets. The fighter aircraft attacked a particular target and were immediately followed by the Mi-17 helicopter gunships. The targets were gun emplacements, enemy supply lines, firm bases and launch pads having igloo type or normal tents and ‘sangars’.
These ‘sangars’ proved to be extraordinarily strong and as we learnt later almost immune to the impact of rockets or front gun ammunition delivered with pin-point accuracy, both by fighters and by helicopters. These target systems were not the conventional ones that air forces are trained to engage. There were no mobile forces, no armoured columns, bridges/dams, or industrial targets. The biggest target engaged during this operation was a supply camp at Muntho Dhalo. This target system, in a normal all-out war would have been among the smallest targets considered to be neutralised from air. Enemy radio intercepts on 26th May evening revealed that the Pakistani forces were quite unsettled by the air attacks and had suffered casualties and materiel losses during the strike missions.
Q. How would you say the synergy between the Army and the IAF was in the conflict?
Ans: Synergy levels were good between HQ Northern Command and AOC J&K in the run up to the operations. During the conflict period there was excellent understanding between IAF planners at Srinagar airfield and representatives of 15 Corps. Real time progress of the battle was conveyed to Air Force reps at Srinagar so that attack plans could be tailored accordingly.
Q. What was the price the IAF paid in the war and lessons learnt from it?
Ans: IAF is a fighting force created and sustained to prosecute objectives of the war as laid down. No price is too high in the pursuit of victory. Many lessons were learnt from this operation. The Kargil Review Committee has laid down in detail the remedial actions to be taken. On a more specific scale, the necessity to sharpen attack skills against high altitude targets was highlighted as many of our projected conflict areas are in mountainous zones. IAF has taken required measures to meet this need.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add?
Ans: The victory in Kargil operations resulted from the raw courage and indomitable will of the young leadership and soldiers of the Indian Army and the impetus, the trigger to prise out the Pakistani forces from the occupied heights of Kargil was provided by the accuracy and effectiveness of the Indian Air Force.
More about the interviewee
Air Mshl. Narayan Menon, UYSM, AVSM, is a qualified flying instructor and a fighter combat leader who commanded a fighter squadron, two operational bases and a Flying Training Establishment and held other coveted appointments.
He was commissioned into the IAF as a Fighter Pilot on 25 Dec 64 and has 3147 hrs of accident-free flying to his credit. He is an alumnus of College of Defence Management and National Defence College.
He is a Qualified Flying Instructor and a Fighter Combat Leader. During his distinguished service of over nearly 40 years, he held several challenging field, staff, and instructional appointments, which include Head of OB Faculty at CDM, AOC J&K and ACAS (Ops). He has been Air Officer in-charge Personnel (AOP) at Air Headquartersfor more than two years prior to superannuation.
As Director Operations (Air Defence), he displayed considerable foresight and a deep sense of involvement in the management and optimisation of resources for the defence of our skies. For his distinguished service of exceptional order, he was awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal in 1998.
As AOC J&K during Kargil Operations, he was personally involved in planning and execution of all joint missions with the Army. As a result, the Air Force successfully dislodged the enemy and facilitated early cessation of hostilities. For his leadership, initiation, strategic planning, and tactical innovation he was awarded UYSM in 1999.
As Asst Chief of the Air Staff (Operations) at Air Headquarter, he was responsible for formulation of war plans and conduct of major exercises. When mobilisation was ordered after an attack on the Parliament on 13 Dec 01, he ensured that squadrons were deployed at Op locations on 14 Dec 1 itself. Despite long deployment of the personnel, he ensured that they remained at the highest level of preparedness, ready to launch an attack at the shortest possible notice.
As Air Officer-in-Charge Personnel, Air Mshl Menon was responsible for all aspects of personnel planning, induction, training, recognition, and rewards to all the personnel in the IAF. During his tenure, several policies, and innovative measures, which went a long way in enhancing the motivation and morale of the IAF personnel were initiated.
These included revival of SNCOs Commission to provide better career prospects to the serving airmen, improvement in the promotion ratios of the officers in the ground duty branches and more transparency in the decision-making process. He and his team have been able to set IAF Training Institute recognised by the AICTE as also civil aviation recognition for military aviation qualifications.
His last appointment was AOP, Air HQ, IAF during 2002/2004 from where he retired from service.