Mission Victory India spoke to Lieutenant General Amarnath Aul (Retd), who served as the Brigade Commander of the 56 Mountain Brigade, which was a part of 8 Mountain Division. General Aul oversaw all major operations during the 1999 Indo-Pak Kargil War, which was the first 'Limited War' India fought. The General offers a ring side view into the conlict fought between two nuclear powers atop the jagged Kargil heights 22 years ago in this candid interview.
Excerpts from the Conversation
Q. What is the background to the Kargil War, were we caught unprepared and off guard?
The Kargil Brigade’s (121 Independent Infantry Bde) Area of Responsibility extends from the Batalik sector in the East to Mashkoh Valley in the West. Except for a few places, the Line of Control was unheld and even some of the posts along the LoC were vacated during the winter months. The terrain along the LoC was considered to be impassable at most places along the LoC. The Mashkoh Valley had no posts and reconnaissance patrols were required to patrol the LoC.
This was a clear indicator of the wrong perception about impassibility of terrain leading to complacency. At the ground level, our information about the enemy was vague about enemy intrusions till they were finally detected by our grazers in early May 1999 in Pathani attire. Therefore, at the tactical level, we were caught unprepared due to our complacency of the impassibility of terrain and lack of patrolling the LoC.
Q. What were Compulsions which led to the triggering of war
Initially when the intrusions were detected, it was felt that terrorists’ groups have infiltrated, and they would be cleared very soon. Subsequently, it was very apparent that we were facing a regular force which had penetrated deep inside all our sectors. The threat to NH1A was apparent as it is the only connectivity between the Valley and Ladakh region which was a lifeline to the latter.
The enemy aim was to cut off the lifeline to Ladakh, capture Turtuk in the Nubra Valley which would isolate parts of Siachen from the Ladakh region. With situation prevailing in mid May 99, we had to take a decision to clear the enemy from our side of the LoC. It took us some time to build up our forces and fire power before we finally launched our offensive.
Q. What was duration of the conflict?
Operation Vijay lasted for 50 days. During operations we had no military exchanges. After the ceasefire, we had limited exchanges in clearance of certain features which needed to be vacated by them and when they accepted to take back their dead after the capture of Tiger Hill.
Q. What were the distinctive roles played by the Indian Army and IAF in the conflict
In mountainous terrain as it exists in the Kargil Sector, major effort has to be by the ground troops as they have to capture objectives and subsequently hold them. The IAF is in a support role. In mountainous terrain, it is not easy to achieve a high grade of accuracy. Initially, the MI 17 were used to bomb Tololing on 28 May 1999. One of the aircraft went down being hit by a Stinger missile.
Thereafter helicopters were not employed. Tiger Hill was targeted by Laser Guided Bombs, but due to the weather conditions the LGBs were more often than not able to lock on to the targets. However, subsequently, the IAF was extensively used in the Batalik in close support and destruction of enemy ammunition dumps.
The situation in the initial stages were as follows. The enemy and terrain information were sketchy. The deployment of subunits was in penny packets. Upon arrival we were asked to launch operations without acclimatisation. Furthermore, our units were not equipped with proper clothes, weapons, and equipment. The troops deployed were not in physical contact with the enemy.
Limited or no patrolling was being carried out and the intrusion was not taken seriously. In fact, it was felt that intruders would be evicted within 48 hours. The perception was that the intrusion was by Mujahedeen. There was a tendency to break up cohesivity of the units and to react to every situation. There was lack of artillery support and porters, and animal transport were unavailable. Lastly, in the initial stages I had only one Battalion for offensive operations and five firing units which were utilised to clear the ridge lines leading to Tololing Top.
Q. What helped turn the tide of war?
On 1 June 1999 we came under the command of 8 Mountain Division. Finally, having realised the strength of the enemy at various heights, we got into the process of building up our forces and firepower to almost 20 FUs. This took us almost 12 days to gear up. The first assault was launched on Tololing on 13 Jun by 2 Rajputana Rifles with 18 Grenadiers providing the firm base. The objective was captured by the morning of 14 June 1999. Tololing was the first objective to be captured and it paved the way for our subsequent successes.
Q. What turned the tide towards vijay?
Detailed planning and execution of operations. Commanding Officers were given the independence in planning and execution of tasks after detailed recce and information on deployment of the enemy. Surprise and deception measures were the hallmark for executing these tasks to ensure enemy attention is diverted from the actual direction of assault.
Artillery played a major role and was utilised to the maximum in pounding objectives. Bofors were also used extensively in the direct firing role. The motivation, the will to win, the junior leaderships displayed was par excellence. Enough time was given to the infantry units to recycle and reorganise for subsequent operations. Problems of logistics was overcome by commandeering porters and ponies from Amarnath Yatra.