EXCLUSIVE

 

The Man Who Bombed Tiger Hill Tells Us How the War Was Won from the Air

Inspired overnight integration of precision bombing kits on 5 Mirage 2000 jets changed the course of the war, Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar reveals in an interview to Vishal Thapar of SP’s Aviation

Issue: 7 / 2019Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns
Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command in an exclusive interview with Vishal Thapar, Group Executive Editor of SP Guide Publications

The grainy black-and-white video of IAF bombs hitting Tiger Hill and Pakistani intruders scampering for life as bombs rained on their position, is one of the defining images of India’s determined fight back, which set it on the course to victory in the Kargil War in 1999. This video was captured from the aircraft of Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, who flew intrepid, game changing sorties as a Wing Commander during the War.

Now the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command, he narrates the story of how the IAF used laser-guided bombs for the first time, without any prior training, to deliver a knock-out punch to Pakistani soldiers occupying the Kargil heights. It is a story of military enterprise and daring on the battlefield.

SP’s Aviation (SP’s): Air Marshal Nambiar, should we introduce you as the Man who Bombed Tiger Hill?

Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar (Nambiar): Yes, that’s right. That was on the 24th of June. I was flying a Mirage 2000. My co-pilot in the rear seat was Squadron Leader Manish Yadav. We were tasked with dropping a laser-guided bomb on Tiger Hill. While there were just two of us in the aircraft, there were over a hundred of us on the ground. It was total teamwork. A lot of people strived long and hard, put in a lot of effort to make sure we were up in the air and dropping our bombs on this place.

SP’s: Give us a sense of how you pulled it off. Precision bombing was very new for the IAF, that was in the process of integrating the Litening targeting pods.

Nambiar: There was a big element of luck in this. At that point in time, we had just procured the Litening pod. It had not been integrated on the Mirage 2000 and it was undergoing tests. We had five pods at this time. All five were developmental pods, with various versions of software with a lot of glitches and bugs. And, therefore, one of the biggest challenges for us was to make sure that they functioned in a proper manner. We had to first work on the pod, work on a new weapon which we had not dropped from the Mirage before and never been trained on. And most importantly, this was the first time the Indian Air Force (IAF) was employing a laser-guided bomb. The challenge was to make sure it went well. There was a huge amount of anxiety, big worry that probably things would not go right.

“We had just procured the Litening pod. It had not been integrated on the Mirage and it was in tests. We had 5 pods at this time. All 5 were developmental pods, with various versions of software with a lot of glitches and bugs.... We had to first work on the pod, work on a new weapon which we had not dropped from the Mirage before, never been trained on. And most importantly,... this was the first time the Indian Air Force was employing a laserguided bomb”

SP’s: Did you have the time to simulate dropping of laser-guided bombs?

Nambiar: Oh, no, we had to take on this operation on our feet. The War had started. This was the 24th of June. Tiger Hill, which had a very important place in Kargil sector along that Valley which overlooked NH 1A – which is the National Highway. We had intruders sitting on top, very accurately reporting target information back the Artillery on the Pakistani side and this was causing havoc on our National Highway. It was very important for us to put a stop to that, which is why finally on the 24th of June, the IAF was tasked to get in and attack Tiger Hill.

SP’s: What is your memory of flying those precision bombing sorties over Kargil, seeking tiny targets while flying supersonic at high altitude?

Nambiar: Tiger Hill had nine Arctic tents which were pitched on a small plateau at its very tip, just about 150 feet from the top. We were coming all the way from Adampur, that is just next to Jalandhar. The Mirages were based there and we had about 35 minutes of navigation to reach Tiger Hill. While Tiger Hill looks very spectacular from the ground, from the air, the big hills which stand out in the area are Nungkung and K2. These were clearly visible and Tiger Hill was a sort of puny feature in front of it. Finding Tiger Hill was not as simple as it looked because it was one peak among many in the neighbourhood. And I must tell you that being in a Mirage 2000 with a very accurate navigation system, made it relatively easy. Now laser-guided weapon delivery requires the aircraft to be accelerated to about 1,000 km per hour speed. And at those speeds, things happen very fast. We had lots of action to complete before the weapon was actually dropped and all this required a lot of team effort and team work. Squadron Leader Manish and I had known each other for some time. Manish was a very bright youngster, very capable and he was a big asset to have in the cockpit and the close coordination between the two of us is the reason why we hit the targets right.

SP’s: There was the danger of the shoulder-fired Stingers (surfare-to-air missiles), which had already brought down two Indian aircraft. How low were you while flying above the bombing targets? What were you doing to make sure that the fighters did not get hit?

Nambiar: Tiger Hill is at a height of about 16,800 feet. The number of Tiger Hill – like many other places have trigonometric height (for identification) was 5,062 metres. We were flying about 10,000 feet above that to keep ourselves safe from the Stingers. We were safe.

SP’s: The IAF had a hesitant start. There were the initial losses. How did you get into gear? What convinced the leadership that these kind of precision strikes would work? After all, there was no precedent in the history of air warfare for anything like this.

Nambiar: I think the attack on Muntho Dhalo on the 16th of June had convinced the leadership that the Mirage was very potent and therefore, when the Litening and Paveway combination was available to us finally, and had proven itself capable of being delivered, it was but natural that they would task us for such an important target. And I think I must credit the leadership with taking the right decision, making the correct choices, and making sure that we were equipped with all this weaponry. You must remember that Litening pod was contracted for in 1997 and delivery had just started when the War broke out. So, there was a lot of forethought involved in our leadership who had decided four or five years earlier that we required a capability like the Litening pod. So, it is not something which happened because we wanted it so in 1999. There was a lot of thought and planning involved in getting us the weapon in 1999.

SP’s: We’ll go back to the spectacular video which was taken by the equipment on your aircraft. We saw the Pakistanis scampering, running for dear life when the precision bombs were raining on them. Could you see something like that from your eyes?

Nambiar: No, not at all. All we had was a four by four inch display which is just about the size of two cellphones – that was the screen dimension – and that too with very poor resolution. I think today we are talking of 4K displays and retinal displays and things like that. That was a very poor display. The quality was not at all good. So what used to happen is after we used to carry out filming of these places, we used to take it back to our crew rooms and look at them very closely on large size television screen to make out exactly what we saw and confirming for ourselves whether what we saw was what we thought it was.

SP’s: From an airpower perspective, how far have we come in these 20 years?

Nambiar: We’ve travelled a long way. We’ve made a huge amount of progress in every which way. Some of things which I’m very proud about is our communications. What we were in 1999 and what we are today is a world of difference. We have the AFNET deployed. We have the capability to now securely message each other with a huge modicum of safety and security and that is just one facet. Our weapon systems have improved tremendously. The LGBs (during the Kargil War) could go 7, 8, 10 km from the aircraft. Today, we have stand-off weapons like the Spice 2000 and the Crystal Maze which go across a much longer range. The BrahMos for example can go up to 450 km. I mean that is the IAF capability today. We’ve made a huge jump in capability terms.

“The turning point was Muntho Dhalo. While Tiger Hill got all the attention because of a very spectacular video, the fact is that the Muntho Dhalo operation was the turning point. I don’t think ever before in the history of our Air Force or in fact of the armed forces have we managed to achieve so much as we did in Muntho Dhalo. In one single attack with four Mirage 2000s dropping six 250 kg bombs each, we killed about 300 Pakistani soldiers”

SP’s: So, is the air-launched BrahMos now an operational weapon?

Nambiar: It is undergoing a set of trials. But it is working and it has shown itself to be very spectacular, very accurate and we’re in the process of operationalising it. It is just a matter of maybe weeks or months before we have the capability.

SP’s: Tell us about what happened at Muntho Dhalo and Point 4388 which were the other big events in Operation Safed Sagar.

Nambiar: Let me tell you that the turning point was Muntho Dhalo. While Tiger Hill got all the attention because of a very spectacular video, the fact is that the Muntho Dhalo operation was the turning point. I don’t think ever before in the history of our Air Force or in fact of the armed forces have we managed to achieve so much as we did in Muntho Dhalo. In one single attack with four Mirage 2000s dropping six 250 kg bombs each, we killed about 300 Pakistani soldiers. I think it was a spectacular and very successful attack and it was the turning point. Muntho Dhalo is located in the Eastern part of the Kargil sector. To my mind, after the 16th of June, when we hit Muntho Dhalo, from then onwards, the entire Pakistani infiltration attempts in the Eastern sector had come to a standstill. Tiger Hill still stood, but that was on the Western side. And the Valley leading into Tiger Hill which had a trigonometric height located on the Valley floor was 4388. So the logistic support for Tiger Hill used to flow through the Valley of 4388 from Gultari and come up the slope to Tiger Hill. That was also the way the battle was being progressed. So, 4388 was next in line after Tiger Hill. We had discovered 4388. There were lots of intrusions, there were lots of hangars which had been built into that valley and we went after them hammer and tong. We dropped something like 100 thousand-pound bombs in that Valley. Yes, hundred 500 kg bombs. There was a huge quantity of weapons thrown into that place.

SP’s: So, this was the kind of firepower which the Pakistanis were subjected to which perhaps broke their will. Sir, you were flying under tremendous constraints, not just on the edge of your operational envelope with precision equipment which you were flying for the first time, but there was also this big embargo not to cross the LoC. How big a challenge was it?

Nambiar: I must tell you something. The Mirage was not the first aircraft which I flew the Litening pod in. I had flown the Litening pod in, at that point in time, two other aircraft. I had flown the Litening on the F-16 and also on the Phantom 2000. Both of them in Israel while I was evaluating the Litening pod. That was in 1996-97. The pod was not yet fully ready and we were evaluating it on behalf of the Indian Air Force. So, when the Litening pod actually started inducting into the Indian Air Force, at that point, I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. I was available for flying. I was at that time a Wing Commander posted in Gwalior and I was responsible for Flight Safety. And in a jiffy, when the war broke out, I was catapulted – without being asked when or where or how – into battle. Therefore, the first challenge was getting used to the fact that we were in hostile airspace, there were lives at risk and we were going the harm’s way. But it was thrilling all the same. I can still feel the hair on the back of my hand stand. I can still recall that experience. It was like something really out of this world.

SP’s: The Jaguars had the Litening targeting pods in greater numbers at that point in time. But could you explain why the Mirage 2000 was selected for these missions?

Nambiar: While we had bought 10 Litening pods for the Jaguar, they had not yet been integrated. The Mirages were ahead in the integration chain. And that is why the Mirages were used. And the Mirage moreover had great advantage when flying at those heights. The Jaguars had a problem of thrust. It was not possible for that aircraft to operate with the sort of relative freedom which the Mirage enjoyed at that altitude. Muntho Dhalo proved that the Mirage could target accurately even with dumb bombs. And having been equipped with the Litening pod, we were the only aircraft really capable of doing business in guided bombs at that high altitude.