George Tanham’s scathing 1995 RAND Report on the Indian Air Force excoriated the service leadership for much of the Service’s ills – doctrinal incoherence, multiplicity of combat aircraft types in the inventory that has produced logistics, servicing, and training nightmares, the emphasis on platforms and, despite the evidence of the First Gulf War in 1992, rather than on high-technology suites (avionics, ground-based electronic support) and force multipliers. It is only after the report was published that Air Headquarters (AHQ) woke up to air war in the modern age, and began contemplating tanker aircraft and airborne warning and control systems.
Last week the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a monograph by a former RAND staffer, Benjamin S. Lambeth, on IAF’s performance in the 1999 Kargil border conflict. It is a straightforward rendition of what happened and how the missions were carried out, coming to what are by now stock conclusions in any study on the Indian military in wars, such as the absence of inter-service war and operational planning and, once into the conflict, of cooperation and coordination at least in the initial stages. The still bigger problem was of the complete lack of preparation for fighting an air war in the mountains because nobody in the IAF command structure anticipated an operation “at such elevations until it was forced to do so by operational necessity.” Why not? Well, to tweak one of Tanham’s conclusions, because “traditionally Indians do little formal thinking”.
Lambeth refers to the “jugaad” mentality, which all Indian organizations live (and die) by. Had the IAF planners kept abreast of technology developments, such as GPS integrated into the avionics of all fighter aircraft as standard equipment, and if the Tactical Development (TacD) cell then in Jamnagar (since shifted to Gwalior) had been tasked by AHQ to develop fighter tactics for use in mountains before, rather than after receiving the hard knocks of three aircraft downed in first three days of entering the war by man-portable heat-seeking Stinger and Pakistan-produced copies of the Chinese Anza missiles, the Service wouldn’t have sullied its record.
But jugaad has limitations, as improvisation by its very nature is a sub-optimal solution. There would be no need for it if the IAF brass, and the Indian military generally, did their homework, foresaw contingencies instead of practising missions by rote, and meshed new technologies with novel tactics during peacetime preparedness regimes.
Lambeth exaggerates the role of the US-sourced Laser-Guided Bomb – the Paveway-II. Only nine of these LGBs were dropped during the entire conflict, eight of them by the Mirage 2000 and one from a Jaguar and successfully took out the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry (NLI) battalion headquarters atop Tiger Hill. But destruction, especially of the Muntho Dhalo supply depot and base-camp that made sustaining the intrusion impossible, resulted from an innovative use of dumb bombs – the 250 pound bombs left over from when the Ajeet (the licence-production version of the Folland Gnat) air defence fighter carried them in the 1970s. He also does not mention the fact that the LGB kits purchased from the United States by IAF prior to the 1998 nuclear tests had a grievous flaw in one of the internal circuits, which prevented integration of the Paveway with the Mirage 2000 fire control system. Americans refused to help correct the flaw because India was then under US sanctions owing to its nuclear tests the year before. None of these aspects find mention in the Lambeth study.
The innovation worked out by the ASTE (Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment) staff and IAF pilots even as the battle raged, was to first correct the Paveway circuit, and then to devise tactics to drop the dumb bombs in precision-mode using the bracket-mounted bazaar-bought GPS units in the Mirage cockpit with its on-board computer. Lambeth does not relate the story behind this innovation either. IAF asked the French for advice on how to use the dumb bombs on low-value targets. True to their mercenary reputation, the French refused to part with any free advice, even though they had previously used dumb bombs successfully in precisely the manner ASTE-IAF had worked out, and suggested instead that they be given a contract for upgrading the avionics mid-operations!
The Lambeth study states that the initial series of dumb bomb attacks by MiG-23s and MiG-27s were wide off target because of inaccurate target coordinates supplied by the Army. What he does not reveal – perhaps because the senior IAF officers he talked with did not apprise him of this — is how the army’s 15 Corps spotters risked their lives to close-in on the entrenched NLI encampments and dugouts on the ridge-line and mountain slopes to get an accurate fix on these targets. This more precise data led to the dumb bombs hitting their marks dead-on in the latter phase of the conflict.
The main lessons of Operation Vijay in Kargil other than the value of self-reliance and preparing for unforeseen tactical missions, are that no foreign country will pass on professional secrets. And, as regards the French suppliers, their money-grubbing attitude, and their propensity to default on contracts on technology transfer, the Indian government has to ensure that on the Rafale Multi-role Medium-Range Combat Aircraft deal, as I have iterated in this column, that payments are timed with every technology package actually transferred, including not just the source codes and flight control laws, but manufacturing technology for every last sub-assembly and component, and that there are no technology ‘black boxes’ that we, the Indian taxpayers will keep paying for the lifetime of the aircraft.
The Defence Ministry’s Price Negotiation Committees in past deals have invariably ended up favouring the foreign supplier because they have not conditioned payouts on suppliers meeting stringent and time-bound technology transfer criteria for every little bit connected with the aircraft. These sorts of boondoggles cannot be tolerated anymore. Insiders, however, claim that owing to the usual lax approach of Defence Ministry-Defence Production department bureaucrats and the private sector company fronting for the Dassault Avions Company, a host of irregularities may be embedded in the Rafale deal. These will doubtless be investigated by the next government.
[Published Sept 27, 2012 in the ‘Ásian Age’ at www.asianage.com/columnists/school-hard-knocks-632 and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/school-hard-knocks ]