School of Hard Knocks

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 and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Defence Industry, DRDO, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Military Acquisitions, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to School of Hard Knocks

  1. Kfir says:

    Actually, the “dumb bombs” used by the Mirage 2000s in Kargil were of the 250 kg. type (which I believe were of Spanish origin) and not 250 lb. WRT the IAF Mirage 2000’s GPS capability, this problem is only recently being rectified as part of the ongoing upgrade to Mirage 2000-5 Mk.-2 standards, which includes installing the Thales Totem 3000 INS and GPS capability. It is worth mentioning that prior to the upgrade, while the IAF’s Mirage 2000H which were derived from the Mirage 2000C lacked a GPS capability, the French Armee de l’Air Mirage 2000D which was derived from the Mirage 2000N had such a capability.

    The fact that the IAF achieved near precision bombing standards using “dumb bombs” is a tribute to the flying skills of the IAF pilots. WRT ToT of the Rafale, one cannot take huge bribes and expect to get complete ToT. Even then, absorption of the ToT which is given requires plenty of indigenous R&D, which has been successfully stymied by the Indian coolie politicians, bureaucracy, and certain key members of the IAF brass as is evident in the throttling of the LCA program.

  2. Kfir says:

    I believe that the need for precision guided weapons in air operations carried out in mountainous terrains is even greater than that on flat terrains. For example, on a flat terrain, a miss of (say) 10 mts. by a 250-500 kg. bomb might still result in some of the desired consequences. However, in mountainous terrain, a similar miss would well result in a hit 10mt. sideways and possibly 10 mts.++ downwards. This would then result in a remote blast, and not have the desired effects.

    The Indian coolies decision not to develop and deploy the Sudarshan LGB in large numbers is puzzling as is the continued dawdling over the Prahar missile whose salvo firing capability could have devastating effects. WRT, FAE’s I don’t know whether their use at high altitudes 15,000 ft.+ has been properly studied, since the burn dynamics will be significantly altered owing to the low oxygen content in the air.

  3. Kfir says:

    Why is the signing of the Rafale contract continually being delayed? It was supposed to have been signed by November 2012 and now the date has been postponed to March 2013. Its pretty strange given that the later the contract is signed the longer it will take for the first operational squadrons to be raised. Coupled with the throttling of the LCA project, this continued delay will cause the IAF’s air combat capability to be very seriously compromised by the time the Rafale is inducted.

    Regardless of whatever happened (or is happening) in the background, the Rafale was not only the best a/c that took part in the MMRCA, but it also comes with the least strings attached. Is the coolie Indian government dragging the matter out so that some third-rate “dumbed down” US junk can be pawned off to the IAF as a “state-of-the art” a/c, or is the quisling MMS planning to lose the next conflict India might well find itself in?

  4. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    In your book on India’s Nuclear Policy, you say that most Agni II and Agni III are deployed in mountain tunnels in the eastern Himalayas. If they are in Arunachal/Sikkim, isnt there the risk of China capturing these assets in a conventional 1962 like conflict ? Or are these areas still too far from the border for China to capture ?

    At the very least, it makes sense to deploy a big chunk of Agni-II./III (and later Agni IV/V) in mobile launchers that are in states like Madhya Pradesh/Chattisgarh (far away from the China border). What do you think ?

    • In the 2008 book you mention, I had stated that India to-date had built two tunnel complexes to position Agni IRBMs. How many missiles can be stored in these tunnels is classified information, and I cannot hazard a guess. More such tunnel complexes may have become operational since then. These tunnels are not on the forward line, or near them, and the possibility of the onrushing PLA swamping these tunnel complexes though remote, is not zero, and would, I reckon, be catered for in our response plans. The longer range Agni-Vs wil, in fact, be mobile in central India, as are two operational missile trains (rail-mobile Agnis).

      • satyaki says:

        Going by what you say, a disaster of 1962 proportions is necessary for PLA to swamp these complexes (which are probably far deeper in our territory than say, Tawang). Is the conventional imbalance vis a vis PLA so bad that this is possible ? If so, what if we adopt a policy akin to the Rajputs of medieval times: i.e, clearly convey that in the event of another 1962 like disaster, we shall use our nukes irrespective of the consequences (a much larger PRC retaliation). If credibly conveyed by a suitable political leadership, wont this help maintain status quo until our overall (nuke as well as conventional) deterrence is upgraded suitably ?

      • Kfir says:

        @satyaki: How is your prescription akin to the Rajput policy in medieval times?

  5. satyaki says:

    @kfir: the medieval Rajputs too, when faced with overwhelming force, chose to hit out at the adversary with everything they had often knowing full well the inevitable consequence.

  6. Kfir says:

    @satyaki: In this case the force isn’t all that overwhelming!

  7. satyaki says:

    @satyaki Is’nt it that PLA has a overwhelming edge ? Think about their logistic network (to see their conventional edge) as well as their hefty artillery assets. Of course, in the nuclear domain, their edge is overwhelming as well. So, the analogy is apt. Wonder what Bharat sir thinks…

    • Kfir says:

      Logistics-Yes, artillery-Yes, Will power-Yes, nuclear-Yes, air power-Yes, AAD assets-Yes, empty talk-NO, tested forces-NO!

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