June 24, 1999. Around 7 am, two Mirage-2000 fighters of the Indian Air Force’s 7 Squadron were 18 kilometres short of Tiger Hill, the strategic hilltop then under the occupation of Pakistani infiltrators. The first aircraft brought the crosshairs of the laser designator from the Israeli LITENING pod on to the Pakistani bunkers, which served as the Command and Control centre of the Pakistan Army’s Northern Light Infantry battalion, directing artillery fire at the Srinagar-Leh National Highway. When his warjet was seven kilometres short of Tiger Hill, the pilot let go the Paveway laser-guided bomb (LGB).
The video of the first LGB hitting Tiger Hill was released in New Delhi on June 25, 1999, and is still available on YouTube. The two Mirages returned after another bombing mission at a target 80 km to the west, and recorded another video of Tiger Hill. The grainy black and white footage shows a lone Pakistani soldier who had survived the attack, trying to climb to the top of the feature.
The second aircraft was a twin-seater, in whose rear seat was Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis. For the IAF, it was a momentous occasion — its first ever operational use of an LGB. It was also an achievement inspired by the famed Indian jugaad, or innovation on the fly, as the conflict on the heights raged, and after the IAF had lost a couple of fighters.
The Mirage 2000s, bought from France in 1985, were equipped with Thomson-CSF laser designator pods known as ATLIS, capable of delivering Matra 1,000 kg LGBs. The IAF had more than 60 Matra LGBs, which were purpose built for the destruction of reinforced targets. But these bombs were very expensive — more than Rs 2 crore each. Also, as an Air Marshal who was then serving in 7 Squadron, told The Indian Express, “each of these bombs virtually had a high-value Pakistani target — a bridge, a dam, an ammunition dump — written on it. With the danger of conflict escalation still there, we could not have used them in Kargil”. (As it happened, the officer said, all of those bombs were later retired unused.)
The solution came from the Israelis. The IAF had signed a contract for Israeli-made LITENING electro-optical targeting pods in 1997, but it would take three or four years before these could be made operational. The pods, fitted on aircraft, have a laser designator and a powerful camera, which provides a 10-times magnified view of the target. The Israelis went out of their way to help the IAF integrate the LITENING pods to the Mirages — Israeli technicians flew in urgently and worked with the IAF’s Aircraft System Testing Establishment in Bengaluru. As in the 1971 War, Israel delivered when India needed it the most.
Paveway-II LGBs were to be used with the LITENING pods’ guidance. India had started getting some Paveway kits in 1998, but supplies stopped with the sanctions imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests. The Paveway’s tail-kits were made in the US, the front-kits in the UK. As the IAF’s traditional 1,000-pound dumb bomb had a shape and design similar to those used by the British, it was decided to fit the 1,000-pounder into the Paveway kit. Problems with fitting the front adaptor into the bomb was overcome with jugaad, while taking care to maintain the safety of the fuse wire setting.
By June 12, 1999, these Mirage 2000s were ready to fire LGBs in operations for the first time. In routine course, these aircraft would have never flown in war because they were not certified. The Paveway kits still had defects that made the LGBs unreliable. The software of the LITENING pod had bugs: it shut down at an altitude of 30,000 feet, and its stability was not of a desirable standard.
But these were unusual times, and the IAF chose to fly into the unknown. The mission for Tiger Hill was repeated on June 25. A total of nine LGBs — eight from Mirage 2000s and one from a Jaguar — were fired until July 4, with five of them targeting Tiger Hill. They formed only a minuscule part of the 979 bombs — 348 tonnes of ordnance — that the IAF dropped on Kargil on 24 target systems, but they were a significant first.
After Tiger Hill was recaptured, the Army’s field headquarters sent a congratulatory message to the IAF on July 10, 1999: “You guys have done a wonderful job. Your Mirage boys with their precision laser-guided bombs targeted an enemy battalion headquarters in Tiger Hill with tremendous success. Five Pakistani officers reported killed in that attack and their command and control broke down — as a result of which our troops have literally walked over the entire Tiger Hill area. The enemy is on the run. They are on the run in other sectors also. At this rate, the end of the conflict may come soon.”