Air Marshal R Nambiar is the AOC-in-C of Western Command, and was the first fighter pilot in IAF to hit the Pakistani infiltrators at Tiger Hill during the Kargil War with a precision-guided bomb. A test-pilot, who flew the Mirage 2000, dropped five of the eight Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) during the Kargil War and was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry). Weeks ahead of Kargil Diwas, he spoke to Sushant Singh about his experience during the war.
Two decades on, what is your abiding memory of the Kargil War in which you were an active participant?
What I vividly recollect about those times is how we were very innovative, we fought with what we had, we had no choice. Given the circumstances of what we did not have, we pooled in all our resources, the IAF put its thinking caps on. We managed to achieve a level of capability which never existed before that date. Mirage 2000 was procured way back in 1985; however, in 1999, it had no ground attack capability other than what had been bought along with the aircraft and even that was not suitable for mountain warfare. Given the circumstances and the target, and the new requirements for targeting with precision at altitude, what we achieved is actually stupendous.
You were the pilot who got the first LGB on Tiger Hill, with an untested system which had been rigged at short notice. What was it like when you went for that bombing?
The first thing was apprehension: whether it will work or not, something will go wrong. We were proving something on the fly, actually doing a trial in war and, therefore, a whole bunch of uncertainties were weighing on our mind. It was a privilege to be selected for such a mission but there was a worry that you would make a faux pas and probably underachieve what you set out to do.
At the end of the mission, we used to feel so thrilled that it worked. Our mission launch success rate was very high. I must admit that in peacetime, we do not achieve such sort of capability. It was a team effort, my people on the ground, each one of them, contributed tremendously, countless sacrifices were made in terms of time, focus and energy.
What were the big lessons drawn by the IAF from the Kargil War?
One of the biggest lessons we learnt was that we need additional capabilities for day and night fighting. We had the capabilities by day but night capabilities were found wanting. War is a 24X7 activity and precision night targeting is something we acquired in the nick of time to get the attack through in Kargil. This happened because of very good support from Israel. They had sent in a team from Tel Aviv to operate out of Gwalior and they were working round the clock to fix many bugs in the software which existed due to the complexity of the task. We had a direct liaison with our defence attache there at that time, Group Captain Charlie Brown, who later retired as Air Chief.
What has changed for the IAF between Kargil War and now?
Precision targeting, day and night, has improved dramatically. What we achieved in Kargil was short-range, 10 km, 15 km using the LGB. Today we have the capability to hit 300-400 km with the Brahmos…
Another major jump has been our communication network; that boggles my mind. We were then using unsecure BSNL lines to communicate between Adampur and Srinagar. We had to fall back on Army ASCON lines or SecTel to communicate securely. All that was cumbersome and in short supply. Today, we are a fully networked force and that is a major jump. In addition to that, 20 years later, we have had the induction of Sukhoi 30. We have ordered 272 of them, and they are about to be fully delivered, the LCA has come on the scene and is being inducted, the Mig 29 and Mirage 2000 have been upgraded.
Technology is seen as one of the key areas for IAF, as was seen at Balakot recently. Is that the biggest challenge for the IAF in the future?
Technology will always be a major key area for the IAF. It is what differentiates IAF from the other two services: it is popularly said that one may march and one may even swim but one cannot fly without technology. As we have progressed, we have had quantum jumps in technology, we are now at the cusp of a new generation, the advent of the fifth generation and, therefore, technology is getting us more capabilities. But our enemies are doing the same exercise and we are having more challenges in the air domain. We have to operate within the restrictions of the technology that the enemy possesses.