The Indian Air Force inadvertently had Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif in its crosshairs at the height of the Kargil war, concludes a story in The Indian Express.
According to the story, at about 8:45 am on June 24, 1999, an unarmed trainer Jaguar aircraft of the Indian Air Force flying near the Line of Control, “lased” a ground target, that is, fired an invisible laser at it. This would allow a second, armed Jaguar, to release a guided bomb that would hone in on the ground target by following the reflected laser light.
‘It was a target in Mushkoh Valley, where a logistics dump was seen by the Jaguar aircraft. The first Jaguar lased against the target and the second Jaguar was to fire a laser-guided bomb,’ the story quotes retired Air Marshal Vinod Patney, then air officer commanding-in-chief of the IAF’s Western Air Command as saying.
The attack was called off at the last moment, according to Patney’s account. ‘When the captain of the lasing aircraft suddenly had a doubt and told him not to fire, he came back and found from the video that it was Gulteri.’
Gulteri, ‘a forward administrative base of the Pakistan Army, was at the forefront of providing logistics support to Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil War,’ according to the story. The base lies nine kilometres inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, opposite Dras in India.
This incident is potentially of startling significance because an official document seen by The Indian Express describes the near-bombing and then concludes: ‘Later, it was ascertained that the PM of Pakistan, Mr Nawaz Sharif, was present at Gulteri’.
Patney says he was not aware of Sharif’s presence and notes that ‘hitting Gulteri was against the rules’. During the Kargil war, the IAF was not authorized to fly across the LoC or engage targets on the Pakistani side.
The consequences of hitting Gulteri, even if Sharif had survived, would have been severe, leading to a drastic escalation of what was until then a localized war, and shutting off diplomatic avenues for defusing the conflict.
The Indian Express story has much going for it. It’s by veteran reporter and former army officer Sushant Singh, who is widely respected both among his colleagues and India’s foreign policy and defence community. The story also quotes an official document and has a retired senior officer of the IAF on record.
Singh’s story will be seen by some as evidence of the risks of inadvertent escalation during a limited war. While this may be true, a couple of caveats are in order. One, if IAF planes had engaged Gulteri they would have violated their own rules of engagement. Two, while Sharif was visiting troops along the LoC that day, it’s possible the official document is mistaken about his presence in Gulteri when it was lased. Only detailed reporting from the Pakistani side will clear up this point.