Twenty Years Ago, Nuclear-Armed India and Pakistan Fought a Chilly, High-Altitude War in the Himalayas
Was a nuclear war possible?
For years, there was a conceit that no two states with nuclear weapons have ever directly fought each other. That conceit has at times been thin. For example, during the Korean War, Soviet air force regiments battled U.S. jet fighters in support of North Korea. But Washington as much as Moscow refrained from pointing out that thinly-veiled fact, lest it escalate tensions.
But when thousands of Pakistani troops infiltrated across the Line of Control in 1999, separating the Indian and Pakistani-controlled territories, disguised as local insurgents, the pretense proved impossible to maintain before the prying eyes of global media.
Just a year earlier on May 28, 1998, Pakistan conducted a series of underground nuclear tests known as Chagai-I. Islamabad’s ascension as a nuclear power was met with jubilation in Pakistani streets and condemnations and sanctions across the globe. Though Pakistan’s rival India had conducted its Smiling Buddha nuclear test in 1974, Chagai came in response to a second India test held just two weeks earlier.
Still, in February 1999 both countries signed the Lahore Declaration expressing a desire to peacefully resolve the long-standing conflict over the mountainous region of Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority and Hindu minority.
However, the Pakistani military’s Joint Staff Headquarters, under General (and soon-to-be prime minister) Pervez Musharraf saw an opportunity to pick off salient Indian territory called the Siachen glacier. As the glacier lay 20,000 feet above sea level, Indian border outposts in the sector were sparsely manned or abandoned. And positions near the town of Kargil could be used to interdict National Highway 1 connecting the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar to the Ladakh provincial capital of Leh.
Thus, even as Islamabad and New Delhi celebrated their apparent peace accord, four battalions of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry regiment (5th, 6th, 12th and 13th) and two of the Sind Regiment (24th and 27th), as well as commandos from the elite Special Services Group, were infiltrating into the abandoned outposts at the very peaks of the Himalayas, without initially being detected.
The subterfuge could not last forever. Local shepherds first reported seeing the Pakistani infiltrators on May 3. On May 15, a six-man Indian patrol under Lt. Saurabh Kalia sent to investigate the Ladakh mountains was ambushed, captured and apparently tortured before being shot dead.
Within days, the Indian Army discovered that Pakistani forces had seized control of roughly 65 square miles of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Control, with troops dispersed over 132 strongpoints.
New Delhi mobilized 200,000 troops to evict the infiltrators, but the bulk of the fighting was undertaken by the 20,000 soldiers in the 8th Mountain and 3rd Infantry Divisions, supported by nineteen (battalion-sized) artillery regiments.
They faced only 5,000 Pakistani soldiers—but these were dug into fortified hilltops between 8,000 and 18,000 feet above sea level, and armed with infantry support weapons including mortars, machine guns, bazooka-like recoilless rifles, and Stinger and Anza man-portable surface-to-air missiles.
Because the Line of Control limited the ability of Indian troops to maneuver around Pakistani positions, many of these positions had to be assaulted head-on. Exhaustion, cold, and high-altitude sickness also posed a formidable—and often lethal—obstacle to Indian infantry.
The Indian Army deployed heavy Bofors FH77 155-millimeter field howitzers into mountain valleys. Designed for indirect fire support, the steep terrain allowed the heavy howitzers to level their gun barrels to deliver rapid direct fire with deadly results.
Meanwhile, Pakistani forward observers profited from mountain tops to spy on Indian forces moving along the NH1 Highway and call down accurate artillery from batteries across the Line of Control.
Over six weeks, protracted battles raged at places like Tololing and Tiger Hill. The latter’s summit lay 16,700 feet above sea level and could only be attained by scaling up on a climbing rope.
Posturing at Sea, War in the Air
Starting May 20, the Indian Navy also began massive redeployment, with ships, amphibious forces, and reconnaissance aircraft departing on patrols pressuring the Pakistani port of Karachi. In response, the Pakistani Navy disbursed from Karachi and began escorting valuable tanker convoys. Though neither navy saw combat, it was clear they were ready for a lethal struggle—and that India might impose a suffocating blockade if tensions escalated further.
Meanwhile, New Delhi initially remained reluctant to commit offensive airpower for fear of escalation. Instead, Indian Air Force aircraft based at Srinagar flew transport, reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions. This was not without it risks, as a heat-seeking missile struck photo-recon Canberra on May 21, though the pilot managed to return to base.
On May 25, New Delhi authorized limited airstrikes. But initially, attempts to provide air support with unguided bombs dropped by dated MiG-21 fighters and Jaguar and MiG-27 attack jets struggled to land effective strikes. One MiG-27 crashed after an engine flameout; a MiG-21 was downed by a Stinger missile and its pilot apparently executed. Then a Mi-17 helicopter gunship was downed by a barrage of Stingers on May 28.
The air campaign (codenamed Safed Sager) turned a corner on May 30 when India deployed No. 1 and No. 7 squadrons equipped with fourth-generation Mirage 2000 jets into the war. These not only exhibited superior high-altitude performance but had been hastily modified to employ Paveway II laser-guided bomb imported from the United States and Lightening laser targeting pods acquired from Israel. Moreover, the Paveway IIs could be launched outside the effective range of portable anti-aircraft missiles.
These were first precision-guided munitions to be used in combat by the Indian Air Force. Throughout June and early July, Mirages knocked out nine supply depots and command bunkers in a succession of deadly precision strikes, particularly targeting Tiger Hill.
The Pakistani Air Force was never authorized to enter the conflict, but F-16 jets from No. 9 and No. 11 squadron did shadow Indian air operations from across the Line of Control in an effort to unnerve their counterparts.
Clinton’s Diplomatic Overture
Washington had condemned and sanctioned both India and Pakistan’s recent nuclear tests, and its policy was then in a state of flux. During the Cold War, India had maintained cordial relations with the Soviet Union, while the United States overtly supported Pakistan and eventually its close ally China. The end of the Cold War removed much of the rationale for these alignments.
As early as May, Pakistan warned that it might resort to “any weapon” should the Kargil War continue to escalate. That warning assumed ominous dimensions when U.S. intelligence reported deployment of Pakistani nuclear weapons to prepare for a possible escalation of the war.
Globally, few believed Islamabad’s denials that the heavily-armed troops in Kargil were merely local insurgents. President Bill Clinton first urged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces in a phone conservation on June 15. As Pakistani positions near Kargil began to collapse, Sharif flew to Washington on July 4 and agreed to order withdrawal of Pakistani troops. This was largely accomplished, but some refused to return and continued fighting for three more weeks alongside local jihadists.
The Kargil conflict cost the lives of 527 Indian soldiers. After years of denial, Pakistan admitted its armed forces had suffered 453 dead in the border conflict.
Clinton’s negotiations also set the stage for a dramatic turnaround in U.S.-India relations, with New Delhi becoming an increasingly important international partner of Washington in the next two decades while relations suffered with Pakistan due to its involvement in the War in Afghanistan.
Certainly, the Kargil War was far from the bloodiest ever fought—but it marked a frightening new chapter in the international system as for the first time states with nuclear weapons faced off on a (fortunately limited) battlefield. India and Pakistan could easily have escalated into a wider conflict with cross-border attacks and more air and sea power in play; a scenario in which the risk of using nuclear weapons would have increased substantially.
Twenty years later in 2019, Pakistani and Indian forces again clashed on land and air. Tensions remain acute and both states deployed dozens more nuclear weapons than they did in 1999.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.