Reflecting on the Kargil War Nineteen Years Later: Lessons about Mountain Warfare

Colin W. Tomchick, Staff Writer

19 November, 2018

Indian Army  soldiers atop Tiger Hill

Indian Army soldiers atop Tiger Hill


Just over two years before the first American troops deployed to the mountains of Afghanistan in the initial phases of the War on Terror, another conflict had sparked in the mountains of Northern India. The Kargil War serves as an interesting case for understanding mountain warfare between two relatively well-matched contestants. In many ways, the mountainous terrain counteracted many of the modern advances in military technology. This reversion to the basic principles of mountain warfare was exemplified the Kargil War’s resemblance to past cases including the Battles of the Isonzo in World War I, or the tactics of the German Gebirgsjäger in the Greek mountains in World War II.

The initial phases of the conflict involved Pakistani troops occupying strategically important heights along the “Line of Control” (LoC), the de-facto military border between India and Pakistan. The mountainous and sparsely populated region made intelligence collection difficult and led to dangerous assumptions being made by Indian military planners; it was assumed that winter conditions would inhibit any Pakistani incursion across the LoC until the summer. It would not be until early May 1999 that they would be made aware of the incursion and occupation of the mountaintop strong points by Pakistani forces.

The command of these heights allowed Pakistani forces to direct artillery onto the valley below, jeopardizing the strategically important highway connecting the Indian cities of Srinagar and Leh. Not only did these elevated positions offer Pakistani forces a considerable advantage in directing artillery fire, they also meant that Indian forces would need to fight uphill, at high elevations and in unforgiving terrain, in order to dislodge their adversaries. As Marcus Acosta points out, Indian attempts to employ their superior air power to dislodge Pakistani forces were hindered by the high altitude and mountainous terrain; the thin air above the battlefields along the LoC made heavily laden fighter-bombers sluggish and difficult to manoeuvre. Furthermore, the mountainous terrain made targeting Pakistani positions difficult, as such commanders on the ground were only able to target general areas with air support rather than specific targets. As such, ground-based artillery remained the main form of fire support for both sides throughout the conflict.

These lessons became apparent for American forces operating in similar terrain in Afghanistan in the opening phases of the War on Terror. Despite US air superiority and overwhelming aerial bombardments, Taliban forces were able to use the mountains to their advantage, digging into their rocky positions. As in the Kargil War, the mountainous terrain hindered the ability of American forward air controllers to call in pinpoint targets, instead employing high-volume, relatively imprecise bombardments from high altitudes. The Kargil War (and mountain conflicts throughout history) demonstrates the necessity for specialized mountain troops, specifically light infantry that are trained, equipped, and acclimated for high-altitude operations.

Mountain warfare complicates military options not only on a tactical level, but on a strategic level as well. The isolated and rugged nature of the area of operations made resupply and reinforcement difficult for both Indian and Pakistani forces. Limited transportation infrastructure complicated the mobilization of personnel and materiel throughout the conflict.

In the end, Pakistani forces were pushed back from the mountain outposts that they had occupied over the winter. The ad-hoc nature of their foray onto the Indian side of the LoC complicated efforts to supply and reinforce the troops occupying the mountaintops; echoing the challenges faced by those small groups of soldiers occupying mountaintops in the past. A combination of international pressure and the capture of crucial highpoints by specialized Indian mountain troops led the eventual cessation of the conflict.

The Kargil War exemplifies the continued necessity for modern militaries to train and maintain mountain-specific forces. While conventional troops can be used to good effect in mountainous battlefields, soldiers trained and equipped for the harsh nature of high-elevation battlefields will continue to be decisive and necessary despite technological advances.