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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

The Invisible Heroes

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Sqn Ldr Anil Chandla In the Indian Air Force, it is the fighter pilots who, with their death-defying missions in supersonic jets and breath-taking aerobatics, invariably hog the limelight and public attention. What the public forgets is that behind every successful mission flown by our brave pilots there are countless others, who maybe faceless but whose contribution is no less. For instance, there are the engineers who maintain the aircraft and the logistics support and backup that go into making each mission a success.

However, one section hidden away from the public eye, that played a key role in making the IAF's Operation Safedsagar (literally, 'white sea') successful in clearing out the intruders from Kargil is the Photo Interpretation Cell. Members of the PI cell worked quietly in their offices in New Delhi and some at the Avantipur base from where the jets for the operations would take off, but it was the PI cell's effort that actually made all the flying by our pilots worth the effort.

What the cell does is identify and locate the enemy targets so that the IAF pilots can then blast them. ''Of all target identification, the most difficult are the ones on the mountain tops,'' said Squadron Leader S Jacob, who works in the PI cell in Air Headquarters.

Sqn Ldr S Jacob Soon, aircraft were pressed into service to take pictures of the enemy camps below. ''Different types of cameras of different resolutions are used since we require different types of photographs and thousands and thousand of such snaps were taken by our pilots,'' said Jacob. Thus, the aircraft are sent in for reconnaissance missions by the hundreds, taking photographs of the entire area held by the enemy.

''The army often gives us direction saying that they were fired upon from such and such area, which we then immediately photograph to build up our data bank. We also get photos from our own missions that carry out surveys of the area where operations are on', Jacob revealed.

Now begins the task of the PI cell. Each and every photograph is scanned for minute traces that can reveal enemy presence. It is worse than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, even though the photographs are enlarged.

''We go through the photographs to look literally for specks that might well have just been dirt,'' said Squadron Leader Chandla. But the speck could also be something foreign on the barren mountains, such as enemy tracks, or an enemy camp or a gun position.

Jacob showed a mule trail. It was just about some 10 to 12 dots on the enlarged photograph. Here is where the Sherlock Holmes in the PI cell personnel comes out. ''If we spent our time looking at every speck, we could be here for weeks on end. Given that we are racing against time with the air operations on, we have to use deductive logic to know which is a natural formation and which is not,'' said Jacob.

Jacob and Chandla with a map of the Kargil sector To give an example: if there is a trail of dots that goes round a natural formation, then it is likely that humans are involved. ''Mules and supply porters will naturally go round a rock. But if the specks are natural formations, then they would go through the natural formation which may be a peak or feature,'' explained Chandla.

Similarly, igloo huts, tents, supply routes and camps are identified and located. After all, tracks would lead to a camp or depot, and hence if any series of specks does not lead to something identifiable as a man-made feature, then one can assume that the initial specks were a natural formation.

As Chandla adds, it isn't just as easy because the element of human error in judging, given that after all these are just specks or large dots. ''We all actually have heated debates with each other on what each dot or speck means. And we have to convince the entire team with logic and deduction why this speck and not that speck is a man-made feature and not a natural formation,'' he adds.

So now the PI cell has identified the presence of the enemy. Great! But where in those huge barren mountains is this position located?

The PI cell first puts together the individual photographs to make a whole picture of a mountain range. ''We have to take all the photographs and put them together. It is like a huge jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of mosaic pieces being put together,'' pointed out Jacob, adding, ''when we put these photographs together, an error by one millimetre could ruin the whole setup.''

Initially, it takes time because all the snaps look alike. ''But as you gain experience, you realise that each mountain is an individual with some unique features. Thus, now we can just look at a vertical shot of, say, Tiger Hill, and immediately recognise it because it has certain features no other mountain has,'' said Jacob.

Sqn Ldr P K Sharma and Chandla with a visitor poring over a map Chandla said that initially it would take hours to identify a particular mountain or locate a mountain on the map. ''But today, it is just a matter of minutes. We take one look and know which mosaic fits in where,'' he said.

When the photographs are pieced together, what one gets to see is an overview of the mountains. The snaps taken by the pilots on reconnaissance involved vertical shots and oblique shots that look clear into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. But these are necessary to help map the supply routes and supply bases on the Indian side that the Pakistanis were supporting. With the IAF targeting supply bases and camps, rather than individual posts, the former two were important.

Once the difficult task of putting the photographs together is complete -- to give a huge backdrop of the entire Kargil warfront, often with close ups of the specific sectors such as Mashkoh, Drass, Kaksar and Batalik -- comes the task of matching the photographs with the map.

This is a job involving the draughtsman and others in the PI cell, where the emphasis is clearly on teamwork rather than on individual effort. ''It is our teamwork that gives us success,'' said Jacob while introducing me to the draughtsman who was working on a map.

Here, the PI cell personnel match feature on photograph with feature on the topography map. ''We check the hills and drains (rivers and rivulets) which are a dead give away,'' said Jacob. It is of utmost importance to know that the enemy targets being identified are on the Indian side of the Line of Control.

Matching photographs with the map helps the PI cell to mark out the various positions held by the Pakistanis, including specifically spots such as supply depots, camps and supply routes. The co-ordinates of such positions are noted by the PI cell and sent back to the operations department as well as the army.

''Once the pilot gets the co-ordinates, his work is much easier. Now he has a specific target located at a precise point. On his air strike mission, he is given the target besides information about specific features of the target area. The pilot can thus locate the enemy position, fix his guns on them, and fire away,'' said a fighter pilot, who is part of the operations section of the IAF.

As Jacob said earlier, interpretation of the mountain photographs is most difficult. ''A mountain top or ridge is full of rocks and drains, turns and twists, and on photographs these show up as dark spots and shadows. Hence, distinguishing between a natural formation and a man-made formation is very difficult. By comparison, the deserts are bare and hence any man made feature would stand out like a wart on the nose,'' he said.

Similarly, identifying man-made features on the vast plains are not difficult, but in the jungles again it becomes difficult given the foliage cover. Another aspect that is gaining importance is identifying targets in cities and urban landscapes.

It may be recalled that a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation aircraft by mistake bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, creating an uproar. This, obviously, was a photograph wrongly identified as a Yugoslavian arms depot, which the pilots then bombed.

Thus, it was the grit and hard work of the Photo Interpretation Cell staff that helped the IAF fighter pilots pick up the enemy positions with ease. Their precise bombing in turn made it easy for the army to retrieve the hills lost to the Pakistanis. And give India a great win!

The Rediff Specials

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