Authors: Ben Coes
The choppers lifted off the tarmac in Leh at 4:17
Each chopper was loaded with four soldiers in addition to two pilots. Each chopper was heavily armed: 9K114 Shturm antitank missiles on the outer and wingtip pylons, PKT machine guns, and Yak-B Gatling guns. The trip to Yagulung would take just over an hour.
After the Mi-25s were airborne, Colonel Durvan radioed Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur, to the south. In turn, Udhampur sent out a “Green Dot” security flash to the Indian Army’s leadership notifying them of the incident in Yagulung. It was not an unusual occurrence to have incidents flare-up in Kashmir, including in the remote Ladakh Region, and in other areas along the Line of Control with Pakistan. A majority of the incidents resulted in little activity, not even bloodshed. But often there was bloodshed, which both sides, though neither would admit it, had a strategic interest in containing. Ever since the last war, Pakistan and India had tensely coexisted, nearly going to war in 1999 once again due to tensions in Kashmir. It was in neither country’s interest to see a conflict spark in the region.
But if there was one factor that had altered the tense relations more recently, strained the already antagonistic chemistry even further than before, it was Omar El-Khayab, the newly elected president of Pakistan. The radical cleric’s election the year before had fundamentally altered the Indian Armed Forces’ level of paranoia about their neighbors to the west.
The choppers moved in the dark night across the rooftop of the Ladakh Range, up the thin, winding strip of valley along the Shyok River, toward Yagulung. As the lead Mi-25 rounded the last mountain ridge above Yagulung, the pilot flipped a switch in the dashboard, which in turn caused a red siren light in the rear compartment, where the soldiers were, to pulse on.
The pilot tapped the headset microphone.
“Wing One, this is Wing Five. We’re within two minutes of Yagulung.”
“Over Wing Five. I’m right behind you.”
Soldiers in both choppers adjusted their helmets, checked communication links, and readied their weapons.
The sky at half past five in the morning was gray as dawn approached, the terrain shadowy. Still, even in pitch-black, the next sight to come into view would have been visible to anyone. The pilot in the lead chopper leaned back in his seat, momentarily startled. As they rounded the final ridge just above Yagulung, all eyes were transfixed by the sight of bright flames and billowing smoke raging on the ground below. Violent bursts of orange and red threw themselves into the sky. An out-of-control fireball burned on the landmass where Yagulung once was.
As the chopper approached, it bore down toward the flames and smoke. The lead chopper went to the left, away from the billowing clouds of smoke. The pilot moved the Mi-25 closer. The outline of flaming huts, more than a dozen small square wood and mortar shacks, their skeletons aflame, the fires recently set.
“Northern Command Leh, this is Wing Five,” the pilot barked into his mouthpiece as he angled toward the inferno.
“Go Wing Five,” came the voice of Colonel Durvan, watch commander at the Indian base in Leh.
“We’re at Yagulung. The entire village is on fire. It’s completely destroyed.”
“Destroyed?” asked Durvan over the radio.
“Everything is gone.”
“Gone, Wing Five? Describe the scene.”
On the ground, in the midst of the flaming buildings, the bodies of villagers could be seen. On one side of the small square at the center of the village, a stack of bodies was alight in a smoldering hill of flames.
“There are bodies everywhere,” said the chopper pilot as he swung down and to the right of the fire to get a better view. “They were piled up, then set on fire. It looks like a massacre.”
The heat from the flames caused a warning beacon to ring out within the lead chopper. The young Indian pilot abruptly pulled up. The chopper lifted away from the heat. Then, with an abruptness that caused the young pilot to scream, the steel of the nose cone at the front of the chopper was struck by a violent gust of wind shear created by the intense heat of the inferno below. The powerful air current had the velocity of a hurricane. It blasted against the ten-ton chopper and knocked it sideways. The chopper jerked left and skyward, flipping nearly vertical for a split second. In the blink of an eye the chopper ripped across more than 1,500 feet of vertical air zone. It spun through the air toward the second chopper, whose pilot yanked back on the cyclic and the collective in an effort to avert the collision that was now inevitable.
The first chopper’s whipping steel rotor blades caught the tail boom of the second chopper midway down. The blades ripped through the steel of the second chopper like scissors through paper. Both Mi-25s were torn instantly from the air in a helix of flames and metal that shot the two machines toward the ground below. The carnage fell in a swatch of plain just beneath Yagulung, spreading burnt flesh and twisted metal across a quarter mile of walnut groves, which quickly sparked into flames fueled by gasoline from the destroyed attack choppers.
* * *
Colonel Durvan, who was monitoring the radar screen over the soldier of a young officer, stared at a suddenly empty radar screen.
“Wing One,” the officer barked. “I’ve lost COMM link. Are you there, Wing One?”
Wing One, Wing Five,
” the young officer repeated, insistent now. “I need some response. Are you there?”
Behind the young dispatcher, Colonel Durvan stood, eyes affixed to the screen in front of the young officer.
“What happened, Lieutenant?” asked Durvan.
“I’ve lost COMM link, sir,” the dispatcher said. “I was just talking to them.”
“Get Shelby One in the air,” said Durvan. “Now.”
Within four minutes of Durvan’s order, a MiG-29 attack jet, one of half a dozen positioned at Leh, was airborne. The jet took off as the morning sunlight was cropping at the eastern horizon. The jet lifted off from Leh and was soon scorching through the sky at Mach Two, more than 1,200 miles per hour. Within sixteen minutes, the MiG was in sight line of Yagulung. The first sight he saw was a pirouette of smoke in a wavy black line reaching like a tendril into the sky.
Dawn had come. The early morning light made visibility nearly perfect. The pilot eased off, taking the jet in an arc down toward the base of the mountain, toward the smoke and flames. The pilot was soon flying in a southerly zag between the burning village, and a quarter mile swatch of brush fires. The pilot took several runs over the burning walnut groves. He could see the rotor from one of the choppers, confirming the loss of one of the Indian Mi-25s.
“Leh dispatch, this is Shelby One,” said the pilot of the MiG-29. “I’m near Yagulung right now. I’m confirming the downed choppers. You’ve got debris spread over a quarter mile below the village. It’s a bloody mess.”
“Roger, Shelby One,” said Colonel Durvan. “Return to the base until I have orders.”
The pilot turned the attack jet to the north. In the distance, he could see dotted caps of white snow atop the northern peaks of the Ladakh Range running into Baltistan. Somewhere out there along the sharp, beautiful range, he knew, sat the Line of Control.
“Do you want me to do a quick visual check between Yagulung and the LOC?” the pilot asked his commanding officer.
“Affirmative,” said Colonel Durvan. “Look for PAF troops. But be careful.”
The Indian pilot pushed the nose of the MiG-29 in a course just above the rocky terrain, amping up the jet’s powerful Klimov RD-33 turbofan engines. In less than six seconds, the MiG-29 was moving at more than 1,300 miles per hour above the peaks. Seeing nothing, the young pilot continued on past where he knew the Line of Control ran below, infiltrating Pakistani airspace. After a few minutes, the pilot could see the Pakistani military base at Skardu, a line of buildings and vehicles, the frames of several choppers and airplanes strewn about a central nexus of buildings.
“I’m near Skardu,” said the pilot. “I don’t see much activity.”
“Get back here, Shelby One,” said Colonel Durvan. “I didn’t give you permission to go over the LOC.”
As the MiG-29 approached Skardu, the pilot eased up, then began an arc north, into the clouds. A high-pitched beeping from the antimissile radar alarm sounded. He glanced left, where he saw black smoke behind a rapidly approaching surface-to-air missile. The alarm grew louder as the impending SAM honed in.
” screamed the pilot into his headset. “
They fired at me.
“Stay calm and get the hell out of there!” came the deep voice of Colonel Durvan.
The warning beacon went steady, indicating the missile had locked in on the jet. The pilot waited a second longer. Then, with both hands, with all of his strength, he jammed the stick forward and slightly right. The MiG-29 lurched sharply right and down at nearly 1,350 miles per hour. The pilot could not see behind him, and he stayed focused on keeping his flight line steady. The whistling noise of the approaching missile blended in his head with the screaming monotone of the missile alarm, the roar of the jet engine, and the sound of Colonel Durvan demanding to know what was going on.
I’m still alive,
he suddenly realized.
The pilot swerved the stick farther right, the torque nearly causing him to vomit as he continued a nearly impossible evasion technique that sent the jet barreling toward the ground and the green and brown canyons surrounding the winding black lace of the Indus River. The whistling of the missile petered out. The SAM, he knew, had passed him by, its path now randomized as the missile headed northeast, where it would ultimately land several miles into the Ladakh Range.
The antimissile alarm stopped, its silence indicating the failure of the Pakistani SAM to strike the Indian jet.
The pilot let out a holler as he leveled the jet out a few hundred feet above the ground. He pushed the throttle forward and was soon moving again at nearly Mach Two back toward Leh.
“Shelby!” barked the voice of Colonel Durvan. “Shelby, are you there?’
“I evaded it,” said the pilot finally into his headset. “I evaded it. I’ll be back at base in a few minutes.”
“No, you won’t,” said Colonel Durvan. “You’ll take a southwest pass near Kargil and be joined by Shelby Two and Three. This is a live engagement. Pakistan threw the first stone. From Udhampur, I have my orders: you’re going back in.”
The young pilot’s heart leapt as he heard the words. He steered the MiG-29 on a western path toward Kargil. In his headset he heard the words.
“Shelby One, this is Shelby Two. We’ll be with you momentarily.”
“Roger Shelby Two,” said the pilot.
“This is Shelby Three. I have the lead. Follow me in.”
In less than a minute, the two Indian pilots behind Shelby One ripped past him and he pressed to catch up. Within a few seconds, the three MiG-29s were flying in a triangle formation to the north, past the right side of Mount Rungo and over Suru Valley. Past the valley, they arced right and climbed toward the clouds.
“You’re to empty everything you have on the NLI base at Skardu,” ordered Colonel Durvan. “Avoid the city, eliminate the base. Then get back here.”
Each MiG-29 was armed with six AA-10 Alamo missiles, which the pilots prepared to fire at Skardu Base.
The jets flew across the Line of Control and into Pakistan airspace, skimming mountain peaks covered in snow. The lead MiG-29 broke toward the ground, followed at each wing by the two other MiGs, now pushing Mach 2.25, moving at nearly 1,400 miles per hour toward the Northern Light Infantry Regiment base at Skardu. The ridge line before Skardu was soon upon them. At their present ferocious speed, they would be at Skardu in less than a minute.
Puffs of smoke arose in the hazy sightline above Skardu as the Pakistanis launched SAMs in the direction of the approaching attack jets.
“Let ’em rip,” barked the lead pilot.
The air surrounding the jets erupted in gray smoke as the pilots launched their Alamo missiles. In a matter of seconds, all eighteen surface-to-ground missiles had been fired at the base. The pilots, upon firing, swerved in three separate, well-rehearsed directions, aiming into the clouds, then dispersing, quickly foiling the efforts of the Pakistani SAMs to remove them from the sky.
* * *
At Skardu, a loud siren pierced the early morning air as soldiers ran for cover. In the sky to the south, the sight of the eighteen approaching missiles looked like an approaching flock of geese; a gathering storm, a swarm of fiery, smoke-trailed death. In a matter of seconds the Alamos descended toward their targets. The sound was high-pitched, loud, indescribable; a medley of sonic thrust with the sputtering engines of the turbofan engines.
One by one the missiles struck Skardu Base, its buildings, the ground, the airstrip. Each missile had the power to create a crater a hundred feet wide. The main command center was incinerated as an explosion hit the ground in front of it. A series of missile strikes across the small base destroyed five other buildings, the long airstrip, and the access road connecting the base to the small city of Skardu a mile up the road.
Skardu, Pakistan’s northernmost military facility, watch point for the Line of Control, in a brief, violent minute, was gone.
As the first light of dawn approached, as if by instinct, Omar El-Khayab sat up. It could not have been the light, for El-Khayab had been blind since the age of three. It was something else that stirred El-Khayab each morning, just as the light was beginning to peek through. Since the time he was a boy, he would awaken with the dawn, the first person in the house to get up.
Now, at the age of sixty-four, on this day, as on every other day, the ritual continued. El-Khayab sat up on top of the simple ash strand mat he brought with him from Paris to Aiwan-e-Sadr when he was elected president of Pakistan a little more than a year ago. He sat up and took a deep breath. Out loud, he said a prayer. Then, a minute later, El-Khayab picked up a small bell and rang it. After a few moments, the door to the small bedroom opened up.