IAF’s Balakot Disaster Two Years On

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PAF Operation Swift Retort Formation Flypast - Photo by Rehan Waheed

By Air Cdre (Retd) Kaiser Tufail

As with any political party in power, the Indian elections of 2019 were critical for Bharatya Janata Party (BJP), for it wanted a stronger showing than its previous term in power. The issues of rising unemployment, currency demonetisation, farmers’ complaints of low remunerative prices, and not the least, the persistent insurgency in Kashmir had, however, dented BJP’s prospects considerably. Something needed to be done to avert a poor show at the hustings. Pakistan, perceived as India’s perennial nemesis, was the perfect scapegoat which could be accused of supporting the uprising in Muslim-majority Kashmir. BJP assessed that targeting Pakistan on charges of supporting terror in Kashmir would be fully supported by both sides of the political divide in India. According to the Pew Research Centre, their 2018 and 2019 surveys suggested that the significant majority of the Indian voters considered Pakistan as a “very serious threat” to their country, and terrorism to be a “very big problem.”

On 14 February 2019, a Kashmiri youngster carried out a suicide attack by ramming his car into a police vehicle, killing 40 troops of Central Police Reserve Force. The attack was in retaliation for the excesses committed by para-military forces, which had tortured and maimed hundreds of young men, and raped scores of women in a relentless campaign of terror. Instead of reflecting on the causes of the on-going insurgency, the Modi government found it opportune to blame Pakistan yet one more time. Without an iota of evidence to present to UN or any other world adjudication body regarding involvement of Pakistan in the attack, the Indian government decided to exact revenge on its own. With elections just six weeks away, the timing could not have been more favourable for Prime Minister Modi.

IAF struck a purported terrorist training camp at Jabba, near Balakot town early morning on 26 February. Fortuitously for Pakistan, the brazen attack started with a string of failures, which continued embarrassingly throughout the operation. Of the planned package of twelve Mirage 2000H which were to strike, two aborted on the ground, while four had to abort in the air due to cloudy weather which precluded use of the electro-optically delivered ‘Crystal Maze’ bombs. The remaining six Mirages delivered their ‘Spice 2000’ bombs from a stand-off range of 40 km; five bombs exploded on a hillside, well away from the target, which was actually a seminary that housed teenage children learning to memorise the Holy Quran. There was no loss of any life or property.

IAF stood guard on the night of 26 February when PAF’s riposte was expected. Extensive Combat Air Patrols (CAP) were flown by IAF, with surveillance support from ground radars, as well as an AEWCS aircraft anchored over Adampur. When PAF did not show up till sunrise of 27 February, IAF eased off from its highest alert state, and waited for the following night. A pair of Su-30MKI was patrolling near Srinagar, while a pair of Mirage 2000I was patrolling east of Udhampur. PAF’s deception worked splendidly when its strike package of four Mirage 5PA/IIIDA and two JF-17, duly supported by a big swarm of escorts and patrolling fighters (a mix of F-16A/B and JF-17), cluttered the scopes of IAF’s ground radars at 0920 hours. Working at the rear of the fighter package were PAF’s SAAB Erieye AEWC aircraft, and the DA-20 Falcon in which electronic warfare wizards sat ready with their arcane tricks.

Two vintage – but still quite capable – Mirage 5PA, each armed with one H-4 stand-off bomb, along with two JF-17, each armed with two Mk-83 Range Extension Kit (REK) bombs, headed towards their respective targets in southern-western –Indian-Held Kashmir (IHK). Each Mirage 5PA was followed by its communication control aircraft, a dual-seat Mirage IIIDA, which was to steer the H-4 after launch through data link, while the JF-17s’ Mk-83 REK were to be launched in the autonomous ‘fire and forget’ mode. Since the purpose of the mission was essentially to demonstrate that Pakistan had the resolve, as well as the capability of responding in kind, it was decided that there was no compelling need to pick the front door of a brigade commander’s office, or the air shafts of soldiers’ bunkers. General area bombing of open spaces in military garrisons near the Line of Control (LOC) in IHK was, therefore, agreed upon. It was expected that this ‘abundance of restraint’ would prevent mass carnage in the Indian military garrisons, which could otherwise lead to a chain of escalatory actions, and spiral into a very dangerous all-out war under a nuclear overhang. When PAF struck the garrisons within 32 hours of IAF’s abortive air strike at Balakot, it came like a ‘shot across the bow’ and had the desired sobering effect on the Indian military commanders.

Meanwhile, the pair of patrolling Su-30s were completely shocked when they were targeted by an F-16 with an AIM-120 missile at long range. Having survived a direct hit, both Su-30s scampered out of the area, leaving the field to the Mirage 2000 pair. When the IAF ground radar sought to position the Mirages to tackle the F-16s, both terror-stricken Mirage pilots expediently declared fire-control system malfunctions, and also bowed out without a fight. The desperate ground radar control then scrambled two pairs of MiG-21 Bison to tackle the rampaging PAF fighters. It was not long before an F-16 fired an AIM-120 missile at one of the Bisons that was charging in headlong, rather recklessly. The Bison was promptly blown out of the skies; its pilot, Wg Cdr Abhinandan, was lucky to parachute to safety, and was promptly apprehended by Pak Army soldiers inside Pakistani territory.

PAF Operation Swift Retort JF-17 Formation Flypast – Photo by Bakhtiar Ahmed

While air combat was in progress in the skies, an IAF combat search and rescue Mi-8 helicopter holding in the combat zone was shot down with a Spyder SAM, as the Terminal Air Defence Unit radar at Srinagar took it for a Pakistani UAV. The costly mistake resulted in six aircrew fatalities. For the IAF, it seemed like a morning of endless misfortunes.

India had the initiative, and could also exploit the element of secrecy and surprise to its advantage. However, these possible benefits were squandered by the IAF as the operation was flawed in its planning, and entirely disastrous in its execution. Some of the basic planning considerations were flouted: cloudy weather resulted in cancellation of the electro-optical weapons delivery, elevation data fed into the autonomous Spice 2000 bombs was in error, capabilities of the PAF’s BVR air-to-air missiles were not well-known to IAF aircrew, and the determination as well as the state of readiness of PAF was taken lightly. More serious was the failure of IAF’s patrolling fighters to pick up the gauntlet when challenged, allowing PAF fighters to have a free run; it reflected poorly on the morale and training of IAF pilots. Oversight of the operation was faulty at all levels of command, and cannot be put down to bad luck by an air force that claims to be professional.

It is a wonder that despite such a fruitless operation, the Indian media painted it as a great victory. Fabrications knew no bounds when an F-16 was claimed to have been downed by Abhinandan. The Indian pilot had truthfully claimed on TV – while sipping a ‘fantastic’ cup of Pakistani tea – that he was still searching for the target on his radar when he got zapped by an air-launched missile. Apparently, the Bollywood habituated Indian public least bothers about fact-checking, and two years down, continues to revel in the ‘great victory,’ despite a most discomfiting rout. It must be confessed, however, that media manipulation was the only success of Modi’s government.

The reaction of the international community to India’s brazen aggression against Pakistan was muted, and outright condemnation was absent. The closest any country got to disapproval was a ‘neither here nor there’ statement, calling all parties to exercise restraint. In an environment where freedom movements are labelled as terror campaigns – as in Indian occupied Kashmir and Palestine – it is not difficut for the host governments to justify punitive action against suspected supporters. Pakistan needs to be wary of this reprehensible trend, and needs to be at the diplomatic forefront to quell hostile propaganda by its adversaries, especially India.

Though the failed IAF strike did not bring any concrete dividends, it did open up the possibility for India to repeat such action in future. The mistakes made in planning and execution of 26/27 February 2019 operation are certain to have been remedied, and it would be naïve to believe that India is not raring for a revenge bout. India has never digested the fact that its military options against Pakistan have been thwarted by the latter’s nuclear capability. To keep an upper hand as a regional player, India is likely to resort to periodic muscle-flexing through so-called ‘surgical strikes.’ These could be conducted with stand-off weapons launched by conventional fighters, or more likely by Unarmed Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV), which may be the new norm in Indo-Pak conflicts. Pakistani military, especially the quick-reacting PAF, needs to maintain its operational readiness at the cutting edge to deter India from any adventurism in future.