By AVM (Retd) Sohail Malik
“The world stands on the threshold of the “aeronautical era”. During this epoch the destinies of all people will be controlled through the air”. –Brig Gen William Billy Mitchells
16 Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000s and Su-30s, supported by airborne early warning (AEW) planes, stole their way into Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on the night of 26th Feb, 2019 (on the pretext of attacking some non-existent terrorist camps) hastily dropped 1000 kg bombs on a few trees and fled back into India in quick time to avoid facing the approaching JF-17 challengers. The very next day the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) paid back the Indian Air Force in full and with some to spare. In broad daylight it launched stand-off weapons targeting 4 vulnerable points (VPs), and then staying put in the air for several minutes, openly daring the Indian fighters to test their fighting prowess against our air warriors. None accepted the challenge, only Wg Cdr Abhinandan crossed the LoC and PAF was glad to shoot him down, rest of his section fled back in disarray.
Whatever may be the statement of the Indian Air Chief and however concocted the narrative of Indian Foreign office and media, Operation Swift Retort by Pakistan Air Force on 27th February, 2019 has left the Indian political leadership, military hierarchy and its Air Force severely bruised, scared and bleeding.
The whole story and Bollywood theme made up of lies fabricated by fascist Modi mafia has kept a nation of 1.2 billion people hostage and intellectually paralyzed. On the contrary Pakistani media, government and military has shown relatively mature and composed reaction, by offering peace against war-mongering Indian narrative.
The victory PAF achieved against IAF in the air battle on 27th Feb was neither a surprise nor a coincidence. While always thanking the Divine Being for His kind support, undoubtedly PAF over the year has maintained its optimum operational readiness, remained abreast of air power’s ever-evolving technology, techniques and tactics. The legacy of leadership bequeathed by Air Marshal Asghar Khan and Air Marshal Nur Khan and the examples of bravery and professionalism set by Sarfraz Rafiqui, MM Alam and many other aerial warriors in 1965 and 1971 wars and elsewhere have always made us proud. The high standards set by them have become benchmark for men in blue. Well before 26th Feb, PAF leadership had exactly foreseen the intentions of their enemy and prepared their response against IAF adventurism. That one mission on 27th Feb was true reflection of PAF preparedness, confidence and of its resolve to defend our aerial frontiers. That single mission of ‘Swift Retort’ was shining example of PAF training standards and display of how PAF maintains ascendency against a numerically superior adversary.
The IAF Chief had to humbly accept his force’s deficiencies when he publically admitted that “Rafale presence could have turned the balance in our favour” – after all his air force had just lost to a much smaller one in an air battle where the elements of surprise and concentration of force had been with him to begin with. His 200+ Su-30s and 60+ Mirage 2000s, admittedly had proved toothless against PAF’s few fighter jets. So this brings us to the basic questions of “why did they venture on 26th? Did they hypothesize that PAF would never respond? Were they over-powered by Modi’s political madness and forced to undertake the so- called surgical strikes or else both their political and military objectives were not aligned?” Were they not well equipped to take on PAF? Were they not well trained? Had the IAF leadership failed to read the will of PAF leadership?”
During this short battle, IAF lost one Mig-21 in AJK, one Su-30 inside Indian Occupied Kashmir and one Mi-17 helicopter most likely to friendly air-to-air missile, and the jewel in the crown was when poor ‘Abhinandan” was made to shoot an F-16 by Indian media, a story that credible foreign media denied, by verifying the existence of complete inventory of PAF F-16s after action. The claim of “First Mig-21 pilot in the world to shoot down an F-16 jet” has not been owned even by their ‘hero’ Wing Commander Abhinandan. Neither has he been produced in front of media to narrate the details of his heroic deed and bold encounter. India, in general, has lost face in the world and the Indian Air Chief’s loss of face has been total.
Operation Swift Retort has clearly demonstrated Pakistan’s ability to retaliate proportionately against Indian provocation while denying IAF impunity and freedom of action over Pakistani air space. For those familiar with characteristics and tenets of air power, can appreciate that it was nothing extra-ordinary that IAF was able to make a quick incursion into Pakistan on 26th Feb and withdraw but PAF response in broad daylight was far more bold, daring and conceptually imaginative. The Indian airstrike lost its value in one day-no more. Indian leadership was running from pillar to post. The Indian conventional deterrence was so badly compromised by the end of air action.
In the final analysis, Air forces of the world are measured by air power effectiveness, which in my reckoning is not only a matter of numbers and technology but of many other factors that are of varying importance at varying times. They mainly include morale, which reflects motivation and willingness to stick together and act as a team in the heat of combat. In this operation the PAF came out strongly as a well-gelled team. The way the entire operation was planned and executed and was fully supported by its smaller teams of logisticians, engineers, ATC and air defence controllers and executed by the pilots is absolutely commendable. PAF had fully transformed itself to fight in this futuristic battle under the dynamic leadership of successive Air Chiefs. Another factor is leadership, which includes the vision and performance of senior leaders at the strategic level, and their ability to design, plan and conduct campaigns at the operational level. Equally important is tactical leadership for application of force in an integrated fashion. Lastly training featuring realistic training scenarios, large scale exercises and each individual pilot’s confidence in his machine. Air war is a competition and thus its effectiveness will always be measured against an opponent, who is also changing and adapting to newer technological / operational advancements. If we analyze the complete scenario of attack by IAF and counterattack by PAF, the interplay of above factors reveals that PAF displayed superior effectiveness of air power and ultimately achieved its objectives.
Exchange of air firepower between IAF and PAF on 26th and 27th does suggest that there will always be space for conventional exchange between two neighbouring nuclear-armed states. It would seem that early employment of air power may become a new normal in any future battle scenarios between India and Pakistan. It would thus be extremely vital for Pakistan military and civilian leadership to understand the importance of the air force and ensuring its future transformation to dominate the operational environment that is rapidly and continuously evolving in spheres of technology / capability.
Air mindedness of the top leadership of a nation determines how best to apply air power to meet its national security objectives. Indian night air strike of 26th Feb and PAF’s ‘Swift Retort’ have demonstrated that air power offers itself as alternative of choice to our political and military leadership to effectively demonstrate its political will. Properly trained, futuristically equipped and gallantly led, a smaller Pakistan air force can hold a larger Indian air force at bay. A strong conventional air action could still avert a resort to the employment of strategic weapons.
“A country without a strong air force is at the mercy of any aggressor. Pakistan must build up her air force as quickly as possible. It must be an efficient air force, second to none”. –Quaid-e-Azam