The highly complex Balakot operation was planned and conducted by the IAF through outstanding team work within the service, as well as with other government agencies
|By Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis (Retd) |
Led the IAF with distinction as its Chief during the Kargil War in 1999
A month after celebrating its 69th anniversary, the Indian Republic awakened to its strategic responsibility of protecting its citizens. An awakening that shook off the blindfold of self-delusion that had cajoled itself and its citizens into believing that destructive attacks against its people and real estate were acts of terror by extreme radical groups, and finally accepted that these were in reality acts of war, and had to be responded against as such. The hitherto warnings and mere declaration of intent to take “appropriate” action were the reactions of a weak and indecisive nation. Such releases of hot air, without any hot action in tandem, emboldened the perpetrators to continue with impunity. The comity of nations “lip-serviced” our restraint, but ignored our pleas for universal recognition and banning terrorist groups as war-making scourge to civilised humanity; Pakistan’s bogey of a tactical nuclear response to military action by India, in the absence of India’s failure to dismiss this canard, ensnared the world into accepting this falsehood.
INADEQUATE DETERRENCE VALUE OF ARMY’S SURGICAL STRIKE
After the killing of 19 Indian soldiers at Uri on September 16, 2016, the government was adequately incensed to authorise a surgical strike by our army at a place and time of its choosing. The Indian Army responded professionally to this “freedom-of-action” availed to it, planned its retributory attack based on accurate and reliable intelligence and 12 days later, audaciously attacked terrorist forward launch-pads across a frontage of 2 km, with an ingress of 500-1000 metres across the LoC. While this was a bold overt action, its penetration was shallow and within PoK. While successful in its objective of avenging the Uri attack killings, besides unnecessary internal political wrangling on its effectiveness, there wasn’t any change in the continuing status quo.
THE STRAW THAT FOUND THE CAMEL’S BACKBONE!
February 26, 2019 will go down in Indian history as the day that India Indianised the English idiom “the straw that broke the (Arabian) camel’s back” to “the straw that found the (Indian) camel’s backbone”! For that is exactly what happened: The dastardly suicide-for-mass-murder of 42 CRPF jawans by the JeM on 12 February, 2019 resulted in India changing its strategic paradigm, by taking two decisions worthy of a nation striving to be in the global vanguard of the 21st Century: foremost, neither lines of control nor international borders would be allowed to be barriers in India taking recourse to military action to protect itself and its interests; second, a clear-cut acceptance that the Indian Air Force has a stand-alone strategic role, and that it will be given the freedom to exercise this role, at a time and place of its choosing.
Indian Air Force has a stand-alone strategic role, and that it will be given the freedom to exercise this role, at a time and place of its choosing
Through the fogs of political mud-slinging and media hubris of every channel and newspaper having the true “inside” story, most Indians are missing the trees for the forest! The IAF had enacted two most complicated composite aerial actions in today’s technologically intense air-battles. Hitherto we have been drawing lessons from US aerial warfare strategies and tactics; today they are trying to analyse the reasons for our two brilliant aerial successes, yet at the same time attempting to disprove our success of downing the redoubtable F-16 by the vintage (“flying coffin/widow-maker”) MiG-21, for that indeed is a bitter pill for the US and the makers of the F-16 to swallow!
Genesis of the Paradigm Shift
In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack on the CRPF convoy, an outwardly unperturbed PM, despite the barbs of the ever-ready fault-finding opposition, did not reschedule even his most inconsequential of engagements; an effective subterfuge, that lulled the Pakistani establishment (read ISI) to believe nothing substantial had changed in India’s benign attitude toward terrorist attacks. In hindsight it is reasonable to conclude that the CCS had directed the COSC to make recommendations for a military reposte with no holds barred; no doubt the CCS had established, either (most probably) before giving the direction to COSC, or after the IAF had presented its broad plan of action, that a tactical nuclear response was an unthinkable course of action to the Pakistani establishment in light of the stated Indian nuclear doctrine of massive responsive irrespective of the strength of the first nuclear strike against it. This strategic conclusion of the Indian establishment is absolutely spot-on! A loud and clear signal to Pakistan that its nuclear policy is effectively dismantled!
IAF Chief, Tony Dhanoa’s tell-it-as-it-is approach to tasks given him or to recommendations made by him, would have convinced the COSC & the CCS that the IAF had the ability to attack anywhere in Pakistan with a high probability of success, with an acceptable risk quotient of own losses. The two most important ingredients for achieving objective of inflicting appropriate retribution through aerial-action is the accuracy of realtime intelligence on the “value” of the targets, in the Balakot case, presence of desired numbers of JeM operators (terrorist trainers/trainees) in the structures that would be targeted. Whether our intelligence service has its own moles within JeM or other international intelligence agencies collaborated with them will come to light, when the present “heat” subsides; the important aspect is that we had the intelligence that we wanted. But it was even more critical to not allow the Pakistani establishment get even a whiff of what we were up to; even a minute’s warning would have been adequate for the JeM to evacuate its operators from the buildings that were about to be hit by India’s SPICE bombs! Recall the 1999 video-clip recording the helter-skelter scampering of Pakistani intruders sitting on Tiger Hill as they heard, then saw, the laser-guided 1000 kg glide-bombs swooshing through the thin air toward them; they could possibly have survived had they started their scamper a minute earlier! Others may not remember this, but the IAF would keep the record, as a reiteration of an important lesson in keeping confidentiality of military operations, right until HOT (hit-on-target).
The Puerile Analytical Discussions
Much has been spoken and written on the veracity of IAF’s accuracy of attacks on intended targets and then on the numbers of casualties inflicted, demanding proof on claims made. The intensity of these self-appointed armchair analysts had one wonder on their nationality; were they analysing objectively or with a bias to discredit India’s claims? A seasoned reporter on military actions, in particular those aerial, knows that the after-action report on extent of success of planned objectives and inadvertent collateral damage, goes through a series of cross-checks before acceptance. The IAF followed this drill before announcing the success of its Balakot operation.
Understanding Bomb Technology
Concluding that that Balakot structures remained unharmed on the basis of no apparent external damage, exhibited lack of necessary expert knowledge on the explosive technology used in high-precision penetration bombs. They have at least two layers of explosives activated by separate detonators, each set into motion by its fuse, either on impact or after a pre-determined time delay, all this with the intent of causing specific type of damage in the intended area, while keeping close-by areas safe from unintended collateral harm. The penetration explosive enables the bomb to imbed into the intended surface to the depth desired; the main explosive head then inflicts the desired destructive effect on/in the target area.
While IAF had fulfilled its task of hitting all the chosen structures, it had neither the responsibility nor the capability to give a body-count
Planning the Balakot Attack
The highly complex Balakot operation was planned and conducted by the IAF through outstanding team work within the service, as well as with other government agencies. The ball started rolling with clear-cut political directive, followed by evaluating different options and then finalising precise military objectives, based on accurate, real-time intelligence. The actual planning of the mission would have been through operational analyses of how to achieve deception of our intent and maintain utmost confidentiality before launching the task force to deliver the coup-degrace. Determining the type and weight of munitions, along with type of warhead (blast/incendiary/fragmentation), with appropriately timed fuses to be employed, required precise calculations based on the strength of each part (roofs, side-walls, floors) of the different structures selected as targets.
As has been made known in the public domain, the IAF chose the SPICE (Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective) 2000 weapon system; it is a 1000 lbs air-to-ground dumb (unguided), non-propelled, released-trajectory-following glide-bomb, converted into a smart (guided) munition), by attaching the image-matching/gps-guided guidance system; penetration warheads with delayed fuses were used to pass smoothly through the asbestos or tinsheeted roofs without exploding. It is for this reason that there was no tell-tale, easily visible, external sign of bombing attack in any of the after-attack initial satellite pictures; high resolution (better than 30 cm) imagery from subsequent satellite photographs revealed the bomb-penetration holes in the roofs. Only photographs taken on ground would be able to show the blastdamage to the walls and their fittings.
The IAF is convinced through analyses of radar signatures that the bulk of attacking PAF force consisted of F-16s, as our own ELINT intercepts from the AWACS confirmed this
The warheads were chosen with intent to ensure that the blast effect would not cause unintended collateral damage to buildings & surrounding areas, inhabited by non-JeM population. Human casualties within the structures were planned and achieved through intense heat (limited to area within the structures) and hundreds of shrapnel from the splintering steel walls of the warheads. Technical professionalism of the highest caliber!
Verifying Accuracy of IAF’s Bombing
Given the denial tactic adopted by the Pakistani establishment, it would be the height of credulous naivety to expect the Pakistanis to take independent observers to the actual site of our attacks; they would be expected to do, as indeed they did, stagemanage a self-created non-harmed bombed area as the dropzone of IAF’s bombs. Apparently, the area shown to journalists did not exhibit the heave-effect of the ground, inevitable result of an air-dropped bomb. A professional observer, worth his/her salt would have asked the Indian side the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of the targets and then insisted upon the Pakistanis to take them to those coordinates, and thus would have established unequivocally which was the lying party!!
Intelligence reports, on the basis of which IAF’s attack was planned, not only had given the number of residents to be in excess 300, but had split the number according to their categorized status in the organization. Local reports leaking out from the locality give certainty of a very large number of “killed” casualties, with little evidence of any survivors. While IAF had fulfilled its task of hitting all the chosen structures, it had neither the responsibility nor the capability to give a body-count. Our intelligence agency apparently had reliable input of 200- 250, but possibly because of concern of safety of its local agents, did not make its report to the government, public; while the secretary external affairs declared an unspecified large of casualties, Shri Amit Shah had let slip the number.
Evaluation of Ingress Tactics of the Mirage Mission
Opposition parties and over-eager analysts hell-bent on falsely debunking the success of this barrier-breaking mission of the IAF, had everyone pay scant attention to the brilliant professionalism exhibited by the IAF in its ingress into Pakistani territory, without the Pakistan Air Force reacting effectively, if at all. The smartest move was not moving the Mirages from their home base at Gwalior; it was business as usual for them, intensifying their training by night perhaps, but keeping well to the south of the area of the selected target, as also away from the direction they would actually ingress into Pakistani territory.
Commencing their mission to Balakot from Gwalior without being detected by Pakistani radars required routing well to the east of the Indo-Pak border, until over the Himalayan ranges and then swinging west, at low level to continue masking the staggered force from the Pak radars, then pulling up sharply to the bomb-launching heights of 25-30 thousand feet. Even allowing for the stand-off bomb-drop distances, the attackers would have had to come within 30 kms of the target area. All the 12 Mirages would possibly have required air-to-air refuelling on the outbound as well as the inbound legs, not the easiest of operations in the best of conditions; under conditions of darkness, and with the stress of a maiden operational mission into a welldefended hostile skies, called for piloting skills of the highest order, as well as nerves of steel; our air warriors were well up to par on both counts!
In addition to the air-air-refuellers, the Mirage force had the support of ground and airborne radars. The surface-bound and airborne controllers, in seamless conjunction, would have had a full aerial-situation picture of the area of operation and extended the required assistance to our attacking force. Electronic battles would have been underway silently, as we snooped on hostile radars and radio communications, and possibly reduced their efficacy, if not immobilized them, through our jammers on the AWACS and the Phalcon. Perfect coordination, through clear understanding of individual areas of responsibility are the very essence of success. Excellent training and implicit faith and confidence in each other, the hall-marks of a capable service, were on display in abundance as we achieved unqualified success, without any attrition.
A Knee-Jerk Reaction
The Pakistani military, especially the PAF, was not only totally stunned by the swiftness of India’s strategic paradigm shift, but found itself unable to justify their apparent total lack of reaction to the IAF’s deep penetration into Pakistani territory with impunity. To save face, they launched a massive counter-attack the very next day in broad daylight, with 24-30 aircraft, the bulk comprising of F-16s and a few JF-17s.
Placing absolute faith in the F-16’s AIM 120 AMRAAM capability to outshoot any aircraft or missile of the IAF, they came, with more bravado than calculated bravery; they had not done a serious comparative analyses of the two air forces aircraft and missiles, the biggest folly being to write-off the MiG-21 as a vintage aircraft of a past generation, not allowing any capability to its upgraded radar, agile close-combat missiles, vectored by the pilot’s helmet-mounted sight.
The PAF Fiasco
The PAF had miscalculated the reaction of IAF’s air defence. The abnormally large PAF force was detected and engaged well before it had crossed the LoC. The F-16s’ radars and missiles were neutralized effectively by IAF’s jammers. All, but one of the 5-6 AIM 120s, that were fired, went haywire; the one that got out MiG-21, could not prevent it from downing a F-16, before it went down! Apparently, these reverses totally unnerved the PAF force and it beat a hasty retreat.
The Target(s) of the PAF Reposte
It is difficult to be persuaded to accept that the intension of the PAF was to attack army installations close to the LoC. A much smaller force could have had the required fire-power to achieve the desired objective; an abnormally large force was an unnecessary waste of effort, with an undue risk, if that were the intent. Also, the PAF, always claiming to be superior to its eastern adversary was bested by the IAF, it would thus want to hurt the IAF in revenge, not the army. Surely, it would have reckoned that the success of their counterattack, would have invited a countercounter IAF response; it would have needed its F-16s manning air defence stations. Thus, given the ibid analyses and acknowledging that the PAF attack’s force level was more akin to one that would be put up for twin, simultaneous attacks on air bases, is it not possible, if not probable, that the PAF plans were more ambitious, and were directed toward Srinagar and Avantipur? The munitions released, were dropped in panic, not specifically aimed toward any target, as the PAF attackers beat a hasty retreat. IAF and Intelligence agencies would do well to probe deeper into this angle.
Was a F-16 Downed?
The IAF is convinced through analyses of radar signatures that the bulk of attacking PAF force consisted of F-16s, as our own ELINT intercepts from the AWACS confirmed this.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison’s radar had a head-on lock at 17 km and its R73 missile gave a clear indication that it had locked on to the quarry; Abhinandan switched to “close combat”, launched the R73, and broke off. Our radio intercept monitored controller’s direction to the same F-16 to go “Hot” on its attacking Bison. Subsequently, as revealed by analyses of radio intercepts of PAF’s aerial conversations, this particular F-16 failed to make its presence known.
Bravery and high professionalism by themselves cannot fulfil given obligations, without the wherewithal required for the purpose
Two separate social-media video-clips show two different aircraft crashing post missile hits. In one clip only one parachute is seen to be descending, where as in the other, two parachutes appear. Two parachutes were also sighted by own troops from our side of the LoC. We know that only one of our aircraft, piloted by a single pilot, was downed.
Initial declaration by Pak’s Inter Services Public Relations officer categorically reported three pilots, one in custody, one in hospital and one yet to be recovered. Further, intercepts of local Pakistan Army units’ conversation established capture of two pilots; one of them was Wg Cdr Abhinandan, a second was admitted in the command military hospital, and that they were in search of the third. PM Imran Khan’s initial declaration was of two pilots.
From the above, it may be conclusively accepted that two aircraft were downed in the aerial melee.
Analyses of the photographs of aero-engines at a crash-site, clearly conclude that they are not of the Bison’s R13 engine; the photographs show a ribbed structure of the engine’s heat-shield, where as that of the R13 is corrugated. Also, the recovered portion of the outer casing of the rear fuselage is a smooth structure, devoid of the sub-panels, scoops, openings, which are the hall-marks of the Bison’s rear end. As Sherlock Holmes would have said dryly, “Elementary, my dear Watson, it’s the wreckage of the F-16, we are looking at!”
One is loath to blow the trumpet prematurely, for a bristling Pakistan and an incensed PAF are undoubtedly looking at ways to even the score of two major reverses in quick succession. Indian military, especially the IAF, will continue to be on high vigil for some time to come. They are too seasoned in this game, to gloat and relax, even after two professionally brilliant actions: the first an offensive retributory decimation of a training group of the JeM which in a cowardly act had killed 42 CRPF jawans; the second, a defensive reaction that stale-mated an ambitious reposte by the PAF.
Yet, this ageing air warrior of yesteryear cannot suppress his surge of pride at the level of all-round professionalism exhibited by the IAF in two days of high aerial drama. But the author hastens to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the bold government decision to give a free hand to the military. It needed absolute faith in the capability of the IAF to deliver on its recommended plan of action. All government agencies, with a special mention of Intelligence, contributed their bit with high professionalism. The Republic has matured, that’s for sure!
The IAF will have to continue to pay a dominant role hence forth, against increasingly belligerent threats from the western and northern fronts. Government’s directive to be prepared for simultaneous two-front action, needs accompanying action to equip the military adequately for this purpose. Bravery and high professionalism by themselves cannot fulfil given obligations, without the wherewithal required for the purpose. The military just cannot manage with shortages against authorised force levels, which themselves are below the optimum required. Extraordinary procurement measures are required, without political trips-wires. That is in fact the real challenge to the Republic.
The Indian republic has brought in a paradigm shift in its strategic thinking, we just cannot afford a slow-down now in ensuring our security.
The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author.