|Post-Balakot, Pakistan scrambled jets from 8 bases. Was 10 minutes late: IAF report|
“The strategic-surprise” of the Balakot airstrikes by the Indian Air Force in the Khyber Phaktunwa region of Pakistan on February 26 was “complete and total” despite Pakistan being on high alert, according to a report on “the lessons learnt” from the operation, which also mentions that five of the six designated targets were hit, the first official acknowledgement of the number of targets.
The report, a detailed assessment of the positives and negatives of the operation, to be used as a reference for future operations, was discussed at a high-level meeting of IAF recently.
On February 26, in response to a suicide bombing attack by a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, that killed 40 troopers, and to pre-empt more such attacks, IAF struck a training camp of the Pakistan-based JeM in Balakot. There’s been a lot of discussion and debate on the attack, including on the damage inflicted, but the report marks the first time IAF discussed the operation’s effectiveness.
The assessment has revealed several positives, but because “no battle plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy”, there were also deviations from the plan, and some outright negatives too.
The “strategic surprise” was so complete that only after IAF’s Mirage-2000s delivered the weapons package and turned back did Pakistan scramble jets from “as many as eight fighter bases”. These included the Pakistan Air Force base Mushaf in Sargoda, Rafiqui in Shorkot, Minhas in Kamra Attock, and Murid in Chakwal. “But the distance between PAF and IAF fighters was at least 10 minutes,” a senior officer in the security establishment said on condition of anonymity.
“Pakistan was expecting a response, but from the PAF response it appears it did not expect us to take the aerial route,” the officer added.
The “accuracy” of intelligence and the subsequent target selection is one of the positives the report talks about. “With this quality of intelligence, we can hit any target inside Pakistan within three hours,” a second senior security establishment official said, asking not to be named.
Among the other positives, the report lists the proficiency and skills of pilots who flew the mission, and describes them as “top class”. Keeping in the tradition of IAF, the Commanding Officers (CO) of the respective squadrons flew the mission. All pilots who flew the mission are likely to be awarded for their skill and ability.
Importantly, although nearly 6,000 men and officers of IAF were involved in the execution – aircraft flew from different airbases spread across India – there were “no leakages”.
Deception at the strategic and tactical level deceived Pakistan, the report says. While Chief of Air Staff BS Dhanoa and the top echelon of IAF went about normal duties — including attending conferences, banquets, and addressing Defence Attaché’s, so-called Combat Air Patrols along the border areas — before the strike lulled Pakistan to some extent.
Importantly, during the attack, a strike-element of Russian made Su-30s flying towards Bahawalpur, Pakistan, where the JeM is based, forced the neighbouring country to divert its energies and air defence capabilities in a separate sector.
Finally, the accuracy of the weapons have also come in for praise in the report. IAF used Spice 2000 precision guided munitions (PGM) to hit the target, among others. “Five of the six designated targets” inside the Jaish-e- Mohammed (JeM) training camp in Balakot were hit directly, the assessment report has concluded.
Cloud cover and weather conditions did create problems for the fighter fleet, the report says. Importantly, the entire weapons package — apart from the Spice 2000 — carried by the IAF fleet wasn’t delivered, leading to questions about to weapon to target matching. Changes in the software made to integrate new weapon systems with vintage Mirage aircraft didn’t completely work.
IAF use indigenous skills to integrate the new weapons systems. “The Balakot experience underlines integration of new weapons with platforms should be done by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) despite the cost involved,” said a senior official aware of the assessment, who did not want to be named.
The other “negative” listed in the report is in the politico-strategic domain. IAF, when planning the attack, gave priority to eliminating the maximum number of terrorists at the JeM facility. It chose Spice 2000 – a penetration smart bomb – over a fragmentation weapon. The former penetrates structures killing everyone inside whereas the latter flattens and demolishes structures.
“When questions were raised about the strike, especially internationally, IAF didn’t have much by way of pictures to show as evidence making it easy for Pakistan to deny the attack itself,” a third senior officer in the security establishment said, asking not to be identified.
Looking ahead and taking the lessons from the Balakot strike, IAF wants more “technological asymmetry” to be able to “penetrate the enemy airspace at will”, according to the report. It will be looking at better air defence capabilities. The induction of new platforms such as the Russian made S-400 surface to air anti-aircraft missile systems will fill part of the gap.
According to a former senior air force official, India should concentrate on absorbing more defence technology. “Technological asymmetry will always give you an edge over the enemy. However, if the OEM [original equipment manufacturer, or the supplier] is the same on either, it could create difficulties,” said former Air Vice Marshal Sunil Jayant Nanodkar.
“We achieved complete surprise and the mission was successful. It highlights the need to give forces the freedom to execute a political decision. The execution of a political decision should be at choosing of the forces,” he added.