Balakot Airstrike – Lessons Learnt
General Studies 2
- India and its neighbour relations
General Studies 3
- Defence and Security issues
In News: February 26th marks the first anniversary of the Balakot airstrike which was conducted by the Indian Air Force to target the terrorist camps operating in the town of Balakot in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
Forty CPRF Jawans lost their lives in the attack when an ED-laden SUV rammed into their convoy. The terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing. The Balakot airstrikes were seen as a direct response to the Pulwama bombing.
- On February 26, 2019, in the wee hours, India carried out airstrikes 12 days after a convoy of vehicles carrying CRPF personnel was attacked by a suicide bomber – plotted by Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pulwama district of Jammu.
- On 14 February last year, 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed in the attack. In retaliation, Indian Air Force destroyed the biggest terror training camp of JeM at Balakot on February 26, 2019.
- A dozen IAF Mirage 2000 fighter jets crossed the India-Pakistan border to attack terror camp.
- According to media reports, the terrorist camps at Balakot have undergone a revamp ahead of the first anniversary of the IAF bombings.
- The IAF’s mission to bomb the terrorist hideout in Balakot, Pakistan, was given the codename ‘Operation Bandar’. It was a rare operation in which the IAF crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and dropped bombs on targets in Pakistani territory. Balakot is a small town located in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
- On February 26, 2019, Indian Air Force’s Mirage-2000 fighter jets took off from airbases across India. The Indian Air Force jets crossed the LoC in J&K and bombed Jaish terror camps in Balakot with precision-guided missiles.
- Pakistan retaliated a day after. The Pakistan Air Force attempted an airstrike on Indian soil. The Indian Air Force launched its fighter jets in response, leading to a rare dogfight between the Indian and Pakistani jets. In the skirmish, an IAF MiG-21 Bison fighter jet shot down a Pakistani F-16 during the conflict. Indian Mig-21, which was being flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was also shot down and he was captured by the Pakistani forces. After much deliberation, Wing Commander Abhinandan was released two days later from Pakistan’s hold. This development calmed the tensions between the two nations after two weeks of heightened conflict.
The biggest lesson of the air skirmish, in which Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s aircraft was shot down across the border, was the lack of an edge over the US supplied AMRAAM beyond visual range missiles that are in service with the Pakistani air force.
The engagement range of the AIM 120 AMRAAM, fired from F 16s with the Pakistani air force, forced Indian fighters to take evasive manoeuvres on February 27 last year at the LoC skirmish. The Indian Su 30 MKI and Mirage 2000 fighters that had been scrambled to take on the enemy fighters could not get a firing solution on F 16s as both their radars and weapons were out ranged by the American supplied missiles.
It was only Wing Commander Abhinandan who could fire away the close range R 73 missile as he managed to sneak in close to the enemy fighter formation after taking off from Srinagar. This key capability is still missing, though the arrival of the Rafale jets armed with Meteor air-to-air missiles will change the equation.
Solution: 2 Su 30MKIs against one F 16 for an assured kill – because of better radar and weapon on the F 16. When the Rafale comes in, one fighter jet would be adequate to go up against two F 16s, reversing the ratio
- While the fleet of 36 Rafale jets would come with the Meteor, there has been no move yet to order more of the jets since the Balakot strike. Conversations on an additional 36 jets that will cost significantly less than the original order of 7.6 billion euros have started but the order is nowhere close to being placed.
- The larger worry is that the mainstay Su 30MKI is still unable to match up to the adversary in terms of missile range. To correct this, the air force has been encouraging the development of the home-grown Astra missile that would have an engagement range of over 100 km. The first stage of development is over but orders are yet to be placed and even in the best case scenario, Sukhois armed with operationally ready Astra missiles are still a year away.
- Other plans that have got a push after Balakot include vital clearances to go ahead with the development of large Airborne Early Warning And Control (AWACS) systems. DRDO has accelerated the project to develop at least two aircraft-mounted radar systems that can look deep into enemy territory and direct combat assets for a strike, using the Airbus A 330 platform. Again, at the best case scenario, these aircraft would take at least five years for induction.
The induction of the Rafales, the large AWACS and the S 400 air defence system (first units expected next year) will give the air force an edge in range—where it will no longer need to cross the border to inflict punishing damage to terror infrastructure anywhere in Pakistan and will be able to defeat with ease any retaliatory action planned.
Reflections and Message to the World
Balakot reflected India’s approach against the employment of terrorism as a low-cost option against India.
- Indicated that terrorists, terrorist infrastructure and terrorist training facilities in areas beyond LoC and International Border when employed against India, will no longer be safe haven
- Terrorism will not remain a low-cost option that can proliferate under veiled threats and bogeys that have repeatedly been voiced by irresponsible and ill-informed leaders from across the border
- Balakot will continue to reiterate India’s intent to employ the most appropriate resources for the intended impact, with an element of unpredictability and innovation as an integral part of the endeavour. It is this factor that must remain uppermost in our minds.
India has joined the list of countries along with the United States and Israel who can strike in enemy territory and avenge the death of its soldiers. It sent out a signal to adversaries that India’s response to provocation will no longer be ‘soft’ and only diplomatic. All options were on the table.
The Way Ahead
- In the next five years all requests placed before the government by the NSG needs to be met. NSG should be made into a complete commando force be it training, modern weapons, facilities of family members among others. The idea is to keep NSG at least two steps ahead of other forces in the world.
- Indian Army has to forge ahead with restructuring the army to allow for faster ground mobilisation and greater flexibility in limited land-based military operations.
- Work on the naval power as well: In the short-term, India is likely to position its naval forces aggressively during a confrontation with Pakistan, as it reportedly did during this crisis and in previous crises. In the long-term, it may explore a naval blockade or land attack options, though India’s ability to execute decisive missions in its adversary’s territorial waters will be limited and potentially escalatory given Pakistan’s naval nuclear ambitions. Thus, Indian pressure in the Arabian Sea will remain the optimal choice for now.
- There is a need to continue the restrained approach it has adopted after the operation, and avoid the triumphalism that clouded the ‘surgical strikes’ of September 2016.
In the long term, building strong counter-terror defences, partnering with its own citizens to gather intelligence, and creating deterrents will be key.
Connecting the Dots:
- Balakot airstrikes compelled Pakistan to change its rulebook. Comment.
- India’s longstanding doctrine of restraint has ended, opening up space for more risky Indian retaliation moves against terror attacks like Pulwama. Discuss.
- No War No Peace
- Between each India-Pakistan crisis, learning occurs.