For the first time since independence, in peacetime, the Indian Air Force (IAF) crossed the Line of Control (LoC). Twelve multi-role all-weather Mirage 2000 aircraft, escorted by SU 30 air-superiority fighters and supported by combat enablers like the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA), carried out a deep strike into northern Pakistan, including at targets beyond Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the early hours of 26 February 2019.
It was a signal to the world and Pakistan in particular that enough was enough. India would not let Pakistan to continue to bleed India through direct infiltration and support to terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. It could not be continued to be seen as a weak nation. The political resolve was clear. After more than 40 Indian soldiers had been martyred at Pulwama through a terror attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had publicly said their martyrdom would be avenged. The armed forces were given a free hand to choose the place and time of reprisal.
The Pakistani security establishment was conscious of possible Indian retribution and was on alert. However, they did not expect an air strike because it is generally accepted as an escalatory step. India timed the strike beautifully. Twelve days had passed after Pulwama. The Indian military establishment was seen busy inaugurating the National War Memorial. No one would have imagined that in the backrooms of the IAF a massive air strike was under preparation. Before any air strike of this nature, special reconnaissance missions are launched to gather intelligence on the enemy. The targets are studied in great detail. The target location is ascertained to a high accuracy so that laser or GPS bombs can be used to target them without collateral damage. India was clear that it was not targeting the Pakistani people, not even the military. It was targeting legitimate terrorist training and launch pads.
Many are asking the question why Mirage 2000s? These had played a stellar role and turned the tide of war in the Kargil conflict of 1999. Mirage 2000s had used Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) to take on individual Pakistani bunkers and video clips of these were watched by the nation on their TV screens. It had also targeted the logistic nodes and artillery locations across the LoC at Muntho Dhalo and in Batalik. The aircraft has nine total hard-points under the wing and fuselage, with a capacity of 6,300 kg external fuel and ordnance. It has the capability to carry bombs fitted with Israeli 'SPICE' electro-optical cum GPS precision guidance kits. It is a derivative of the ‘Pop-eye’ air-to-surface missile. These 1000 lb bombs can glide to long ranges of up to 100 km. The aircraft also has good air defence capability in all aspects; close-combat and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles.
Mirage 2000 also has a good time-tested Airborne Interception (AI) radar and a radar warning receiver (RWR) and self protection jammers that would jam both airborne and ground radars. 12 aircraft reportedly got airborne from their home base at Gwalior. Beyond the main strike package there were fully loaded standby aircraft in the air. SU-30 and MiG-21 Bison were in the air for their air-defence role. The AWACS and FRA were in the air as combat enablers. The aircraft would have done tactical routing to avoid Pakistani radar detection and not raise an alarm. India has good surveillance radar cover in the region and, along with AWACS, can look deep into enemy territory, and can actually see aircraft when they take off from their bases. The whole strike was well choreographed.
The IAF chose the 'graveyard shift' time of 3:27 hours for the target, when enemy radar and weapon systems operators would be at their lowest alert and efficiency. IAF aircraft attacked terror camps at three locations. Muzzaffarabad and Chilkoti in PoK, and Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunhwa, nearly 60 km across the LoC.
The GPS bombs have precision accuracy of around 3 metres. With 12 such bombs released, most would have had direct hits; 1000 lb bombs create significant damage. The buildings housing the terrorists would have been flattened. Initial responses from across the border are that no damage has been caused. These statements are being seen as non-escalatory and best accepted so as not to inflame Pakistani public responses for revenge.
During the tri-services media briefing, the IAF spokesman clearly spelt out success of the strikes. With 12 very accurate 1,000 lb bombs having been launched, the targets could not have survived a hit. The international community, including Pakistan's time-tested friend China, has asked for restraint. There was a high degree of maturity in the official statement by India’s foreign secretary, who made it clear that the attack was not against the Pakistani people but against the Jaish-e-Mohammed staging camps.
The Pakistani Army exercises disproportionately high influence in the decision making of that country. Egos in Pakistan’s establishment were hurt. They made a failed attempt to strike back, which was countered by Indian SU-30 MKI, Mirage 2000, and MiG 21 Bison aircraft. In the process one Pakistani F-16 was shot down by IAF MiG-21 Bison. IAF lost a Bison in air combat, but the pilot ejected safely, albeit in Pakistani territory. He is safe and returned to India March 1. The situation is fluid and the last word has still to be spoken.
(The author was a Mirage 2000 fleet pioneer and head of IAF in Jammu and Kashmir. He can be contacted at email@example.com)