Former Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (retd) on Saturday said the Balakot strike was aimed at sending across the message to Pakistani establishments and terrorist organisations that there will be a price to pay for terror strikes in India. He also said the Indian Air Force (IAF) could not impose significant costs on the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on February 27, a day after the air strike when the neighbour counter-attacked. He blamed protracted negotiations for new fighter aircraft which would have given IAF a decisive edge.
The former air chief was speaking at a discussion on ‘Understanding the message of Balakot’ at the Military Literature Festival here.
“On our side, apart from stupid mistakes for which remedial measures have been taken and people responsible will be punished (reference to shooting down helicopter in friendly fire), we could not impose significant costs on PAF on February 27. In a limited period engagement, the biggest lesson is that technology matters. This we have addressed to a limited extent. What about the responsibility of the people who were to get this technology and kept negotiating for nearly 10 years to get Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)? What would have happened if in same engagement Wing Commander Abhinandan had been flying Rafale aircraft instead of MIG 21 BISON,” he asked.
Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa went on to say that after the 2011 Parliament attack, some Pakistani writers had mentioned the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capability gap between IAF and PAF. “We allowed it to sit. These people are equally responsible to the nation, not only the IAF, for not imposing significant cost on PAF post Balakot on February 27,” he said.
He further said, “The government’s political will was very clear — to tell the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Pakistani establishment that such attacks would come at a cost and no matter where you are, be it Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) or Pakistan, we will get you. That is the message of Balakot,” he said.
He emphasised that there was a paradigm shift in the way the Indian government would respond to terrorist attacks involving mass casualties and that Pakistan had got the message that the new government will respond militarily to a major terror attack on its soil.“Bomb blasts took place in March 1993 and resulted in 257 persons getting killed. In the 2008 Mumbai attack, 175 died. There was no military response from the Indian state. The first response came after the terror attack at Uri in 2016 in which 23 soldiers were killed. Army retaliated with an attack destroying terror launch pads inside POK,” he said.
The former air chief said that when the Pulwama terror attack took place in February 2018 in which 40 jawans died, the Pakistani establishment had a fear that there would be a retaliation. “There were only two questions — when and where the retaliation will take place. From my understanding, Pakistan Air Force was not in the inner circle of the Pakistani establishment and they were not aware that ISI was running terror camp at Balakot,” he said. He added that in February this year, Pakistan was reeling under a severe financial crisis and their foreign reserves were $50 billion as compared to $400 billion of India. “Had they gone to war with us, they would have literally eaten grass, exactly what their former PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had foretold,” he said.
Speaking at the discussion, Christine Fair, expert on South Asia and Pakistan, disputed the claims made by the IAF regarding the Balakot airstrike and the subsequent shooting down of a PAF F-16.
“India had a right to bomb the **** out of Pakistan. This country has used Islamic terrorism to murder Indians for years. No one is questioning that you did this, no one is questioning that the ordnance landed on Pakistani territory. Everything else is subject to question,” she said.
Fair questioned the images displayed in an earlier presentation on the shooting down of the F-16 and the analysis of fresh satellite photographs reportedly showing that Indian missiles had hit a building in Balakot. Raising questions on the authenticity of some of the videos in circulation regarding the presence of a second pilot who may have been an F-16 pilot, Fair said the video appears fake. “People in Nowshera do not speak Punjabi as they have been shown to speak in one of the videos. I wish you had shot down the F-16 but I do not believe that you did. Parachutes of very different platforms look identical in the video grabs,” she said.
Military analyst Pravin Sawhney said that the IAF had failed to perform well in the electromagnetic spectrum on February 27. In war, connectivity will always be more important than platforms, said Sawhney.
“It is not important that you fly 11,000 sorties. What is important is whether your Mirage is able to communicate with your Sukhoi. Is your Sukhoi able to communicate with ground? Is it possible for the man in the air to get what is coming from the satellite communication? That is connectivity,” he said.He added that as far as Wing Commander Abhinandan was concerned, he was captured by Pakistan because he could not hear the instructions by the ground controller to come back. “This was because he did not have software-defined radios which cut out noise clutter. The air force did not have operational data links. This is what network-centric air force is all about and we have been hearing about network-centric operations since 2003,” he said.
Earlier, a detailed presentation had been made by Squadron Leader Sameer Joshi, giving out precise data and analysis on the Balakot strikes and the shooting down of a PAF F-16. Using open-source intelligence, he pieced together a picture of the strike and the manner in which the air battle on February 27 unfolded.