February 26, 2019, will go down as a historic day for the Indian air force (IAF). On this day, it was called upon to conduct a pre-emptive strike against a Pakistani terrorist camp at Balakot. This operation was conducted on a dark night by 12 Mirage-2000 aircraft in a surprise attack, operating from Gwalior.
The mission was supported by SU-30MKI, Netra AWACS aircraft and an unspecified number of tanker aircraft. All the aircraft reportedly reached home safely after conducting the mission. The government has called it a “non-military pre-emptive strike”, but the aim of the mission was retribution for the attack by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists on the CRPF convoy at Pulwama in which 40 CRPF soldiers were killed.
For the first time since Independence, the IAF has been recognised as being capable of operating independently when the element of surprise, speed and assured results were warranted. It is a proud moment indeed for the whole nation to see the IAF rise to the occasion and reportedly execute such a critical mission to perfection.
The mission launched was a complex one. It required excellent coordination between a variety of aircraft as well as diverse skills, which were amply demonstrated. The attack was reportedly spearheaded by 12 Mirage-2000 aircraft. The spearhead was supported by Netra, the indigenous Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) comprising detection radar and systems with the ability to monitor an adversary’s air activity and transmissions and accordingly control the strike elements.
Conceived by the IAF and designed by the DRDO to support and accompany strike missions, the Netra is small, reasonably fast and more manoeuvrable compared to its larger counterpart, the IL 76 AWACS of the IAF. This is the first time that the Netra has been used to support an offensive mission. The DRDO deserves a pat on its back.
Additionally, it is reported that SU-30 aircraft were used to mount patrol. Their purpose was to engage enemy interceptors launched against the strike elements. Their job was to protect the strike elements and ensure that the mission goes through. Precision-guided weapons and sensors like the Litening Targeting pod that were employed are sophisticated systems which require highly-trained engineers and technicians to prepare.
A host of ground radar and communication stations would also have been present to support the mission and to ensure that civil air flights are not disturbed. Aerial tankers were deployed from Agra to refuel the strike formation that took off from Gwalior on a 2,500-km round trip. Twelve Mirages had to be refuelled, presumably by two-three tankers, while in flight. It is not an easy exercise for 12 fully-loaded fighter aircraft to meet up and plug with the tankers on a dark night. It requires considerable skill and coordination.
Considering that the mission was flown between 2 and 5 am on a pitch-dark night, there was no room for error. The target itself was “buried” in foliage and surrounded by hills. It would be impossible to spot these in the dark without the aid of FLIR or other night-vision devices. The pilots would have to release the weapon flying low and fast in the dark, over hilly terrain on the very first pass and with no possibility of a re-run. These are demanding conditions not just for the pilots but for every member of the task group.
Even if all goes as per plan, there are still many unknowns like the enemy air defence systems that impose the highest risks. These challenges require not luck but hard training and confidence. The IAF brilliantly demonstrated these qualities in mounting the mission. There is an equally large number of professionals that would have worked 24×7 analysing intelligence reports and planning the missions to the minutest details. Carelessness in planning could have imposed severe risks on the mission.
The nature of democracy is such that a civilian government would seldom know the complexities of military operations, especially about the employment of advanced technology and skill-based operations. It is important that a competent advisory body is available to the government within the political system.
Such consultation is essential in any large defence-related project and the management of PSUs and DRDO. It is vital that the Minister of Defence conducts regular reviews of the capabilities of the military, the state of inventory and training standards. The minister’s participation at the Commanders Conference is often more of a ritual than an occasion to conduct an in-depth review of the issues that affect the quality of life and operational capability of our armed forces. Cost-effectiveness in management should seriously be pursued.
It is the responsibility of the government to consider all military options when it becomes inevitable to use force. For a developing economy, war is never an easy option. Military operations have reactions that can affect the economy, growth and infrastructure quite severely. Besides, the loss of the lives of and serious injuries to a large number of able-bodied youth in uniform is something that the country cannot afford. Only an extreme provocation can influence the government to use force.
The success of the pre-emptive mission is only the start but and not an end in by itself. The adversary is bound to react. Professionalism demands anticipating every move of the adversary and to be ready to face it. It is akin to getting into a boxing ring and delivering the first punch. One must know how to duck and give the counter punch.
Combat operations are unforgiving and they have no place for emotion. The fighter pilot is alone in the cockpit; he fights to kill or to survive. Mission planners and leaders must be adaptive. The LoC is just a line on a map, lighter than the national border and could be easily ignored when compelled. Rules that apply to us may not be respected by the adversary. Their words cannot be trusted. Our forces must have reserve tactics and missions up their sleeve. Battles lead to the destruction of those who are weak-minded or lack skills or both. Winners do not hesitate to hit hard. But they also have the resilience to take a hard punch and get up again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 28, 2019, under the title ‘Courage under fire’. The writer is a former chief of the Indian air force.