On February 25, slightly after 3:00 am, a formation of Indian Air Force (IAF) strike aircraft crossed over into Pakistan. Flying low to avoid detection, they flew across the length of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and released their deadly payloads. The first bomb hit its target—a large terrorist installation—at approximately 3.45 am. For several minutes thereafter, bombs continued to rain down on the facility, destroying infrastructure and ostensibly killing large numbers of jihadis.
In this column, we attempt to piece together some of the details of the raid, sourced from information that is available in the public domain.
The “strike package”—that is, the group of aircraft that launched the attack—brought together several different platforms based all over India. The main strike element comprised of 12 Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters from Gwalior Air Force Station, a natural choice given the type’s storied history in the IAF.
Acquired from France in 1984, the Mirages were first pressed into action in the Kargil War of 1999, mounting precision bombing attacks on multiple Pakistani targets—attacks that played an outsize role in turning the tide of the conflict in India’s favour. Their use of GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs in the battle for Tiger Hill marked the first operational use of such munitions by the IAF.
By 2015, the Air Force had acquired the Israeli Spice 2000 munitions to equip the Mirage-2000 fleet. Furnished with the ability to be guided via a GPS signal as well as a conventional laser designator pod, the bombs offered increased range and versatility, permitting the IAF to hit targets from up to 60 km away in good as well as bad weather. Weighing in at 1,000 kg, they had nearly twice the explosive power of the older GBU-12 bombs.
In addition to carrying two bombs each, the Mirages headed towards Balakot also carried Magic II close-combat missiles for self-protection and jettisonable fuel tanks for increased endurance.
The formation was guided by a Netra Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft operating out of Bhatinda. Developed indigenously by the DRDO, the platform doubled up as a radar picket and an airborne command post—monitoring enemy air activity and vectoring IAF fighters towards their targets. An Israeli-made Heron drone simultaneously flew along the border, keeping an eye on hostile ground activity, such as the movement and activation of air defences.
The Mirages were also supported by Il-78 in-flight refueling tanker aircraft staging from Agra. The massive aeroplanes are crucial force multipliers, their ability to refuel friendly aircraft while airborne allowing fighter jets to stay on station for longer durations, or undertake missions at ranges greater than they were designed for.
Lastly, the strike package was accompanied by four Su-30MKI air dominance fighters, intended to clear the air of enemy fighters had they decided to engage. The IAF operates about 250 of these fighters. Built around a highly nimble airframe coupled to a powerful radar and extended-range missiles, the Su-30MKI fleet is a key element of India’s fighter force.
The target was a large installation operated by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) jihadist group. It was located on a heavily forested hilltop near the town of Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunwala province, barely 45 km north of Abbottabad—where Osama Bin Laden had been discovered hiding. The site was a known JeM hub. A 2004 memo from the commander of the US detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay describes it as “a training camp that offers both basic and advanced terrorist training on explosives and artillery”.
The target appears to have been chosen based on a host of factors. Less than two weeks before, a deadly suicide attack had resulted in the deaths of over 40 Indian security personnel in Pulwama. JeM soon claimed responsibility. Give the scale of the losses, Indian retaliation was a given.
In September 2016, India had retaliated against a JeM raid on an Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, using special forces to attack and destroy terrorist “launch pads” across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Anticipating similar action, the Pakistan Army, under whose auspices such outfits operate, had reportedly relocated terrorists away from their launch pads and deep into the Pakistani interior. It was expected that India would strike at one of these bases—very likely using means more powerful and visible than a special forces raid. With Indian intelligence warning of further attacks possibly originating out of Balakot, it made for a ripe target.
Then there was the location itself. Situated on a hilltop far away from civilian presence, it was ideal for an air attack. And located a fair distance from the India-Pakistan border, an airstrike on it would signal India’s willingness as well as capability to escalate the current conflict.
The airstrike on Balakot is significant for multiple reasons. One, it sends a clear message to Pakistan that any attack on India via terrorist proxies will be responded to with offensive military action.
Two, it showcases an evolution in the Indian leadership’s thinking on security matters. Where a massive offensive to invade and destroy Pakistan was once seen as the only viable response to Pakistan’s proxy war on India—a dogma that led to India attempting (and failing) to coerce Pakistan via Operation Brasstacks in 1987 and Operation Parakram in 2001-02—the security establishment today appears more comfortable with the idea of a protracted “limited war” against its intractable neighbour.
Three, it demonstrates New Delhi’s capacity to carefully calibrate the scope and intensity of its military riposte, and its willingness to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Taken together, these factors allow India to leverage her superior firepower, technology, and staying power to keep Pakistan on the back foot while staying firmly in control of the escalation ladder.
A day after I wrote this piece, the Pakistan Air Force retaliated with an air-raid of its own. A flight of 24 Pakistan aircraft—F-16s, Mirage IIIs, and JF-17s—attempted an intrusion at approximately 9:45 am. What happened thereafter is murky. One element of the Pakistani package is reported to have dropped bombs, possibly with their fuses disabled, on targets across the LoC; while another conducted a ‘sweep’ to suppress Indian air activity.
These formations were engaged by eight IAF fighters that were on Combat Air Patrol (CAP). In the ensuing battle, an IAF MiG-21 Bison flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan was shot down, but not before the MiG-21 itself downed a Pakistani F-16 fighter.
Ejecting over Pakistani territory, Abhinandan was beaten by the locals before the Pakistan Army took him in custody. The F-16 is said to have crashed inside Pakistani territory, and its pilot—mistaken for an Indian—lynched by the locals.
In the ensuing confusion, the Pakistani military spokesperson tweeted that two aircrafts were shot down and one Indian pilot was arrested. He also asserted in a subsequent press conference that a second pilot had been found in an injured condition, and shifted to military hospital for treatment: a claim that was, interestingly, never followed-up on. Some sources suggest that this second pilot, a Pakistani Wing Commander, is now deceased.
These events brought into sharp focus the Indian decision to launch airstrikes on Pakistan—with commentators questioning the rationale of such a move. Others, however, point out that the Pakistan raid has done little to alter the fact that the deterrence equation has decisively shifted in India’s favour. Where the Indian side demonstrated the will to step up its response and strike directly at Pakistan proper, Pakistan declined to escalate, instead choosing to mount a hasty tit-for-tat raid. At the same time, the usual threat of a nuclear response, often made in times of rising tensions, was conspicuously absent.
Image credit: Vishnu Som