Pakistan badly lost to India in the 1971 war, leading to the dismembering of our western neighbour, the liberation of East Pakistan and the birth of a new nation in Bangladesh. Over 93,000 Pakistani troops surrendered to India. After this debilitating experience, Pakistan realised that it cannot afford to militarily challenge India. In its bid to avenge the ignominious defeat, Pakistan started waging a proxy war against India by infiltrating terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir from the late 1980s.
India has been a repeated victim of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism for over 30 years. New Delhi has all along tried to persuade Islamabad to stop non-state actors (read: terror organisations) operating against India from its soil. We’ve been providing voluminous dossiers of evidence to Pakistan about terrorist actions against us emanating from its soil.
For instance, a terror strike by four terrorists on an Indian Army camp at Uri near the Line of Control (LoC) on 18 September, 2016, killed 19 soldiers. In retaliation, India, for the first time, on 29 September, 2016, conducted a surgical strike against terrorist launch pads across the LoC in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, killing nearly 50 terrorists. It was hoped that Pakistan would learn its lesson and rein in cross-border terrorism.
But, that was not to be.
A fidayeen attack on a CRPF convoy at Lethpora near Awantipora in Pulwama district on 14 February, 2019, killed over 40 jawans. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation led by Maulana Masood Azhar, instantly claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the CRPF convoy in what is being seen as the worst terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir in over 30 years. The attack agitated the entire nation, which demanded immediate retribution against the perpetrators of this dastardly terrorist act.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was decisive, and gave his nod to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to carry out strikes against JeM camps across the LoC.
Based on credible intelligence, which indicated that the JeM was planning to conduct similarfidayeen attacks in other parts of India, the IAF made a pre-emptive strike at its biggest training camp in Balakot, located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province’s Mansehra district.
The JeM training camp in Balakot is located almost 80 km inside Pakistan. The aircraft executing the strike were in danger of being detected by Pakistan air defence radars, which could have tried to intercept our fighters by their surface-to-air missiles and air defence interceptors. Consequently, it was imperative to retain the element of surprise and give minimal reaction time to Pakistan.
The IAF meticulously planned the mission, which started with collecting credible intelligence and images of the target and its vicinity. It was crucial for the IAF to only hit the assigned target without any collateral damage to any civilian or military installation or personnel. Considering the threats involved in the mission coupled with the need for a precise attack, the IAF chose to deploy Mirage 2000 aircraft primarily because it has the capability to attack ground targets from long stand-off ranges with assured accuracy of few metres. The aircraft has good electronic warfare suite to enhance its survivability and has very potent Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles.
Intelligence had revealed that in addition to terrorists and fidayeens undergoing training, all terrorists close to the LoC were pulled back and made to assemble at the training camp. In order to obliterate the JeM training camp, it was decided to execute the attack on 26 February at 03:30 am with 1,000 kilogram precision-guided bombs. The timing of the strike was the key as all terrorists were to be fast asleep at this small hour.
The IAF launched a non-military, pre-emptive air strike against JeM training camp at Balakot with 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft.
To retain the element of surprise, the mission took off from an interior base and followed tactical routes to avoid detection by Pakistani radars.
It was expected that Pakistan would scramble its interceptors to engage our air strike aircraft and prevent them from executing the mission. Accordingly, the formation of 12 Mirage 2000, besides the dedicated strike aircraft, also included aircraft configured for air defence and offensive electronic warfare role to handle all contingencies that were likely to be encountered during the mission.
In addition, four Su-30 MKI were airborne to draw out Pakistani interceptors. Su-30 MKI synchronised a safe passage for 12 Mirage 2000 to their target. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) had taken position to monitor the Pakistani airspace to guide and control our air defence fighters to neutralise any interceptor trying to interfere with our strike mission. The entire mission was supported by flight refuelling aircraft.
Pakistan launched few F-16 interceptors who were overwhelmed by the threat posed to them by our air defence aircraft and retreated without interfering with our strike mission. IAF strike followed the planned route and struck the target on time. The attack annihilated the JeM training camp in Balakot. It is believed that the air strike eliminated over 350 JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and jihadis.
The mission was a great success, and it credibly proved the efficacy of air strikes to neutralise terrorists. Real-time intelligence is the need of the hour for planning such air strikes and the success of the mission also demonstrates our excellent intelligence-gathering capabilities. The networked operations of the IAF also contributed immensely in coordinating all aspects of mission planning and its execution among numerous agencies within our air force units spread over hundreds of km apart.
The accomplished mission has contributed immensely towards the global war on terror, and put India among few select nations that have the demonstrated capability to carry out such a bold air strike. It has also shown the national resolve coupled with bold and decisive political leadership towards eliminating terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil. India could carry out more similar air strikes against terrorist outfits operating from Pakistani soil in the near future based on credible intelligence.
Having repeatedly suffered dastardly terrorist attacks for over 30 years, the successful execution of an air strike against the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot, located almost 80 km inside Pakistan, shows a paradigm shift in India’s war against terrorism. The change was possible primarily due to the bold and decisive leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, excellent diplomatic outreach, credible inputs from intelligence agencies, commendable IAF leadership and outstanding professionalism of our air warriors.
Air Marshal SBP Sinha (Retd.) is an ex-commander-in-chief of Central Air Command, IAF
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