Balakot and After: IAF demonstrates full spectrum capability

The deep air strikes inside Pakistan complemented by the nimble and integrated air defence response the next day have demonstrated the Indian Air Force’s operational effectiveness in contemporary warfare

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After global speculation and much written on the effectiveness or otherwise of the Balakot strikes, the fog is lifting and it is slowly coming to light that the Mirage strikes have indeed been effective. What has been submerged in the noise are the processes involved in planning this mission that indicate the emergence of a matured force.

First, the ability to speedily convert a political directive into an aggressive operational plan in a less-than-war situation. Second, the surprise and deception element of Su-30MKI decoys posturing towards Bahawalpur, the Jaish-e-Mohammed headquarters, while the main package headed north from Gwalior towards the main target. Third, demonstrating reach and precision, the fuel-efficient Mirages, flew more than 1,300 km one way with an aerial refuelling; used the mountains to mask their entry into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir airspace; and delivered their Spice 2000 bombs with unerring accuracy onto a confirmed terrorist training camp target across the International Border and barely 160 km north of the capital, Islamabad. The coercive signalling attempt to try and induce a change in behaviour was clear and palpable.

 Balakot and After: IAF demonstrates full spectrum capability

Sukhoi-30MKIs patrol the LoC
Illustration: Alankar

The Naushera sub-sector of Jammu and Kashmir has tremendous significance for the Indian armed forces as it has seen much action in all the three wars with Pakistan (47-48, 1965 and 1971). Located between Poonch and Rajouri, it is part of the Indian Army’s 16 Corps, which undertakes the defence of the Line of Control and executes counter-infiltration and counterterrorist tasks. It is largely over this sector that multiple engagements took place between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in what is emerging to be one of the largest short-of-war aerial engagements since WW II. It is for this reason that a clinical preliminary assessment of the aerial slugfest is essential to understand the complexities of modern air combat.

It is highly likely that the PAF response would have been entrusted to units at Sargodha and Rafiqui with the planning spearheaded by the Combat Commanders School (CCS) and lead execution by the F-16 squadrons stationed there. A 10 am Time Over Target (TOT) would have been planned hoping that this was a window when a changeover of airborne Combat Air Patrols was taking place in the IAF, particularly of the air superiority fighters (Su-30MKIs, MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s. The combat zone to depict this engagement is a frontage extending from Jammu to Rajouri (approximately 90-100 km as the crow flies) and a depth of slightly over 100 kmsconsidering that the AWACS from both sides could have been operating at those distances.

The PAF package is likely to have comprised eight F-16s (four carrying laser-guided bombs [LGBs] and the rest in the air defence sweep role). This formed the northern and more potent element of the force and was most probably headed for military targets in the Naushera sector. The southern strike package comprised Mirage 5 strike aircraft and JF-17s providing top cover and were likely headed towards the 16 Corps HQ at Nagrota, a few km north of Jammu, or could have been a decoy package just as the Su-30MKI package was two days earlier when it was headed towards Bahawalpur. The older Mirage-IIIs were possibly on standby. Supporting this large force were to 2 Saab AWACS—one positioned between Sargodha and Sialkot—and the other around Islamabad with a dual tasking of supporting the Northern package and controlling air defence of the capital area.

The IAF’s air defence network has seen much transformation over the years and is now a sophisticated, well-networked and integrated system with highly motivated fighter controllers working in tandem with other combat crew (pilots and SAM operators). With all air bases on ‘High Alert’, the PAF should/would have anticipated a robust response, but reckoned that a few aircraft would get through and cause significant damage. As it turned out, this was a fair assessment.

The first engagement took place in the south (refer diagram) with two Mirage 2000s intercepting a large package of more than eight aircraft under extremely effective AWACS control in the airspace high over Jammu. Armed with beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile MICA missiles and likely to have been the upgraded Mirage 2000s, they would have locked on first to the JF-17s, duelling with them at long distances and conversing among themselves as the battle progressed ‘going hot’ and ‘going cold’, or ‘extending’ and ‘exiting’—all of it typical fighter pilot jargon across the world that indicates different stages of BVR combat. Frustrated at being unable to clear the Mirage 5s to proceed towards their intended target, the PAF formation would have turned back—not something unheard of or unprofessional—living to fight another day is a wise strategy in tough times. One deduction from this engagement if the forces painted are right is the clear superiority of the upgraded Mirage 2000 over the JF-17!

To the north was a duel between four SU-30MKIs and eight F-16s. Two of the Sukhois could have been in a swing role and towards the end of their combat endurance (a characteristic that allows it to switch between roles albeit with marginal reduction in effectiveness in the second role) while the other two would have been in full air defence configuration. Into this melee came in four MiG-21 Bisons, scrambled from the Operational Ready Platform (ORP) on both runway ends at Srinagar and controlled by a GCI radar. Covering the almost 200 km in about 10-12 minutes at top speeds of between 950-1000 km/hr, the lead Bison with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would have arrived on the scene just as three F-16s appear to have barely crossed the LC, impeded in no small measure by the intense BVR manoeuvring with the Sukhois. Positioning themselves for an attack on their intended targets within an Indian Army brigade headquarters, they would have now been cautioned by their own radars of the approaching Indian MiGs and hastily dropped their bombs within the premises of the local brigade (preliminary reports indicate LGBs) and exited. It was during their exit, that Varthaman first locked onto his target and then visually picked him up (using Eyeball-Mark 1) from his perch high above, choosing to close in using his height and speed before launching his Vympel R-73 from fairly close distances (The R-73 is a third-generation Russian close combat missile (CCM) that has been a standard fit on most recent Russian aircraft).

All this while, it is possible that Varthaman was locked on by an F-16 from depth and targeted with an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (BVR) the moment it was either ascertained that he had crossed the LC or after shooting down the F-16 he was chasing. I would imagine that at speeds of over 15 km/min, he would have crossed at least 10-12 km inside the LC and would have broken off from the attack and turned homebound when he felt the aircraft shudder from a hit to the tail. Failing to control his crippled aircraft, Varthaman rightly chose to eject rather than stay and try to control it. Observers have seen his parachute descending for well over 12 minutes, clearly indicating that he had ejected at a fair height and beyond the range of ground-based air defence systems. Probably, he was downed by an AIM-120. However, this can only be confirmed once the IAF releases more details of the engagement.

Some key operational lessons point that the IAF’s air defence network performed well/near-flawlessly that morning. The pressure was initially put on by a combination of Mirage 2000s, Sukhois and AWACS as they forced the incoming aircraft to re-evaluate their options and resort to sub-optimal targeting solutions (it is highly likely that the F-16s were not given adequate time in a steady run that is essential for effective weapon delivery—as against the IAF Mirage-2000s at Balakot which were unopposed and would have had adequate tracking time prior to  weapon delivery).

Shaping the battlefield can only create possibilities, and that is what Varthaman seized with his aggression. It is assessed that during his pursuit, his Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) would have been buzzing with warnings. He could have broken off from his attack and headed home and no one would have questioned his decision. By choosing to stay in pursuit, he did what many would not have done: bring down an F-16. It is a once in a lifetime experience of claiming a kill in an actual aerial duel in the current times.

As an experienced fighter pilot, while I would gladly take in all the chatter about the MiG-21 Bison vs F-16 bit, I would rather stress on two propositions. First, is that close combat is still alive and kicking in symmetrical air combat. Second, individual decision-making by the ‘man behind the machine’ can bridge the technology gap and remains as relevant as it was in the days of the Spitfire vs Messerschmitt duels of WW II.

The deep air strikes complemented by the nimble and integrated air defence response two days later have demonstrated the IAF’s operational effectiveness in contemporary warfare. It has also demonstrated that calibrated, proportionate and discriminate application of offensive airpower is a possible option in the ongoing covert war against cross-border terrorism. This is no time for triumphalism, but one of reflection on how the IAF can be strengthened as a critical arm of proactive deterrence and joint operations with induction of carefully selected platforms, weapons and sensors that fit into the contemporary milieu. The next time will be different!

Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a retired fighter pilot who has flown both the MiG-21 and the Mirage 2000. He is also an air power analyst and military historian).

Most of this assessment is based on experiential analysis and multiple open-source visual graphics and Google Map plotting by aviation enthusiasts. There would be gaps in the narrative that would be plugged over time when official reports are released by the MoD. The opinions expressed are solely the author’s and do not reflect either the views of the IAF or the GOI. Additional interest for readers will be that the topic of the author’s PhD research from 2006-2011 was on ‘The Role of Air Power in Fourth Generation Warfare’.

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