Only time will tell whether the Balakot air strikes were a gamechanger or not
Maj. Gen. Ashok K. Mehta (retd)
One year after the air strikes, ones that breached the red line, bravado, and not sobriety, was on display. The government ensured the commemoration was a clear signal to Pakistan on its proxy war. Defence minister Rajnath Singh said, “Our response was out-of-the-box with the doctrine having been rewritten that will make adversary think 100 times before any misadventure”.
Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, said, “The Indian Air Force (IAF) has redefined use of air power, changed paradigm of sub-conventional action and response in the subcontinent”, adding, “It is possible now to take out targets below conventional war threshold, previously considered unviable by using the IAF and still having escalation control.”
Uncanny that a few days later, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. M.M. Naravane endorsed precisely this view at a special army event greenlighting retention of escalation control. But elsewhere in an interview to a newspaper, Bhadauria singled out the airstrike as the ‘most significant air action by the IAF in four decades’, completely ignoring the IAF’s stellar contribution to Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and in the 1999 Kargil conflict.
This bold turnaround from embarrassing strategic restraint at the time of attacks on Parliament and Mumbai to tough and courageous response with the IAF to taking out Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camps in Balakot, two steps up the escalation ladder was facilitated by resounding strategic surprise. Former CAS, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy explained the transformation like this: “In the past, the IAF neither always had the coordinates of terrorist targets nor the precision weapons to take them out. Both these capabilities materialised during the advent of the Modi government.” Former National Security Advisor (NSA) MK Narayanan would say that our forces did not have the requisite capability to take out targets without risking collateral damage and escalation. Bhadauria said: “The IAF carried out deep penetration precision attacks and returned unchallenged.” But the gamechanger was strategic surprise.
Whether Target Was Hit at Balakot
The jury has been out on this since after the strikes. The credibility of the air strikes has not been conclusively established except by the words of two chiefs of air staff – ACM Dhanoa and ACM Bhadauria. Soon after the air strikes, India’s leading strategic thinker, Ashley Tellis, now with Carnegie Endowment, wrote a detailed analysis of Balakot where he clearly expressed misgivings about the accuracy of the air operation.
At the annual Military Literature Festival at Chandigarh in December 2019, an unintended spat occurred over Balakot involving the redoubtable Christine Fair of Georgetown University, a persistent advocate of India calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff in proxy war and Flt Lt Samir Joshi a former Mirage fighter pilot and now researcher of air power. Fair insisted ‘you did not hit the target’ and added fuel to fire by saying ‘next day, you got whacked’. There were others too abroad and in India who articulated doubts on the effectiveness of the air strikes.
The British expert on the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), Alan Warnes, in his article in the Air Force Magazine, wrote: “With stand-off range of 600km, Mirage 2000 fighters armed with Spice 2000 missiles in autonomous GPS mode did not need to cross Line of Control (LC). The bombs were aimed at a religious boarding school housing 200 students between 8- 15 years age. The bombs hit a wooded area a few hundred metres away, overshooting their targets. Next day, European Space Imagery published high resolution pictures showing buildings undamaged and no sign of casualties. ESI director, Adrian Zevenbergen, said there were no signs of casualties. The IAF, on the other hand, said four buildings were damaged but showed no images to support the claim. At the Paris Air Show in June 2019, Rafale marketing team showed AFM photocopies of high-resolution satellite images showing three holes in roof of one of the buildings. When one of the Rafale representatives was asked, if it could have been photoshopped, he replied: ‘I don’t think so, but who knows’.”
During the first anniversary of Balakot, ACM Bhadauria emphatically confirmed hitting the target. “Absolutely no doubt, we hit our target and achieved our objectives and the adversary knows it”. ACM Dhanoa, in an interview to the Hindustan Times (11 February 2020), said there is conclusive proof that the JeM training camp strikes were a military success. “It was not just a seminary but a training camp. We hit at 3.30 am while terrorists were still in bed… they say Fajr namaz at 4 am. We hit with five stand-off (Spice 2000 missiles) weapons. The sixth missile did not fire.” Group Captain Murli Menon (retd) has questioned the accuracy evidence of Spice 2000, whether it was weapon malfunctioning or pilot error in targeting as missiles apparently missed the target intended. Crystal Maze 142 M missile did not fire, thereby denying mission of Battle Damage Assessment (The Tribune 14 February 2020).
Finally, the weather. Cloud cover proved a serious impediment to operations. But as for Balakot bombings, what is more important than target kill is the strategic perspective — that for the first time after the 1971 war, the IAF bombed targets deep inside Pakistan. Still, the IAF has not been able to clear the air on accuracy and doubts will linger.
How Air Strikes Were Planned and Executed
The decision to extract retribution was unanimously taken on 16 February 2019 after a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting in consultation with service chiefs and national security advisor Ajit Doval. The IAF was given 10 days to select its targets (normally targets are provided by Special Branch of R&AW). JeM training camp at Jaba Top in Balakot was chosen. The most elaborate deception plan was conceived to make PAF believe that the target was JeM headquarters in Bahawalpur.
Impeccable secrecy and security were maintained and the IAF’s best Cobra pilots meant for delivering nuclear weapons were chosen for the mission. The former secretary in ministry of defence (MoD) noted that he saw informed discussion on jointness upfront of three armed services during Balakot. Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Sunil Lanba told the Service chiefs to be ready for all-out war and for the first time all three Chiefs confirmed to the Prime Minister that should conflict escalate, they were ready for war. Among the options, use of Indo-Russian Brahmos missile was considered but that was too much of stand-off and replete with collateral, and politically less acceptable than air strikes.
The target finally given to ACM Dhanoa by Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was at Balakot in Jaba Top. Initially, the strikes were to go on February 25, the day Modi was to inaugurate the National War Memorial. The operation was postponed by 24 hours due to bad weather which persisted the next day also. ACM Dhanoa monitored the strikes from home while the others — vice chief and chief of western air command — were in the operations’ room. Weather was the decisive criterion and any decision to abort the mission was left to Western Air Command. The next day, after mission completion, CAS briefed the defence minister, NSA and other service chiefs.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigation on the Pulwama plot typified the adage, ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ as all the principal players in the February 14 ambush were killed in different counter-terror operations after Pulwama suicide attack. Modi said that Pulwama was avenged within 100 hours of the suicide attack, leading many to think that their killing was retribution and nothing bigger was in the offing.
The planners of the operation, Mohammad Omar Farooq and IED expert Kamran and Mudassir Khan were killed in two separate operations. In March 2020, NIA hit a goldmine and arrested the first lead, Shaqir Bashir Magray, who was the kingpin and outed the operational plan which was put off by a week due to bad weather and change in the movement of convoys. Soon after, Tariq Shah and his daughter Insha Jan were taken in who had helped the culprits with logistics.
Fifty kg of explosive IED including RDX, ammonium nitrate and nitro-glycerine were obtained and filled into Maruti Ecco car by Magray, Farooqi, Kamran and the suicide bomber Adil Dar who was chosen from among three volunteers in the Valley. Pulwama was the first classic and very successful suicide car bombing in the Valley. No one has explained how this grave security lapse occurred nor the provision of sensitive explosive material.
Escalation Control and De-Escalation
The most definitive explanation on escalation has come from Gen. Naravane. At the Centre for Land Warfare Studies seminar he said: “For years, we were told that if and when air forces cross international border, it would escalate to full-fledged war… if you play escalatory games with skill, military ascendency can be established in short cycles of conflict that do not necessarily lead to war.” Naravane made this complex game appear very simple.
ACM Bhadauria has said that Balakot had shown that you can use the IAF and still have escalation control. The two statements are interlinked though in the unpredictable game of escalation control, there are two primary players and international stakeholders. But the game principally between India and Pakistan requires wargaming of high order to manage escalation. To infer from Balakot that India can control steps on the escalation ladder as they turned out would be premature, ignoring steps taken by other player; though during Balakot Pakistan was caught flat-footed with the geopolitical and fiscal context downright unfavourable for it to play the escalatory game.
The PAF at a recent conference on lessons from its Operation Swift Retort has noted, ‘Probability of crisis recurrence between India and Pakistan is high and during a crisis neither side would be able to guarantee controlling or dominating the escalation ladder’. Indian military commanders’ frequent claims that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) can be liberated ignore escalation and its control on the escalation ladder which could lead to an all-out war, possibly culminating in a nuclear exchange.
Rewind to 1965. Pakistan’s incursions into the Rann of Kutch in April 1965 were ended quickly through British intervention. Neither side used its air forces. But both sides had ordered full mobilisation. India’s was called Operation Ablaze. In July 1965, troops were withdrawn but only partially by both sides. This was followed in August 1965 with Pakistan ordering Operation Gibraltar — infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir. This triggered off a tit for tat escalatory exchange of operations. India mounted Operation Bakshi and Operation Faulad in Hajipir and Kishanganga Bulge. Pakistan responded with Operation Grand Slam in Chhamb-Jauriyan. With its back to the wall, India escalated the conflict by calling in the IAF at Chhamb. Further escalation by India led to the crossing of the International Border in Sialkot and Lahore sectors in Operation Riddle. It was India which surprised Pakistan by extending the war from Jammu and Kashmir across the International Border into the Punjab plains in September 1965. Infiltration had escalated into full-scale conventional war.
Balakot was a retaliatory strike — retribution for Pulwama. Contrary to the hyper-nationalistic mood created by the media, India wanted no escalation. Instead of stating the internationally acknowledged fact that Pulwama was a terrorist suicide attack inside India, New Delhi declared Balakot its response as ‘pre-emptive action against terrorists in Balakot preparing to strike in India.’ In order to avoid escalation, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale described the air strikes as pre-emptive and non-military action in self-defence based on actionable intelligence. At the core of military action was de-escalation. Both sides were clear on treading the de-escalatory path and there was little space for escalation or escalation control.
The downing of Wing Commander Abhinandan and his capture by Pakistan and IAF’s loss of two aircraft — a MiG-21 and Mi-17 — were significant motivation for Indian de-escalation with Pakistan holding the ace: Abhinandan. ACM Bhadauria has said that India used different (political and diplomatic channels) to de-escalate, something not thought possible earlier. He also said that Pakistan counterattack (Operation Swift Retort) was tailored to de-escalate. PAF CAS ACM Mujahid Anwar Khan has confirmed this intent but said PAF could have brought down many more IAF aircraft but restraint was key.
In a separate article on the taking out of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the US and comparing it with Balakot, I have argued the centrality of de-escalation in limited military operations. From air strikes at Balakot alone, it is disingenuous to claim that the IAF dominated the escalation ladder. If anything, Pakistan had the upper hand on February 27, shooting down an aircraft with a captive pilot who became the turning point on the escalation ladder. Balakot air strikes contained seeds of high-risk escalation which the political and military leadership may not have fully understood. Escalation could have spun out of control due to high emotions after capture of Abhinandan. The calculated risk government took by air strikes was a gamble in escalation control at a time when prevention of high-stake military action – initiation or retaliation from escalating – is the challenge.
Calling Pakistan’s Nuclear Bluff
After Balakot, Indian security analysts said Pakistan’s nuclear shield had come off and that Pakistan had sold a lie that any Indian response would set in dangerous escalation between two nuclear armed countries. In other words, Balakot called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
The intellectual custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for decades, Lt Gen. Khalid Kidwai, now advisor to the Strategic Planning Group, recently told a think tank in London that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine (which unlike India’s is not codified) is quid pro quo plus – that is Pakistan will hit back with much greater force than India’s initiation of nuclear exchange.
In early 2000, Kidwai had informed a group of Italian journalists that Pakistan would use its nuclear arsenal as weapon of ultimate resort under four eventualities: loss of large territory (especially in Punjab, added later); crippling military attrition; economic blockade; large scale political destabilisation. None of these conditions was violated by Balakot air strikes. The PAF responded next day boldly in retaliatory air strikes in broad daylight.
A report compiled by former PAF officers on Balakot reads, ‘Pakistan’s carefully calibrated response strategy portrayed that any attack inside Pakistan’s territory would invoke Pakistan’s nuclear threshold; however, Pakistan through its retaliation Operation Swift Retort, demonstrated that it has valid conventional means of deterrence to raise costs of aggression’. Between the Kidwai-articulated red lines and Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort, space exists for conventional operations in a dangerous grey zone. Also, there is clear internal contradiction between the PAF precept and practice.
Pre-emption Versus Retribution
Both during surgical strikes, avenging Uri attacks and air strikes following Pulwama, the government used pre-emption to justify its military action. Even so, it emphasised the pre-emptive nature of military action. The full statement read out by Gokhale on 26 February 2019 was: ‘credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide attack in various parts of the country and fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike has become necessary’.
This was akin to the line taken by the government after Uri and read out by then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar about multiple attacks on launchpads inside PoK. Retribution like hot pursuit, is almost immediate response, similar to the Israeli action or the US action inside Iraq when it found Gen. Soleimani a fleeting opportunity target and struck it describing it as ‘anticipatory self-defence’.
Delhi did not invoke Article 51 of UN Charter’s self-defence provision but used the principle of pre-emptive action like the anticipatory self-defence used by the US. Arguably the latter is more acceptable in international law. Further, UN Charter does not sanction self defence against terrorist entities. When Iraq retaliated against the US strike against Soleimani, it used Article 51. The choice for India is between pre-emptive military action or anticipatory self-defence. Interestingly, retaliation or retribution was not invoked.
- Balakot has arguably established new normal for responding to spectacular terrorist attacks originated in Pakistan to target the source of terrorism. Further, India has lowered its terrorism threshold. Indian response will go beyond counter terrorism to effect different facets of India-Pakistan relations.
- In the last 12 months there has been no major terrorist strike emanating from Pakistan. Equally after Mumbai, despite no military response there was no big terrorist attack till Pulwama a full decade later.
- The IAF will be expected to repeat Balakot in case of another Pulwama type attack.
- Questions on storage, maintenance of high-tech missiles like Spice 2000 and Crystal Maze 142 that malfunctioned, have arisen.
- In the event of an all-out war, ACM Bhadauria has sought increase in fighter squadron strength, multiple upgrades of existing fleet with SU 30 MKI in priority, new acquisition multi role fighter, BVR missiles, upgrading and securing communication. Where is the funding? And this is just the IAF requirement.
- Balakot created strategic space for constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir.
- Counter terrorism air operations can escalate into all-out war including nuclear exchange. This requires more scrutiny.
- Strategic surprise was the decisive force enabler for the IAF to invade Pakistan air space, bomb targets with impunity and return unscathed.
Out in public space are at least two perspectives about Balakot: one from a PAF veterans’ conference in Lahore; and the other by the British PAF specialist Alan Warnes in the Air Force Magazine. Warnes’ version of the IAF attack obtained from PAF retired officers is clearly that Spice 2000 missiles missed the target at Balakot. Next day, 27 February 2018 at 0920 am, the PAF counter-attack delivered in broad daylight surprised the IAF.
The PAF dropped the ordnance with restraint in Jammu and Kashmir with the aim of not causing any harm as no escalation was sought. In the aerial engagement, the PAF claimed its F16s shot down a Su30MKI which fell in Jammu and Kashmir as well as a MiG 21 Bison whose wreckage along with the pilot landed in Pakistan. The PAF attributed its success to effective jamming of the IAF aircraft and so big was the confusion due to this that an Israeli Spyder surface to surface missile in blue on blue shot down an Indian Mi17 helicopter with six persons on board.
Pakistan celebrated its success in the aerial engagement including the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan as a national victory surpassing its World Cup cricket triumph in 1992. The AFM report establishes the PAF shooting down a SU30MKI and a MiG 21 and refutes Dhanoa’s claim that Abhinandan shot down an F16. Warnes says that the wreckage of the MiG 21 showcased in Pakistan shows the four missiles mounted on it intact. He adds the PAF often makes most of scarce, often old resources, both tactically and strategically. Under Project Vision, the PAF has established an Air Defence network linking many foreign-made systems to three regional Air Commands and Air Head Quarters to provide one recognisable air picture.
The PAF Air Chief Marshal Khan has said that one lesson for India is not to use air power ‘flippantly’. “Restraint is needed as with BVR and stand-off weapons air forces can attack at longer ranges and then the situation spirals out of control. India should have known we will respond to their attacks. They understand our resolve. We could have shot down more IAF aircraft but restraint was shown. The Meteor with Rafale fighter is the best BVR missile in the world. It does not matter what technology the IAF gets. We have capacity to defeat it. We have to be sharp and outmanoeuvre with various methodologies. We have to be aware of modern technologies and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine, then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.”
In Operation Swift Retort, AFM says Pakistan will reflect on the PAF achievements adding that the IAF will also learn from its mistakes.
Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort
This is the second perspective from Pakistan. A conference on the above topic was organised jointly by Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research and Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies on 11 November 2019 at Lahore University. Former Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat was the keynote speaker.
The conference report says the IAF revealed tactical errors (presumably referring to not hitting target) and technical inadequacies (missiles not firing). Systemic technical deficiencies dissuaded the IAF from launching massive counter-aerial action against Pakistan as it could not risk more losses. The IAF internal report (FORCE June 2019) and present and one before air chiefs have admitted the technical asymmetries gap having narrowed, there was need for it to be expanded so that Pakistan air space can be penetrated at will. The answer to this is the S 400 AD plus Rafale package which could take minimum three to four years to operationalise. The Pakistani report refers to this: ‘they think it will provide technical edge and immunity from PAF counter strikes.’ Pakistan can burst this bubble, it says, by downing just one Rafale.
According to the report, for the foreseeable future, Pakistan will be in retaliatory mode but threat of use of force is considered essential when Pakistan’s support for Kashmir will go beyond diplomatic, political and moral paradigm. Conflict and crisis have to be viewed, it says, through the prism of the Hindutva ideology which is turning India from a secular democracy to a majoritarian fascist state. Some of the main issues discussed in the report are listed below:
- India’s new politico-military objective is to make surgical strikes the new normal with the help of TV and other media
- Rethinking Pakistan’s operational strategy after Mumbai. Reorganisation of its forces and deployment to avoid strategic surprise witnessed in Balakot.
- War will not start with first ground operations but India could start with air strikes
- Pakistan’s single counter strike crossed India’s embarrassment threshold and restored equilibrium in 30 hours
- India created a false narrative of victory giving Abhinandan Vir Chakra for being shot down
- IAF doctrinal shift – use of air power innovatively and use of air-only option of means of war fighting in future
- Window of conventional conflict at operational and tactical level will always exist. How quickly Pakistan can close this window to ensuring strategic deterrence is maintained is key. Swift Retort showed a small air force can restore strategic deterrence.
- The importance of air power in Indo-Pakistan conflict/crisis
- Crisis and escalation control are in a grey zone at a time when third parties have their own interests at stake focussed on Kashmir. India’s response was not only to raise vertical escalation but also horizontal escalation by deploying the army and navy in full force. Indian over-confidence that it can control escalation is misplaced. Probability of crisis recurrence is high. Neither India can guarantee escalation control or dominance of escalation ladder. Climbing escalation ladder outcomes cannot be choreographed to be predictable.
- BVR has taken precedence over close combat and stand-off weapons on aircraft have become essential. India’s reliance on SSM shows shortage of manned aircraft.
- Indian military action against Pakistan for the foreseeable future will be punitive, driven by domestic compulsions and fanned by media. Hit and run tactics by the IAF and special forces are likely to be confined to Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.
- Pakistan will always find itself in reactive mode. Consequently, prompt decision-making by political and military leadership during future crisis is essential.
Pakistan’s information and broadcasting ministry has made a professional film called Swift Retort projecting its version of the air battles using strategic experts. The pictorial is well done.
This paper is a second attempt to analyse Balakot air strikes following the IAF’s substantive claims about their tactical and strategic successes. Two Pakistani reports – AFM and Deconstructing Balakot – of Operation Swift Retort present the alternate perception and narrative of air battles. Wide variance exists on escalation and escalation control which has been over-simplified by the IAF. The jury is still out whether Pulwama type attacks have been trumped by Balakot. One thing is clear. Weighed down by India’s retributive threats and pressures from FATF, Pakistan will refine the contours of its proxy war and AD network.
Uri and Balakot have not ended cross border terrorism. In fact, infiltration and ceasefire violations have increased despite the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir. Balakot terror facility has bounced back. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat said that JeM had reactivated terror camps at Balakot. The Balakot air strikes operation was undertaken after careful consideration that it could escalate to an all-out war for which the armed forces are underfunded and unprepared. The recent Standing Committee report on defence bears testimony to this. ACM Dhanoa and others have suggested that India should focus on counter terrorism warfare as part of its full spectrum war preparedness.
Strategic surprise gave India the edge in the air exchange. It is not likely to be replicable. Indian military must refrain from jumping to self-fulfilling conclusions about new normal and gamechanger as well as its monopoly on escalation and escalation control. One year after Balakot it is not game set and match India but advantage India. Time will indeed tell if Balakot is a gamechanger.
A recap from my column Game Changer or One Off – Time Will Tell What Balakot Air Strikes Will Achieve in the End (FORCE, June 2019)
- Pakistan believed it enjoyed immunity against full conventional response to a spectacular terrorist strike as it had in the past, due to India’s strategic restraint following attacks against Parliament and Mumbai. Balakot represented achievement of strategic surprise.
- A plethora of buzzwords were used to describe the event: gamechanger, new normal, paradigm shift, crossing the Rubicon etc. Balakot, in fact, introduced an element of ambiguity and unpredictability and was an expression of intent to use air power directed at source of terrorism.
- By making exaggerated claims of damage and casualties and claiming redefining of red lines, India has committed itself to retaliation in the event of another major terrorist strike.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying he had called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff was premature as there are many steps on the escalation ladder between a sub-conventional air attack to a nuclear exchange.
- Pakistan’s full spectrum nuclear deterrence does not include use of tactical nuclear weapons in response to an air raid. What followed – rationally – was tit for tat air action.
- On hitting designated target on February 26, IAF spokesperson told the media ‘IAF hit targets they were given’. On shooting down an F-16, the IAF presented seemingly irrefutable evidence of radar imagery on April 8; not February 26 after the claim was made. Both these controversial issues were excluded from the previous article.
- The jury is still out on the success and effectiveness of intelligence agencies during air strike. On April 4, former chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, when questioned on damage and casualties, shot back: ‘government should answer that’.
- That India by conducting surgical ground and air strikes will alter Pakistani behaviour is wishful thinking, though that was the messaging to Rawalpindi.
Balakot represented strong resolve and political will. It reinforced the credibility of India’s credible minimum nuclear deterrent, signalling to adversaries, its intent to respond with nuclear weapons to even a tactical nuclear strike.