India’s February Miscalculation and Future of Indo-Pak Aerial Front

Author Name: Omer Aamir      23 Sep 2019     Defense

Some dreams are better left undreamt. One such dream was of Modi launching an attack on Balakot similar to Hitler’s attack on London in the battle of Britain. The strike reeked of delusions and reflected a grandiose thinking of resembling ‘preemptive strikes’ model employed by Israel and United States against Palestine and Iraq respectively. Modi looked to come out as a strongman in front of his electorate and wanted to send a message that India under him would not be a passive power. This kind of reckless action had already been forewarned by Indian MP Sashi Tharoor, in his book Pax Indica, of being counterproductive in the long run. The failed attack package of the Indian Air Force (IAF) consisted of 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft, who dropped their Israeli-Origin Spice-2000 and Popeye Precision guided bombs without causing any damage.  They were supported by four Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Netra and Phalcon airborne early warning and control aircraft, an IAI Heron UAV and two Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refuelling aircraft. Analysis of open-source satellite imagery by several independent bodies such as the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Laboratory, San Francisco-based Planet Labs, European Space Imaging, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has concluded that India did not hit any targets of significance on the hilltop in the vicinity of Balakot.

The strikes were carried out in retaliation to the Pulwama attack on Indian Central Police Reserve Forces (CPRF) that killed 45 CPRF personnel. India alleged that Masood Azhar’s Jaish e Mohammad had carried out the attacks, and moved expeditiously to draw plans to carry out surgical strikes on targets in Pakistan. Modi and his defence staff held several meetings to draw out plans.  Modi in his haste even suggested to conduct the attacks in rain so that Pakistani radars would not detect them. He insinuated towards this in an interview which showed his lack of aviation knowledge and has since become a witty anecdote among Social Media users.

On 26 February 2019, Pakistan announced the intrusion of Indian aircraft into its airspace, but asserted that the Indian fleet was intercepted, causing them to retreat, to release their bombs which hit an open area, and to dump their fuel tanks. The airstrike was the first time since the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 that attacking warplanes had crossed the Line of Control. Pakistani planes intercepted the Indians in 2 sectors but they were able to get through the 3rd sector and Pakistani war planes hastily intercepted the intruders, the IAF fighters hastily withdrew. A team from Al Jazeera visited the site two days after the strikes and noted "splintered pine trees and rocks" which were strewn across the four blast craters. Local hospital officials and residents asserted that they did not come across any casualty or wounded people. The reporters located the facility a school run by Jaish-e-Mohammed - at around a kilometre to the east of one of the bomb craters. India labelled these as ‘pre-emptive’ and ‘non-military’ strikes. The restraint shown by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) of not engaging in a hot pursuit the same day demonstrated its logic successively.

According to Pakistan’s Defence Minister, the PAF did not immediately retaliate to the strike because it was unaware of the extent of the damage caused. The following day however, Pakistani warplanes crossed the Line of Control (LoC) from Nowshera, Jammu and Kashmir and dropped bombs over Nadian, Laam Jhangar, Kerri in Rajouri District and Hamirpur area of Bhimber Galli in Poonch. Pakistan was effectively able to lock onto the targets, however at the last moment, the pilots took their cursor off them. This was confirmed by recent in-cockpit videos released by the PAF’s operations directorate for the 6th September telecast - which showed that the PAF deliberately did not target the Indian Military sites despite having them in clear sight. The professional Pakistani air force was able to meticulously do its job as instructed by the upper echelons during the effectively carried out Operation Swift Retort. Otherwise, the situation would have escalated. According to reports, Indian Corps Commander of the Northern Command was in one of the brigade headquarters that was locked in by the PAF. Not for a second were the orders not followed precisely to ensure that the two nuclear armed neighbours do not head towards a graver confrontation. Years of training and determined efforts to engage professionally came in handy.

Moreover, this time around, the PAF was instructed to shoot down any Indian planes that crossed the Line of Control. In the hot pursuit that Wing Commander Abhinandan engaged in, he along with his fellow IAF officers in a SU-30 were shot down by PAF’s Wing Commander Nauman Ali Khan and Squardon Leader Hassan Siddiqui. Abhinandan was captured alive after he ejected in Azad Jammu & Kashmir. On the other hand, the SU-30 fell in Indian Territory and its pilots reportedly could not make it out alive. An IAF Mi-17 was also shot in an air battle by friendly fire. Its friend or foe (FoF) identification system was reportedly shut off due to the IAF personnel not following the laid down Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). 6 IAF officers have been indicted for criminal charges for the downing of this helicopter which, if anything, is a sign of the IAF’s unscrupulousness.  

Capitals around the world were set into motion with the news of the air skirmish and rushed to caution the two neighbours from further escalating the situation. The PAF had already achieved its objectives and simultaneously prevented escalation. A joint sitting of the parliament was convened, preceded by the National Security Council meeting and succeeded by a National Command Authority consultation. It was agreed to release Wing Commander Abhinandan. Some circles in Pakistan considered the Indian aggression as an act of war and the captured pilot as a prisoner of war. There was no obligation on Pakistan to release him back according to this rationale. However, in this instance the desire for peace prevailed once again and the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced in the Parliament’s joint sitting to release him. Pakistan in no way came across as a weak actor due to the release of Abhinandan, rather it showed the magnanimity of the Pakistani state. The act also showed all elements of power in Pakistan working in unison to achieve the desired result - which in this case was to show to the Indians that Pakistan, its armed forces and its air force in particular could not be treaded over. Pakistan was neither Palestine, nor Syria; neither were the BJP’s leadership’s ostentatious denial of reality of being a global superpower, anywhere near the truth.

Since the Balakot failed raid and ensuing air battle, the PAF is undertaking modernization efforts to upgrade its JF-17 fleet and inducting the new Active Electronically Scanning Array (AESA) radar in the JF-17 Block III, as well as retrofitting the older block II and I versions with it. The new Block III, which will supposedly cost around $32 million each, now introduces a helmet-mounted display system which should allow more flexible targeting of short-range missiles in close dogfights. The jet intakes are widened to improve airflow, and the Russian RD-93 engine may eventually be replaced by a Chinese manufactured WS-13 turbofan. Additional thrust, combined with lightweight composite materials could potentially boost the type’s speed and range  The PAF has also completed the design stages of Project Azm- a fifth generation aircraft project which started half a decade ago according to defensenews.com. The Pakistan Air Force is currently more than capable - with its over 1,000 strong aircraft fleet and over 100,000 professionally trained officers, airmen and civilians - of defending the aerial frontiers of Pakistan in an effective manner. It can be deduced through analysis that it is in a more superior condition currently compared to the depleted Indian Air Force which is equipped with only 32 fighter squadrons as opposed to the sanctioned 39.5 squadron requirement (according to India Today). India’s Rafale deal has also been brought down from the initial tender of 126 aircrafts in 2007 (being the requirement in Request for Proposals up till as late as 2012) to only 36 aircraft being handed over in a ‘fly-away’ condition, the process having been started currently.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the Indian Air force is also inducting the state of the art S-400 system. The S-400 system is a highly mobile system-all radars, missiles and launchers are mounted on 8x8 cross-country trucks, which makes them harder to detect and destroy. The entire system can be made ready to fire in a matter of minutes. The S-400's crown jewel is its 92N6E electronically-steered phased array radar, which can track 300 targets over 600 kilometres away and, based on the threat and range, shoot four different missile types at them. Each S-400 system has four types of missiles from the 400-km range, 200-km range, 100-km and 40-km range, forming a nearly impenetrable interlocking grid of missiles. It can detect and destroy targets flying as low as 100 feet to as high as 40,000 feet. This latest equipment will greatly enhance the capability of IAF. The PAF must be certified adequate prowess to match this air defence capability, or to buy or build aircraft to outmanoeuvre it. The only realistic option lies in purchasing a 5th Generation aircraft or a platform similar to S-400 such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). The purchase & induction of LY-80 by the Pakistani army is not a suitable match for the much more advanced S-400.

Conclusively, we can say that as of now, the PAF has maintained parity with the IAF in terms of technology and equipment, as demonstrated by the 27th February encounter. The PAF is currently well-matched in terms of training, professionalism and personnel. However, over the years it looks like the IAF will purchase multiple new platforms and equipment such as Rafale and the S-400. These will enhance its capability and make it a more modern and technologically advanced air force. Pakistan needs to dedicate adequate resources to its air force if a befitting response like that seen after the Balakot strike is to be repeated. The PAF has the will, preparation and Divine support if it is technically well-equipped to respond to any threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty emanating from air, land or sea. However, the Pakistani political leadership will need to ensure that the wheels of the economy are well-oiled so that no disparity between Pakistani and Indian Armed Forces (and air force’s in particular) ever comes into existence.

Omer Aamir is a Researcher at Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). He has done his B.A LL.b (Hons) from Lahore University of Management Sciences. He plans to pursue International Law & International Relations for further studies.