Balakot Raid, Naushera battle and beyond

 The recent air strikes on Balakot and the subsequent air battle near Naushera will be fodder for discussions for years to come.  Lost in the hyperbole of claims and counter-claims on both sides are some glaring issues on which questions should be asked. And the lessons should be recorded for future conficts. Air Marshal Harish Masand shares his thoughts on various aspects of the recent events.Masand

 


12 days after the terror attack in Pulwama on 14th of February 2019, India decided that enough was enough and responded with air strikes at three JeM terrorist camps at Balakot, Muzaffarabad and Chilkoti. What was truly significant about these strikes was not the body count and confirmation on the number of terrorists actually killed but that, for the first time, India decided to not just cross the LOC but go into Pakistan, at Balakot in Khyber-Pakhtunwa, itself to carry out this particular strike. Even in Kargil, where clear aggression by the Pakistani military was established and so seen by the world, we fought with one hand tied behind our back with the Lakshman Rekha being the LoC. There’s can be little debate on the argument that if the LOC was not kept sacrosanct and the armed forces were given the liberty of attacking from the flanks or rear through an indirect approach, without any intent to occupy the rear areas, the casualties, both on the ground and in the air, would have been lesser for us and we would have evicted the Pakistanis from our posts, earlier than we did.

Viewed in this context, along with the minor incursions across the LoC in past retaliatory actions, the true significance of the Balakot strike is the message the nation sent through the Air Force that we are capable and determined to strike at terror bases wherever they may be in Pakistan. Fortunately, there were no reported losses in these strikes in the wee hours of 26th February. The Pakistanis also did not claim that they had intercepted or shot down any of our aircraft that took part in these raids. However, even if there were some losses, these would and should have been acceptable to the nation considering the importance of the message we were sending out to not just Pakistan but also the international community of our resolve to combat terror and the new strategy of retaliation. That there were no losses just proves the meticulous planning and training for such operations by the Indian Air Force, which made the entire nation proud.

I wouldn’t even want to go into the guesswork on or try to know which aircraft took part in these strikes nor where they took off from and how they conducted the planned strike, as many have found important to discuss and debate on TV channels for days at end.

Personally, I want to commend the IAF for being reticent on the details since these things are not for public consumption no matter how much the temptation to get a bit of limelight. After all, even the minutest bit of information on the plans can adversely affect future operations of such nature. In that light, for some to claim credit for having planned exactly such strikes a decade or more ago was also perhaps unnecessary. As a matter of fact, I would be disappointed if the current leadership of the IAF just dusted and used such old plans since with acquisition of new technology, knowledge, expertise as well current intelligence, operational plans must change and be innovative to surprise the enemy every time. Neither the IAF nor the foreign secretary who made the official announcement in the forenoon of 26th February mentioned which aircraft, how many or from where as also the weapons used and the exact or even the estimated casualties inflicted. I truly haven’t been able to figure out where our media picked up the details on Mirages, AAR and AWACS etc.

Damage Assessment 

Despite such clear restraint on the part of the officials concerned, it is disturbing to see some making claims on the numbers killed and others asking for evidence of the strikes or even the exact number of casualties. Such detractors, whatever their compulsion, do not seem to understand the main objective of the strikes or the fact that in air actions, the number of casualties cannot be estimated with any degree of accuracy without having boots on the ground immediately thereafter, particularly when the enemy is in a denial mode and everything is going to be cleared or covered up post-haste. All that can be done is to project the numbers likely to have been in the target complex based on the latest intelligence. Also, it would be incorrect to even ask the Air Force to put out in public domain any imagery from the strike aircraft or other assets. For experts, even such imagery gives away the type of assets and attack pattern employed, the resolution of the imagery and many other bits, which can be used to deduce the capabilities and likely future employment of assets. In any event, such evidence on the strike having been carried out has already emerged slowly from unofficial sources.

Pakistan itself admitted the intrusion with some outrage, an audio of JeM warning of rebirth of Jehad has emerged and an Italian journalist, Francesca Marino, talked of extensive damage with 100% accuracy with eyewitness accounts of a death toll of between 40-50 with another 35-40 wounded. After a few days YouTube had a video on the satellite imagery of the terrorist complex at Balakot before and after the strike. More details would surely emerge with passage of time. Even the IAF may put out some evidence after some time once this phase of operations is over and when the information is not considered sensitive. In the meantime, the political storm being created for evidence, without patience, may only end up demoralizing the war fighters. One can be certain of the senior leadership in the armed forces of taking suitable steps to ensure that the attention of the fighting elements is not distracted by such political controversies but this is certainly an unnecessary and wasteful drain on time and resources.

The F-16 vs MiG-21 Air Battle : More Questions than Answers.

Immediately after the strikes, while the nation was celebrating, one can also be certain that the armed forces were already in a high state of alert for possible retaliatory action from across the border. After all, all the sound-bites coming from across talked of certain retaliation. Thus, the air intrusion by PAF the very next day shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the Air Force. Without taking anything away from Wing Commander Abhinandan’s bravery, and his later conduct in captivity which we all salute, it is surprising that the Air Force decided to pit MiG-21s, perhaps mixed with some Su-30s as reported, against incoming F-16s. I was in charge of the MiG-21 upgrade to Bison standards from initial evaluation of proposals in 1993 till after contract conclusion in 1996 so I know exactly what the Bison is capable of in terms of its combat capability, including avionics and weaponry. The MiG-21 Bison has also reportedly performed admirably against later generation aircraft in all international exercises it has taken part in. However, the airframe and engine of the Bison remain almost the same limiting its maneuverability and close combat capabilities against more agile aircraft like the F-16. Therefore, it was known that the Bison would not be able to hold its own against superior aircraft except when in a large and coordinated group where numbers overcome the shortfall in individual maneuverability. I only hope the reports of putting out 2 MiG-21Bisons and 4 Su-30s against an expected/reported force of 10-12 intruders are incorrect and we did engage this raid with appropriate forces.

The analysis of the much-reported dogfight between the IAF and the PAF on 27th February as a fall-out of the Balakot strike the previous morning has thrown up a number of theories, conjectures and scenarios particularly with regard to the brief and sharp dogfight between an F-16 against a vintage, though upgraded, MiG-21 Bison. Claims and counter-claims have flown thick and fast, perhaps as thick and fast as a modern day aerial engagement between high-speed jets in some numbers. Very little has been confirmed by the officials concerned on both sides. This is except for the claim of an F-16 shot down by India by the Defence Minister, Ms Sitharaman, herself at the India Today Conclave on 12th March.

From the Pakistani side, the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, initially claimed two Indian aircraft shot down, with two pilots in their captivity. Later, this turned out to be just one aircraft and one pilot, the latest hero of India, Wing Commander Abhinadan Varthaman who was soon on social media and TV. No further explanation has emerged from Pakistan on Imran’s claim of the second aircraft and the mysterious second pilot. However, just as I was writing this piece, I received the pictures of the damaged but unfired missiles reportedly carried on Abhinandan’s aircraft, as going around in Pakistani media. It should be noted that these pictures show only two out of the possible four missiles that the MiG-21 would have been carrying.

From the Indian side, very little has been put out in the public domain, except pieces of an AMRAAM which can only be fired from the F-16s on Pakistani inventory thus confirming the use of the F-16 in this engagement but little to confirm the downing of the F-16. Mr Arun Jaitley reiterated the claim and chase of the F-16 a couple of days later in an interview on CNN News 18 but supported it with the story about the retired Pakistani Air Marshal’s son being the F-16 pilot. That story had been earlier negated on social media. At the same time, Mr Jaitley rightly commented on the issue of space-filler information versus scientific evidence in the media while stating that our intelligence and imagery cannot be put out in public domain for obvious reasons. However, in my opinion, that should not prevent us from confirming such an important kill with some hard facts that do not compromise national security.

CU2275

To be sure, this was the first such dogfight between the two air forces since the 1971 war, over 47 years earlier. Thus, this engagement was bound to generate a lot of interest and comment worldwide to push home pet theories, glorify one side or denounce the other but very few to genuinely derive some valuable lessons. The first western report on 3rd March raised doubts on India’s vintage military hardware, perhaps erroneously by criticizing the use of the MiG-21s in this encounter while a later one by Joseph Trevithick rubbished the entire claim of the MiG-21 Bison shooting down the Pakistani F-16 Viper, in some pretty strong language. Fortunately, the latter article does list out the capabilities of the upgraded MiG-21, called the Bison, and summarizes its 4th generation capabilities in avionics and weapons after the upgrade, including the R-77 BVR & R-73 close combat missiles, the helmet mounted sight and, very importantly, in the modern air battle with both sides having a BVR capability, the carriage of a self-protection electronic warfare pod, the Israeli ELTA 8222. Such capabilities give the MiG-21 Bison the ability to get a shot at even more modern aircraft like the F-15 Eagle, as shown in various Cope India exercises with the US, particularly when operated in a numerically stronger package with some support from more advanced aircraft like the Su-30, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29s in our inventory. However, while admitting such capabilities of the MiG-21 Bison, the author does question the absence of hard facts supporting our claim on the F-16. Certainly, this was not a one-on-one fight between the two aircraft so the question is not about which aircraft is superior but which air force used its resources in a more effective manner.

Be that as it may, the loss of one of our MiG-21 Bison in this encounter raises certain questions. Quite obviously, even knowledgeable outsiders cannot answer these questions without full information on the manner in which this encounter took place. Again, very obviously, we should not even expect such full information by either of the air forces. However, it is hoped that these issues or questions are being addressed by the IAF in order to draw the right lessons for the future.

Having carried out the pre-emptive strike at Balakot on 26 February, it must be assumed that the IAF was fully prepared for any retaliatory action by the PAF. Thereafter, the first question obviously is whether we used adequate numbers of MiG-21 Bisons with a mix of the other more modern 4th generation fighters like the Su-30MKI and MiG-29s to ensure the requisite numerical and qualitative superiority on the intruding force to not just deter but shoot down maximum number of enemy aircraft. Just imagine the situation today if we had paraded 8 or more Pakistani pilots in our captivity as against one of ours in their captivity. Some reports suggest that while the Pakistanis retaliated with 24 or 12 aircraft, we launched just 6 MiG-21s with another 4 Su-30s. Surely with our surveillance systems on full alert, we could have launched a larger number of fighters to overwhelm the intruders.

Since an AMRAAM BVR missile reportedly shot down the MiG-21 from an F-16, the second question arises on whether Wing Commander Abhinandan’s aircraft was carrying the ELTA EW pod to thwart such a missile attack. If it indeed did carry such a pod, did the pod fail to function or is it now inadequate to counter the threats of today? A capable EW and counter-measure systems are absolutely essential elements for a fighter aircraft in an air engagement or a dogfight in today’s environment. A related issue is the limited number of hard points on the MiG-21 to carry fuel, weapons or other stores like this EW pod. An internal EW system, therefore, makes a lot of sense to free up the external hard points for fuel or weapons. As the Director of the MiG-21 Bis Upgrade till contract signing in 1996, I had tried hard for an internal system but for reasons beyond my control, we had to settle for an external EW pod which lost us a precious external station. However, that is another story for another time. Nevertheless, it does need to be said that if we had an internal EW system on the Bison, perhaps the possibility of the pod not having been carried in this engagement would not even have arisen.

Abhinandan Bangalore

Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman (Standing 3rd from right) seen at Yelahanka during the recent Aero-India event.  Abhinandan flew a MiG-21 Bison to the venue prior to the event, which was when this photograph was taken (Credits: Unknown)

Another issue worth consideration internally by the IAF is on the relative positioning and presence of other aircraft in this interceptor group. Where were the other formation members when Wing Commander Abhinandan was engaging or chasing the F-16 and what did they do and observe? Surely, the radio calls between them and from/to the situation controller would prove something towards our claim of downing the F-16. Also, if the MiG-21 was shot down immediately after the F-16, surely the F-16 wreckage should also be close to where the MiG-21 came down just a few kilometers across the LoC. If that be so, why is it that we have not been able to acquire the imagery of that crash site/wreckage? Also, why didn’t Abhinandan launch the longer range R-77 missile instead of choosing to chase the F-16 for an R-73 CCM launch, as has been reported. Lastly, the training in the IAF had also taught us that a good fighter pilot never leaves behind a formation member and even stays with the downed teammate till he is rescued, if fuel and other conditions permit. So, did his formation members stay with him at least till his MiG-21 was shot at and couldn’t they together threaten the attacking aircraft?

I am certain the IAF is pondering over these issues based on the facts known only to it and, hopefully someday, we will hear the whole story, perhaps in a box-office movie, without politicization of this entire episode.


Air Marshal Harish Masand 11272 F(P) VrC, VM is an IAF Veteran whose career spanned 39 years.  He is a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh war, and was awarded the Vir Chakra for his air combat victory against the Pakistan Air Force. He also raised India's first MiG-29 Squadron in the 80s and has been instrumental in MiG-21 Bison program, having served as the Director of the Upgrade program.