Thursday, July 25, 2024

Three Years After Balakot Air Strike: India Packs An Indigenous Punch

By Air Marshal SBP Sinha (r)


This February, it will be three years since India launched a non-military, pre-emptive air strike against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist training camp located near Balakot in Pakistan. The entire nation was agitated after the fedayeen attack on the CRPF bus convoy in Pulwama on 14 February 2019 that killed 46 soldiers and sought suitable retribution against the perpetrators of this reprehensible terrorist action. Pakistan based terrorist organisation JeM led by Maulana Masood Azhar had claimed responsibility for this dastardly attack. 

For the first time, the Government of India had decided to launch an airstrike against the JeM training camp near Balakot in Pakistan, where JeM was training a large number of fedayeen to launch more suicide attacks in India. Indian Air Force (IAF) was tasked to an airstrike and eliminate a maximum number of terrorists residing in the JeM terrorist training camp near Balakot with minimal collateral damage. IAF meticulously planned the mission and used SPICE 2000, a smart, precision bomb with good penetration capability to eliminate terrorists while they were sleeping in the targeted buildings with pinpoint accuracy with least collateral damage at 03:30 AM Indian Time/03:00 AM Pakistan Time. 

To ensure surprise, IAF had launched a strike package of 12 Mirage 2000 fighters from Gwalior in central India and routed them along the Himalayas for terrain masking to prevent radar detection. The mission was integrated with other IAF assets through indigenously developed Integrated Air Command & Control System (IACCS) and provided Air Defence cover by indigenously developed ‘Netra’ AEW&C aircraft and Su-30 fighters. Flight refuelling aircraft provided air-to-air refuelling en route, which is crucial for long-range missions. Considering the threats involved and the need for a precise attack, IAF chose Mirage 2000 fighters primarily because it was the only fighter capable of attacking surface targets from a long stand-off distance with assured accuracy of a few metres.

The successful air strike against JeM terrorist training camp proved the efficacy of airstrikes against terrorists. The success of the Balakot airstrike has transformed the Indian resolve towards fighting terror emanating from Pakistan. It has also established a strategic transformation in how India would fight terror originating from Pakistan in the future. Credit for this successful mission and strategic shift must be given to the unyielding will of the bold and decisive Indian leadership to act against terrorism. Credible inputs by intelligence agencies and the outstanding professionalism of air warriors led to the mission’s success. Indian diplomatic efforts ensured that most countries supported India’s Balakot airstrike, and none except Pakistan opposed it.

The aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack

IAF learnt many lessons during the Balakot air strike mission, and indeed most of them would have been implemented. The most visible action by IAF post-Balakot has been its steadfast focus on indigenous design, development and integration of new weapons, having assured accuracy of a few metres and capable of being launched from very long stand-off distances from the target. Besides being highly accurate in targeting, these weapons also have very deep penetration capability to enter and destroy very well-protected targets. In turn, the design accuracy of these weapons also ensures minimal collateral damage to other installations in close vicinity.

Three years back, Mirage 2000 fighters were the only ones capable of launching the ‘Crystal Maze’ missile of 100 Km range and SPICE 2000 bombs of 60 Km range. Today, Su-30 fighters carry the supersonic air-launched BrahMos cruise missile of 450 Km range and are modified to carry the SPICE 2000 bombs. Rafale fighters were inducted along with SCALP Cruise Missiles having a range of over 300 Km. HAMMER penetration bombs with nearly 80 Km are now integrated on Rafale, and Mirage 2000 are also being integrated on Tejas fighters.

DRDO is developing a wide range of indigenous precision air-to-surface weapons capable of being launched from very long stand-off distances from the target. These weapons are at various stages of trials and integration on many fighters of IAF. The air-launched version of BrahMos, the fastest supersonic cruise missile globally, is successfully integrated on Su-30 fighters to strike targets at supersonic speed up to a range of 450 Km. Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW), a deep-penetration and high explosive glide bomb designed to target runways, aircraft shelters and reinforced structures from a considerable stand-off distance of over 100 Km with great precision to put airfields and other targets out of action, has been successfully developed and is presently being integrated on Jaguar and Su-30 fighters. 

Long-Range Guided Bombs, designed for high speed and low-drag, equipped with range extension kits, can be released from an extensive stand-off range of over 100 Km to keep the fighter well outside the firing envelope surface-to-air missiles when releasing the bombs. Long-Range Guided Bombs have been successfully developed and validated, and they are now being integrated on various IAF fighters. DRDO is developing a family new generation air-to-surface, long-range, precision, stand-off supersonic missiles called RudraM-1, 2 and 3 with their strike distance going up to 500 Km. The RudraM family of air-to-surface missiles will be integrated on various IAF fighters. Flight trials of RudraM-1 and RudraM-2 are underway, while RudraM-3 are planned to start shortly. 

All these missiles are equipped with satellite-based navigation systems and carry multiple types of seekers to accurately locate, identify and lock on to the assigned target for a precision attack. RudraM family of air-to-surface missiles are designed to also carry a Passive Homing Head in lieu of seekers to locate, identify and home-on to attack emitters in the Anti-Radiation Missile role. These indigenous weapons will significantly boost the sovereign capabilities of the IAF, and their manufacture by Indian industry will contribute immensely towards the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ campaigns.

IAF has also greatly enhanced the Air Defence network and its capabilities with induction of Rafale, integration of indigenous ‘Astra’ air-to-air beyond visual range missiles on Su-30 and Tejas fighters, induction and operationalisation of Medium-Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) systems capable of shooting down airborne targets at a distance of up to 70 Km and S-400 Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LRSAM) systems capable of shooting down airborne targets at a distance of up to 400 Km. In future, if Pakistan attempts a retaliatory air strike against India, then the enhanced Air Defence capabilities of IAF would cause very heavy attrition on any such misadventure. 

The success of the Balakot air strike puts increased pressure on the Government of India to launch similar airstrikes to avenge any terrorist attacks in the future. IAF has significantly increased its capabilities to launch such precision air strikes at short notice, if required, and also defend the Indian airspace more resolutely against any misadventure by our adversaries. Realtime intelligence gathering is a prerequisite for planning and executing such missions that require weapons to hit targets with pinpoint accuracy and cause minimal collateral damage. Also, networked operations are vital to coordinate all aspects of mission planning and execution amongst numerous agencies within IAF located hundreds of kilometres apart.

The success of the Balakot airstrike has transformed the national resolve towards fighting terror emanating from Pakistan. The capability development of IAF post-Balakot in these last three years provides the government greater options to launch such airstrikes to avenge any terror attacks in the future at very short notice and inflict unacceptable attrition on any misadventure of a retaliatory strike against India.

About The Author 

Air Mshl. SBP Sinha PVSM AVSM VM (Retd) is former Deputy Chief of Air Staff and Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Central Air Command. He currently holds the DRDO Chair (Prof MGK Menon Chair)


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