Air strikes and Defence Preparedness
THE air strikes by India across the Line of Control (LoC) have been accompanied by much chest-thumping by the prime minister, by government and ruling party spokespersons, and camp-follower TV and other media personalities. This despite India’s reluctance or inability to release convincing evidence such as imagery of damage caused to and inside the targeted structures in Jaba Top, or evidence of a Pakistani F-16 fighter brought down during the Pakistani counter-strike. Pakistan has gone to town claiming that only a single crow was killed, and only a few trees were destroyed. While Pakistan is aiming at both international and domestic audiences, the Modi government seems to care only about earning brownie points from the domestic audience during the election season.
Against this loud posturing, no room is allowed for questions regarding the efficacy and strategic benefits or otherwise of measures taken, all of which are simply shouted down as “anti-national” rhetoric or doubting and insulting the armed forces. This follows the pattern of the earlier “surgical strikes” of 2016 said to have been undertaken to “teach a lesson” to Pakistan and deter future terrorist and other cross-border incursions on Indian soil. Yet the many cross-border strikes and terrorist attacks since then in Kashmir and elsewhere have belied these proclaimed strategic outcomes of what has remained a one-off incident rather than the first of a “new normal.”
It can similarly be anticipated that India’s air strikes aimed at terrorist training camps deep inside Pakistan, would also not result in immediate cessation of Pak-supported cross-border terrorist or other incursions in Kashmir or elsewhere in India. For one, Pakistani aerial counter-strikes the very next day has shown that Pakistan would not simply turn a blind eye to such actions by India across the LoC or deeper inside Pakistan, even if they do not target the Pakistani military but only non-State actors. Far from India’s air strikes establishing a “new normal,” the Pakistani counter-strikes underline the escalatory potential of such attacks by India. Any potential escalatory spiral can certainly not be considered any kind of normal, and hence it is again likely that India’s air strikes may remain a lone incident.
It could be argued the extent of physical damage done by the Indian air strikes is not important, but the fact that India has demonstrated its ability and willingness to break away from the shackles of “strategic restraint.” If one were to take a longer-term strategic view, the sharper tone of international advice to Pakistan to pull back on support to UN-designated terrorist groups based in and operating from Pakistani territory may indeed be taken as a positive outcome. It would also be positive if India’s air strikes and the international response to them do indeed stimulate some introspection within Pakistan’s military, intelligence and political establishments. But each such escalation increases internationalization of the India-Pakistan conflict, which has long been stated to be a strategic red line for India.
Apart from these broader strategic considerations, though, the jingoistic cacophony has also prevented much scrutiny of the details of the tit-for-tat air strikes by India and Pakistan, particularly the military hardware used. A preliminary examination is attempted here, based on the limited information available in the public domain, so as to throw some light on defence preparedness in India.
THE BALAKOT STRIKE
While the Indian strikes on Balakot beyond the LOC and deep inside Pakistan have been the subject of much discussion, especially regarding the target, extent of damage and casualties as well as evidence of the same, far less attention has been paid to the retaliatory air strikes by Pakistan. This has suited the self-congratulatory Indian government and ruling party narrative, even if the damage assessment evidence of the strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) training camp has been skimpy. The Pakistani counter-strikes, on the other hand, show up weaknesses in Indian defence preparedness that are serious cause for concern and deserve further examination.
But first a few words about the Indian air strike. No official statement gives details of the munitions used, but official spokespersons have conveyed off the record that Mirage-2000 fighters dropped Spice 2000 (Smart Precise Impact Cost Effective guidance kits) precision-guided bombs on a well-known JeM training camp which had shown up even in US reports many years ago. The Spice kit, made by Israel’s Rafael Systems (not to be confused with the French Rafale fighter aircraft) adapted from ground-to-air missiles, is an attachment that converts otherwise dumb bombs to precision-guided munitions using either electro-optical sensors or satellite-guidance systems. It is likely that the bombs dropped on the JeM Jaba Top facilities were satellite guided, since photo-imagery from E/O systems on the munitions are not known to be available. There is some doubt, however, as to the quantity and type of explosive material used.
Pre- and post- strike satellite imagery of the Jaba Top facility released by various agencies are inconclusive, to say the least. The IAF is also said to have given to government a dossier containing high-resolution satellite imagery and images captured by synthetic aperture radar (SAR) gathered by airborne intelligence platforms, but these too have not been released. Imagery recently available from international sources and reported on NDTV shows one building missing, and metre-wide holes on the roofs of other buildings through which, it is said, the bombs must have penetrated, travelled down two floors and then exploded underground. According to unofficial statements by IAF officers, the Spice munitions are meant for precisely such deep-penetration “bunker-busting” operations. It is further said that the quantum of explosive material is likely to be far less than the initially proclaimed 1000kg and this would explain why there is not extensive damage of the walls of the buildings still standing.
At the time of writing, more definitive information is not available. The one thing known is that till date, Pakistani security officials have not permitted international correspondents to go up the hill road to the Jaba Top facility, which begs the question why the Pakistanis would not want the press to see one dead crow and a few scorched trees. What is Pakistan hiding?
INDIAN AIR DEFENCES WANTING?
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has justifiably taken pride in having penetrated Pakistani airspace on February 26 without detection, and having released their precision-guided bombs and returned to the Indian side of the LoC before the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) fighter jets appeared on the scene. It is likely that the Mirage 2000 fighters, perhaps 4 out of 12 that originally set out from their Gwalior base, only spent a few minutes inside Pakistani air space since they only needed to cross the LoC by a few tens of kilometres for the bombs to glide to their target 50 or 60 km away. The fighters were part of a much larger strike force, other aircraft making dummy runs in other sectors of the LoC and international border (IB) in order to confuse Pakistani air defences.
Equally, however, when Pakistan struck back with retaliatory air strikes the next day, their US-made F-16s, French Mirage-5s and JF-17 fighters (made in Pakistan in collaboration with the Chinese manufacturer) too managed to penetrate Indian air space, even if for a few brief minutes before they were intercepted by IAF MiG-21 Bison fighters, and before they could release bombs or missiles at intended military headquarter targets along the LoC. One IAF MiG-21 Bis was shot down probably while chasing an F-16 across the LoC, leading to the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan on the Pakistani side. India claims to have shot down an F-16 too, but no confirmatory evidence is available so far.
It has been widely reported in the Indian media that, since some form of retaliation was expected, the LoC region was abuzz with combat air patrols and active scanning by anti-aircraft missile batteries such as the Israeli Spyder systems (also made by Rafael in collaboration with the Israeli Aircraft Industries) and the indigenous Akash short-range missile systems. There have, however, been no reports if these missile defence systems were at all activated against the intruding PAF aircraft, to what effect and, if not, reasons for the same. How come these vaunted missile defence systems seemed to have played no part, and it was left to the MiG-21 Bisons to be the first and only line of defence?
More to the point, however, where were the IAF’s much more recent Mirage-2000s, Mig-27s and MiG-29s and the superlative Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, each of which would have been more than a match for the PAF’s F-16s?
Much has been made of the PAF F-16s and the fantastic showing by the IAF MiG-21s in having brought one down. On the other hand, PM Modi himself said that the scenario of the Pak retaliatory strike would have been different if India had Rafales! Some clarity is required.
In the first place, most of the PAF F-16s are 1980s vintage A/B models, albeit with mid-life upgrades, avionics and missiles. While India’s MiG-21 Bisons are no doubt of even earlier vintage, they have had major upgrades with dramatically improved avionics, missiles, cockpit displays and so on. In close-quarter dogfights, they can be a match for the F-16s since numerous factors come into play in such situations which tend to neutralize other advantages more modern aircraft may have. The Rafale argument is plain silly! By that token, India may as well retire all its 400 plus fighters and stock up with Rafales! But then it was PM Modi all by himself who had whittled down the IAF’s requirement for 126 Rafales to a mere 36!
The answer, more tragic than funny, is that none of these aircrafts were available in forward air bases near the LoC! It has recently been revealed that it had been planned to station some Su-30 MKIs in forward base but the proposal had not been implemented for the past 11 years because funds for the required hard-den hangars (to protect the fighters from air strikes) had not been approved and have only recently been sanctioned following which it would take another few years to build them! This is unbelievable. Surely between the IAF, the Ministry of Defence officials, and the political leadership, it should not have taken over ten years to take action on this simple requirement? But this is so typical of decision-making on defence matters in India. Thousands of crores have been thrown on fighter aircraft but a few hundred crores on hangars are going a-begging.
It is better if the government does not simply strut around boasting about its great achievements in Balakot but take a sober and introspective look at air defences along the LoC and the IB. If indeed tit-for-tat air strikes are to be the new normal, then India’s air defences need to be far better.
On the subject of F-16s, the government is making much about Pakistan deploying F-16s against India, and has complained to the US about this supposed violation of the end-use agreement with the US according to which, again supposedly since nobody here has seen this US-Pak agreement, the F-16s were supplied to Pakistan to be used against terrorists.
As for conditionalities regarding sale of US military hardware, the US is known to wink and look the other way when it wants, and take punitive action when it suits them. In the long and tortuous US-Pak relationship, the US has blown hot and cold regarding supply of F-16s. It first happily supplied F-16s to Pakistan to “balance forces” in the region vis-a-vis the supposedly Soviet-supplied India, then cut off F-16 supplies to Pakistan to punish it for links with Al Qaeda which the US had initially supported and the Taliban, then again rewarded Pakistan with F-16s for acting against terrorists on the Af-Pak border. India has shown pieces found on the Indian side of the LoC of US-made AMRAAM missiles used on F-16s as proof that F-16s were indeed used against India in the Pak air strikes. Well, when the US supplied the AMRAAM missiles to Pakistan, did the US really think they would be used against a non-existent Taliban air force? US end-use conditions are a double-edged sword. India should think well and hard about US end-use conditions for the many military platforms it has already acquired, and in future plans to buy, from the US.