COLUMN: Amidst Fog Of War Over Feb 26-27, 5 Big Gains For The IAF

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By YUSUF UNJHAWALA

The fog of war that persists over several aspects of the February 26 and 27 will not likely lift soon. And while the strands of available information allow us to build a picture of only limited clarity, the gains for the Indian Air Force from those two days are far more emphatic.

While both India and Pakistan maintain high level of alert with frequent combat air patrols, it is likely that no further air strikes on each other will take place — unless there is a major terror attack on India.

India has several gains to take away from the aerial battles, both from its strikes on the Jaish-e-Muhammad terror camp in Balakot in Pakistan and the battle in the air over Jammu and Kashmir.

First, straight up, by launching the air strikes on terror camps in Pakistan, India has set a new rules on how it will tackle terror attacks on India by Pakistani terrorist organisations. It has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff which it has used over the years to attack India without the fear of retribution.

While the effect of the strike on Balakot at the strategic level will be analysed over the weeks and months to come, there are some clear gains as far as India’s air power capabilities go.

It is reported that India used a strike package of 12 Mirage-2000 fighter jets. This would consist of a specific number or jets carrying the precision bombs to take out the terrorist camp. The others would include electronic counter measures (ECM) and provide escort protection to the strike aircrafts.

The strike was conducted at night time and under adverse weather conditions going by Pakistani explanation on why it could not fly journalists to ground zero in the morning of the strike. It shows the capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to conduct precision strike under all weather and in day and night situation.

The IAF Mirage was able to successfully ingress into Pakistan, release the bombs and return without a scratch. Pakistan has acquired the Chinese LY80 air defence system from China which is the export model of the HQ-16 system which has a range of 40 kms. Apart from that, their is the threat of man portable air defence system (MANPADS).

It shows the IAF has mapped the Pakistani air defence coverage to avoid it and the superiority of IAF’s electronic warfare capabilities. The jammers on the Mirage fighters successfully managed to jam the Pakistani air defence radars. The upgraded Mirage could possibly have the ICMS-2 ECM along with Chameleon jammers. It’s also possible to use the Israeli Elta EL/L-8222 jammer pods.

The Pakistanis responded with a daytime attack on Indian military installation. It sent a huge strike package of 24 fighter jets consisting of F-16, JF-17 and the Mirage-III. The F-16 & JF-17 provided escort to the Mirage which carried the strike weapons. India scrambled 6 MiG-21 Bison while there were 2 Su-30MKIs and 2 Mirage-2000 jets on combat air patrol. These were backed by Netra and Phalcon Airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS) aircrafts.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Mirage jets released their bombs over Indian military installations, but failed to hit accurately and cause any damage. It’s the aerial battle which is interesting and has raised questions as well.

Livefist reports that the debriefing of the Su-30, Mirage and the MiG-21 pilots revealed repeated missile locks by the Pakistani F-16s armed with AIM-120 C5, AMRAAM beyond visual range (BVR) missile. This missile has a range of over 100 kms.

Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 was also under lock by the F-16, while he too got a lock on an F-16 with his R-73 missile. He fired his missile shooting down an F-16. But he was also hit by a missile and ejected, landing in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir and getting captured by Pakistani forces.

Livefist reports that at least 3 AMRAAMs were fired which the Su-30s countered. The 4th missile hit Wg Cdr Abhinandan. This shows the superior electronics warfare capabilities of Indian fighter jets. The Su-30s carry the Israeli ELTA EL/L-8222 Self Protection Jammers and the jet’s powerful AL-31 engines with thrust vectoring gives it tremendous manoeuvrability to evade the enemy.

24 PAF jets were successfully challenged by only 10 IAF jets, foiling the attack.

Questions however have been raised as to why none of the other IAF jets apart from Wg Cdr Abhinandan fired their missiles to shoot down the Pakistani strike force. The Su-30s are air dominance fighters and are heavily armed with both within visual and beyond visual range missiles. It can track 15 targets and engage 4 simultaneously. However none of them are reported to have fired any missiles.

This raises questions on the rules of engagement and why the IAF fighters did not get a lock on PAF jets as it has been reported. The Indian and Pakistani air forces observe a 10 kms gap on their side of the international border and the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. It is possible that the rules of engagement for the Indian jets on combat air patrol and those scrambled was to not engage the enemy jets until they were fired upon or cross the LoC.

The Pakistani jets were backed by Erieye AWACS which would have relayed to the PAF jets the precise locations of Indian jets to ingress into India and stay out of BVR range missile as it looked to strike Indian military targets. Not all 24 Pakistani  jets are likely to have crossed the LoC as they fired on Indian jets with the AMRAAM BVRs forcing the Indian jets to take evasive maneuvers, while they turned around and got out of range of the IAF missiles. If these PAF jets had got into a within visual range zone, they would have fired the AIM-9 heat seeking missile, something Wg Cdr Abhinandan did with his R-73 missile.

For the future, the rules of engagement will have to be re-assessed. The Pakistanis wanted to take out the highly prized Su-30s and fired BVR missiles. The IAF may consider a certain redline well within Pakistan controlled airspace and engage with BVR missiles or ground based air defence missiles to shoot down Pakistani jets that are heading towards India in its own controlled airspace rather than wait for hostile action.

Overall, the aerial engagement shows India has gotten the better of Pakistan. An unchallenged ingress into Pakistan, a first ever claimed F-16 kill by a MiG-21 and the failure of AMRAAMs fired by PAF F-16s to hit any advanced IAF jets prove that advanced electronics, networking and training of pilots will rule the airspace. China too will be closely watching this as it’s supplied air defence systems apparently failed to detect the aggressing Indian jets. China flies a large number of Israeli Lavi inspired J-10 fighter jets which they have stationed in Tibet. In any India-China aerial engagement over the Himalayas, the advanced capabilities of the IAF could offset the larger numbers of Chinese air force.

Yusuf Unjhawala is a military affairs analyst and Editor of Indian Defence Forum. His work appears in Mint, The Print and other publications.

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