Balakot: How India planned IAF airstrike in Pakistan | An inside story

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Source:-Balakot: How India planned IAF airstrike in Pakistan | An inside story

Hours before the Balakot strike deep in the heart of Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave no indication to those who met him that he had taken such a momentous decision. One that would push the two countries closest to a war since the stand-off in 2002 after the Pakistan-backed Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists attacked Kaluchak in J&K and killed 30 people.

It would be the first time that India was conducting an air strike in mainland Pakistan since 1971. It was a decision as far-reaching as overtly declaring India’s nuclear capability, like Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee did with the nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. It signalled a paradigm shift in the way India would deal with Pakistan in future when it came to terror attacks.

Modi, though, appeared as collected as ever when he returned to his official residence­7, Lok Kalyan Margat 9.30 pm after a speaking engagement. The tense relations between India and Pakistan after the Pulwama attack on February 14 that saw 40 security personnel killed in a suicide bomb attack by the JeM had barely found a mention in his address.

But his staff found it strange that the prime minister did not go to bed at midnight as usual. Instead, he kept working on files in his study and sending emails while monitoring the progress of the Balakot air strikes.

Around 3 am, the prime minister was informed that a fleet of Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets had taken off and was shortly expected to cross into Pakistani territory. Half an hour later, he was told the jets had hit their target in Pakistan and flown safely back to their respective bases.

He kept getting subsequent upda­tes on the damage the jets had caused. He himself was surfing social media to see if there was any reaction to the mission, particularly from Pakistan. It was only when Modi called for an urgent meeting at 9.40 am to brief his Cabinet Committee on Security, which includes the finance, external affairs, home and defence ministers, that his team realised what had kept him awake all night.

In the following days, with Pakistan launching a counter strike, a thick fog of controversy surrounded the big questions: what was behind Modi’s decision to clear an air strike on mainland Pakistan? Was the target of the Indian fighter jets a working camp of the Jaish or an abandoned one as Pakistan claimed? What evidence was there to show that the Indian jets had carried out precision strikes with lethal effect rather than merely felling a few trees in the vicinity, as Pakistan mockingly said? Was there proof to show India had shot down a Pakistani F-16 aircraft in the dogfight the day after the Balakot strike? After talking in confidence to a range of top government sources involved in the decision-making process,

India Today pieced together exclusive details that for the first time provide substantially more information on some of the key questions that have dominated public conversation since Balakot.

Why Did Modi Decide to Cross the Rubicon?

When Modi heard of the terror strike in Pulwama on February 14, aides say he was deeply anguished by the loss of our security personnel and angered by the brazenness with which the JeM and its handlers in Pakistan had conducted the brutal attack.

He publicly vowed that the perpetrators of the attack would not go unpunished. Modi’s decisions, they say, are never based on emotions or on an impulse. He says that what is needed in crisis situations such as these is a high degree of clarity on what you want so that, as an aide put it, one can move from a state of being to becoming.

Modi, in his mind, was clear that the nuclear blackmail Pakis­tan had exploited over decades had to be nailed once and for all. In the past, it had been a major deterrent against India attacking Pakistan, thus straitjacketing our options to retaliate.

It had emboldened Pakistan to continue to bleed India with a steady stream of low-cost terror strikes. In September 2016, Modi ordered a surgical strike across the Line of Control after the Uri attack in which 23 people died. The action was meant to signal that India would not shy away from punitive action, though his critics said it had been done before but not publicised.

While taking a decision to strike Pakistan, Modi seems to have followed one of Chinese general Sun Tzu’s dictums: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you’ll also suffer defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

There was no doubt India was stronger than Pakistanit was the fastest growing economic power, it was being run by a government with a secure majority and had a leader willing to take bold if risky decisions.

Also, barring China, the Modi government had the major world powers behind him. Pakistan, on the other hand, was in the grip of an economic meltdown and had a weak political leader dependent on its army.

Yet both China and the US needed itone to further the reach of its power and the other to broker a deal in Afghanistan. As important was the fact that Pakistan was a nuclear power and had to be handled with care; in the adversarial words of a highly-placed government source: an unpredictable Islamic mindset with a first-strike nuclear doctrine.

Modi was clear: India would not head down the path of mutually assured destruction with Pakistan in any action taken to avenge Pulwama.

Battling the Nuclear Ghost

Modi’s aides also mulled over what would constitute an audacious and imaginative strike yet would not push the countries up the nuclear escalation ladder. As one of them put it, We can’t be foolhardy and exhibit Dutch courage. In an hour of crisis, the prime minister’s biggest strength is to ask the combination of right questions and, like a good Gujarati, do a cost-benefit analysis. He believed the cost should never be disproportionate to the objective and wanted us to always ask: where am I and where do I want to be.

Modi then laid down the objectives to his team by stating that India was not against the people of Pakistan or its government, but against the terror groups and their masters in the deep state.

That India’s response should be proportionate to what Pakistan had done. Any strike by India also had to be within the range of what the international community could view as reasonable’ action. There needed to be a measured action against non-military targets, such as training camps for terrorists.

Any collateral damage to civilians and military targets was to be avoided. The idea, as an aide reveals, was not to prevent escalation but to get the escalation threshold right. India knew that using the air force would enhance the risk, but the prime minister was clear that we needed to try the unexpected.

To that extent, the prime minister gave National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the chiefs of the armed forces a free hand to plan out a strike for a limited objective but instructed them to keep him fully informed of the alternatives. Clarifies another top aide, The PM was clear that at no stage was there to be a policy to escalate to war; there was no goal/ no target of that kind, we were not looking to annex any territory.

The two nations are aware of the risks involved. Modi told them that while they must do everything to give Pakistan a fitting reply, they needed to ensure that there were no civilian casualties, that every detail was checked and that the information they had gathered about the target was accurate. So Doval, the intelligence chiefs and the three chiefs of the armed forces got down to finding a target that was totally purified, meaning it would not entail collateral damage of any kind.

Why and How Was Balakot Chosen?

Intelligence agencies then homed in on around 15 camps run by different terror groups in Pakistan for a strike. But they decided to focus on the ones run by the Jaish because of its involvement in the Pulwama attack. Three such main camps were identified: in Bahawalpur in Pakistani Punjab, Sawai Nallah near Muzaffarabad (PoK) and Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK).

The Bahawalpur complex was difficult to strike without incurring civilian casualties because over the years it had grown into a vast sprawl with a mosque, hospitals and training camps all functioning cheek by jowl in a densely populated area of Punjab.

Sawai Nallah was among the largest of the Jaish camps but it wasn’t chosen because it was in PoK. In 2016, Modi had ordered surgical strikes on Jaish camps in PoK after the Uri attacks. But with the toll in Pulwama being so high, the prime minister was keen that the target makes a much bigger statement than just another strike across the LoC.

PM Narendra Modi chairing a meeting of the cabinet committee on security on Feb. 26 (IANS)
The Jaish camp at Balakot then was the ideal choice as it was in mainland Pakistan. The Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed, as the camp is known, was set up in 2004-05 and is on the crest of a ridge called Jaba Top. Relatively isolated from the civilian zone it was accessible only via a steep three-kilometre dirt road from the valley.

It had been under the scrutiny of Indian intelligence agencies over the years, allowing them to build up strong hum-int’ (human intelligence) that gave in-depth information on the way the camp was functioning.

Spread over six acres, the camp had 10 major buildings or complexes devoted to various kinds of activities. Most importantly, the camp was run by Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law Yusuf Azhar, who resided in an abandoned school complex on the campus.

After the air strike by India, Pakistan claimed that the camp had been abandoned by the Jaish years ago. Yet there was nothing barren about the Balakot camp when the IAF struck it early on the morning of February 26. India Today was shown photographs and given details of the complex gathered by Indian intelligence agencies, and they revealed a camp teeming with life and jihadis (see Den of Terror).

Not a Barren Camp

Indian agencies had pictures of the trail that led to the camp from Balakot, with one billboard giving details of the camp and another asking for recruits to sign up. Photographs showed that the steps leading to the main complex had the US, UK and Israeli flags painted on them so that anyone who entered walked over them.

The main complex was a large U-shaped structure with a big hall and eight rooms located on the ground floor with a dormitory type residence on the other floors. Indian agencies had information on who was staying in each room when the strike took place.

Room 1 was for chief trainer Yusuf Azhar. The other rooms had senior Jaish trainers Mufti Umar and Maulana Javed (Room 2), Maulana Aslam and Maulana Abdul Gafur Kashmiri (Room 3), Maulana Ajmal and Maulana Zubair (Room 4). Rooms 5 to 8 had six other trainers. Staying on the top floor of the complex were reportedly 97 fidayeen who were undergoing training.

A little distance away was the mosque complex. Indian agencies had pictures of the mosque with its walls lined with portraits of shaheeds or militants who had died fighting in Kashmir. Adjacent to it was a double-storeyed building with three rooms on each floor being used as a guesthouse.

Three hard-core terrorist trainersMaulana Qudratullah, Maulana Junaid and Maulana Qasim of Lahorewere staying there. All three are said to have been declared absconders under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act and had not returned to their respective homes for years. Qudratullah is regarded as a special mentor while Qasim imparted martial arts skills to the new recruits.

At the northern end of the camp was another large complex with a hostel, dining room and a big hall that housed as many 150 recruits of various categories. The agencies even had information on the number of recruits and the hierarchies they were grouped under as per the Jaish organisational structure.

In all, there were around 200 recruits attending various training courses and they were divided into three groups: Daura-e-Aam (those given basic training, numbering a total of 93); Daura-e-Khas (those getting military training and totalling 81) and Daura-e-Zarar (receiving advanced weapons training and numbering 25).

Billboard advertisements in Balakot town called for recruits for a fresh course that was to begin on February 25. There would be an estimated 300 people in the camp after that date. The core team headed by Doval, set up to plan the strikes, briefed the prime minister about Balakot. On February 19, Modi gave the IAF clearance to launch the strike.

The High-Flying Heroes

Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh (Tony) Dhanoa’s face lit up when he was informed that his force had been tasked to execute the kill. Dhanoa is a specialist in planning such strikes and was among those entrusted to work out a plan to hit Pakistan after the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly in 2001. It was then that he realised that there was no coordination between Indian intelligence agencies and the armed forces over such information.


The intelligence officer gave him a description of the camp and how to reach it by foot. Dhanoa remembers telling him, What do you want me to do with itgo to a restaurant and eat lunch there? What we need are geographical coordinates that I can use to strike them from the air.

Eighteen years later, he was delighted to notice the sea change in India’s intelligence-gathering technology. Dhanoa and his team appreciated the minute details of the Balakot complex that the agencies had collected.

Backed by high-resolution satellite pictures of the camp, these details would prove invaluable to his pilots during the strike. Following the prime minister’s clearance, a team of top air force officers and intelligence agency brass was set up to meet daily and chalk out the details of the strike. Pakistan was already on high alert, with PM Modi repeatedly stating in various public meetings that he would not let the perpetrators of the Pulwama attack go unpunished.

To strike Balakot, the IAF would have to employ deception, ensure surprise and speed while hitting the chosen targets. So, as part of the plan, they increased the routine night-flying sorties in Jammu and Srinagar to avoid Pakistan detecting any unusual movement of aircraft.

Wreckage of the MiG-21 Bison Pakistan shot down (AFP)
Part of the timing of the strike was determined by the fact that the Bangalore air show was on from February 20 to February 24. With so many high-level international visitors, India did not want to carry out the strikes while the show was on.

The other reason was that with fresh recruits coming into the Balakot camp on the 25th, the following day would be the best time to strike the camp. Senior air force officers maintained an aura of normalcy right up to the night of the strike to avoid Pakistani intelligence getting tipped off. On the evening of the 25th, Dhanoa attended a farewell dinner for the retiring Western Air Command chief Chandrashekharan Hari Kumar.

The IAF says the MiG-21 does not have smooth sections like the one pictured here. It uses riveted sections.
Though Hari Kumar was heading the team tasked to carry out the strike, it was decided to go ahead with his farewell party lest Pakistan think something was up if it was cancelled. It was only around 10 pm that Dhanoa got home and started monitoring the strike.

It was raining in Delhi and he was worried the weather would be bad in Balakot as well. But fortunately, the skies there were clear; it was, in fact, a moonlit night. Around 3 am was chosen as the timing of the strike because everyone would be asleep in their various complexes.

The plan was simple but brilliant. The strikes would be carried out by a dozen Mirage 2000 aircraft equipped with Israeli-built SPICE (Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective) 2000 bombs that could hit with pinpoint precision thanks to their robust guidance system that uses onboard GPS and an optical camera to navigate it to an intended target 60 km away.

The Mirages were reportedly accompanied by four Sukhoi-30s to provide air cover. Two surveillance aircraft, the Israeli Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the indigenous Netra Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) system, were deployed as were two IL-76s for mid-air refuelling.

To avoid alerting Pakistan air defence, these aircraft took off from the Agra and Bareilly bases. Since they had to overfly Delhi, the air force alerted traffic control to create a dark corridor of air space they could fly through undetected.As the aircraft approached Pakistani air space, they flew in formation with one lot seemingly headed to Bahawalpur. Thinking that the IAF intended to strike the Jaish headquarters, Pakistan scrambled its fighters to take on the oncoming Indian jets.

That distraction allowed the accompanying low-flying formation of Mirage 2000s to head in the direction of Balakot. By the time they showed up on Pakistani radars, they were 150 km away from the jets that had been scrambled to stop them.

The Mirages then acquired the targets in the camps and dropped the SPICE bombs they were carrying.

The Strike and the Riposte

Five bombs struck the targets, three hitting the large complex housing 150 recruits, one the main U-shaped complex that had most of the leadership and the fifth the building that had the master trainers. One target they could not strike was the abandoned school where Yusuf Azhar resided.

That’s because the aircraft chosen to strike it was unable to lock onto the target to release the bomb in the tight window of opportunity. All the aircraft returned safely to their bases that night. Apart from Doval, Dhanoa informed the army and navy chiefs that the mission had been accomplished. All three armed forces went on high alert as they were prepared for retaliation from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the prime minister was informed of the success of the mission. Having ascertained that everyone was safe, Modi proceeded to follow his yoga routine at 4 am.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan with army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa
Only at 11.30 am did India officially acknowledge that it had carried out punitive air strikes. Foreign secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale read out a terse statement that confirmed that Indian fighter jets had struck a JeM training centre in Balakot and that a large number of trainers and fidayeen were killed as part of a non-military, pre-emptive strike.

Pakistan stoutly refuted India’s claims on the strike’s success and sent a fleet of jets the next day to strike Indian targets. The IAF scrambled its fighters and, in the dogfight that ensued, Pakistan jets struck a MiG21 Bison that crashed in PoK. Its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured after he had bailed out, but India said it had also struck down a Pakistan F-16, a claim that Islamabad refuted. With Pakistan returning Abhinandan 48 hours later, the two nations pushed back from the brink, but kept their armed forces in a state of high alert.

The IAF remains confident that Abhinandan brought down an F-16 before he ejected because the radar monitoring its signature clearly showed it going down. Pakistan, on its part, exhibited the wreckage that it claimed was a MiG 21 engine. However, after a close analysis of the photograph and by stripping down old MiG engines in the Pathankot base, the IAF submitted evidence to the government that the wreckage was not that of a MiG-21 but more likely of an F-16 (see Did the IAF Down an F-16?).

In the days after the attacks, the war of words reached a crescendo. In the absence of official figures on how many people were taken out in the strikes, there have only been stray comments by political leaders, including BJP president Amit Shah who put the numbers killed in the JeM camp at 250. Opposition parties demanded that the Modi government show credible evidence of the strikes.

There were two ways the air force could validate that they had hit the targets. An airborne platform carrying a Synthetic Aperture Radar, which can take images of the target at night or even if it is cloudy, sent back pictures both before and after the strike, validating the IAF’s claim.

Secondly, the optical satellite pictures took longer coming because the area over Balakot was cloudy for several days. Meanwhile, international news agencies and researchers put out satellite pictures showing there was no visible damage to the targeted camp. india today was shown one of the high-resolution satellite pictures in the IAF’s possession which clearly showed three holes punctured into the roof of one of the buildingsa classic signature of a SPICE bomb strike.

Yet doubts remained about how many Jaish members were killed in the strike. According to Indian intelligence, monitored conversations in the area indicated that hours after the strike, the local police station recorded three ambulances with 35 bodies in them coming from the camps.

And another 37 ambulances had been rushed to the spot. There were reports of some patients being treated at the Abbottabad hospital. None of these reports could be corroborated, though, by intelligence agencies. India Today TV recently conducted a sting operation that got on record several people in the area around Balakot confirming fatalities in the air strike. Meanwhile, Pakistan has put a blanket cordon around the camp and is not permitting anyone into the area. This has only fuelled suspicion that it has plenty to hide. Most experts say it will be a while before the death toll can be confirmed.

What is not under doubt is that by striking Balakot, India has sent a clear message that it would make it unaffordable for Pakistan to conti­nue fostering terror. History will tell whether the Balakot strike was the game-changer India needed to get Pakistan to mend its ways.

 

 

 

 

 

Source:- India Times

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