Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)
The amount of intellectual energy that the Indian intelligentsia has invested in looking for evidence to prove the failure of the surgical strike is so incredible that their ‘failure-hunger’ needs to be explored to look for an explanation for this undoubtedly unique Indian talent, a columnist has written. Pravin Sawhney, in his article ‘Fighting tactical battles for one-upmanship’ in The Tribune (April 18), has made a case that the IAF is ‘following the wrong argument’. He feels that the IAF’s action of breaching Pakistani airspace to hit the Balakot camp was ‘tactical’ and not strategic, whereas the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) response the next day was at the operational level.
The Indian action was a deep ingress pre-emptive strike into Pakistani territory to hit a non-military target located not in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The Indian action was a departure from years of restraint in using a potentially escalatory component of military and national power. It marked a paradigm shift with strategic implications. More importantly, the action shattered the long-held Pakistani nuclear bogey. The strikes, I feel, were strategic in nature.
The Pakistani response involved a failed strike on military targets close to the Line of Control (LoC), with weapons released from well inside their own territory that fell at varying distances from their intended targets. The IAF has gone on record to state that the PAF ‘ingress was stopped’. The response was tactical in nature.
We hear that the weapons used were standoff glide bombs: H2/H4 and 1000 lb bombs fitted with the Range Extension Kits (REKs) with ranges of 60/ 120 km. Air forces world overlay a premium on the accuracy in weapons’ delivery. Shouldn’t the PAF be concerned about their marksmanship? If the PAF intentionally missed the targets to prevent escalation and only intended to ‘make a statement’, dropping these bombs within a few hundred metres of their targets, it was certainly playing with fire.
The safety distance of these weapons being 2.1 km, personnel out in the open in an area that has an ‘extremely high density of Indian Army troops’ could easily have been killed or seriously injured. The IAF has stated that the attack was thwarted by a timely intercept. Given that at least one IAF fighter aggressively pursued the PAF aircraft across the LoC, this seems most plausible.
It is also being stated that the IAF was ‘not prepared for the inevitable’, ‘should have followed war protocols’ and should have ‘taken over’ the entire airspace. As the PAF response was successfully thwarted, it is a foregone conclusion that the air defence was at the highest alert. The IAF, a confident and mature air force, closed the airspace in the relevant sector for two hours only. It actually deserves praise for this.
On the other hand, the PAF imposed full airspace closure for 28 days and ‘general closure’ of international flights transit that still continues — at what cost to its economy? As far as the Mi-17V5 accident at Budgam being a case of ‘friendly fire’, we will await the conclusion of the IAF’s Court of Inquiry for the final word.
There is a mention of the 1965 and 1971 wars and it is stated, far from the truth, though, that ‘India never won in the western sector’. Pakistan’s strategy, articulated by its former President, General Ayub Khan, was that ‘Defence of the East lies in the West’. But yet the East was lost irretrievably and Bangladesh liberated in 1971. How then is one to conclude that the West was never won by India?
The IAF fought the 1965 war with numerical superiority, but with platform and weapon inferiority. The PAF’s Sabre Jets, combat-proven and armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, were superior to the IAF Gnats. With only guns and designed as a Lead-in-Fighter-Trainer for the RAF, yet with the IAF, it earned the sobriquet of ‘Sabre Slayer’. Added to this were the F-104 Starfighters in numbers, while the IAF had only one flight of MiG-21s.
Despite that, air action proved critical in blunting Pakistan’s armoured thrust, and the objective of taking Kashmir failed.
In the 1971 war also, the two Pakistani armour thrusts in the Jaisalmer and Chhamb sectors were stopped in their tracks by very active close air support action of the IAF fighters.
On the subject of separate doctrines and absence of jointness, while a classified joint doctrine was first issued in 2006, there has been an unclassified Joint Doctrine since 2017.
History is replete with successful Indian joint operations such as the Tangail battalion-level para drop in Bangladesh and the tri-services Op Cactus in Maldives (1988). On the other hand, the Pakistan army has always believed in unilateral action, keeping the PAF out of the loop, as it happened in the Longewala offensive and the Kargil intrusion, both of which ended in unmitigated disasters for Pakistan.
The observations on the S-400 and the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), too, need clarity. The S-400 would be used in an offensive deployment mode. Besides other objectives, it would deny ‘trans-frontier visibility’ to the PAF by pushing its AWACS (airborne warning and control system) and AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) platforms far back from the IB/LoC to prevent them from ‘looking through’ into the Indian airspace. Ballistic Missile defence is not going to be the responsibility of the NASAMS. Open sources indicate that this would be done by the ‘Programme AD’ (PAD), announced back in 2012.
The IAF has a proven record of translating its capability into concrete outcomes. The 1971 war, Kargil and calling Pakistan’s nuclear bluff are examples.
The IAF continues to ‘touch the sky with glory’and it will be unfair to demoralise the nation with half-truths.
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