India’s plan to send fighter jets to strike a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp inside Pakistan on February 26 was a decade old, a government official said

Conceived after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which left 166 people dead and nearly 300 injured, the plan was never put on paper to prevent a possible leak, the official, who asked not to be named, added. “It was passed down to select people through briefings verbally only,” he said.

After the February 14 Pulwama terror attack, in which a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy killing 40 soldiers, it was clear that there would be a response.

“The task to hit back could have gone either of the three services -Army, the Indian Navy or Indian Air Force,” the officer said. Even as intelligence agencies such as the Research and Analysis Wing (RA&W) got down to identifying possible targets to hit, “the Indian Air Force (IAF) volunteered to go,” he said.

And, when the JeM camp at Balakot was shortlisted as a target by the government, the IAF was the natural choice, a second senior government officer said on condition of anonymity.

The IAF had the choice of sending Russian-made heavy strike bombers, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, that would flatten the entire area.

“The priority was, however, to avoid any possible civilian casualties. The IAF tweaked its plan and decided to use the Mirage-2000 and the Israeli made Spice-200 precision guided ammunition,” the second officer said. 

According to this officer, “Although Pakistan has claimed there is no damage, our post-strike analysis has shown huge damage.”

“IAF struck five buildings inside the camp. While a sweep from high-up in the skies after the air strike was impaired because of clouds, other assessments including that of intelligence agencies point to large-scale damages,” the second officer said.

Deception At Work

Not only did the IAF deceive Pakistan’s air defence systems by sending the fighters in the strike, it also used deception at every stage of the operation. Moving nearly 20 assets including fighters was sure to give away the surprise.

As fighters took off from the Gwalior air base and other assets got airborne from multiple air bases, a section of the airspace, including some over New Delhi, was quietly vacated. The fighters and other assets flew in complete radio silence and sensors switched off through the funnel created without disturbing the civilian traffic, much of which was international flights. Hundreds of civilian flights crossed the Indian airspace without knowing that a large number of military assets were moving towards Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi another kind of deception was on. Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa, and Western Air Command Commander Air Marshal C Hari Kumar went through the motions. Air Chief Marshal addressed Defence Attaché (DA)’s in the afternoon and even a banquet in the honour of soon to retire Air Marshal Hari Kumar.

“After the banquet, they quietly slipped back into the operations room,” a third senior government official, who did not want to be named, said.

Radars And Air Defence

At a control room in New Delhi, the fighters were being tracked using multiple sources including the Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AEWS) aircraft hovering inside Indian airspace. It spotted Pakistan trying to respond to Su-30MKI that were rushed towards a different direction. As the Indian fighters turned back, Indian Air Defence Systems comprising radar networks came online.

“We couldn’t have put them up before, it would put Pakistan on the alert. The Indian Army and Indian Navy were also put alert as the air-defence systems came alive,” the third senior official said.