Bhadauria said the use of air power was considered taboo in sub-conventional conflict until the government took the “tough and bold call” to strike at the very heart of terrorist training infrastructure located deep across the LoC

Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria on Friday said that last year’s Balakot air strikes showed there is scope to use the air force for taking out targets in Pakistan below the threshold of conventional war, something that was previously considered unviable.

“It [the Balakot operation] was a very clear demonstration that there exists a space below the conventional [war] boundary wherein IAF can be utilised for targeting and yet have escalation control,” Bhadauria said at a seminar to mark the first anniversary of India’s unprecedented, peace time air strikes inside Pakistan.

The seminar titled Air Power in No War No Peace, was organised by think thank Centre for Air Power Studies. Defence minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh and Defence Research and Development Organisation chief G Satheesh Reddy were present when Bhadauria made his comment.

Bhadauria said the use of air power was considered taboo in sub-conventional conflict until the government took the “tough and bold call” to strike at the very heart of terrorist training infrastructure located deep across the Line of Control (LoC).

During his speech, Rajnath Singh said India’s “out-of-the-box response” forced the rewriting of many doctrines across the LoC and an adversary would think a hundred times before any future misadventures.

General Rawat said it was important for the military to have credible deterrence to execute the tasks assigned to it. “Credible deterrence comes from the will of the military leadership and intent of the political class while taking tough decisions. This was amply shown after Kargil, Uri and Pulwama,” Rawat said.

The air chief said the use of air power in sub-conventional sphere had been talked about previously -- but never employed.

Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major (Retd) said, “If we have hard intelligence and there is reason for us to act, we should take down terrorists and terror infrastructure across the LoC from the air. Balakot has shown it can be done.” As air chief, Major had proposed aerial strikes against terror pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks but the government did not take that route.

The IAF’s Mirage-2000s struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot on February 26, 2019, in response to the Pulwama suicide bombing attack in Kashmir in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force men were killed twelve days earlier.

The air chief said the IAF struck its targets in Pakistan’s Balakot with precision and the decision to use air power in a sub-conventional scenario was a paradigm shift. It was a clear message to Pakistan that terrorist attacks on Indian soil were unacceptable and would draw a military response, he added.

The air chief said that India was also able to use different channels to de-escalate the conflict and bring things back to normal, something that was not thought to be possible after the use of air power. He lauded the political and diplomatic efforts to quickly de-escalate the situation.

He said the air force could have struck Balakot with twice the number of warplanes and launched four times the weapons but it didn’t do so to ensure there was no collateral damage and India could take the moral high ground.

He said Pakistan’s response on February 27 to the Balakot air strikes was tailored to seek de-escalation as the neighbouring air force didn’t strike any targets and its action was aimed only at the domestic Pakistani audience. The air chief said the Pakistan Air Force was in a “hurry to disengage” and the IAF’s engagement surprised them.

The air chief said one of the main takeaways for India from the aerial engagement was that the IAF, which had the edge when it comes to beyond visual range (BVR) missiles Pakistan during the Kargil war, had “allowed it to slip” over the years. “We had an edge over Pakistan Air Force in terms of BVR missile capability at the time of Kargil. We allowed that to slip and thereafter it took a decade and half in our struggle to acquire better capabilities,” the air chief said.

He said the BVR edge would be restored with the induction of Meteor missile-armed Rafale fighter planes.

“With Rafale we will recover the edge, but we can’t depend only on Meteor. This capability on Rafale has to be complemented with similar capability on our other platforms…The indigenous Astra missile is required on Sukhoi-30s, MiG-29s and the light combat aircraft,” he said.

Developed by the DRDO, the Astra BVR air-to-air missile has a range of more than 100 km. User trials of the missile have been completed and the IAF is expected to place orders soon. The missile is expected to be the standard long-range weapons across the air force’s fighter fleet.

Bhadauria said the IAF would be “very happy” if it could use indigenous weapons “in the next skirmish”.

Rawat said the Indian armed forces should stay prepared to get “launched again and again” should acts of terrorism be perpetrated on Indian soil.

“If the defence forces have to be prepared to execute the roles and tasks assigned to them, it is important we maintain credible deterrence at all times… on land, at sea and in the air. The capabilities of the three services must run concurrently so that together they become a force to reckon with,” he added.

The defence minister said the surgical strike of 2016 and Balakot air strikes were not just military strikes but a strong message to Pakistan that terror infrastructure across the border cannot be used as a safe haven to wage low-cost war against India.

“Our approach to terrorism was and will remain a judicious combination of clinical military action and mature and responsible diplomatic outreach.”

He said, “We have recently seen the impact of collective diplomatic and financial pressure on Pakistan. Terrorists like Hafiz Saeed who were treated like VIPs and heroes, have been put behind bars. We realise that this is not enough and unless Pakistan is made accountable, it will continue with its previous policy of duplicity and deceit. All attempts are being made to work in this direction.”