A Mirage-2000 fighter jet, which India used in its airstrikes on Balakot

"Brashly brandishing our achievements, merely to publicly boost ourselves and publicise them for other unstated reasons is avoidable,” a two-star IAF officer said

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: The Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) much publicised celebration over the weekend of the Balakot strike two years ago against an alleged Pakistani terror training camp in the country’s north-west, was an ‘avoidable excess’, said senior serving and retired fighter pilots.

Many of them concurred that Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, leading a sortie of five Mirage-2000H and Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat aircraft – which had comprised the complement of fighters which executed the Balakot airstrike on February 27, 2019 – to hit mock targets at Pokhran on Saturday, was little better than a ‘gratuitous publicity stunt’.

“Such a display was unnecessary, immature and not in keeping with the ethos of a seasoned force like the IAF,” a former three-star fighter pilot declared embarrassedly, declining to be named for fear of repercussions. Such wanton exhibitionism, he declared, is unwarranted, especially at a juncture when incipient talks with Pakistan, aimed at reducing bilateral tensions, were ongoing. “The needless IAF celebration of the Balakot attack will only serve to excite antagonism between the nuclear-armed neighbours which is never far from the surface,” the officer warned.

Other colleagues, also not wanting to be named for analogous reasons, criticised the “uncalled-for display of IAF machismo” and fervently hoped that February 27 would not be thus celebrated annually, as part of the forces catalogue of operational triumphs.

“We know what we did in Balakot and what we are capable of achieving. But brashly brandishing our achievements, merely to publicly boost ourselves and publicise them for other unstated reasons is avoidable,” declared another two-star IAF officer. He also stated that it was strategically advisable to be “under-estimated” by one’s enemy, and advised the IAF to “talk softly, but wield a big stick”.

On February 27, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Bhadauria fronted the precision strike excursion to Pokhran, reportedly alongside pilots who were part of Operation Bandar (Monkey), under which punitive strikes were launched by the IAF on what Indian officials claimed was a Jiash-e-Mohammad (JeM or Army of Mohammad) insurgent training camp at Balakot, 180km south of Islamabad. India blamed the JeM for killing over 40 Indian paramilitaries in a suicide bombing in Pulwama, near Srinagar 13 days earlier on February 14, 2019, and opted for a retributive riposte deep inside Pakistan.

The efficacy of the bold IAF raid on Balakot in the hilly regions of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, that audaciously challenged the untested, but feared, mutual nuclear deterrence between the neighbours, has been widely questioned. But senior Indian officials, including defence minister Rajnath Singh, have claimed the attack resulted in some 250 Islamic terrorists being eliminated and many more incapacitated.

The then ACM B.S. Dhanoa, however, declined to confirm or deny this death toll, declaring that the IAF did not enumerate human casualties. “We count what targets we have hit or not,” Dhanoa declared at a press conference in Coimbatore, his first after the Balakot offensive. “It’s for the government to answer that question (on casualties)” Dhanoa had stated.

Be that as it may, the celebratory episode last month was widely saluted by senior officials, including minister Singh, and frenziedly by the jingoistic electronic, print and social media. The latter’s exultant hysteria was ironically reminiscent of the equally breathless hype surrounding the landing in Ambala in July 2020 of the first five of 36 French Dassault Rafales which the IAF had acquired in 2016.

The Rafales’ arrival, which should normally have been a routine affair for the seasoned IAF – the world’s fourth largest – was cheered lustily by the media, former service chiefs and veterans. Collectively, they all incredulously looked upon the advanced fighters and their advanced armaments as the ‘magic bullet’ that would help end the enduring standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies along the disputed border in Ladakh since May 2020.

The Rafales formal commissioning a few weeks later into the IAF’s No17 ‘Golden Arrow’ Squadron was an even more frenzied event, complete with a costly fixed wing and rotary platform air display over Ambala, which at the time was also censured by senior IAF veterans. “The ceremony surrounding the Rafale induction was nothing more than an embarrassing Tamasha (spectacle) for all self-respecting IAF officers,” retired Air Commodore I.S. ‘Sandy’ Sandhu had declared at the time. The unnecessary spectacle was nothing but ‘shallow, juvenile and meaningless,’ added the former IAF test pilot and India’s air attaché’ in Moscow till the early 1990s, from his farmhouse outside Chandigarh.

Similar flimflam surrounded an Indian Army (IA) platform recently – the indigenously developed Arjun main battle tank (MBT) that was initiated in 1974 and has 124 examples in regimental service in Rajasthan for over a decade. But undaunted, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘dedicated’ an upgraded Arjun Mk1A variant to the IA and the nation, amidst much hoopla in mid-February.

In Chennai, near where the Arjun is series built at Avadi by the Ordnance Factory Board, Modi also presented the Indian Army Chief of Staff General MM Naravne with an Arjun Mk1A replica, reinforcing the narrative that the ruling BJP loses no opportunity in exploiting all military-related activity for electoral benefit. It’s also no coincidence that elections are due in Tamil Nadu over the next few weeks, and the optics of the PM ‘handing over’ an MBT manufactured in the southern state is robust and entirely agreeable.

Over several decades, the Faustian bargain between India’s soldiery and the country’s politicians has intensified. It’s also no secret that many senior service personnel are increasingly identifying themselves with the BJP, that in turn unashamedly seeks to exploit military achievements for political gain. A host of senior serving and retired military officers openly acknowledge that since 2014, ‘political expediency’ has been factored into several of their tactical operational plans and wider strategic decisions. This symbiotic relationship has suited both parties.

Ruling party politicians had successfully exploited what passed for military gains to take on the election campaign trail to project the BJP’s robust handling of national security issues. And, in turn, the self-centred and pecuniary-minded soldiery, in most instances, was rewarded with promotions whilst in service or lucrative employment after retirement. In some instances, they achieved both.

This is best illustrated by the army’s September 2016 ‘surgical strikes’ against militant launch pads across the line of control in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the IAFs Balakot strike.

Skilfully portraying both these ‘virile’ responses against a lesser enemy ensured the BJP a massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh state elections in late 2016, weeks after Modi’s ruinous demonetisation initiative. The latter airstrike proved even more electorally fortuitous: the BJP returned to federal power after the April 2019 general elections in even greater numbers than previously.

Meanwhile, back to the Balakot raid which comprised 12 Mirage 2000Hs that eventually conducted the strike. They were escorted by four Su-30MKIs that executed a ‘forward sweep’ in an air-defence role to test Pakistan’s response, before the Mirages acquired and attacked their target. The Mirages and Su-30s were accompanied by an Israel Aircraft Industries (IA)/Ilyushin A-50EI airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, one indigenously designed Netra/Embraer EMB-145 AEW&C platform, and two Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refuelling aircraft. One IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was also employed to monitor the strike.

IAF sources said the Mirage 2000Hs fired specifically configured Israeli Crystal Maze Mk2 missiles (variants of the Rafael Advanced Defence Systems AGM-142 Raptor Have Nap/Popeye missile) in addition to dropping Paveway-II laser-guided bombs directed by Rafael-designed Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective (SPICE) guidance kits from a range of 60 km.

The IAF had acquired 30 Crystal Maze missiles, which have a 100 km range, for its Mirage 2000H fleet under a classified procurement that cost around $62.7 million in 2001. The 4.82-m long missile is guided via a combination of GPS, data-linked inertial navigation system (INS), television, and imaging infrared systems.

Pakistan, however, claimed that the IAF’s February 27 strike was a failure and that their fighters had held off Indian combat aircraft before they could inflict any damage on the ground. Other independent observers and analysts too queried the IAFs claims. Citing commercial satellite imagery captured on February 27, UK’s reputed Jane’s Defence Weekly declared at the time that it appeared to show that the munitions dropped by IAF aircraft against the alleged JeM camp had ‘missed their targets’.

Shortly after the attack, India’s foreign secretary, Jane’s stated, had released a statement claiming that “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fedayeen action were eliminated” due to the IAF’s “pre-emptive action”. However, the alleged training camp – the location of which Jane’s claimed was established using photographs taken on the ground displayed no visible damage in satellite imagery taken after the strike, Jane’s added.

Obviously, last Saturday’s self-congratulatory spectacle at Pokhran, commanded by the air chief himself, knew better.