17 December 2019

Changing Dynamics of Air Warfare in South Asia

The Balakot strike by IAF on 26 February 2019, and PAF’s ‘Swift Retort’ a day later, can be considered watershed events in modern aerial warfare. Though the IAF strike was beset with technical snags, including failure of stand-off bombs to guide themselves to the target due to faulty terrain elevation data, it was able to deliver the ordnance – albeit, in the pine forests – from as far as 40 km away.  Interception of ingressing IAF fighters threw up a new conundrum:  flying in their own territory, the hostile intentions of the fighters could not be read in advance and they could not be fired at, lest Pakistan be accused of unprovoked aggression.  After weapons release, the IAF aircraft rapidly turned back, and could not be chased for fear of violating international rules of engagement, as the release of bombs – and the breach of peace – was discovered only after some time.

PAF retaliated within 30 hours of the IAF strike in broad daylight, and hit Indian military targets with stand-off bombs, staying well within own territory.  The sizeable strike package including its escorts, as well as the accompanying fighter sweep aircraft swamped the Indian air defence radar scopes, and the patrolling Su-30 aircraft were promptly vectored towards the PAF swarm.  Sooner the PAF strike fighters had delivered the bombs and turned around, the F-16s and JF-17s swept the skies, with very useful support from data-linked AEWC and ground radars, as well as from own formation members.  The pilots were glued to their multi-function displays streaming vital information and firing cues.  It was as if a whole squadron was playing a mass video game in the skies.  With excellent situational awareness, and the adversary in disarray, an F-16 fired a BVR AMRAAM (AIM-120C) at an approaching Su-30.  Whether the aircraft survived with nil or minor damage, or was hit critically remains moot, but the missile coming from nowhere and exploding in the vicinity resulted in complete panic amongst the IAF aircraft.  The patrolling IAF Mirage 2000s too seemed shell-shocked, and did not enter the fray; MiG-21 Bisons on ground alert had, therefore, to be scrambled. All this time PAF’s airborne and ground jammers were at work, and the IAF pilots and air defence controllers were thrown into total confusion. As one of the scrambled MiGs appeared on the radar scope of an F-16, another AMRAAM was fired, which shot the MiG out of the sky, the pilot surviving by a whisker and parachuting in to Pakistani territory.

The mission flown by the PAF was unique in many ways. The ground targets had been identified and prepared well in advance for exactly such an eventuality. The pilots had routinely practised flying in large packages, with ECM support and comprehensive situational awareness provided by AEWC aircraft. BVR missiles were used in the Indo-Pak scenario for the first time;  interestingly, close combat situations did not crop up for the classic dogfighters like PAF’s F-16 and IAF’s Mirage 2000, for instance.  It was manifest that BVR combat had taken precedence over close combat, if not rendering it completely obsolete.  A fighter in any future conflict must, therefore, have both long and short range missile firing capabilities, along with the associated sensors like radars, threat warning systems, and data links.  PAF could do well by urgently replacing its legacy fighters with ‘home-grown’ JF-17s (especially the upcoming Block III version), which have all the desirable attributes at an affordable cost.

For surface attack, stand-off capabilities were demonstrated by both air forces, and the safety of attacking aircraft was clearly highlighted. Accuracy of the attacks was, however, not achieved for different reasons:  the IAF suffering from faulty terrain data being fed into the bombs’ guidance system, and PAF being constrained by political considerations to prevent escalation by avoiding direct hits on military targets. In any case, the efficacy of stand-off weapon delivery was unmistakably validated, and it is certain that this is likely to be the mode of choice in any future conflict. An aircraft not having such a weapon delivery capability should be considered redundant for surface attack missions.

With IAF having the initiative, and PAF finding itself in a reactive mode, the latter’s full operational preparedness clearly saved the day. The whole operation was over within 48 hours, and deployment of strike elements of ground forces did not take place.  It became amply clear that air forces offer the best and swiftest means of retribution under a nuclear overhang, as the relatively slow positioning of ground troops to their operational areas is fraught with the possibility of being stymied, due to international pressure.  PAF’s tour de force will, thus, serve as a model for dealing with any future Indian military action that is punitive in nature.  PAF’s preparedness must continue to be refined, as IAF is expected to iron out the hitches that dogged its operations during the failed Balakot strike.

It is to be noted that after a disastrous showing by IAF on the 26th and 27th February, the Indian government unwisely decided to even the score by deploying – conceivably, for employing – Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs) against targets in Pakistan.  Apparently, this measure was aimed at preventing further fighter losses at the hands of the PAF that was perceived by the IAF as being technically superior.  Exercise of the rash and senseless decision to deploy SSMs could well have been misconstrued by Pakistan, and a catastrophic exchange could have followed between nuclear-armed neighbours.  The Government of Pakistan, as well as its armed forces, should treat it as a textbook lesson in regional conflict escalation dynamics, and must remain cognisant of such developments in any future conflict.

With the Rubicon having been crossed after the Balakot raid, use of IAF fighters to compliment the usual artillery shelling across the Line of Control, is likely to be the new norm for intimidating Pakistan.  While PAF’s response is likely to be as swift as it was on 27 February, decision-making by the politico-military leadership may be complicated by a host of prevailing factors, both internal and external.  It is therefore imperative that meetings of the National Security Council and Joint Staff Headquarters are conducted regularly, and key decision-makers are kept posted about the developments so that there are no surprises.  The government must be fully aware that for the PAF to react as swiftly as it did in the recent skirmish, there will be a premium on prompt and smart decision-making.  It is also important to note that what starts as a single service response (by the PAF), could rapidly morph into a wider war; as such, over-dependence on the PAF could be fraught with risks, and a joint services response must continue to remain the ultimate objective of the Pakistani government to any aggression.


This article was published in Pakistan Politico, December 2019 Special Issue and in Defence Journal, January 2020 issue.

01 June 2019

Pulwama - From Bluster to a Whimper

Immediately after the Pulwama suicide attack on 14 February 2019, in which a young Kashmiri lad blew himself up killing 40 Indian para-military troops, a cacophony of accusations were hurled against Pakistan. In a purported phone call, the caller claiming to be a representative of the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) – an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation – was said to have owned up the bombing.  Calls for revenge grew by the hour, and it was not long before the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi allegedly discovered incriminating links and vowed to teach Pakistan a lesson.  It seemed that Modi saw punitive action against Pakistan as a key to a landslide victory in the upcoming elections and was, thus, completely blinded to the dangers of escalation of hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.  In all likelihood, Modi also believed – or was made to believe – that Pakistan did not have the gumption to take on the might and stamina of the Indian military, seemingly buttressed by its madcap media and the rightist supporters.
The Indian repression in Kashmir has seen no let up for over seven decades, with the last ten years having been particularly bloody. Thousands of killings, mass arrests, rapes, kidnappings, use of pellet guns to blind and maim protesters, and gross human rights violations have been the Indian government’s despicable methods to respond to the Kashmiris’ right of self-determination. That the right has been enshrined in numerous UN resolutions cuts no ice with an intransigent India.  It was in the backdrop of these circumstances that 20-year old Adil Ahmed Dar, who had been humiliated, tortured and illegally detained, decided to take law into his own hands and square off with the so-called law enforcers.  Driving a car packed with about 80-100 kilos of explosives, Dar rammed a bus laden with policemen of the Central Reserve Police Force, killing 40 of them.  A phone call was opportunely received by Indian intelligence agencies soon after, claiming that JeM had carried out the bombing. The Indian media stirred up a storm in no time, and every Indian bayed for Pakistani blood.  Hints of an imminent ‘surgical strike,’ by India – fake and farcical though the previous one in 2016 had been – began to make the rounds. The die had been cast, and there was no going back. India failed to provide evidence of Dar’s contacts with anyone in Pakistan, either by way of tapped phone calls, physical contact with any Pakistani agents, or material found on his person or from his home indicating any complicity. All that was known about Dar was that he was a home-grown Kashmiri youngster with no outside contacts whatsoever, and that he had been radicalised by the spate of brutalities by the Indian law enforcing agencies.  Acting as the judge, jury and executioner, and pandering to the frenzy created by the irresponsible media, Modi declared that Dar had been trained and supported by Pakistani agents.  Retribution was, thus, the only option to deter any more ‘mischief’ by Pakistan, Modi blustered. It was made clear that India would decide the time and place to administer exemplary punishment to Pakistan.
At 0130 hours (all times PST), on the morning of 26 February, a flight of sixteen IAF Mirage 2000 took off from their home base, Gwalior.  The strike element in the formation included six Mirage 2000H armed with one 900 kg Israeli-origin Spice 2000 bomb each, and four Mirage 2000H (out of the originally planned six) armed with one Israeli-origin Crystal Maze [1] missile each. Six upgraded Mirage 2000I, each armed with six MICA air-to-air missiles, escorted the strike package. The Mirage 2000s, which had to traverse a distance of 1,000 km from Gwalior, were supported midway by an Il-78 in-flight refuelling tanker.  One Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEWCS) aircraft provided surveillance support to the strike package.

While the Spice 2000 bombs could be launched in the autonomous GPS-assisted delivery mode, the Crystal Maze missiles had to be steered to the target by the pilot via data link, after launch. The TV/imaging infra-red camera in the nose of the Crystal Maze missile could not only provide a view to the pilot for steering it to the target, the dramatic terminal phase could be fed as live video to the revenge-hungry Indian public. 

The first of several snags hit the mission when cloud cover over all of Kashmir precluded employment of the Crystal Maze missiles, and the four Mirage 2000H had to hold off in frustration. The remaining formation sneaked in from a south-easterly direction for a stand-off attack on a seminary at Jabba village near Balakot town, close to the international border.  At 0258 hours, six Mirages carrying the Spice 2000 bombs lobbed them, and broke off immediately.  With the bombs’ stand-off range of over 60 km, there was no need to cross into Pakistani territory, as safety of their aircraft was of greater concern, than any qualms about international censure for violating Pakistan’s airspace. In  the event, the aircraft did ingress about 10 km into Azad Kashmir, ostensibly to drive home a point that India did not consider it as disputed territory.  Traversing about 40 km, five bombs fell in a forested area, a few hundred meters from the intended target, and decimated nothing more than a few pine trees.[2]  F-16 and JF-17 fighters on patrol were promptly directed to intercept the intruders, but were restrained by the prevalent rules of engagement from crossing over into enemy territory.  

It was propitious that the bombs did not hit the seminary, as it housed a boarding facility for over 200 students aged 8-15 years. The seminary is one of thousands of similar facilities in the country where young children memorise the Holy Quran, a not uncommon practice amongst the faithful. Mercifully, there was no loss of lives or property at Balakot as the IAF mission had failed completely.  
There have been speculations about the cause of the failure, but the most plausible one was proffered by three members of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) viz, Marcus Hellyer, Nathan Ruser and Aakriti Bachhawat. The trio posited that there was a mismatch between the target elevation sensed by the GPS and the orthometric elevation (above mean sea level) as given on aeronautical charts. Apparently the orthometric elevation was in error (less than actual), causing all the bombs to overshoot. PAF’s former Gp Capt Parvez Mahmood, who has extensive experience of interpreting satellite imagery, is of the opinion that, “determining a precise 3D point on Earth requires satisfying a lot of variables, so errors similar to the one in the Balakot strike are not unusual.”

High resolution satellite images of the bomb impact craters provided by European Space Imaging (ESI) clearly show that all the bombs missed their targets by similar distances, and in the same direction, indicating a mission planning miscalculation. According to Adrian Zevenbergen, the Managing Director of ESI, which released an image of the Jaish camp a day after the IAF's attack, “The image captured with Worldview-2 of the buildings in question shows no evidence of a bombing having occurred. There are no signs of scorching, no large distinguishable holes in the roofs of buildings and no signs of stress to the surrounding vegetation.”

Immediately after the failed Indian strike, Pakistanis clamoured for revenge as expected, and Prime Minister Imran Khan duly promised it. The dilemma of escalation weighed heavily on the political and military leadership, and there was consensus that the response had to be as measured and controlled as was possible. Even the number of bombs planned for delivery were to be in equal measure.  The PAF was well-prepared for a whole range of targeting options, and it settled for a stand-off attack similar to the IAF’s, with the important difference that it would be against military targets in the Poonch-Rajauri-Naushera Sector in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK).
The IAF stood guard on the night of 26 February when the PAF’s riposte was expected. Extensive Combat Air Patrols (CAP) were flown by the IAF, with surveillance support from ground radars, as well as an AEWCS aircraft anchored over Adampur.   When the PAF did not show up till sunrise of 27 February, the IAF eased off from its highest alert state, and waited for the following night. A pair of Su-30MKI was patrolling near Srinagar, while a pair of Mirage 2000I was patrolling east of Udhampur.   PAF’s deception worked splendidly when its strike package of four Mirage 5PA/IIIDA of  No 15 Squadron and two JF-17 of No 16 Squadron, duly supported by a big swarm of escorts and patrolling fighters (a mix of F-16A/B and JF-17), cluttered the scopes of IAF’s ground radars at 0920 hours.[3] Working at the rear of the fighter package were PAF’s SAAB Erieye AEWCS aircraft, and the DA-20 Falcon in which electronic warfare wizards sat ready with their arcane tricks.
Two vintage – but still quite capable – Mirage 5PA, each armed with one H-4 stand-off  bomb[4], along with two JF-17, each armed with two Mk-83 Range Extension Kit (REK) bombs[5], headed towards their respective targets in southern-western IHK.  It was a bright and clear morning, with excellent visibility after the previous night’s rain. Each Mirage 5PA was followed by its communication control aircraft, a dual-seat Mirage IIIDA, which was to steer the H-4 after launch through data link, while the JF-17s’ Mk-83 REK were to be launched in the autonomous ‘fire and forget’ mode. With the H-4 having a range of over 120 km, and the Mk-83 REK having at least half of that, the bombs offered safety to the launch aircraft as these could be delivered from well inside own territory, and the aircraft could then break off.  The Mirage IIIDA control aircraft, however, had to continue flying towards the target, refining the H-4 bomb’s flight path till impact. The bomb can be steered with great accuracy, as the high resolution image of the target seen by the bomb’s seeker head is constantly relayed to the control aircraft. Since the purpose of the mission was essentially to demonstrate that Pakistan had the resolve, as well as the capability of responding in kind, it was decided that there was no compelling need to pick the front door of a brigade commander’s office, or the air shafts of soldiers’ bunkers. General area bombing of open spaces in military garrisons near the Line of Control (LOC) in IHK was, therefore, agreed upon.[6]  It was expected that this ‘abundance of restraint’ would prevent mass carnage in the Indian military garrisons, which could otherwise lead to a chain of escalatory actions, and spiral into a very dangerous all-out war under a nuclear overhang.  
When the PAF struck the garrisons within 32 hours of IAF’s abortive air strike at Balakot, it came like a ‘shot across the bow’ and had the desired sobering effect on the Indian military commanders.[7]   General Bipin Rawat, the Indian Chief of Army Staff, was forced to take a pause from his regular harangue about sorting out Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, he has not uttered any more threats to Pakistan, ever since.
Sqn Ldr Hasan Siddiqui
PAF’s approaching strike force had, meanwhile, rung frantic alarms on the Indian air defence radars, and patrolling fighters were directed to intercept them.  Struggling to sift through the degraded communications environment, IAF fighters were unable to understand the instructions of their air defence controllers.  An F-16 pair led by Sqn Ldr Hasan Siddiqui of the elite Combat Commanders’ School, was vectored towards two approaching IAF fighters flying in an extended trail formation. The very long range at which the adversary aircraft appeared on the F-16 radar scopes suggested that these were big targets, most likely Su-30MKI. After sampling the target data and confirming valid firing parameters, Hasan let go an AIM-120C (AMRAAM)[8] at 0936 hours, and promptly announced ‘Fox Three,’ the brevity code for an active radar-guided missile launch.  Missile flight data fed back to the F-16 fire control computer in real-time, seemed to indicate that the missile had made its mark.   Whether the Su-30 had met a violent end, or was damaged and landed back, or the aircrew had been able to kinetically defeat the missile altogether, remains moot.  Hard evidence by way of aircraft wreckage or details of aircrew casualties has not been available so far. Debris of the AIM-120C missile was, however, picked up and displayed on Indian television in a ludicrous tri-services press conference, as the IAF brass unsportingly complained about PAF using F-16s in what was actually a telling response to its own aggression.
Soon after the shoot-out, all hell broke loose in the Indian camp, as revealed by radar and VHF radio monitoring.  In the ensuing confusion, the Terminal Air Defence Unit at Srinagar Air Force Station reported a slow speed radar contact heading towards it. As leaked reports suggest, the contact was taken for a hostile Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and the Chief Operations Officer ordered it to be shot down. At 0940 hours, an Israeli-origin Spyder surface-to-air missile was launched, but its target turned out to be an IAF Mi-17 V-5 helicopter belonging to the Srinagar-based No 154 Helicopter Unit. The helicopter crashed near Budgam, and six aircrew, along with a civilian on the ground, lost their lives in a case of morale-shattering fratricide.
Meanwhile, higher in the skies, the sole Su-30 remaining in the area flew helter-skelter, something quite baffling, considering that these are multi-crew fighters endowed with very powerful radars, and were armed to the teeth with an array of four R-77 active radar-guided BVR missiles, and four R-73 infra-red seeking dogfight missiles each.  The Su-30 abruptly called ‘Bingo’ (low on fuel) and exited the area at high speed after only 25 minutes of flight, despite having an endurance of at least two hours while on routine air patrols. As per radio monitoring, it transpired that the two Su-30s had earlier failed to synchronise their data links and had been unable to provide any mutual support by way of radar data sharing.
In the on-going fracas, the Mirage 2000 formation on patrol was pulled back. In all probability, this was done to prevent these high value aircraft from being targeted by more BVR shots; however, one is also inclined to believe that the panic-striken pilots may have opportunely declared some kind of weapon system failures. Whatever the reason, these state-of-the-art Mirages were of no help in warding off the PAF fighters, despite being equipped with MICA missiles that were comparable in performance to the F-16s’ AMRAAMs.  As for operational commanders on the ground, it needs no guessing that they had gone into a paralytic freeze, and needed time to gather their wits. When the decision for action finally came, it was a pathetic one: to use the MiG-21 Bisons  virtually as cannon fodder, it may be added.
Wg Cdr Noman Ali Khan
At 0930 hours, two pairs of MiG-21 Bisons of No 51 Squadron were scrambled successively from Srinagar and nearby Awantipur, to boost up IAF’s diminishing presence in the air. A senior pilot, Wg Cdr Abhinandan ‘Nandu’ Varthaman (callsign ‘Alpha One’), along with his wingman, Sqn Ldr Anubhav Vyas, was directed by the ground radar to “turn 160 (degrees),” towards a patrolling pair of PAF fighters.  Flying low and masked by the Parmandal Range, Abhinandan had tried to pull a surprise by abruptly popping up from behind the hills.  Apprehending PAF's snooping capabilities, he had even switched off his Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder. He also kept his radar controller posted about his ground position by reporting it in pre-arranged codes. However, Abhinandan remained oblivious of the fact that unlike ground based radars, PAF's AEWCs and high flying fighters had no line of sight issues, and could clearly see him on their radars. Moments after he called out his ground position, "over LC (Line of Control)," Abhinandan’s MiG-21 was hit by an AIM-120C missile launched from an F-16 flown by Wg Cdr Noman Ali Khan, the Officer Commanding of No 29 ‘Aggressor’ Squadron, and also the overall mission leader. Radio monitoring revealed that Abhinandan  was being frantically warned by his ground control about the danger he was getting into. “Alpha One, flow cold. Nandu, if you hear me, flow cold,” is how a desperate female controller, Flt Lt Minty Agarwal, called the unresponsive pilot in high-pitched screams.[9]  Fully conscious but half-deaf by then, Abhinandan soon ran into troublethough Vyas, having heard the warning screams, was able to make good his escape.

At around 0957 hours, he was seen to be coming down by parachute near Sandar village in Bhimber District, about five km from the LOC inside Azad Kashmir.  Not unexpectedly, he got an unsavoury welcome at the hands of locals who had mobbed him. Later, during his brief confinement, Abhinandan stated that while he was looking for the target on the MiG-21 radar display, his aircraft was hit, and he managed to eject just as it went out of control.[10]  

It has to be noted that at no stage did Abhinandan claim shooting down an F-16, something deceitfully attributed to him after his repatriation by none other than the Indian Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. The false claim has been repeated ad nauseam by the IAF, and parroted by the Indian media in a furtive effort to redeem some respectability, after a disastrous showing by the world’s fourth largest air force.  All four of the unfired missiles were recovered from the MiG-21 wreckage, and displayed to the media by the Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations, exposing Sitharaman’s brazen claim.[11]
"The tea was fantastic!"
Abhinandan’s effusive compliments to the Pakistan Army about being ‘a very professional service’ – as well as praise for the delicious tea served to him at a custodial facility, which he slurped with relish – earned him enough ‘brownie’ points in Pakistan. His countrymen, however, were evidently not amused by his capers. Abhinandan was discourteously seen off by the Islamabad-based Indian Air Advisor at the border crossing point of Wagah, and in a frosty reception, was not even saluted by the Indian guards as he set foot in his country. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that on return from captivity, Abhinandan was presented with a fait accompli: claim downing an F-16, or face disciplinary action for ‘unpatriotically fraternising with the enemy.’  If such was indeed the case, it is possible that a straight-talking Abhinandan may be averse to towing the official line, and explains why the ‘hero’ continues to be hidden from the media and the public on grounds of ‘security.’
According to a report by senior staff writer Lara Seligman of the prominent US Foreign  Policy magazine (4 April 2019), “a US count of the F-16s with Pakistan found that all the fighter planes were present and accounted for, and none of them were missing.”  The report clearly contradicts India’s claim that the IAF had shot down a PAF F-16. Seligman writes that, “the count, conducted by U.S. authorities on the ground in Pakistan, sheds doubt on New Delhi’s version of events, suggesting that Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day.”  In the same report, Vipin Narang, an Indian-origin US associate professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program states, “As details come out, it looks worse and worse for the Indians.  It looks increasingly like India failed to impose significant costs on Pakistan, but lost a plane and a helicopter of its own in the process.”
That the US has completely disregarded the frivolous Indian complaints also reinforces the Pakistani contention that the F-16s were used legitimately for self-defence.  Soon after the Indian protest, the US State Department’s deputy spokesman Robert Palladino shrugged it off by curtly stating that, “as a matter of policy, we don’t publicly comment on the contents of bilateral agreements involving US defence technologies.” Later on 28 April, The Indian Express quoted a US official as saying, “Soon after we were informed by the Indian side about Pakistan using F-16 aircraft on February 27, we informed the Indians that we will not be sharing any information on the subject as it is a bilateral matter between US and Pakistan.” The apparent US indifference to the Indian complaint can also be seen as a clever marketing ploy for US military hardware, which had yet again demonstrated its cutting edge.
Rather than complain about PAF using F-16s in combat, the IAF needs some stern introspection about its questionable performance.  Having the initiative, as well as some of the world’s best fighters like the Su-30MKI and Mirage 2000I in its inventory, it failed to deliver in a situation where it could have done what the plucky PAF actually did. The fig leaf of ‘technical asymmetry’ is now being shoddily used to cover up IAF’s embarrassing dysfunction at the operational and tactical levels.  What the IAF needs to reflect on is the hard fact the PAF is well-led, well-trained, very vigilant, and endowed with a strong fighting spirit.  It should not be difficult to see why it has consistently achieved outsized effects through narrowly focused efforts.
With zilch to show for, the proper course of action for Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, the IAF air chief, would have been to step down.  Instead, he deplorably leagued up with the discomfited Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the Bollywood-inured media, which continue to churn out nothing but lies and fanciful claims.  
It is of great concern that Modi’s military advisors, particularly the Air Staff, were unmindful of the fact that grave risk of escalation is inherent in the cavalier use of air power, whose most significant attribute is its vast offensive capability.  In the aerial encounter of 27 February, there was a high probability of several more IAF aircraft being shot down, given PAF’s definite edge in BVR air combat. The conflict was, thus, clearly fraught with the likelihood of tit-for-tat intensification to a point of no return.  That the two nuclear powers were on the brink of a terrible catastrophe is something which needs serious reflection, especially for the initiator of the conflict – in this case Mr Modi, who seemed to have coolly run an election campaign on the wings of the IAF.  According to Hannah Haegeland, a research fellow at The Stimson Center, “the perception of Indian military superiority has been tarnished. Its competence and professionalism is being questioned, because the military leaders knowingly defended an inaccurate BJP position.”
The Indian Prime Minister’s whimper (quoted in India Today, 3 March 2019) that, “if we had the Rafale, things would have been different,” begs a question: “Why did you step in the ring if you weren’t prepared, Modi jee?” Clearly, the Indian Prime Minister miscalculated Pakistan’s resolve and ability to pay back promptly, and ended up getting a black eye in the bargain.  To redeem the lost prestige of the military, it is entirely possible that a false flag operation may yet be contrived by Modi – a dangerous prospect that the world needs to be watchful about.

Note: Article revised on 2 March, 2020.

[1] Crystal Maze is a derivative of the Israeli Popeye missile. It weighs 1,100 kg (2,400 lb), and has a range of 80 km.
[2] The sixth bomb is said to have failed to release.
[3] Two pairs of fighters escorted the strike packages, while four sections of 4-ship fighters each, patrolled along the LOC. The F-16s were armed with 4xAIM-120C-5 and 2xAIM-9M missiles, while the JF-17s were armed with 2xSD-10 and 2xPL-5 missiles.
[4] The H-4 stand-off weapon consists of a 2,600 lb (1,180 kg) bomb integrated with an automatically deployable wing unit, an electro-optical guidance unit, and control fins.
[5] The Mk-83 REK consists of a 1,000 lb (450 kg) bomb integrated with an automatically deployable wing unit, an inertial guidance unit aided by GPS, and control fins.
] Targeting was planned in proximity of HQ 10 Brigade in Poonch and HQ 120 Brigade in Rajauri with 2xMk 83 REK bombs each, and in proximity of logistics and ammunition depots in Narian and Naushera with 1xH-4 bomb each.
] In naval parlance, ‘a shot across the bow’ signifies a warning shot to a ship. It has been learnt that the GOC-in-C Northern Command, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh and Commander 16 Corps, Lt Gen Paramjit Singh had left after a meeting at Rajauri Brigade HQ only minutes before the bombing.
] AMRAAM stands for Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile.
[9] 'Flow cold' means avoiding a head-on, high rate-of-closure approach. By turning away, the missile’s firing envelope can be drastically shrunk, and the missile can be defeated kinetically.
] The downed MiG-21 tail number was CU2328. It was configured with four missiles under the wings, and an under-fuselage drop tank.
] Clearly recognisable despite the considerable crash damage, these missiles included 2xR-73 dogfight missiles, and 2xR-77 BVR missiles.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q 1.    What was the confusion about the number of downed IAF pilots on the day of the shooting?

A1.     The soldiers of two co-located Pak Army Units near the place of the IAF pilot’s parachute landing, rushed to apprehend him. After his arrest, both Units reported to their higher formations that a pilot had been captured. The higher formations in turn reported the same to GHQ, which understood the two reports to be independent, and hastily announced the capture of two pilots. The report was later retracted, but in the interim a lot of confusion prevailed.

Q2.     The Indians claim that the missing rocket motor in the debris of one of the MiG-21 R-73 missiles (extreme right in picture) indicates that it may have been fired at the PAF F-16. The Indians claim that the missile’s Guidance and Control Unit was later retrieved from the ground by Pak Army, and then displayed with the rest of the missiles to give the impression that it was actually found in the MiG-21 wreckage. What do you have to say?

A2.     A keen observer of the MiG-21 wreckage would note that the rocket motor of the missile in question (rectangle 2) is stuck on the missile launcher rail, as it did not get dislodged on impact with the ground. As such, all the missile parts could not be put together and displayed.  The pictures below make it quite clear that all parts of the missile were available in the wreckage.

[Courtesy Michael Sheldon and Kanish Karan of DFRLab]

Q3.     What were the Indian senior officers trying to prove by displaying a part of the AIM-120C during a press conference?

A3.     The Indian senior officers were trying to bring it to the notice of Americans that PAF had employed the F-16s and AIM-120C missiles in contravention of the purchase agreement with them. The Indians were apparently under the impression that these missiles had been purchased at over $500,000 a piece only to shoot down non-existent Taliban  fighter aircraft, and that their use against India was not fair play.

Q4.    Why do you think the Su-30MKI, with its powerful long range radar and R-77 BVR missiles, was unable to shoot down any PAF fighter?

A4.    While the Su-30MKI's radar (N011M 'Bars') is indeed powerful and has very long search and track ranges, the R-77 missile is clearly outranged by the F-16's AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM. So there is a radar-weapon mismatch on the Su-30MKI, which is why the IAF is desperate to get the Meteor missile-equipped Rafale fighters.

Q5.    Why haven’t you disclosed the maximum range of the AIM-120C, as well as the ranges at which these missiles were fired? That would have made reconstruction of the air combat a lot more easier to understand.

A5.     A frank answer is that I do not want to go to jail!  

Q6.    It was disclosed during the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) press conference that F-16s were not employed in the conflict. What do you have to say about that?

A6.     Please refer to Q/A7.

Q7.    Since air combat is a highly technical subject, wouldn't it have been better to have a PAF fighter pilot alongside, during the ISPR press conferences pertaining to the conflict?

A7.     I couldn't agree more on this point. I am reminded of the old adage, 'Fighter Pilots do it Better.'

Q8.   What about the rumour that the IAF had planned to attack with surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) in reply to PAF's 'Swift Retort' on the morning of 27 Feb?

A8.   After a disastrous showing by IAF on the 26th and 27th February, the Indian government unwisely decided to even the score by deploying - conceivably for employing - SSMs against Pakistan.  Apparently, this measure was aimed at preventing further fighter losses at the hands of the PAF that was perceived by the IAF as 'technically superior.'  Exercise of the rash and senseless decision to deploy SSMs could well have been misconstrued by Pakistan, and a catastrophic exchange could have followed between nuclear-armed neighbours. It was fortuitous for USA to have gotten wind of the Indian move, and Modi was promptly ordered to hold fire, or else.



This article was published in 'Defence Journal' July 2019 issue.

09 November 2018

Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part III

Military Crackdown

On 25 March, Yahya and his aides quietly flew back to West Pakistan, followed by Bhutto a day later. As ominous clouds gathered over the horizon, it was clear that the time for politics was over.

The military had planned to conduct Operation ‘Searchlight’ starting at 0100 hrs on 26 March, by which time General Yahya would have safely landed in Karachi. Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, the advisor on civil affairs, was put in charge of operations in Dacca and its environs, while Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 14 Division, was given charge of the rest of East Pakistan.

Some of the more important tasks assigned to Farman’s subordinate, Brig Jehanzeb Arbab, (Commander 57 Brigade), included disarming of about 5,000 personnel of East Pakistan Rifles, disarming of 1,000 policemen at the city’s Police Lines, neutralisation of Awami League strong points inside Dacca University, and capture of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman (code-named ‘Big Bird’). Additionally, combing operations and show of force was to be conducted, wherever required.

The operation in Dacca was over by first light, with all objectives achieved. The ‘Big Bird’ was in the cage, and was whisked off to Karachi three days later. The casualty figures of the Bengalis, especially at the University, remain moot. While the Army sources estimated around one hundred deaths in the University area, Bengalis insisted that these ran in thousands.

The main task of securing the rest of East Pakistan with a single army division was not an easy one. The rebel strongholds in Chittagong, Kushtia and Pabna were particularly formidable and well-defended, and needed to be neutralised promptly before the rebels went on the rampage against the non-Bengalis.

Chittagong had just one battalion with 600-odd troops to fight off an estimated 5,000 rebels. Reinforcements from the brigade headquarters at Comilla, including an infantry battalion and a mortar battery, were blocked by the rebels after blowing up of a bridge enroute. All attempts to make headway towards Chittagong were thwarted, and eventually, contact was lost with the relief column.  The GOC himself undertook a search of the column from a helicopter, braving intermittent fire and several hits, but to no avail.  A detachment of commandos was also flown in from Dacca to search for the column, but soon it came under rebel cross fire and took  substantial casualties.[1] When the Officer Commanding of 24 FF fell in action, the Brigade Commander (53 Brigade) at Comilla, Brig Iqbal Shafi, himself took charge of the battalion, and was able to break the rebel resistance not long afterwards.  The way to Chittagong was cleared, but unfortunately, the troops were too late to prevent a horrid massacre of unarmed non-Bengali men, women and children at Ispahani Jute Mills near the edge of the city.

The important tasks in Chittagong included destruction of radio transmitters that had been spewing virulent anti-Pakistan messages, as well as the neutralisation of East Pakistan Regimental Centre and Reserve Police Lines. The latter two locations had a strong presence of trained saboteurs, and were reported to have been heavily stocked with weapons.

After two abortive and costly attempts[2] by a commando detachment to blow up the radio transmitters, PAF Sabres were called in to do the job, which was easily accomplished.

The East Pakistan Regimental Centre was attacked with a couple of tanks, heavy mortar battery, as well as unconventional fire support from the destroyer PNS Jahangir and two gunboats Rajshahi and Balaghat. After a raging battle that lasted for three hours, the target was destroyed and the rebels subdued.

The defenders at the Police Reserve Lines could not face Pak Army’s battalion-sized onslaught, and promptly vacated the area.

While the main operations in Chittagong were over in five days, mopping up continued into the first week of April.

In Kushtia, the task for the Army was to maintain security and establish own presence with the help of a company detached from its battalion headquarters at Jessore, 55 miles away. On 28 March, the local Superintendent of Police informed the Company Commander that an attack on the town by rebels was imminent. The attack commenced with heavy mortar firing early on the morning of 29 March. Troops of an East Bengal battalion joined by the Indian Border Security Force charged on the police armoury occupied by Pak Army troops. In the next few hours, twenty soldiers had fallen. The company headquarters, as well as posts at the telephone exchange and VHF station were also attacked by the Bengali-Indian combine, resulting in heavy casualties. Desperate requests for reinforcements were denied due to other commitments, and air support had to be called off due to poor visibility.

Kushtia was abandoned, and 65 surviving soldiers out of 150 were driven out in a convoy to Jessore. Enroute, a deadly ambush cut down all but nine soldiers who managed to escape, only to be rounded up and subjected to a barbaric end. The ill-prepared company had been virtually wiped out, in what was the worst disaster faced by the Pakistan Army during Operation ‘Searchlight’.

In Pabna, the task was not much different from the one at Kushtia, being mostly show of military presence in the area, by a lightly armed company of troops. Some important vulnerable points like the power house and the telephone exchange were also to be defended against the rebels.  A costly mistake was made in wrongly assessing the strength of the rebels in the area. This realisation came too late when the rebels carried out a surprise raid on the telephone exchange, in which 85 troops were martyred. The remnants were evacuated by a relief party from Rajshahi, but were met with heavy resistance as they fought their way out. The column reached Rajshahi with just 18 survivors; 112 had been martyred in the operation.

Operation ‘Searchlight’ was deemed to have helped achieve full control over much of the province, by the end of April. While the Bengalis claimed that their casualties ran in hundreds of thousands in less than a month, Pakistan Army sources insist that rebel deaths did not exceed four figures. India had good reason to inflate the numbers to paint Pakistan Army in bad light in the eyes of the international community, an exercise in which she succeeded resoundingly. Expulsion of foreign press prior to the operation did not help matters either, and it was only too pleased to parrot India’s line on the subject.
Full-blown Insurgency
While Operation ‘Searchlight’ was underway, two more Army divisions (9 and 16 Divisions), as well as additional paramilitary forces, were flown in from West Pakistan. These forces were lightly armed, and their heavy equipment was left behind.  A new Commander of Eastern Command, Lt Gen A A K ‘Tiger’ Niazi was also posted in, and he had three new GOCs of the three divisions for conducting counter-insurgency operations.

The Indian government had, meanwhile, declared its full support to the rebels, having perceived a distinct possibility of Pakistan’s breakup.   The Director of Indian Institute of Strategic Studies, Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, gave heft to that perception when he brazenly suggested at a symposium, to destroy Pakistan: “What India must realise is the fact that the breakup of Pakistan is in our interest, and opportunity the like of which will never come again.”[3] He called it a ‘chance of a century’ to destroy India’s enemy number one.

India started a crash programme of military preparations, including reorganisation and re-equipment. On the diplomatic front, she went all out in creating a favourable world opinion, as well as getting erstwhile Soviet Union’s commitment to help in the impending military action.[4]  The presence of Bengali refugees and their plight was also exploited advantageously.

The most consequential action by India was the formation of an organised, well-trained and well-equipped rebel force, to thwart Pak Army’s efforts in fighting the insurgency. The Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) force was cobbled up with Bengali defectors from the army and para-military forces, students and able-bodied volunteers. Their task, as recalled in India’s Second Liberation by Pran Chopra, was: “Deployment in their own native land with a view to initially immobilizing and tying down the Pakistan military forces for protective tasks in Bengal, subsequently by gradual escalation of guerrilla operations, to sap and corrode the morale of the Pakistan Forces in the eastern sector, and finally to avail the cadres as ancillaries to the Eastern Field Force in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us.”[5]

With a constantly growing number of training camps in India, as many as 100,000 Mukti Bahini had cycled through training courses by end of November. 300 frogmen had also been trained by India to undertake sabotage operations against shipping and riverine craft.

Pak Army had a total of 45,000 troops, including 11,000 paramilitary forces and police.[6] It also had additional support of about 50,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis and some sympathetic Bengalis under the support of an umbrella organisation called Razakars (volunteers). While the Razakars had been fired by patriotic fervour, they did not have proper training to transform their zeal into anything worthwhile. They could hardly conduct operations independent of Pak Army.

Pak Army earnestly started active counter-insurgency operations in April. The main focus was on maintaining occupation of border posts, and controlling major towns. Rebels followed hit-and-run tactics, and could not be countered as they disappeared before the Pak Army arrived on the scene.  This modus operandi of the Mukti Bahini continued incessantly for many months. With time – and ceaseless Indian support – their methods became more   well-planned, and the rebels became more audacious in their attacks.  Bridges, railway lines and electric power stations were the preferred targets. For the Pak Army, fighting an insurgency spread over more than 55,000 square miles was a tall order.  Besides, being involved in a prolonged insurgency without any relief resulted in indifference and apathy setting in.

The writing on the wall was clear: the population of East Pakistan was not going to stop short of an independent Bangla Desh, as the West Pakistani power brokers had nothing to offer that could meet their aspirations. Retracting at this stage, when too much blood had been spilt, would have been seen by the Bengalis as an insult to their dignity.  Sadly, the time for reconciliation was past.

General Yahya seemed completely afflicted by inaction and inertia over the nine months spanned by the insurgency. His efforts at some sort of reconciliation were confined to superficial measures, including replacement of Lt Gen Tikka Khan with a civilian Governor, to assuage the feelings of the Bengalis who saw Tikka as a tyrant.    A former dentist, trade union leader, and elderly politician, Dr A M Malik was sworn in on 3 September.  A day later, general amnesty for ‘miscreants’ was announced, but there was no mention of the release of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, which made it appear meaningless to the Bengalis. Yahya’s actions were, decidedly, too little, too late.
A Chance of a Century for India
While preparing for a military intervention in East Pakistan, India continued with shrewd diplomatic efforts in parallel. Notably, she signed the euphemistically dubbed Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation on 9 August 1971. Her diplomatic offensive centred around the ‘massive humanitarian problem’ of refugees who had fled to India because of the civil war in East Pakistan. It also helped assuage any apprehensions of a possible wider conflict, especially with regard to US and China, whose beleaguered ally, Pakistan, could have clamoured for help.  In any case, the US was unwilling, and China unable, to do much to avoid a conflagration.

The Indian military, in the meantime, found enough time to prepare for war on two fronts viz, West Pakistan as well as East Pakistan, the latter being considered as the main theatre. Equipment and manpower shortfalls were speedily addressed, and war plans adequately reviewed.

War preparations on the Pakistani side were seriously constrained by shortfalls in the Army’s fighting formations. The move of two infantry divisions from West Pakistan was clearly a short-term response to the deteriorating situation in East Pakistan; it gravely altered the balance of forces in the West, the main theater of war.  Any operational reverses that might occur were to be redressed by denuding the strategic reserves. Unfortunately, this meant that the very foundations of a Pakistani military response had been utterly weakened.

While the insurgency within East Pakistan continued without let, India started artillery shelling on the border outposts in late June. This activity increased in the following months, with as many as 2,000 rounds falling daily.[7]  On the one hand, it served the objective of controlled escalation by India, while on the other, it helped the Mukti Bahini in occupying many salients and enclaves, as these became indefensible under constant fire. By the time of General Yahya’s address to the nation on 12 October, in which he declared that every inch of the sacred soil of Pakistan would be defended, 3,000 square miles of  border area had already gone under Indian control.

India had carefully assessed that Pak Army troops in East Pakistan were tired of fighting an insurgency for over eight months, and their morale was not at its best.  Indian Army had the numbers to overwhelm Pak Army troops three times over, and had adequate mobility and logistics support to make a fast run for Dacca. In West Pakistan, India enjoyed numerical superiority, especially in the Desert Sector where it was overpowering. Her defences were strong in all sectors, and she was confident of stopping any Pakistani foray, were Pakistan to attempt capture of vital territory as a sop for the loss of East Pakistan.

As for the Pakistan Air Force, India saw it mostly in a supporting role for Pak Army, and if the latter’s design could be stymied through deft planning, the aerial battlefront was not seen as a major threat to her designs.

As war clouds appeared over the sub-continent, India found it opportune to act on Subrahmanyam’s advice to avail the chance of a century.  Sadly, at this stage, there was hardly a way out of the morass that Pakistan found itself in but to fight, however best as was possible.

[1] 16 commandos were martyred in this action.
[2] 13 commandos were martyred in this action.
[3] The symposium was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. Subrahmanyam’s speech was reported by The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 1 April 1971.
[4] The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation was signed on 9 August 1971.
[5] Pakistan Cut to Size, Manekar, D R, Delhi; page 133.
[6] This figure is quoted by Lt Gen Niazi in his book, The Betrayal of East Pakistan, Chapter 14, page 237.
[7] Witness to Surrender,  Salik, Siddiq; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1977, page 116.


This article was published in 'Defence Journal' June 2019 issue.