Operation Balakot: 26/02/2019

Operation Balalkot Part 5

At 01.00 am on 26 Feb 2019, the atmosphere in the crew room of Air Force Station was tense. All 12 fighter pilots, fully dressed in combat flying gear, were waiting for the word “scramble”.

However, none of the pilots was in a mood to chat. Instead, they were mentally rehearsing, over and over, their respective roles in the operation. They had practised hard over the simulator. That night they were to prove themselves in the actual test. 

They were about to fly their planes to mount the attack on Balakot, across the Line of Control. They all knew that their tension would ease once they take-off because there would be no time for it.

This was a live operation that would take place after nearly 50 years. They were the lucky few selected to participate in the airstrike. Therefore, they had to succeed in the mission. It was a matter of their personal pride and honour of the country. 

Precisely at 01.13 am, the order to scramble came, and they rushed to their respective fighter plane. 12 fully armed Mirage 2000 fighters were parked side by side on the airfield apron. Technician teams were ready and waiting to help the pilots climb up the ladders to the cockpits and get the engines started.

Then, one by one, all 12 Mirage 2000 fighter planes proceeded to the runway and took off at 01.15 am. The fighter planes were flying to Balakot to face the challenge. 

The shortest route to Balakot was to fly along the Indo-Pak borders over M.P, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab to reach J & K and then cross the LOC. But if they had followed this predictable route, the Pakistani Air Borne Radar and Control Aircraft (AWACS) would have instantly spotted them.

Then, it would have a swarm of their fighter planes ready and waiting to offer the Indian fighter planes a fiery welcome over the airspace of Pakistan. Therefore, the route that night was planned differently.

The Mirage fighter planes first headed approximately 300 km to  North-East instead of North-West and reached the airspace overhead Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh.

An air to air refuelling tanker aircraft of the IAF was already airborne and positioned to meet them. The Mirage 2000 planes got their fuel tanks filled to capacity from the tanker aircraft. Two mirages at a time got connected with the pipeline let out from the tanker aircraft and got refuelled in flight. Then the fighters regrouped and flew to their destination. The actual challenging part had just started. 

To avoid detection by the roving eye of the Pakistani AWACS, the Mirages flew under cover of the mighty Himalayas.

In the dead of night, they must have streaked at a low altitude over Haridwar, Dehradun, Shimla, Dharamshala, Udhampur and emerged over Srinagar.

From there, Balakot was just at an air distance of a few minutes of flying. But when they were preparing to cross the LOC, Pakistan’s Swedish made Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACS) must have detected them.

Within minutes Pakistani Air Force (PAF) launched two F- 16 Fighter jets to intercept the Indian Mirages. It was a critical moment for all concerned on the Indian side.

India’s side had been doing its homework diligently for the last few days to meet such a contingency. Before the day of the actual operation, the IAF had planted a story in the media that India might be preparing to attack Bahawalpur.

The Headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) was located at Bahawalpur. It sounded logical, to say the least, and Pakistan had taken the bait. Looking at the F – 16 jets coming closer to the group of Mirage 2000 fighters, the IAF ordered four Jaguar Aircraft from an airbase in Haryana to fly aggressively towards Bahawalpur.

Basically, Jaguar is a ground attack aircraft. Therefore, the Pakistani AWACS now assumed that the attack would occur on Bahawalpur and flew towards that area. The AWACS ordered the F-16 jets also to divert to Bahawalpur.

Thus the IAF could avert the immediate threat of interception at the nick of the moment. PAF forces were lured to approximately 490 miles (788 km) south of Balakot. The IAF Jaguars never crossed the LOC.

The Mirage 2000 jet fighters crossed over the LOC unopposed without air resistance by the PAF. Each participating pilot’s job was clearly cut out and practised diligently. But at this stage, nature posed a problem.

It was an unavoidable act of God. The airspace over the target was enveloped entirely under cover of thick fog. No one could possibly do anything about it. 

The Mirages on Bomber role released all the SMART Bombs as planned. Five bombs out of six had hit the target accurately following the pre-fed GPS Data on their onboard computers.

All the Mirage 2000 fighters carried out their allotted task. It was time for them to return to India. Unfortunately, not a single Crystal Maze Missile was fired. The reason probably was that these missiles required manual guidance at the last stage of the flight by the pilot firing them. Since there was zero visibility over the target area, the pilots would not be able to track the missiles visually and guide them manually. 

The Fighters on escort duty stayed back in Pakistani airspace until all other aircraft safely crossed over the LOC. The entire operation in the Pakistani airspace took only 21 minutes.

Finally, when the PAF realised what had happened, all the Mirage 2000 planes had landed back in India.

 Far away in Delhi, Air Marshal Hari Kumar from Headquarters WAC called Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa and spoke just one word. The code-word was “Bandar”.

The CAS immediately understood that Operation Balakot had been successful, and all the fighter aircraft and pilots had landed back in India safely. He was waiting to hear this news. He must have been a happy man that night.

Operation Balakot clearly demonstrated the importance of meticulous planning and maintaining utmost secrecy. Admittedly, the Crystal Maze Missiles could not be fired as planned due to hostile weather conditions.

Therefore, the IAF could not get the video recording of its targets being successfully hit. This failure allowed the opponents to go on a denial mode.

After the operation, the world was divided. Half said the operation failed, while the other half said it succeeded.

Without going into controversy, one can safely conclude that the principal aim of Operation Balakot had been definitely achieved. The point had been driven home that India can retaliate in full measure if anyone tries to hurt our country. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DISCLAIMER

When I read about Operation Balakot, I felt really proud as a veteran officer of the IAF and an Indian citizen. So I went through every report that I possibly could about the operation from various articles published in the public domains, i.e., Google and Youtube. But unfortunately, I do not have any first-hand knowledge or insider’s story about the operation since I had retired from the IAF some 23 years before Pulwama Terror Strike took place.

 I am also aware of factual inaccuracies in whatever reports I read in different print media. For example, some articles said that 40 CRPF Jawans lost their lives in the Pulwama terror attack, whereas some other reports put that figure as 44. I have arbitrarily assumed that the figure was 44. Unfortunately, I had no way to verify the accuracy of these reports.

Therefore, I request the readers to read my 5 part blog on Balakot Operation as a story of an audacious attack on militants and not as a part of accurate Military History. I have only tried to put together an exciting account by putting stray pieces of published information in sequential order. I hope the readers will admire the excellent job done by the then Operation planners of the IAF and the courage of the pilots who finally delivered the result.

Finally, I believe that the PAF is a competent force. But like in a game of sports, in a battle also one side wins, and the other side loses. Many factors influence winning or losing. I have no intention to show PAF in a poor light. I just related the story, the way it happened to the best of my understanding.

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