This morning as I woke up at 5AM in Gurugram, I was informed of an IAF strike on Balakot, in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunwa area, approximately 200 km North West of India's nearest Air Force station at Avantipur, South East of Srinagar. A few phone calls later, I learned it was a pre-dawn attack at 0330 hrs, which delieverd 1,000 kg bombs to a designated target area. Since then, I have been holding my horses, waiting for and actually watching a whole nation descend into hysterical paroxysms of joy and celebration, as if we have removed Pakistan from existence!
Hopefully the paroxysms are over by now. The hysterics will take a little more time to calm down. But it is now time, to analyze this action in the light of cold, sober logic after 16 hours of pointless celebration.
I have written elsewhere about the futility of attacking 'terror camps', as they do not yield any strategic enemy assets. But in this case as in many before, the Govt of India has asked the Armed forces to act on its behalf and the Armed Forces have delivered, only to once again be used for the personal glorification of Narendra Modi.
Also once again, we have used conventional forces to strike at extremely low-value tactical targets of an adversary that uses asymmetric warfare against us. In hindsight we can see once again, the Govt has used the Armed Forces in an ill-advised action, purely for propaganda purposes, without achieving any strategic or tactical goal, except maybe the minimally valid goal of delivering a military message to a recalcitrant adversary.
To understand what our Govt has asked the Air Force to do, it is important to first understand the technology used by fighter aircraft to acquire and destroy targets and how weapons are chosen... To carry a particular weapon load, first the nature of the target needs to be known - is it a soft skin target, like trucks and jeeps? In which case 30 mm front guns or rockets can be used, even rockets being overkill, 30 mm armour piercing incendiary (API) cannon rounds being sufficient to completely destroy soft skinned targets. If armour is known to be present in the target area, 58 mm API rockets, released in a barrage of 8, 16 or 32 rockets per barrage, would be the choice, depending on the nature of the armour. If the target is an area, not point-targets like soft skinned vehicles or buildings but troop concentrations or buildings over a large area, bombs would be the choice.
There is also the choice of guided weapons, which may either be guided by reflected modulated laser or guided by an image processing or radio guidance system, depending on whether we are targetting a designated or target of opportunity or a radio transmitter like a wireless or a radar station.
The choice of weapon is also guided by the cost of the asset versus the target. For example, one can ill afford to target a tin shed or a tent, with TV-guided munitions. But then, neither should we be targeting a tin shed with a fighter aircraft, unless the tin shed is known to house a tactical or strategic target of sufficient importance to use such platforms or munitions. Cost here, is not just the acquisition cost, but a matrix of the replacement cost and the cost of availability when you actually need such munitions for their specific features.
For a pilot to deliver munitions to a ground target:
1. The target has to be visually acquired, the weaponry selected, if it is being carried, and the pilot then delivers them to the target.
2. If the pilot cannot visually acquire the target, like in darkness,, poor visibility or other reasons, the target can be illuminated with a modulated laser illuminator wielded by a scout or other friendly forward human asset. The weapon delivery system in the aircraft then automatically guides the guided weapon to the laser illuminated target. This too however, can be victim to poor visibility, fog being capable of scattering the laser beam, rendering the weapon system ineffective.
3. The weapon load is delivered at pre-decided coordinate(s), hoping to create maximum damage in the area.
The Balakot Mirage-2000 raid delivered 1,000 kg bombs, obviously at pre-decided coordinate(s). It is clear that we did not have a point target in mind. We wanted to deliver area munitions in the general area of a pre-decided coordinate - a perfectly valid decision, if we are to deliver a military warning to a recalcitrant adversary. But where did TV channels get the number of casualties from, or that a terrorist camp had been destroyed? Even the IAF would not have been able to acquire that information after a raid at 0330 hrs. Obviously, agents of the GoI are feeding this fake info to TV channels and the print medium.
We know the Jaish-e-Mohammed strategic assets are in Bahawalpur and we would only find low-value tactical targets in Balakot. But we also know that Balakot is undefended by the PAF, the nearest airfield being the civilian airfield of Muzaffarabad, about 25km South of Balakot, which serves the military station at Abbottabad. The nearest PAF airfield, to my mind, would be Islamabad, about 100 km South of Balakot – an F16, from the time it was scrambled, would take about 10-11 minutes to reach, by which time all action would have been over. We have to surmise this attack was ordered purely for publicity, because I think it would have been extremely embarrassing if we lost a Mirage 2000 or two in attacking Bahawalpur, with three PAF stations in the vicinity. Indian TV channels have been baying for blood and revenge since Feb 14 and given the raised temperatures, the PAF would already be on standby to mount combat air patrol or interception at very short notice. After all, we wanted the publicity of having mounted a response to Pulwama, without the consequences of war or the embarrassment of losing assets.
More than any other discussion, we need to ask, why did the Govt of India once again, use a military operation for publicity? Consider the consequences now - we have violated an international border to deliver munitions at a target inside Pakistan and instead of keeping it a secret, we have publicized it so much, with every minion of the Govt saying something or the other on the subject, that we have denied ourselves all plausible deniability! Pakistan will now go to the UN and say India attacked it without provocation. And we cannot even deny the attack! Stupid! We are now aggressors, instead of defenders. In contrast, Pakistan used asymmetric assets against us in Pulwama, without losing plausible deniability.
In a different dimension, we have frittered away the traditional Russian UNSC veto, which has been exercised in our favour innumerable times in the past, have invited the Chinese veto against us and not at all gained the US veto to our side. The US geopolitical interest still lies in Pakistan, not in India, because Af-Pak is still a US geopolitical engagement, with a Shia nuclear-capable Iran to the West of this region and Pakistan closely allied to another US geopolitical interest, Saudi Arabia.
So now if the UNSC resolves any action against India, which UNSC veto-power will we turn to, to exercise its veto in our favour, to preclude such action?
I don't know what has happened to our populace. We have become a very stupid and a very hysterical nation, almost akin to caricatures out of a cartoon movie. And we vote for politicians exactly like us.
(The author is a former IAF pilot)