The Indian Air Force fought one of the most significant post-Independence aerial clashes with its arch rival, the Pakistan Air Force on 27 February 2019. It’s been long since the world saw two nuclear-armed, fourth generation combat aircraft-equipped near-peer adversaries engaging each other in a highly dynamic full spectrum operational environment. This event saw the use of class leading beyond visual range (BVR) missiles in an air-to-air engagement by Pakistan; along with application of modern air combat tactics and doctrinal philosophies on diverse frontage by both sides.
This is a detailed OSINT analysis of the events that took place between 0930 to 1030H on India’s western border, on a day which would go down in the annals of aerial combat history for the grit and determination shown by a small group of Indian fighter pilots in blunting a well-executed large force PAF package attacking ground targets in south Kashmir; as well as the turning the tables on the dogged PAF F-16 ambush, which was hell bent on shooting IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKIs at all costs. What was very obvious by the end of the Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort was that the PAF had bitten far more than it could chew — in an ignominious honour, losing a 4th generation F-16 to a 3rd generation MiG-21 in a fierce counter-attack by the Indian Air Force.
In this first part of a two part write-up on the subject, I will examine the PAF’s combat strength, doctrine, limitations, military aim and tactical plan for Op Swift retort, as well as identify the various participating strike, air defence and support formations which executed the various missions on 27 Feb 2019.
The second part will analyse the execution, conduct, achievements and lessons learnt from this aerial skirmish, especially highlighting the core role played by the IAF in blunting this attack. The second part will be released in the coming days on ThePrint.
Prelude — Crossing the Rubicon
Early morning at 0330H on 26 February 2019, Mirage 2000 aircraft of the Indian Air Force made shallow incursions into the PoK and launched a pre-emtive strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror camp at Jabba Top, Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — Pakistan — hitting the targets as planned. These strikes were a direct response to the Pakistan-supported terror group JeM’s suicide attack on the convoy of Indian CRPF jawans at Pulwama near Srinagar on 14 February.
The IAF strikes completely surprised the Pakistani military establishment; in that India used airpower as a strategic signalling tool — in a less than war scenario — crossing the Line of Control (LoC) on an offensive attack mission inside Pakistan for the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
High resolution satellite imagery available in public domain confirms India’s claim — the primary target, the Mujahid hostel, displays clean entry marks of 3 Spice 2000 penetrator bombs in the roof. Pre-strike and post-strike 30 cm high resolution imagery can be sourced to validate the same — including the hasty repair work carried out by the Pakistani Army in the days after the strike.
Much like the famed crossing of the Rubicon river by Julius Caesar back in 49 BC that precipitated the Roman civil war , the IAF’s attack was a crisp and clear escalatory message to Pakistan that post these air strikes by India, the mutual relationship had reached a point of no return — where Pakistan would be directly accountable for any attack by non-state actors and proxies it supports.
Having achieved the limited military aim to demonstrate its attack capability, the IAF now waited to counter Pakistan’s expected response — while being prepared for an all-out war.
Scripting Pakistan’s response
The atmosphere in Pakistan all through the day on 26 February was very tense following the IAF’s strikes, with the military establishment in a huddle over how to respond to India’s action. Pakistan military’s pride was severely dented by the Indian strike — especially the violation of the LoC by the IAF — with its domestic audience approval ratings taking a nose dive.
The military completely sealed off the targeted camp in Balakot, discouraging any independent verification of on-site damage. Casualties were hastily transferred to the nearby Army camp at Shinkiari. As per available reports the JeM has lost at least 150 of its cadre in this strike. A deception plan by the Pakistani Army’s ISPR was kicked off to cover up — indicating that the IAF bombs had missed the target.
Sometime in the afternoon, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called for an emergency meeting of the National Command Authority (NCA), Pakistan’s highest decision-making body, where the ongoing situation was deliberated at length and all options for an appropriate response discussed. The ability of the Pakistani nation to get all diverse and discontenting voices together in the hour of a national crisis — especially against a perceived Indian aggression, ensured that all participants agreed in unison that escalation by India needed to be matched by an equivalent military effort.
With Pakistan’s territorial integrity violated , the Pakistan Air Force, in a quid pro response, was chosen to hit back at India.
While Pakistan politically may be prepared for war with India, economically and geopolitically it is in a state of deep mess. It’s foreign reserves are at an all-time low, with endless debt related issues plaguing the economy at large. The central bank forecasts growth at 3.5 to 4 per cent in the 12 months to end-June, well short of a government target of 6.2 per cent. The IMF paints an even gloomier picture, predicting Pakistan’s growth of 2.9 per cent in 2019 and 2.8 per cent the following year. Islamabad obtained temporary relief from close allies such as China and Saudi Arabia with short-term loans worth more than $10 billion to buffer foreign currency reserves and ease pressures on the country’s current account. But analysts called an IMF bailout inevitable, with Pakistan also facing an increasing fiscal crunch ahead of the annual budget spending review for the next financial year starting July2019. Any sustained conflict with India would be a literal blow towards getting anything from the IMF and the world community.
On the other hand, pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on Pakistan’s role as a partner in funding terror across the world is also building up, with Pakistan standing to lose billions of dollars in further aid. With its widespread support to terrorists exposed on umpteen occasions in the past decades, old allies like the United States, United Kingdom and France are no longer on its side — Pakistan is widely being branded as a nation spawning and supporting terrorism. Pakistan has so far managed to avoid isolation only through the deft international power play by its ‘all weather’ friend and ‘iron brother’ China.
The Chinese hypocrisy and double standards are exposed in its support to Pakistan on the Masood Azhar issue, which is dictated by strategic and economic investments it has made in Pakistan over the years — especially in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). With $62 billion invested till date, CPEC has spread its tentacles from Gilgit to Gwader to benefit largely Chinese companies and contractors. So while China is game in using Pakistan as a tool to checkmate India in its backyard with consistent military aid and support on all quarters — its current economic investments in Pakistan take a serious hit in case of an all-out Indo-Pakistan war. Similarly, traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also averse to any war with India and advised restraint to Pakistan due to their own economic and geopolitical aspirations in South East Asia.
The PAF’s dilemma
As Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, the Chief of the Pakistan Air Force , would have sat down to plan an appropriate response, he would have found himself in uncharted territory. The PAF’s self-proclaimed USP — its dynamic operational flexibility and aggressive doctrinal methodology — was unsparingly weighed down by the problems plaguing the Pakistani nation, especially its economic mess — which would be counterproductive to the PAF’s ability to deliver the so called emphatic blow, as well as sustain round-the-clock operations against India for a considerable duration — bleeding precious aircraft and fuel reserves required to fight a long lasting engagement.
With the surge in IAF’s flying quantum in February, the PAF had been forced to break discipline on the use of its 20-day general service aviation fuel reserve and would have been eating into its 25-day strategic war reserve maintained by Pakistan State Oil (PSO) sooner than later. Similarly as was noticed back in 1999 during the Kargil conflict, the F-16 and the older Mirage III/V aircraft fleets cannot sustain a lengthy state of operational readiness — consuming critical spares, weapon and flying hours meant for actual hostilities. With the US warming up to India in all spheres in the recent past, OEM support and supplies for the equipment and armament purchased through various US Congress sanctions in the last decade — ironically to be used in the war against terror — would be under scrutiny and literally come to a halt, further adding to the PAF’s woes. While the PAF has efficiently mitigated the spare and airframe calendar life issues with purchase of additional F-16s from Jordan (ADF version) and a mid-life upgrade (MLU) of its existing F-16 fleet through Turkey — any PAF military response would need to factor these crucial aspects needed to fight an extended all-out war with India.
PAF’s military aim post-Balakot
Pakistan’s geopolitical and economic considerations, when mated with data available from the PAF’s large force engagement (LFE) on 27 February 2019 , provides a good assessment of the PAF’s military aim towards the response towards the Balakot attack, which are as follows —
1 . Demonstrate ‘perceptible tactical brilliance’ of the PAF in a bold operation — restoring the measure of honour lost due to the Indian strikes a day prior in public perception
2 . Seize the military initiative back from the IAF — not letting India exploit the new normal
3 . Highlight — that the forces are in balance and the liberty of attacking at will without repercussions for India is not an option
4 . Aim for a quick outcome within an established time frame — avoiding escalation beyond the perceived combat threshold of an all-out war
5. Preserve — its force levels at all costs
This counterstroke, given that Pakistan was incapable of affording a full blown war with India — still had to be significant to convey an ‘impression’ to India and the world community — that Pakistan was willing to escalate the crisis and extended diplomacy was the only way ahead to de-escalate the crisis. Towards this a parallel peace posture would be propagated through the Pak Foreign Office.
Assessing PAF’s military preparedness
The Pakistan Air Force has a chequered history in the various wars with India. Widely showcased by Pak propaganda over the years as a pantheon of past glory for Pakistan — the PAF is a professional force which has always attracted the best human capital in Pakistan to man its diverse cockpits. In fact, the PAF has one of the highest rejection rates amongst air forces in the world, while clinically aiming at a high ratio of 2.5 pilots per aircraft cockpit— meaning it can sustain a greater sortie rate over a protracted conflict — with lesser number of aircraft.
In-spite of living in the shadow of a much larger Pakistan Army, the PAF has remarkably done well to update and increase its airpower assets over the last couple of decades; attempting to maintain parity with the IAF at the — technological, operational training and air war doctrine employment levels.
Post 9/11, widespread American aid and concessions as a close ally in the war on terror and the perceived western need to arm Pakistan with modern tactical weapons to match the Indian superiority threshold, ostensibly to avoid a nuclear meltdown in the region — has progressively helped the PAF in upgrading its F-16 Falcon fleet and erode Indian Air Force’s numerical and technical superiority in air superiority fighters (ASF) equipped with beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles. Currently PAF has 18 top of line F-16 C/D Block 52 (inducted in 2010), 28 F-16 A/B ADF (purchased from Jordan in 2014 and 2016) and 31 F-16 A/B MLU (upgraded by TAI, Turkey between 2012–2014).
While the newer Block 52s are the most advanced version of F-16 with the PAF, the PAF has unwearyingly ensured that all its F-16s (less the Jordanian lot) are upgraded and equipped with the Northrop Grumman AN/APG — 68 (V)9 multi-mode radar and the AIM-120 C-5 AMRAAM missile through the various Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) initiatives. The Jordanian supplied F-16 A/B Block 15 ADF version is equipped with the APG-66 (V)2 and the AMRAAM. The AIM-120 C-5 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) with its active missile seeker and a max range of around 100 km, is amongst the most advanced air to air missile operational in the world, widely used by NATO and close allies of the United States. Last known, the PAF has around 500 AMRAAMs in its stockpile.
The F-16 Falcon, armed with the AMRAAM missile, has given the PAF an edge over the IAF in beyond visual range (BVR) combat since 2010, a capability it had lacked back in the last war fought with India in Kargil 1999.
Alongside, the PAF has inducted the modern JF-17 Block I/II Thunder multirole fighter in large numbers to replace its ageing fleet of F-6 and F-7 fighters. The JF-17 program is a joint Sino — Pakistan effort, which has mostly Chinese avionics and armament. The onboard NRIET KLJ-7 Pulse Doppler Multi mode attack has decent performance and is teamed with the SD-10A (PL-12) active guidance BVR AAM, which is based on the technology used in the Russian R-77 (AA-12 Adder) missile. The JF-17 is also able to carry a wide array of air to ground armament; much more than the American supplied F-16. The Block II version introduces air-air-refuelling and the Block III will feature and AESA AI radar and the potent SD-10B AAM along with other updates. There are upward of 140 JF-17s in PAF service, with an aim to have a fleet of 250 in the next few years.
These modern PAF fighters are supported by an advanced and superbly networked Air Defence environment on the ground, as well as 4 Saab-2000 ERIEYE and the 4 ZDK-03 series airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms. 2 more Saab ERIEYEs will be inducted by 2020 to give the PAF a total of 10 AEW&C aircraft — which will be able to efficiently provide 24 x 7 surveillance across Pakistan.
A noteworthy achievement for the PAF has been the continuous upgradation of its older Mirage III/V fleet over the years at a low cost fraction — thus keeping a realistic strike option in place. PAF’s Mirage fleet consists of 90 Mirage-III and 90 Mirage-V aircraft for interceptor and attack roles respectively. PAF modernized its Mirage jets in an MLU program named Project ROSE (Retro Fit of Strike Element) at Aeronautical Complex in Kamra starting in end 1990s. Despite challenges and problems, the ROSE program provided a platform to PAF to experience aerial technology integration and acquire experience, gaining confidence to undertake similar project with confidence in future, which include the JF-17s. The Mirage in the PAF service have received new capabilities that improve its performance in battle dramatically. The Mirage III have been equipped with the FIAR Grifo M3 multi-mode Airborne Interception radar and along with the Mirage Vs, have been modified to carry out night missions and sophisticated systems like SAGEM Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imaging sensors, an integrated Electronic Warfare suite, air-to-air refuelling capability and integration of stand-off precision attack munition. Pakistan Navy also operates specially upgraded Mirage aircraft for its maritime missions, which are equipped with French-made Exocet anti-Ship missiles. PAF will soon get 30+ more Mirages from Egypt, which may be utilized for the maintenance of airframes and spares for the existing fleet. Interestingly, in spite of being a generation behind the under induction JF-17, the Mirage III/V has better low level penetration range and dash capability than the JF-17 — which with the use of stand-off weapons makes it an effective weapon delivery platform under most operational scenarios.
The PAF has also inducted four IL-78MP Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) from Ukraine. While the ERIEYE and the ZDKs can look deep inside India, the tankers can provide operational support for any PAF strike deep in the Indian heartland.
What is very visible in the PAF’s various newer acquisitions, operational and maintenance philosophies and upgrade programs – is its emphasis on widespread flexibility and reliability towards achieving a high sortie rate during crisis. The PAF has also focussed persistently on the right fit of platforms, a bang for the buck necessary to execute all facets of full spectrum, networked missions across its geographical bounds of operational influence.
PAF’s doctrinal evolution — stand-off munition/tactical land attack missiles
The PAF’s war fighting doctrine has primarily relied upon surprise and pre-emptive strikes as a definitive tool to neutralise IAF’s offensive power and gain numerical parity during the early phase of the conflict — This strategy has spawned out due to the limited defensive depth available to Pakistan geographically, as well as a mitigation measure towards the numerical superiority enjoyed by the IAF.
In the recent years however, proliferation of advanced air defence networks and surface to air missiles (SAMs) by India, has reduced the efficacy of ‘first strike’ as a full proof methodology for the PAF. To counter networks of these advanced integrated air defence systems (IADS), stand-off weapons have been adopted generously by the PAF.
A technology jump in integration of stand-off munitions like the 350 km range Ra’ad and the 550 km range Ra’ad 2 cruise missile, the 120 km range NESCOM H-2/4 SOW on the Mirage III/V & the JF-17Block II, the 60 km range Chinese LS-6 glide bombs and the Mk 80 bomb Range Extension Kits (REK) on the JF-17; along with JDAM munition on Block 52 F-16 — gives a stand-off weapon employment edge to the PAF — much like what the Brahmos, Spice 2000 and Crystal Maze give to the IAF.
A major part of the first strike capability is also operationalised with PAF’s use of land attack missiles like the short range Nasr/ Hatf / Abdali/ Babur missiles and SRBMs like Ghaznavi and Shaheen — I, with varied manner of tactical & nuclear payloads, adding teeth to the attack options available to the PAF. Beyond the dedicated nuclear warheads the Pak Army SSMs targeting Indian cities carry, the Ra’ad and the Nasr short range missiles are also equipped with tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) in the range of 0.5 to 1 Kiloton to take on the Indian Army’s Integrated Battle Groups (IBG).
Within the ambit of Pakistan’s low yield nuclear strike philosophy, it’s possible that these TNWs may also be employed against forward IAF bases and aircraft concentration areas — to offset the dynamics of local air superiority in favour of the PAF.
It is this recently acquired TNW capability — which Pakistan will leverage in any conflict with India as a bargaining chip to get better military aid and political concessions from the western powers, especially the United States; as well as an acceptable nuclear threshold to engage Indian Army spearheads which penetrate Pakistani boundaries.
PAF’s doctrinal evolution — Large Force Engagement (LFE) training
The PAF has kept pace with the evolution of airpower and air combat philosophies over the years. It sees merit in employing large force, full spectrum mission packages as a doctrinal inclusion at the strategy level to achieve local air superiority against numerically superior forces. The PAF has been operationalising and consolidating the organisation and force level structures of large force engagements (LFE) — wherein it has benefited from participation in foreign exercises like the ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Falcon Talon’ with the United States, ‘Anatolian Eagle’ and ‘Indus Viper’ with Turkey and ‘Shaheen’ series with China’s PLAAF. Foreign deployments by the PAF, flying Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) and LFE sorties at Red Flag and Anatolian Eagle have particularly helped the PAF F-16s train towards and achieving an excellent exposure to BVR combat, benchmarking same at an international level. In this, the PAF’s BVR employment tactics are modelled mostly on the USAF’s air combat tactics.
Incidentally, a major focus area for the PAF during the Sino-Pak ‘Shaheen’ air exercises — has been to extensively evaluate the operational capability of the PLAAF’s Su-27/ Su-30MKK/ J-11 aircraft. Practice close combat and BVR air melees with these aircraft has revealed significant intelligence on the performance and electromagnetic signatures of the Russian origin Su-27/30/ J-11 platforms and BVR missiles like the R-27 and RVV-AE (R-77 export version) to the participating PAF aircraft. Significant would be the digital mapping and knowledge of the Minimum Abort Ranges (MAR) of these missiles — which could give an edge to the PAF in planning effective BVR tactics against the IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKIs.
The PAF F-16s are known to be utilised as the long range aggressor component for these BVR engagements, clandestinely operating with the PLAAF during the exercise in Pakistan. The worthy ELINT capability of Saab 2000 ERIEYE AEW&C system, the Falcon DA-20 EW platform, as well as the ALQ-211 (V)4 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suites (AIDEWS) on the Block-52s — would been very useful towards building a credible threat library and jamming techniques towards the Russian radars carried by the PLAAF.
The PAF thus would perceive itself to have a good measure of the IAF’s Su-30MKI fleet, which is seen as the primary & most numerous threat for the PAF’s wartime missions — focussing its energy on developing a range of anti- Sukhoi tactics. Hence in any IAF vs PAF contemporary aerial engagement — PAF effort would aim to deny the SU-30MKIs any tactical operational latitude.
The red herring for the PAF however is the IAF’s recently upgraded fleet of Mirage-2000 I/TIs — which equipped with the relatively unknown RDY-3 radar and Mica AAMs, are capable of outmatching the F-16C/D Block 52s in BVR combat. Thus the Mirage-2000 I/TIs threat would be taken very seriously by marauding PAF offensive sweeps under most scenarios, the only solace being that the IAF had barely a squadron’s worth of upgraded Mirages at the time during Op Swift Retort.
The PAF’s consolidated strategic and tactical war fighting capability — especially viewed in the backdrop of India’s fast depleting combat aircraft squadrons and widespread distribution of its fourth generation combat aircraft strength, on both the Pakistan and China border to cater to a two-front war — does make the PAF a superbly equipped and very capable near-peer adversary in a limited war scenario with the IAF.
Why a localised operation in Jammu & Kashmir?
Post Balakot, the PAF rightly assessed that a conventional response with its fighter jets across the International Boundary may be counterproductive to its aim— with limited tactical flexibility against the estimated numerical superiority of IAF’s fourth generation aircraft supported by a well networked Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) equipped with advanced surface to air missiles (SAMs) and ground radars. So it focussed its attack plan in the northern sector on the line of control in the J&K.
With the IAF having demonstrated its willingness to cross the Line of Control in J&K and launch stand-off precision attack munitions, the PAF only considered it par for the course to respond back.
Historically, both sides have compartmentalised localised operations in J&K as events short of total war. This crucial aspect, along with the non-linear terrain in Jammu & Kashmir suited the PAF tactically, providing enough manoeuvre space for multi vector large force attacks with surprise and deception — which in theory would overwhelm the small component of IAF aircraft in the area north of Jammu, effectively bisecting the IAF’s defensive capability. At the same time, any IAF Combat Air Patrols (CAP) over the Kashmir valley would not have adequate reaction time against an attack launched from/ near the Line of Control.
The PAF’s riposte — would aim to create meaningful pressure points on the Line of Control (LC), achieving local air superiority for a sufficient period of time to let the PAF strike aircraft demonstrate an advanced strike capability — that would be an order of magnitude higher than what the IAF showcased in its strikes.
Towards this— the PAF would target Indian Army formations located close to the Line of Control with stand-off weapons.
The PAF’s air operations directorate headed by PAF’s poster boy and the highly regarded Air Marshal Haseeb Paracha, DCAS (Ops), based on a well rehearsed warplan in the event of the IAF striking terrorist camps across the LC — sanctioned air strikes for 27 February against Indian Army’s 16 Corps positions near the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir at the following locations —
1. Krishnaghati (KG) top near Poonch
2. Bhimber Gali Brigade HQ
3. Narian Ammunition Dump
These would be targeted with H4 SOW fired by Mirage III/V and the REK GPS guided minitions from the JF-17s — both from a distance of 40–70 km. The NESCOM H2/H4 are copies of the South African Denel Dynamic’s Raptor I/II glide bombs. The maximum range of the H-2/4 rocket assisted glide bomb is 60/ 120 kilometres. After launch, the H-2/4 is guided to its target by IN/GPS, and uses Infra Red (IR) homing or manual TV guidance in the terminal attack phase for accurate targeting, before exploding a 600 kg warhead.
The JF-17 would fire stand-off GIDS REK (Range Extension Kits) munition, locally called ‘Takbir’, which is basically an IN/GPS guided glide bomb kit on the Mk 83 bomb, with a maximum range of 60 km. In effect, a REK transforms a dumb bomb into a force multiplier weapon.
The PAF wanted to send across a clear message that — military locations in India were legitimate attack targets by air henceforth — emphasising on the fact, that the Air forces are in balance.
All in all, the large force mission engagement (LFE) against India on 27 February, also presented the PAF with an opportunity to validate its stand-off strike philosophies and newer generation weapons in actual combat scenarios.
To ensure this action was not interfered by the IAF in any manner, a large component of Air Defence aircraft would be utilised — far in excess than anything seen towards a single mission in the past 1971 and 1965 wars with India.
However, the shock and awe component of air domination, an inherent highlight of the PAF’s war fighting doctrine — was missing. That was until, a decision was made to deliberately draw in and shoot down IAF fighters, preferably the Sukhoi-30MKIs — ambushing them in a PAF dominated kill zone. The PAF was of the opinion — that the loss of a Sukhoi in air combat would effectively put the IAF on a back-foot.
At the same time, no loss of any PAF aircraft was acceptable
Towards this — the PAF accurately assessed that the IAF was in no mood to escalate and the in place IAF’s Rules of Engagement (ROE) would not permit the IAF fighters to fire on PAF aircraft — until fired upon OR in violation of the line of control. Hence there was to be no meaningful crossing over into Indian territory — with the PAF launching all its weapons and munitions from Pakistani territory inside/ on the line of control.
This riposte by the PAF on 27 Feb 2019, was accorded the official name — OPERATION SWIFT RETORT
The PAF’s Air defence forces had the following tactical objectives for Operation Swift Retort —
1. Achieve local air superiority with Offensive Fighter Sweeps and ensure that the PAF strikes went through unscathed
2. Segregate and block the IAF Defensive Counter Air (DCA) elements — preventing them from interfering with the follow-on PAF strikes
3. Engage and shoot down IAF Defensive Counter Air (DCA) aircraft— ‘engage’ the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, ‘avoid’ the Mirage-2000I/TI’
4. Post action Barrier Combat Air Patrols(BARCAP) in POK to prevent any IAF counter-intrusion into POK
5. De-escalate once mission objectives were achieved.
The ‘deliberate’ decision to shoot down an IAF aircraft — launching air-to-air missiles from own side of Line of Control in violation of existing rules of engagements (ROE)— reflects how far the PAF is willing to go to achieve tactical surprise and psychological dominance over its bête noire and nemesis — the Indian Air Force. The PAF was upping the ante and — the IAF, oblivious to the PAF’s endgame to fire AAMs across the Line of Control — was supposed to walk right into the PAF’s trap.
Or so, that’s what the PAF assumed!
Op Swift Retort: Participating PAF squadrons
Operation Swift Retort was led by the tacticians of the Combat Commander’s School embedded within the formations, with the mission commander (an Air Vice Marshal rank officer) flying onboard the Saab ERIEYE.
The Order of Battle (ORBAT) for the Op was as follows-
Mission Lead: Saab 2000 ERIEYEAEW&C from №3 Squadron — one aircraft at 33 Tactical Wing, Minhas/ Kamra AFB, one aircraft operating ex- Sargodha AFB
Offensive Sweep/ BARCAP: F-16 A/B MLU from №9 Squadron — ‘The Griffins’ at 38 Multi-Role Wing, Mushaf/ Sargodha AFB
Offensive Sweep/ BARCAP: F-16 A/B MLU 29 Squadron — ‘Aggressors’ from Combat
Commanders School (CCS) — at 38 Multi-Role Wing, Mushaf/ Sargodha AFB
Offensive Sweep/ BARCAP: JF-17 Block I Flight — ‘Fierce Dragons’ from Combat
Commanders School (CCS) — at 38 Multi-Role Wing, Mushaf/ Sargodha AFB
Escort to Strike/AEW&C: JF-17 BlockII from №14 Squadron — ‘The Tail Choppers’ at 33 Tactical Wing, Minhas/ Kamra AFB
REK Strike: JF-17 BlockI from №16 Squadron — ‘Black Panthers’ at 33 Tactical Wing, Minhas/ Kamra AFB
H4 SOW Strike: Mirage III/V from №15 (TA) Squadron — ‘The Cobras’ at 33 Tactical Wing, Rafiqui AFB
Electronic warfare: Falcon 20 EW from №20 Squadron — ‘The Blinders’ at 33 Tactical Wing, Minhas/ Kamra AFB; operating from Sargodha AFB
The following force level was allocated for Op Swift Retort from the above outfits –
8 x F-16 from 9 Sqn
4 x F-16s from 29 Sqn
8 x JF-17s of CCS
4 x JF-17s from 16 Sqn
4 x Mirage from 15 Sqn
1 x Saab ERIEYE from 3 Sqn (another on stand-by)
1 x DA-20 from 20 Sqn
The offensive element for Swift Retort hence include 12 x F-16A/B MLU, 12 x JF-17 Block I/II and 4 x Mirage III/V plus combat reserves at formation level – total of 28 aircraft + reserves
To support Op Swift Retort, the PAF would carry out activation of all its bases abeam Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujrat — aiming to showcase regular flying — as well as undertaking deception vectors towards the International Border to keep IAF Defensive Counter Air (DCA) CAPs tied up south of Jammu— not unlike what the IAF did when the Balakot strike was in progress.
The PAF exclusively handpicked its best crews from the CCS and specialist Squadrons for Op Swift Retort. The PAF’s ‘best of the best’ would take on regular rostered crews from the IAF’s Defensive Counter Air (DCA) effort in Jammu & Kashmir.
Opening moves — post-afternoon 26 February
By 1400H on 26 Feb post the Balakot attack, General Qamar Bajwa had met Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan even before the NCA meeting — giving his tacit go-ahead for a counter-stroke by the PAF.
The PAF under pressure from the Pakistan Army to quickly launch its riposte — so as not allowing time for negative public perception in Pakistan to build up beyond ISPR’s control after the Balakot strike by the IAF — decided to spearhead its riposte abeam the Naoshera-Rajouri-Poonch sector of J&K in broad daylight in the morning hours of 27 February , which was the very next day— a time when it was estimated that the IAF’s guard would be down to a great extent.
The PAF had practiced this contingency many times in the past and had an updated attack plan which was activated to take on a post Balakot like situation, focussing on a response by the PAF in event of IAF strikes on Pak supported terror camps. In the afternoon, after a high level coordination meeting at Sargodha, elements of the above mentioned squadrons practiced the specific sequence of planned events with aircraft rendezvous (RV), formation keeping and weapon release (SOW)/ BVR combat drills till the Forming up points (FUP). FUPs were the jumpstart points about 50–75 km in the rear, through which the various elements of the mission would channel-in inside the Op zone.
An Impression of a routine large force exercise was given to the IAF AWACS and ground radars keenly monitoring the event from across the border. To give credibility to routine training/ operational flights, most of the PAF aircraft flew with their Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders ON, which are routinely switched off during offensive missions.
In between — the cat and mouse play between the IAF and the PAF continued, with the regulation runs towards the International border to draw out on-station combat air patrols (CAPs) on either side.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force was taking no chances, with all combat aircraft mobilised to their wartime locations by the evening of 26 Feb. Throughout the intervening night of 26/27 Feb, the IAF was on maximum alert expecting the PAF’s counter-attack — wherein Indian AEW&C aircraft scanned Pakistani skies for any sign of protracted activity towards India — with all vital zones on the western border being well covered by on-station Combat air Patrols (CAP), flying harmonised defensive patterns.
On the other side, the PAF AEW&C’s and ELINT aircraft especially focussed their attention on the area north of Pathankot for radar & electronic emissions of Indian combat jets on CAP missions in Jammu & Kashmir to zero their location and types.
The PAF deduced the following basis the surveillance and existing Air Intelligence on the IAF-
1. There was at least one Indian Air Force 4th Gen aircraft Defensive Counter Air (DCA) CAP for defence of the Kashmir valley airborne 24×7.
2. The IAF’s Su-30MKI and Mirage-2000I/TIs were identified to be part of this DCA mission operating in the Kashmir bowl.
3. There was a Squadron of MiG-21 Bison aircraft permanently based at Srinagar AFB, mounting Operational Readiness Platforms (ORP) at Srinagar and Awantipore AFBs. These also flew an occasional DCA CAP mission in support of the Su-30MKI/Mirage-2000I/TIs. However, the PAF did not consider the Mig-21 Bison as a worthwhile threat to the planned attack.
The PAF’s counterstroke would consist of 30–40 combat aircraft on 27 Feb morning, which would initially give an impression of routine flying, converting into attack vectors — specifically exploiting the gaps around the ‘change over times’ of the IAF DCA air patrols over their holding zones in the Kashmir valley.
This would ensure that the IAF CAPs would not have adequate endurance to take on the PAF threat.
The PAF was ready to deliver the coup de grace, with 27 February 2019 to go down as the ‘surprise’ day in the history of the Pakistan Air Force, where yet again its material and martial dominance would be well established over the Indian Air Force. The PAF had the numerical superiority, technology ascendency and the will to attack at the time and place of its choosing. And the best fighter pilots from Pakistan would be involved towards execution of the highly bold Op Swift Retort.
As has been a case time immemorial, the Pakistan Air Force did not cater to the resolute resolve and superlative training levels of the Indian Air Force fighter pilots. But then, this is another story, a story which did not end very well for the ambitious goals set by the PAF for Operation Swift Retort.