Former chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal (retd) BS Dhanoa, spoke to Hindustan Times close to one year after the Balakot air strike about the details of the operation, what it took to plan and execute, what it means for India’s future military equation with Pakistan, and the capabilities of the Rafale jets. Edited excerpts:
Pakistan has tried to project the Balakot operation as a military and diplomatic victory — the Imran Khan government says it brought down an Indian Air Force jet and captured the pilot. It says it brought focus on Kashmir and projected India as a global threat. What do you say about these claims?
Military victory is measured on the scale of whether you have achieved the stated political objective or not. Our objective in Balakot was to hit the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist group as a retaliation for 14 February Pulwama suicide attack on a CRPF convoy. It so happened that the JeM camp was inside Pakistan in Manshera and not in Occupied Kashmir. We hit the camp at Jaba top in Balakot.
The fact that we hit the camp is very clear, as is evident from the open-source satellite imagery. Then there is circumstantial evidence as they (Pakistan) isolated the place. If it was just a seminary, and not a military establishment, there was no need to isolate the place. They did not allow anyone to go near the site for 40 days, and then took a guided tour to a mosque in the facility, which Indian bombs had deliberately avoided. The fact is that the terror camp was hit with a lot of casualties, which the Pakistanis were hiding. So the military victory statement is false.
Secondly, Pakistan’s military response the day after Balakot was against Indian military targets, though we had hit a non-military target at Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed in Balakot. The Pakistanis missed their military targets south of Pir Panjal because of the calibre of weapons used. When you do signalling, either you drop a very small weapon so that nobody dies unintentionally, or you drop it outside the safety distance of the target.
Most of these bombs have fallen 500 metres to 1.5km of the targets. It is evident from this that these were not intended misses but poor targeting. Most probably, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) must have used commercial digital elevation models. The type of weapons they have used is first-generation standoff ammunition, whereas we used a third-generation standoff weapon. So that is how you judge a military victory.
A classic example is the World War I Jutland naval battle, in which the British lost more ships and sailors but prevented the Germans from achieving their military objective. So you don’t measure by bean counting. We lost a MiG-21, but Pakistan lost an F-16 that we cannot prove. Technically we have information beyond doubt that two aircraft fell in that area on February 27, 2019. One aircraft belongs to us, second aircraft we are saying is an F-16 on basis of evidence from our electronic sensors. Abhinandan Varthaman was flying a MiG-21 Bison that does not have non-cooperative target recognition capability which the Su-30 or other modern aircraft have got. So he on his own cannot confirm that he shot down an F-16. Our other sensors — AWACS and radars — have all confirmed that the aircraft that went down in that sector appears to be a Pakistan F-16 fighter.
Is the aircraft that went down the one IAF identified as Red Mike?
No, the one we identified we showed to the media too. The Pakistanis wanted us to show the full video. The fact is, if we show you the full video, do you want us to expose our technical capability, given there are gaps due to mountainous terrain, or our ability to intercept their secure communication — all this just to win brownie points in the media?
Let me give you an example, the same thing happened on 7 September, 1965, the day IAF’s Mystere aircraft raided Sargodha airbase in hinterland Pakistan and Squadron Leader AB Devayya got a Mahavir Chakra many years later. In that raid, IAF lost a Mystere aircraft that fell on their side, and we did not claim the kill that time. But PAF lost a vastly superior Starfighter. Many years later, Pakistan acknowledged the fact.
Pakistan says that they are for global peace and India is a threat to it?
If they are for global peace, why are they sponsoring terrorism on our soil? They did not even keep their air force in the loop, or else they would have put terminal defences outside the Balakot camp. After all, their air force has an approximate idea of what kind of weapons we own. And if they know our standoff weapon capability, they would have put terminal defences at Balakot. Why was the site devoid of any defence? Why did the entire air defence of Pakistan react to the IAF’s feint towards Bhawalpur (headquarters of JeM). I don’t think PAF was even aware that Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was running a terrorist training camp at Balakot.
So was it purely a Pakistan Army-ISI operation, and the Air Force was kept out?
Otherwise they would have defended it with terminal weapons. PAF are capable of deploying terminal weapons — they would have deployed; I would have deployed. They did not deploy, as they were out of loop.
About the aircraft going down in that sector, PAF launched a combat search-and-rescue mission, which is always launched to pick up your own pilot as you know the location. It is not done to pick up a prisoner of war who will never be static, and for that you give this task to the ground troops. They have lost a combat aircraft and we have recordings of it.
Do you think it was a Jordanian F-16 A/B that went down on 27 February?
The evidence from the electronic intelligence is that it was an F-16. The Pakistanis have tied themselves in knots over the whole issue. Where was the need for the DG ISPR to say that we have not used an F-16. After all, what was there to hide? It is because Pakistan were building a story, a facade. Why say one pilot was captured, and two more were in the area? It must be a two seater F-16.
Then they said that one was being located and other had reached military hospital. And then suddenly, in the night, the hospital guy vanishes! Our claim is based on our electronic signatures, not what Pakistan is saying. The kill is attributed to Abhinandan as there was nobody else in that sector.
What was Pakistan’s game plan the next day when they tried to retaliate? Was PAF intending to attack?
Yes. PAF had a clear-cut intent to attack, but we thwarted the move. We were prepared for retaliation. We expected them to attack. IAF along with the navy and the army were prepared for an all-out escalation. After Pulwama, for the first time, all three services told the political leadership that should it escalate, we were ready. That is why the Modi government gave the go-ahead. We did not even bat an eyelid. For Pakistan alone, we are always ready.
Our air defence responded well. We used a lot of tricks but I can’t tell you those. They launched stand-off weapons. Their plan was to hit some of our forward installations. Many of them are well with the range of their own artillery. But they wanted to prove a point. They had a package of 24-26 aircraft; they had the initiative, the time and the place. But we were prepared with two upgraded Mirage 2000s, two SU-30 MKIs and six Bisons got airborne from Srinagar. If we had signed the contract in time, it would have been six Rafales.
And six Rafales would have added a totally different dimension?
Totally. All the PAF aircraft, including F-16s would have been scurrying for cover against Rafales.
You talk a lot about the Rafale. Can you explain the capabilities of the Rafale fighter in such situations?
In beyond visual range combat, it is basically your situational awareness which wins you the day. Your ability to look first and shoot first. This is where Rafale comes first.
If you were to compare Rafale with F-16 or F-18 fighters…
We evaluated the two US-made fighters and rejected them. Only Rafale and Eurofighter met the operational requirements. The American aircraft are good, but those are the F-35 and F-22.
Was the only action south of Pir Panjal or at other places along the Indo-Pak border?
They had done other feints and decoys all along to ensure that we don’t push all our forces to the north. The Pakistanis did not come after 27 February. Remember the message in Balakot was to the JeM terror group. Did they get the message? Answer is yes, as till the Indian general elections, there was not a single terrorist attack. They knew that all the three services were forwardly deployed.
This was the first time that the Indian Air Force attacked Pakistan. It was always the Indian Army that was preferred in the past. Did you really come out saying that IAF will go in first?
That meeting is classified, so I am not telling you. Not only me. Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis (Kargil), Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy (2001) and Air Chief Marshal Fali Major (2008) had also said that they were ready. IAF has always been ready.
When did you focus on Balakot?
When the target was given to me by the Indian intelligence agencies. We got exceptional, pinpointed, actionable intelligence, including who is staying in which building. Targets were chosen after that. We don’t hit kids only learning to recite the holy Quran.
How closely guarded was the information on Balakot attack?
Admiral Sunil Lanba, as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, made it clear that should it escalate, all should be ready for an all-out war. Which service would go in first was decided on the basis of the chosen target. Balakot had to be the air force. If it was a kill-all destroy-all mission, we would have used supersonic low level Brahmos missile, to which Pakistan did not have any answer.
Was PM Modi in know of the operation from start to end?
Ask the National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval; it is above my pay grade. All I know is that the hit took place at 3.30 am IST at Balakot. It was according to plan because at that time the terrorists were still in bed; yet to rise for the fajr namaaz at 4 am. I was monitoring from my home using secure communications, the Vice-Chief and Western Air Commander were in operations room. I briefed the defence minister, the NSA, and the two chiefs after the attack.
Were you sure that the target was hit?
The weather was the main criterion. It could have been an abort due to the weather. The decision was with Western Air Command. If this plan was aborted, we would have launched other weapons. We hit the target with five stand-off weapons. The ‘target hit’ information was delayed as weapons for video recording the kill failed, and the satellite pass at 8.30 am could not pick up much due to clouds. The first confirmation came through synthetic aperture camera, showing penetration in the roof of Balakot buildings. We hit three buildings and left one deliberately. The weapon is designed in such a way that building survives but the occupants don’t.
Latest intelligence reveals that Pakistan has reactivated the Balakot site. Will things change on the terror front?
With the induction of the S-400 missile system and the Rafales, we will be in position to effect a behavioural change within the Pakistan establishment. If we had these two platforms or only Rafale with us on 27 February, and we had shot down four or five of their aircrafts, the behavioural change would have taken place immediately.
On 2nd August 2002, after the Machchil Sector attack by IAF under Krishnaswamy, the Pakistanis did not respond as they were technically not capable. Their air force did not even try to bomb our positions as we took out Pakistan Army post intruding into our side of the Line of Control (LoC).
What if Pakistani forces do not learn from Balakot, and try a Pulwama-like attack again?
I think the government will hit them again. This time harder, and take out the buildings also so that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind.
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