New Delhi: At about 0115 hours on February 26, 2019, 20 fully armed Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft took off, one by one in quick succession, from the runway and taxiway of the Air Force Station at Gwalior.
They flew towards Bareilly and tanked up mid-air, then headed towards Jammu and Kashmir.
At about 0345 hours, the fighters, which were flying in the cover of mountains to escape a Pakistani SAAB Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, crossed the LoC at 30,000 feet.
While 16 aircraft crossed into PoK — including four for escort duties — four others stayed behind as back-up.
Five Israeli-made Spice 2000 bombs were released about 15 km into PoK, which struck the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot, and the fighters made their way back to an airfield in the Western Sector.
However, four Mirages — armed with Mica RF and IR air-to-air missiles — stayed back until the other 12 aircraft made their way back into Indian airspace, lest Pakistan fighters engaged.
The entire ops, from the aircraft entering PoK and landing back in India, lasted about 21 minutes.
“The choice of target and execution came with a lot of planning and intelligence inputs. It was important to send a message to Pakistan that India will not tolerate any more attacks like Pulwama,” Air Marshal Hari Kumar, the man who planned and executed the Balakot air strike, told ThePrint.
The phone call on February 14
At about 1515 hours on 14 February, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden SUV into a convoy of the CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama, killing 40 personnel.
“At about 1800 hours, the Air Force chief called me and asked if I was ready. We both knew that the government would not take this audacious attack lying down. I replied saying that I was ready,” said Air Marshal Kumar, who was the then Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC-IN-C) of the critical Western Air Command and was scheduled to retire that month-end after turning 60.
Breaking his silence for the first time since the Balakot air strike, the officer told ThePrint that the following morning Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa drove down to Western Air Command near the Cantonment to discuss the possible options and plans.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security at 9 am on 16 February.
Later it was decided that the IAF will carry out the strike since the Pakistan Army had put itself on high alert fearing a repeat of the 2016 surgical strike by ground elements.
The critical meeting on 18 February
On the morning of 18 February, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called for a meeting that was attended by the chiefs of the Army, IAF, Navy and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Attending the meeting was also key RAW operational man Samant Goel, who now heads the external intelligence agency.
There were highly credible intelligence inputs that Pakistan had withdrawn terrorists from launchpads and training camps at the LoC and moved them into centres located deeper.
“The Balakot camp was the perfect target. It was on a hilltop and there were no civilians nearby, which meant there would be no collateral damage. Moreover, since it was not a madrasa, this meant that there won’t be any children. Only large number of terrorists were there,” Air Marshal Kumar said.
It was at this meeting that the IAF was given the target and the go-ahead to plan.
Secrecy was top most concern
Only a few in the IAF knew about the impending attack. Balakot was the first time that the IAF was being used to attack outside Indian territory after the 1971 War.
“Secrecy was the utmost important thing because surprise is always the biggest factor in an attack,” said Air Marshal Kumar, who was in the midst of farewell dinners and packing, while planning the strike.
He said that only four officers were involved in the initial planning, including him and the Air Force chief.
Such was the secrecy that even though the aircraft flew out of the Gwalior base, which falls under Central Air Command, the AOC-in-C of the Command was not aware of the ops until just a few hours before the fighters actually took off.
Air Marshal Kumar briefed the pilots in person about the operation when he dashed to Gwalior under the garb of a farewell dinner.
To ensure that no eyebrows were raised over the sudden activity in Gwalior, an inspection by Directorate of Air Staff Inspection (DASI), an official inspecting body of the IAF, was ordered.
Anytime a DASI has to be done, the entire base goes on a complete overdrive to ensure that everything is in place.
“Because of DASI, nobody felt anything wrong with the sudden activity at the Gwalior Base,” Air Marshal Kumar said, adding it was ensured that no communication was carried out over unsecured channels, including mobile phones.
To keep Pakistan guessing, the Western Air Command also advanced the timing of an exercise.
Balakot strike was first practised on the simulator
The IAF had selected the 900-kg Spice 2000 penetration bomb and Crystal Maze missiles for the operation.
Just like in actual ops, the highly accurate Spice 2000 was pre-fed with GPS coordinates and an image of the Balakot camp on the simulator.
The Spice 2000 uses a Digital Seen Matching Area Correlator (DSMAC) technology, which automatically matches the target as it zooms in, with the image that has been pre-fed, besides the GPS coordinates.
The hit on the simulator was a success. But for a proper battlefield damage assessment, the IAF had also intended to fire the Crystal Maze that comes with a camera that relays back live feed of the target as it closes in until the actual hit.
However, the missile could not be fired due to certain firing protocols that has been changed now.
Last year, ThePrint had accessed classified high-resolution military satellite images procured from friendly countries which showed that at least two JeM structures were hit by the IAF in Balakot.
Pakistan was hoodwinked as Mirages entered PoK
With some media speculation taking place about the possible options before the government, a deliberate attempt was made to ensure that everything looked normal.
So, a farewell that was planned for Air Marshal Kumar went off as scheduled. It took place on 25 February at the sprawling Akash mess in Delhi where besides Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, 80 other senior officers were in attendance.
“Due to a lot of speculation on TV channels and the social media, Pakistan had also started focusing on the possibility of an air strike,” Air Marshal Kumar said. At that time, speculation was deliberately spread that the JeM headquarters in Bahawalpur could be an option.
“When the Mirages were nearing the LoC, the Pakistani SAAB AWACS, which was in the air, seemed to have picked up the fighters and two Pakistani aircraft was scrambled,” Air Marshal Kumar said.
At that time, a group of Jaguars in the Rajasthan sector was asked to move towards the border, giving the impression that the aircraft was headed to Bahawalpur.
The Pakistani AWACS quickly moved further away and the F-16 fighters that had been scrambled were diverted to that location along with others.
“It was at this moment when the Mirages entered and did their job well,” Air Marshal Kumar said.