New Delhi: A year after Pakistan outgunned and outnumbered the Indian Air Force on 27 February through “Ops Swift Retort”, not much has changed on the ground.
Pakistan was armed with better fighter planes, Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missiles like AMRAAMs and backed by state-of-the-art SAAB airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), and left the Indian Air Force wanting in many places.
From limitations of the Su 30 MKI radar to pick up enemy fighters properly to the technical issue faced by the Mirage 2000 aircraft over firing their Mica air-to-air missile, the list of the shortcomings that the IAF experienced is long.
If Pakistan were to repeat the “Swift Retort” today, the situation doesn’t look great even a year later.
There is, however, a silver lining — the Rafale fighter jets, to be equipped with better weapons package, especially the Meteor air-to-air missile that tilts the scales in India’s favour against both Pakistan and China, will start arriving May onwards.
Neither Pakistan nor China at present has a missile to counter the Meteor, which has a range of nearly 150 km — it’s much higher than the American AMRAAM that had outgunned the Sukhois with a range of over 70 km.
This means that a Rafale would be able to take out an enemy aircraft 150 km away in air without even having to cross the Indian air space.
But it will take at least a year for the first four Rafales to be completely operationalised with their weapons system.
Also, the much-needed Software Defined Radios (SDR) have finally been ordered from Israel which will help secure communication without fear of jamming.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down after he failed to hear command to retreat given by the ground-based command centre because of jamming carried out by the Pakistan Air Force.
India is also in the process of clearing the acquisition of two more PHALCON AWACS, which will help the IAF have round-the-clock eye in the sky.
The lack of more AWACS was felt during the 27 February aerial dual when Pakistan, which operates about 10 such systems, took advantage of the changeover of the IAF’s eye in the sky.
The only actual change that has taken place on the ground is that the MiG 29 has been replaced with the Su 30 MKI as the additional fighter at the Srinagar base that houses the 51 Squadron of the MiG 21 Bisons.
However, plans to permanently base the Su 30 MKI cannot be implemented immediately because the hangars in Srinagar can’t accommodate the giant Russian fighters, defence sources told ThePrint.
This means that the Sukhois will have to fly in from other bases in case of yet another skirmish.
How Pakistan retaliated for Balakot
Around 8:45 am on 27 February, the first signs of a possible attack emerged as Pakistan shut down its civilian airspace and stopped all commercial flights.
About half-an-hour later, multiple Pakistan fighter jets, perfectly timed with the changeover of IAF AWACS, started taking off from different bases.
At that particular moment, only two Su 30 MKI in the south of the Pir Panjal and two upgraded Mirage 2000, north of the mountains, were doing the Combat Air Patrol (CAP).
The Pakistani package of 25 fighters, including the F 16s and the Mirages, made their way towards the LoC but did not cross the mutually agreed 10 km cut-off point for fighters.
A few Pakistani fighters took off in the direction of the international border with Rajasthan in a bid to trick India, just like India had done the previous day.
Leading the Pakistan strike package was the F-16s armed with the AMRAAMs.
The American-built fighters moved towards the south of the Pir Panjal while the Mirages moved towards where the other two Indian fighters were flying.
What went wrong
Sources said the Indian fighters were simply outnumbered.
The Sukhois with their R-77 missiles, which have a range that’s shorter than the AMRAAMs, were no match for the F-16s that had better air-to-air weapons.
Sources said one Sukhoi was fired upon by the F-16s and had to take high-speed maneouvres to outgun the AMRAAMs.
The second Sukhoi too took tactical action keeping in mind that they were told by the Barnala-based Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) that AMRAAMs were being fired.
The second Sukhoi had also failed to properly pick up the enemy fighters through its radars.
On the northern side of the Pir Panjal, the upgraded Mirages on CAP duty were outnumbered completely. They had also faced a technical glitch because of which they could not engage Pakistan Air Force (PAF) with the MICA air-to-air missiles that have a better range than the ones used by PAF in that sector.
Panicked PAF pilots break into Punjabi
Realising that the Indian fighters were outgunned and outnumbered, the Barnala-based IACCS ordered the scrambling of six MiG-21s.
Since the MiGs climbed in the shadow of the Pir Panjal range, Pakistan’s AWAC failed to detect them. The sudden appearance of the MiGs proved to be a blessing for India, as the Pakistani fighters were taken aback.
Panicked Pakistani pilots, who broke into Punjabi rather than sticking to the military codes, fired about 11 H-4 glide-bombs, weighing 1,000 kg each, at Indian military installations, none of which hit the target.
The MiG pilots were then asked to “go hot”, meaning they had to go in for a missile lock on enemy aircraft. But the MiGs soon came within the firing range of the F-16s, and they were asked to “turn cold”, meaning they were to retreat.
However, Wing Commander Varthaman, who had gone too close to the LoC, could not hear the command as Pakistan had jammed radio frequencies.
In his pursuit of locking on to a Pakistani fighter, Varthaman crossed the LoC and was within the firing range of Pakistani fighters.