On February 25, 2019, the Indian Air Force hosted a ceremonial farewell banquet for the outgoing Western Air Command chief Air Marshal C Hari Kumar at its sprawling Akash mess. The Then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa and around 80 senior officials attended the function. Nothing was unusual about the typical military sit-down dinner. However, only a handful of the top officers present were aware of what was about to unfold over the next few hours: the air force would create history by launching it first peacetime air strikes against a terror base in Pakistan.
As Dhanoa retraced his decades-old association with Kumar that night, some of India’s finest fighter pilots were preparing to add a glorious chapter to India’s military history.
As India marks the first anniversary of the Pulwama attack, the unprecedented air action against the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s facility at Balakot has turned the spotlight back on how the IAF chose the targets, planned the mission and executed the pre-dawn raid on February 26.
The decision to carry out air strikes was taken within 24 hours of the Pulwama attack, with the government giving the IAF two weeks to select terror targets and launch air strikes against them, three people familiar with the planning of the mission said, asking not to be named. The Balakot strikes are a classified operation.
“Pakistan was expecting a response similar to the 2016 surgical strikes after the Uri suicide attack. It never imagined that India could launch air strikes deep inside its territory. That’s why we took that route — to shock and surprise them,” said the first person cited above.
Over the next few days, the IAF worked with intelligence agencies before presenting a list of target options to the government on February 21. Topping the list of targets was the JeM terror base perched on Balakot’s Jaba Top. The IAF?selected Balakot as it was an isolated facility with the least probability of collateral damage, the first person said. Intelligence indicated that there were more than 300 terrorists, their handlers and supporters at the Jaba Top target. Pilots who took part in the mission were given a detailed briefing two days before the IAF launched the strikes, the second person said. One of the most crucial things about the mission was the element of planned deception. “The idea was to make Pakistan believe that we would hit, say Target A or B, when in fact we were prepared to strike Target C,” said the second person.
The IAF launched a strike package of more than 20 fighters, including Mirage-2000s and Sukhoi-30s, from bases in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. These fighter jets flew in three separate formations to mask the IAF’s real intent. One of the strike packages consisting of Su-30s flew towards the Rajasthan sector giving the impression to Pakistani observers that the IAF was planning to strike Bahawalpur, the JeM headquarters, the second person said. The move forced Pakistan Air Force to scramble F-16 fighters from the Mushaf air base in Sargodha, which is about 320 km to Bahawalpur’s north.
Another IAF fighter package was flying along a radial pointed towards Sialkot and Lahore, creating further confusion in the minds of the Pakistanis. “And while this was happening, six Mirage-2000 fighters were on their way to strike targets in Balakot…,” the second person said.
The IAF’s Mirages hit three targets in Balakot with five Israeli-origin Spice 2000 bombs with penetrator warheads that allowed them to pierce through the rooftops before exploding inside to cause maximum damage, the third person said.
Each bomb carried around 80 kg of explosives in a 900-kg steel casing, with the explosion caused by time-delay fuses sending a lethal quantity of shrapnel that would have instantly killed the occupants of the buildings.
In an interview to Hindustan Times last March, the then IAF chief BS Dhanoa said the Indian fighter planes struck their intended targets with precision. Pakistan reacted the next day by launching air strikes against Indian Army installations along the Line of Control. Its attempts to strike targets, however, failed.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman scripted military aviation history by downing an F-16. He was captured after he bailed out of his aircraft, but Pakistan returned him on March 1 after holding him captive for almost 60 hours. He was later awarded a Vir Chakra.