Opinion| The Balakot strike proves that IAF has come of age
Air Chief BS Dhanoa was a young director, Targeting Cell at Air Headquarters when he accompanied his then chief AY Tipnis and presented to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a plan to conduct air strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) immediately after the December 13, 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attack on Indian Parliament.
Then wing commander Dhanoa made a detailed presentation to the PMO that involved the use of the Tiger and Battle Axe squadron of Mirage 2000 fighters on terror camps. The plan never fructified with the US ensuring that then Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf made a public commitment on January 12, 2002 against jihad, radicalisation, and also agreed to ban both JeM and its comrade-in-jihad, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT).
After the 26/11 Mumbai massacre, then Air Chief Fali Major went to the PMO, again with a similar air strike plan but to no avail.
Watch: ‘Supporting Pak line’: BJP’s jibe at Cong’s Sam Pitroda over Balakot comment
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a go-ahead to Air Chief BS Dhanoa on February 17, after the Pulwama attack, to take out the biggest training camp of JeM at Balakot in the Khyber-Paktunkwa area of Pakistan. The air attack was initiated with a decoy strike on JeM headquarters at Bhawalpur, forcing the Pakistan Air Force fighters on combat air patrol over Northern Areas and PoK to move south to intercept the “Bhawalpur strike.” Using this window of opportunity, IAF Mirages successfully took-out the Balakot camp in the wee hours of February 26 from a stand-off distance and then returned safely to their bases.
The Balakot strike and the riposte to the PAF counter on February 27 show that the IAF has come of age and can no longer be seen as just a force supporting a land offensive. Time and again, the IAF leadership has come out in the open saying that it is a strategic force but till Balakot, perhaps neither the sister forces nor the political leadership were too sure.
As evident from the November 19, 1962 letter of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to then US President John F Kennedy, the Indian leadership was unsure about its air capabilities. Nehru asked for US B-47 bombers and supersonic fighters to take on the Chinese army positions after Bomdila had fallen and Chushul was being threatened by the PLA. The IAF was largely utilised in support of ground offensive in the 1965 and 1971 wars. The use of IAF fighters in the Dras-Kargil-Batalik sectors in the 1999 conflict was a topic of huge debate with then Air Chief Tipnis waiting for a Cabinet sanction, much to the chagrin of the then Army chief, before inducting warplanes into the theatre. In retrospect, the decision to seek Cabinet approval was good as there is a potential of vertical escalation in the battle theatre, the moment an air element is inducted.
The IAF’s success in destroying the Pakistani logistics base in Muntho Dalo in Batalik sector was one of the key turning points of 1999 war. It also proved that the IAF could individually deliver for the country in the worst-case scenario without being an adjunct arm of the Army in the name of joint-man-ship. But such were the differences on each services’ role in conflict, that the then western air commander publicly clashed with his western army counterpart at Chandigarh post Kargil war.
With the Balakot air strike, the IAF has moved to another level of capabilities with the force not afraid to get blooded in battle. While all three services need to synergise their roles in the worst-case scenario, Wing Commander Abhinandan, by downing a superior F-16 fighter with an upgraded MiG-21, showed that the IAF takes the battle to its enemy.
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