All over in 90 seconds, families didn’t know, say Balakot pilots
The Indian air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot was “over within 90 seconds” and the mission was carried out with such secrecy that not even close family members of the assault team knew about the developments, two pilots part of the predawn operation on February 26 said on Tuesday.
Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter planes destroyed the JeM camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s province after entering Pakistani airspace for the first time in 48 years following a suicide bombing claimed by the terror group that killed 40 troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama on February 14.
“It was over in 90 seconds; we released the weapon and we turned back,” said one of the Mirage 2000 fighter pilots in the first such account of the Indian airstrike. “No one, not even my close family knew,” the IAF pilot said, asking not to be named.
“Next day, when news broke, my wife asked me whether I was part of the attack. I kept quiet and slept off,” he added.
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The Pulwama attack led to an escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan and pushed the two countries to the brink of war as the IAF strike was followed by an engagement by Pakistani combat jets near the Line of Control (LoC) on February 27.
Pakistan later released IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, whose jet went down across the LoC, under global pressure, easing tensions between the two nations.
Speaking on Monday about the IAF air assault, another squadron leader detailed the clandestine operation. “We flew a lot of Combat Air Patrols (CAP) mostly along Line of Control (LoC),” he said. Flying numerous CAPs along the LoC was a ploy India used to throw off Pakistan’s air defences.
The indication of what was in store came only two days before the strike. “We knew something was happening, but no one had a clear picture. Number of sorties had increased manifold. Many of us were flying multiple sorties,” the second pilot said.
“While previous CAPs and sorties were without weapons, on [February] 25 at about 4pm, the Spice-2000 [missiles] was loaded on to the Mirage 2000s. The specific coordinates of the terror training camp were fed into the weapon systems,” he said. “We took off at 2am that night.”
The February 26 operation by IAF involved Mirage 2000s and 2000is that carried out the attack, Sukhoi 30s MKi that acted as decoys and were also meant to provide cover in case the Mirages were intercepted, Phalcon AWACS and Embraer AEWS mid-air refuellers, and Heron drones for photographing the targets after the attack.
The first pilot said that senior IAF officials did not change their daily routines to avoid letting anyone catch a hint of the attack. Diversion was inbuilt into the attack as the IAF fighter pack flew out, taking a circuitous route. “We deliberately took a long route, flying over the eastern part of the country and when we arrived in Kashmir, we went into radio silence,” the first pilot said. “Importantly, Pakistani fighters were nowhere near us,” he added.
Did the weapons do the needful? “Of course, they hit. We had the bull’s eye.”