An Indian Air Force Apache helicopter flies over the Ladakh region. (REUTERS)
An Indian Air Force Apache helicopter flies over the Ladakh region. (REUTERS)

IAF strengthened capabilities after Balakot, deployed new acquisitions in Ladakh

Front-line platforms, inducted over the last two years, form a critical part of IAF’s force projection in eastern Ladakh, and have demonstrated its capability to carry out combat missions in the sensitive theatre
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 08:57 AM IST

The Indian Air Force has strengthened its offensive capabilities significantly since the bombing of Jaish-e-Mohammed targets in Pakistan’s Balakot exactly two years ago, and the months-long border standoff with China saw IAF flex its muscle in the Ladakh theatre where it deployed cutting-edge weaponry inducted after the unprecedented, peace time cross-border strikes on February 26, 2019.

IAF’s Mirage-2000s struck targets in Balakot in response to the Pakistan-backed Pulwama suicide attack in Kashmir in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force troopers were killed on February 14.

Front-line platforms, inducted over the last two years, form a critical part of IAF’s force projection in eastern Ladakh, and have demonstrated its capability to carry out day-and-night, all-weather combat missions in the sensitive theatre, said people familiar with the developments.

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The platforms inducted after the Balakot raid include Rafale fighter jets, missiles, smart air-to-ground weapons, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and CH-47F (I) Chinook multi-mission helicopters. To be sure, these acquisitions were planned years before the Balakot strikes but were inducted during the last two years.

Referring to some of the new acquisitions, experts said the IAF’s fighter, helicopter and transport fleets played a crucial during the standoff that began last May. A disengagement process underway in the sector has raised hopes for the resolution of the border row, but de-escalation of the conflict is still a long way off.

IAF’s fighter fleet - reinforced with new Rafale jets - and the Apache attack helicopters sent a strong message to the Chinese, while Indian transport aircraft played a crucial role in the swift mobilisation of troops and equipment to forward areas, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.

He made a special mention of the capability brought to the table by the Rafale jets armed with ultra-modern armament like the Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles and Hammer air-to-ground munition, capabilities that were not available during Balakot.

The need for Rafale jets with its superior weapons was felt during the dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force on February 27, a day after the Balakot raid.

A professional force learns from every engagement and the Balakot strike was no different, said Bahadur.

“While ‘Balakot’ was only a strike mission, the long-drawn-out faceoff with China brought to fore the massive airlift capability of the IAF. The investment of planners more than a decade back proved its worth as the Indian Army inducted almost three divisions into Ladakh, along with heavy armour, using the transport fleet of the IAF,” said Bahadur.

The air force’s C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft were used to move soldiers, tanks and infantry combat vehicles to the Ladakh sector, while C-130J Super Hercules aircraft undertook sorties to the advanced landing ground in the strategic Daulat Beg Oldie sector to support the military’s deployments.

The deployment of the Apache attack helicopters made it clear that Chinese mechanised formations would face a formidable foe, he said. Armed with fire-and-forget Hellfire missiles, an Apache can track up to 128 targets a minute and prioritise threats. The missiles equip the gunships with anti-armour capabilities.

The induction of the Chinook multi-mission helicopters enhanced the IAF’s capabilities to transport troops and artillery to forward areas.

“Some capability gaps still remain, especially of combat enablers like AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) and flight refuelling aircraft -- deficiencies that the government must look into urgently,” Bahadur added.

If the Balakot air strikes showed there was scope to use fighter jets for taking out targets in Pakistan below the threshold of conventional war, India’s firm actions in Ladakh have made it clear to the Chinese that the salami-slicing tactics in their playbook will not work against India, the people cited above said.

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