Only seven people knew of the timing of air strike on Balakot

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Jun 15, 2020 05:12 PM IST

Crystal Maze missiles have a 100km radius and the SPICE 2000 smart bombs can use the same guidance technology as the missiles to convert conventional bombs into smart ones.

Between 3.40am and 3.53am on Tuesday, 12 days after the Pulwama bombing by a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorist killed 40 CRPF troopers, four Mirage 2000 fighters of the Tiger Squadron launched either Crystal Maze missiles or SPICE 2000 smart bombs — the aircraft were equipped with both — at Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed training camp at Balakot, Manshera, Pakistan, killing, according to intelligence officials, 325 militants and terror recruits.

General view of a site after the Indian military aircrafts released payload in Balakot, Pakistan February 26, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR)/Handout via REUTERS(Reuters)
General view of a site after the Indian military aircrafts released payload in Balakot, Pakistan February 26, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR)/Handout via REUTERS(Reuters)

The JeM camp, the officials said citing photographic evidence, which they said was not shared with the media, was obliterated. The Crystal Maze missiles have a 100km radius and the SPICE 2000 smart bombs can use the same guidance technology as the missiles to convert conventional bombs into smart ones.

After Pakistan responded divergently, initially terming the attacks a failure (but admitting that its airspace was breached), and later calling them an “act of aggression” and reserved its right to react, PM Narendra Modi reviewed the operational preparedness of the country’s security forces with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, three service chiefs, and two heads of intelligence agencies in the evening.

Before that, HT learns, Doval spoke to his US counterpart John Bolton over the phone and briefed him about the strike and India’s right to pre-emptively defend itself.

Watch | All parties praised IAF, stand behind government’s anti-terror efforts: Sushma Swaraj

Earlier in the day, a few hours after the attack, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale presented India’s position — that Tuesday’s bombing was a non-military pre-emptive strike; non-military because its target was not military (nor civilian for that matter), but a base belonging to a non-state actor Pakistan has made an integral part of its India strategy.

The clarity of that position, the use of precision bombs, and the smoothness of the operation – it involved Mirage 2000s and 2000is that carried out the attack, Sukhoi 30s MKI that acted as decoys and were also meant to provide cover if the Mirages were intercepted, Phalcon AWACS and Embraer AEWS mid-air refuellers (two were used), and Heron drones for photographing the targets after the attack – indicated the depth of India’s response, and, analysts say, its capabilities.

According to several senior intelligence officials across several agencies and departments HT spoke to, in an attempt to understand the planning behind the operation (none of them wished to be identified given the nature of the strike), it was always clear India would respond to the Pulwama attack. Soon after the February 14 attack, they said, India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was asked to look for targets in Pakistan. RAW presented six targets, with Balakot, JeM’s oldest training camp, and one run by Yusuf Azhar, the group’s founder Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law, on top of the list.

Balakot met several of India’s requirements for a possible target, officials said. One, a strike would send the right signal to the JeM. Two, the strike would be directly proportional to the damage done in Pulwama. Three, there would be no civilian casualties that could attract an immediate counter-strike and censure from the international community. Four, the action was not to be seen as revenge but the right of India to defend itself using the deterrence of pre-emption in the light of imminent strikes.

On February 18, Modi approved the strike. According to intelligence officials, only seven people knew of this decision – Modi, Doval, the three service chiefs, and the heads of RAW and Intelligence Bureau.

Starting February 22, the Air Force started flying night sorties from various frontline bases to confuse the Pakistanis. On February 25, intelligence inputs suggested the presence of a large number of JeM terrorists, around 300-350, at the Balakot camp. The same evening it was decided to go ahead with the strike immediately. Modi knew by late evening that an attack could happen in the next few hours.

He stayed awake through the night, as did Doval, Air Chief BS Dhanoa, and the heads of RAW and IB. Army chief Bipin Rawat and Navy chief Sunil Lanba were up too, and monitoring the situation in case Pakistan decided to launch an immediate retaliatory strike over land or sea. A total of around 11 fighters were used in the operation which lasted for two-and-a-half hours from take-off to touchdown.

The fighters took off at 1.30am on February 26 (the Mirages from Gwalior and the Sukhois from other bases). They landed at 4.00am. Soon after, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was informed about the operation. The Cabinet Committee on Security was briefed shortly after.

Although India is on high operational alert, the Modi government believes JeM chief Azhar may retaliate to this strike; according to intelligence officials, the terror group has lost Maulana Yusuf Azhar Mufti Omar, Maulana Jawed, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Kashmiri, Maulana Aslam, Maulana Ajmal and Maulana Zubair in the missile strike. All these terrorists were trainers of the jihadists, suicide bombers and fidayeens.

“At the time of the strike, intelligence reports showed that there were 325 recruits and trainers involved in three terror courses, Daura-e-Aaam, Daura-e-Khas and Daura-e-Zarar (highest degree of advancement) at the Balakot camp. After the success of the Pulwama attack on February 14, more suicide attackers and prospective fidayeen were called into Balakot for training and a course began on Monday, February 25. No less than 107 recruits joined the camp for the basic course and the entire group showed very high levels of motivation after the car bombing,” said a senior intelligence official involved in the operation.

(Sudhi Ranjan Sen contributed to this story)

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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