Home Editor's picks The Print article by Shekhar Gupta on air battle after Balakot airstrikes peddles faulty analysis, half truths and whole lies

The Print article by Shekhar Gupta on air battle after Balakot airstrikes peddles faulty analysis, half truths and whole lies

Defence is a subject which very few people understand outside of a small circle of serving and retired armed forces personnel, career security & strategy people, academics in this field and some hobbyist like yours truly.

A robust discussion about the military capabilities of a nation and, the conduct of its armed forces in peace and wartime, in public space is important on many levels. For one, a wider audience interested in military affairs means that it does not remain an esoteric subject, understood only by a few. An informed public can question the government on policies related to armed forces, nation’s preparedness and national security. Evaluation of the performance of the country’s armed forces in war-time is important to ensure proper lessons are learnt. It also means that the true picture comes to fore and speculations do not emerge.

In the same vein, it is good that there is a discussion on Balakot strike by Indian Air Force (IAF) on 26th February 2019 and air-battle over Kashmir on the following day.

In the absence of Government of India (GOI) and Indian Air Force (IAF) coming out with exact details of what happened on 27th February morning, many articles have appeared offering their version of events. These articles fall broadly into two categories:

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(a) By journalists on defence beat who would’ve used their contact in Ministry of Defense (MOD), and may-be IAF, to piece together the story of the aerial battle.

(b) By ex-IAF personnel who by virtue of their organizational contacts and technical expertise have done and shared analysis.

While most articles present the same overall picture, they differ in their details. For example, there’s no consensus on the exact number of fighters involved from each side. However, sifting through the data-points which these articles provide and combining them together can give you a still more accurate picture of what transpired.

In most cases, commentators have tried to be factual and present as accurate an account of the aerial battle as possible. A noted exception has been an article carried in The Print on 27th March and written no less by Shekhar Gupta. The article is speculative in nature and twists the available information to present an unnecessary pessimistic reading of the aerial battle from India’s perspective. In many cases, the logic has been turned on its head.

In this article, I present a rebuttal of points made in the said article. This is going to be a long read, so please bear with me. Because even if the insinuation is brief, it requires thorough analysis to rebut such claims.

Air Battle Over Kashmir

Before we proceed with the rest of the article, let’s settle the confusion about number and type of fighters involved from both sides. This is crucial to the debate.

There is no definite account of the number of PAF fighters which took part in the raid on 27th February 2019. The numbers vary between 20-24 fighters. Same goes for the break-up of this strike package as per various types. The number also varies for the Indian Air Force. For this article, I’m sticking to the following numbers:

  • Pakistan Air Force – 20 (total fighters)
    • F-16 – 08 (some reports talk about 11 F-16s which I’ve not considered)

    • JF-17 – 04

    • Mirage-V – 04

    • Mirage-III – 04
    • source: airliners.net
  • Indian Air Force – 12 (Going by Shekhar Gupta’s article)
    • Su-30 MKI  – 04

    • Mirage-2000 (upgraded) – 02

    • Mig-21 Bison – 06 (some reports talk about 2 while others talk about 4 Mig-21 Bison)

Another important parameter to understand is the placement of these fighters and progress of the air-battle. Placement means location of IAF fighters when the air battle commenced and areas targeted by different sub-packages of PAF’s overall fighter package.

To this end, again, there are various reports. While differing in minor details, most agree with the air-battle picture given in the map shown below. This map first appeared on Twitter and was shared by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd) [twitter handle @chopsyturvey].

The map shows the placement of Indian and Pakistani fighter aircraft.

It shows that air-battle had two broad components.

  • First, the air-battle in the southern part which involved 2 x Mirage-2000 (upgraded) from IAF and 04 x Mirage-V, 04 x Mirage-III and 04 x JF-17 from PAF.
  • Second air-battle happened towards the north and involved 04 x Su-30 MKI and 06 x Mig-21 Bison from IAF and 08 x F-16 from PAF.

However, please do keep in mind that this map gives a broad overview of air-battle and is a snap-shot. Actual air battle would’ve been very dynamic.

*M3 and M5 in the above map mean Mirage-III and Mirage-5 of Pakistan Air Force, respectively.

Scrutinizing the details

Now, let’s come to the assertions made by Shekhar Gupta in his article.

Point 1:

In the Rajouri-Mendhar sector air skirmish, a day after the IAF’s successful Balakot strikes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was able to create surprise and local superiority—technological and numerical—in a chosen battlefield. It struck in daylight when least expected, and perfectly timed the changeover of IAF AWAC patrols. The outnumbered IAF pilots (12 aircraft of three vastly different types) scrambled from various bases showed the presence of mind not to walk into the ambush set for them. But they failed to deliver a deterrent punishment on PAF.

The above point makes multiple assertions. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

(a) Surprise? What Surprise?

The one who attacks has the initiative. This is a fundamental rule of warfare. The defender has to react to this initiative. On 27th February 2019, when Pakistan Air Force (PAF) attempted to bomb targets on the Indian side of Line-of-Control (LOC), it had the initiative. But did it have surprise? Every bit of information available about this air-battle says an emphatic ‘NO’.

Before I answer this point in detail, here’s a brief introduction about the Indian Air Force’s Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES).

ADGES consists of various types of radars with varying range; the longest range radars have a range in excess of 1,000 kilometres while most others operate in 100-500 km range bracket. These radars are a mix of static and transportable radars and are organized in a manner so as to not leave a gap in radar coverage. To this mix, you can add airborne platforms like A-50 ‘Phalcon’ AWACS (Air Warning and Control System) and Netra AEW&CS (Airborne Early Warning and Control System). Another unique element is the AEROSTAT balloon mounted radar – a radar mounted on a tethered helium-filled balloon which rises 20,000+ feet in height and gives coverage in excess of 200 kilometres. Because of its height, it has more depth, is not constrained by earth’s curvature and can pick-up very low-level flying targets as well.

India’s main long range radar and back-bone of ADGES: THD-1955. It has a range in excess of 1,000 km but is generally operated at 40%-50% of peak output.

PSM-33 Mk2 Radar – A mobile radar. This is Indian enhanced version of French TRS-2215 radar

Netra – DRDO developed indigenous AEW&C system

IL-76 mounted Phalcon AWACS system

Tethered balloon mounted radar system (representative image)

In a major overhaul of ADGES and to make it more effective, IAF has implemented network-centric Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS). Under IACCS, information from various radars/sensors is pooled through high-density fibre optic cables into a node and a single, consolidated air-picture is generated. And this is not limited to only defence radars but civilian radars as well. By 2015, IAF had already established 5 nodes of the IACCS in the western sector facing Pakistan at Barnala (Punjab), Wadsar (Gujarat), Aya Nagar (Delhi), Jodhpur (Rajasthan) and Ambala (Haryana). Four other major nodes and ten sub-nodes are in the process of being set-up.

To get a sense of depth/range and overlapping radar coverage of IAF, please see the map below. The red-dot is centred on Barnala (Punjab). Apart from being an IACCS node, it is also home to Indian’s first tethered balloon based radar system. And I think a THD-1955 radar is also located in the vicinity. Other points are the probable location of other static and mobile radar units (which in IAF ‘s language are known as Signal Units). The mobile radar units ( known as Transportable Radar Unit – TRU) are likely to move further west to extend their coverage.

Various circles on the map represent likely radar coverage range from each location. The colour of the circle is the same as the location marker. While the red coloured circle, centred on Barnala (Punjab), shows a coverage with a range of ~400 km, other circles show coverage over a range of ~250 km. From top to bottom, the locations are – Natha Top (Jammu), Jammu, Amritsar, Barnala and Bhisiana (Bhatinda).

The green markers inside Pakistan are major airbases and some satellite bases of Pakistan Air Force. It’s not surprising that IAF radar network picked-up PAF fighters the moment they were in air from their bases in central and south Pakistan Punjab.

Representative image of Indian radar coverage

Information from such overlapping coverage, consisting of multiple sensors, comes to an IACCS node like Barnala. Representative image of an IACCS node is given below. It shows a bank of operators and ground controllers seeing a consolidated air-picture over a vast geography.

IACCS Node (representative image)

Given the overlapping radar coverage which can see considerable distance inside Pakistan, it can be construed that IAF became aware of the PAF strike package from very early on.

Let’s consider the evidence which confirms the above and contradicts the assertion about IAF being surprised by PAF. A report on 25th March 2019 by respected journalist and defence analyst, Nitin Gokhale, had the following information:

Pakistan first closed its civilian airspace and disallowed any commercial traffic around 8.45-9 am. In any case, Indian fighter controllers, sitting at a secure control room in Punjab and watching an array of inputs from multiple on the ground and airborne radars, were keeping a close watch on the Pakistani airspace that morning. Around 9.30 am, the IAF fighter controllers noticed at least two dozen PAF fighters getting airborne in a span of 15 minutes. Twelve of the PAF fighters appeared headed to the south of Pir Panjal range (Jammu, Poonch, Nowshera), four towards Srinagar, while four others were airborne in the area opposite Anoopgarh/Suchetgarh in Rajasthan.

The Indian flight control centre, aware of the danger, quickly alerted four fighters—two Su-30s and two Mirage-2000s—deployed on combat air patrol (CAP) in the area south of Pir Panjal and simultaneously ordered two MiG-21 Bisons, based in Srinagar to scramble. One of the MiGs was piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman”

Long story short, PAF simply did not have any surprise element. In fact, Indian sensors were able to detect the PAF fighters the moment they took off from their airbases. Considering that these Pakistani fighters took-off from air bases which are 200+ km from the international border tells you how deep the Indian radar network can scan and detect enemy air-activity.

In fact, Indian ground controllers had a good 10-12 minute lead on the PAF’s strike package. Consider this data-point from an article by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam:

 Into this melee came in four MiG-21 Bisons, scrambled from the Operational Ready Platform (ORP) on both runways ends at Srinagar and controlled by a GCI radar. Covering the almost 200 km in about 10-12 minutes at top speeds of between 950-1000 km/hr, the lead Bison with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman would have arrived on the scene just as three F-16s appear to have barely crossed the LC, impeded in no small measure by the intense BVR manoeuvring with the Sukhois

What the above tells you is that IAF had a complete picture of the evolving and dynamic air-situation. If anything, IAF had a lead time of 10+ minutes to scramble additional jets and position them judiciously at the right place to counter the PAF aggression.

Also, if you combine the information about IACCS node at Barnala (Punjab) with what is mentioned in the excerpt above, Indian fighter controllers most likely sitting in Barnala were overseeing air-battle over 300+ km away in Naoshera-Rajouri! This is another vindication of network-centric nature of our ADGES which allows information to be pooled from various resources at a single node and generate a composite air-picture, independent of the location of the node.

So, no, PAF did not have any element of surprise on 27th February 2019, like how IAF had on 26th February 2019 when it bombed targets in POK and at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.

If anything, it proves that Indian air-defence network worked as per expectation in a real air combat situation and this situational awareness allowed IAF controllers sitting in Barnala (Punjab) to alert Indian fighters and also position them favourably with respect to PAF strike package. They also gave the scramble call and got between 4-6 Mig-21 Bison airborne, one of which shot down the PAF dual seat F-16D.

Contrary to opinion, it is PAF which got surprised by the presence of IAF Mig-21 Bison on their tail.

(b) The Mythical Superiority

The next point made by Shekhar Gupta is about the numerical and technical superiority of PAF strike package. Let’s look at these two points separately.

(b.1) Numerical Superiority

As I said earlier, the initiative always rests with the attacker. In this case, since PAF knew it would be running the gauntlet with IAF on high alert, it had no option but to create a large strike package consisting of actual and decoy sub-packages.

But what exactly did PAF achieve with its supposedly numerical superiority? The answer to that question is – NOTHING!

A smaller IAF force of 12 fighters was able to repulse a larger force of 20 fighters. Contrary to their claim, PAF was not able to hit any military target because of the intervention of IAF fighters. And this numerical superiority argument becomes still more absurd, and actually in India’s favour when we consider some additional data-points from other reports.

For example, if we refer to the air-battle map and the following data-point from an article by Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd):

“The first engagement took place in the south with two Mirage 2000s intercepting a large package of more than eight aircraft under extremely effective AWACS control in the airspace high over Jammu. Armed with beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile MICA missiles and likely to have been the upgraded Mirage 2000s, they would have locked on first to the JF-17s, duelling with them at long distances and conversing among themselves as the battle progressed ‘going hot’ and ‘going cold’, or ‘extending’ and ‘exiting’—all of it typical fighter pilot jargon across the world that indicates different stages of BVR combat. Frustrated at being unable to clear the Mirage 5s to proceed towards their intended target, the PAF formation would have turned back—not something unheard of or unprofessional—living to fight another day is a wise strategy in tough times. One deduction from this engagement if the forces painted are right is the clear superiority of the upgraded Mirage 2000 over the JF-17!”

As per the above assessment, 2 x Mirage-2000 (Upgraded), equipped with advanced MICA missiles, was able to foil the attack by 08 PAF fighters! The PAF fighter package consisted of 04 x Mirage-V and 04 x JF-17. This ratio gets further skewed because another package of 04 x Mirage-III was most probably not launched on their target because of the inability of the above package to get through.

French Mirage-2000-5 equipped with 06 x MICA missiles. Missile mounted just below leading edge of aircraft’s left wing is MICA-RF (active radar homing) while balance 05 are MICA-IR (missile with imaging infra-red seeker)

Family of MICA missiles – on top is the active radar homing MICA-RF and lower on is MICA-IR, which uses imaging infra-red to hit enemy aircraft

Though, we’ve another recent report[5]which says that Mirage-III aircraft did launch H-4 Stand-of-Weapon (SOW) from 50 kilometre within Pakistan but because of intervention by IAF, these failed to hit their target.

South African Denel H-4 Stand-off-Weapon – this was the main air-to-ground weapon carried by PAF Mirage-III and Mirage-V to hit Indian targets

Images of remnants of H-4 SOW from POK. PAF Mirages most likely jettisoned them in panic when faced with threat from IAF’s Mirage-2000 (upgraded)

Either way, in one of the engagements, 2 IAF Mirage-2000 (upgraded) took on and deterred 12 PAF fighters! A defender to attacker ratio of 1:6.

In second engagement, which took place up north towards Poonch and Rajouri sector, 08 x F-16 were up against 02 x Su-30 MKI and 06 x Mig-21 Bison. The reason I say only 02 Su-30 MKI and not 04 as originally mentioned because of this data-point from the same article by Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd) which has been mentioned above:

“To the north was a duel between four SU-30MKIs and eight F-16s. Two of the Sukhois could have been in a swing role and towards the end of their combat endurance (a characteristic that allows it to switch between roles albeit with a marginal reduction in effectiveness in the second role) while the other two would have been in full air defence configuration”

Of the 04 x Su-30 MKI’s in the air, 02 x Su-30 MKI was low on endurance (must’ve been in the air for a long time) and most probably did not take an active part in the battle.

So, in the end, 02 x Su-30 MKI and 06 Mig-21 Bison (some reports say 04 x Mig-21 Bison were involved, which is more likely) were involved in the duel with 08 x F-16s. And created enough threat for F-16s because of which they missed hitting their targets even with laser-guided bombs (LGB). Not only that, PAF ended up losing an F-16D to Indian Mig-21 Bison.

Further evidence of how IAF thwarted the PAF plans in air-battle played is mentioned below. Taken from Nitin Gokhale’s article mentioned earlier.

An Indian analysis has also shown that when Pakistan launched the short retaliatory strike only three or four aircraft including three F-16s crossed the LoC and came only three or four km inside Indian territory before they were challenged by the IAF interceptors. As a senior IAF officer puts it: “While three or four aircraft came into Indian territory in an offensive mode, 21 aircraft were in the total package only for support. They were all trying to protect those three F-16 aircraft.”

This ties with other narratives which say that F-16s entered Indian territory while Mirage-III/V dropped stand-of-weapons from well within Pakistan. Pakistan Air Force was trying to get some hits on Indian ground targets and seemed least bit interested to press home its numerical advantage and take on IAF fighters.

Superiority, anyone?

(b.2) Technical Superiority

Using the above break-up of forces on both sides, it is evident that only 08 x F-16 on Pakistan’s side were of any match to 04 x Su-30 MKI and 02 x Mirage-2000 (upgraded). PAF’s JF-17 in current form is roughly equivalent to Indian Mig-21 Bison. As for Mirage-III and Mirages-V, these upgrade machines are also on the same league as Mig-21 Bison with the difference that PAF’s Mirage-III and Mirage-V have received upgrades which primarily optimizes their air-to-ground capability. This upgrade allowed them to carry the Denel H-4 Stand-of-Weapon.

As the outcome of air-battle over Kashmir shows, it was a smaller Indian fighter force which deterred a much larger PAF force.

So, which technical superiority are we talking about here?

Point 2:

Four Sukhoi Su-30s, the IAF’s most powerful air-superiority aircraft, were involved in the melee at beyond visual range (BVR). They were surprised by the PAF F-16s firing their American AMRAAM missiles from so far that the Sukhois’ own radar/computer/missiles were not able to give them a “firing solution”. Translated: India’s best fighter, which constitutes half of IAF’s combat force, was outraged and outgunned.

Whereas the first main assertion of article questions capability of India’s air-defence network, this one makes serious allegations about capabilities of IAF’s Su-30 MKI. And that too by using very contentious and dubious reasoning.

Beyond-the-Visual-Range (BVR) combat with active radar guided missiles generally involves the following step:

  • Before firing, launch aircraft passes the location of the enemy aircraft to the missile. Using its Inertial Navigation System (INS), the missile works out the location and direction of target aircraft with respect to its own position.
  • The missile is fired towards the enemy aircraft.
  • The parent aircraft continues to track the enemy aircraft. And using a data-link, pass the updated information about target aircraft’s location to the missile. The missile alters course basis this information. This is called a mid-course update.
  • This happens till a point where radar mounted on missile’s nose takes over and actively starts to track the target aircraft. At this point, the missile becomes completely independent and homes onto target aircraft on its own.
  • Another way of doing this is to launch the missile blind – that is, you launch the missile in general direction of the enemy aircraft and hope that missile ends-up close enough to enemy aircraft for missile radar to pick-up and home onto it. This approach is generally used when the launch aircraft itself is being fired upon by enemy aircraft and cannot maintain the lock on enemy aircraft as it is trying to evade the missile fired at it.

The following images show the terminal stage of a typical active radar guided BVR missile. Note the radar on missile’s cone generating radar signals, which are reflected by target aircraft, and picked-up by missiles radar. This is how it guides itself to the target.

 

What most likely happened in F-16 versus Su-30 MKI duel was that F-16s tried to gain lock from maximum possible firing range of AMRAAMS and launched the missiles, hoping for a lucky shot. Because the shots were taken from MAX range of both F-16 radar and missile range, Su-30 MKIs were able to break the lock and evade/outmanoeuvre and/or jam the AMRAAM missiles.

An article by Shiv Aroor gives a description of air-battle between Su-30 MKIs and F-16:

“As the stand-off strikes took place, an air-to-air battle commenced with the two Indian Su-30s reporting (in their debrief) repeated radar locks from what they say were Pakistani F-16s beyond visual range and manoeuvring in the air to turn ‘cold’ on the weapon locks.

IAF sources indicated to Livefist that the said F-16s were looking specifically to shoot down a Su-30 — something that would have been a major loss for the IAF. The Su-30s (and later, three of the MiG-21s) are said to have flown patterns to remain ‘kinematically safe’ against the repeated AMRAAM locks even as the distance between the Indian and Pakistani jets loosely closed over the Line of Control.

The hot-cold radar lock sequence continued for several minutes, with the said PAF F-16s repeatedly attempting to sustain locks on the Su-30 MKIs long enough for meaningful shots.

Sources say the three AMRAAMs were launched in DMAX-1, the dynamic attack zone where the missile is unleashed at the limits of its range. On all three occasions, the Su-30s used countermeasures to dodge the incoming weapons.”

In short, what happened was that in their desperate bid to shoot-down a Su-30 MKI while at the same time trying to keep Su-30 MKIs as far away as possible from 3-4 F-16s which entered Indian airspace to bomb targets, PAF F-16’s fired AMRAAMs from maximum possible range. Even a basic understanding of air-warfare will tell you that the probability of scoring a kill at MAX Range is very low. These AMRAAM shots by PAF F-16s were more like shot-in-the-dark, hoping to achieve a kill.

But why didn’t Indian Su-30 MKIs fire missiles at F-16s? Are they technically inferior to Pakistani F-16s? Do they have inferior radar? Or inferior missiles as compared AIM-120 C5 AMRAAM?

Again, the answer is emphatic NO!

Indian Su-30 MKI has a much more powerful radar (N011M ‘Bars’) compared to radar [AN/APG-68(V)9] on even the most advanced F-16 in PAF service (F-16 Block 52). In terms of active radar guided air-to-air missiles, Su-30 MKI carries the Russian AA-12 ‘Adder’ (RVV-AE) which has a similar range as the AIM-120 C5 on Pakistani F-16s.

The table below compares the features of three BVR missiles which are main protagonists of this air battle – AIM-12 C5 (Pakistan), AA-12 ‘Adder’ (India) and MICA-RF/IR (India). Please be advised that maximum ranges are always classified and these are indicative numbers from open source. As it is, max ranges generally are meaningless because what matters is the range of ‘No-Escape Zone’ of the missile. This is the zone where the probability of a hit is the highest. The reason why French Meteor (which IAF is getting with Rafale) is considered a very potent missile is that its NEZ is supposed to be 60 km, highest known amongst BVR missiles till date.

Su-30MKI in Air-Dominance role – It is armed with 12 Air-to-Air Missiles. Starting from wing-tip, first two missile are R-73 or AA-11 ‘Archer’, next two are active radar homing R-77 or AA-12 ‘Adder’ and 4 missiles on the belly are semi-active radar homing R-27 or AA-11 ‘Alamo’

R-77 or AA-12 ‘Adder’

AIM-120 ‘AMRAAM’

Unlike the Pakistan F-16s, IAF Su-30 MKI did not fire their missiles blindly. They outmanoeuvred Pakistani AMRAAMs while positioning themselves for high probability kill shots. What most likely happened that by the time Su-30 MKIs could achieve the shot, PAF F-16s turned tail and exited the Indian airspace. And we know from various accounts that as per prevailing Rules of Engagement (ROE), IAF Su-30 MKIs did not pursue the fleeing F-16s.

What is not being mentioned is that only 02 x Su-30 MKI took on and deterred 08 x F-16s. And while Su-30 MKIs might not have fired any BVR missile, their continuous effort to gain high probability kill shot, even while out-manoeuvring the incoming AMRAAMs, was big enough threat for PAF F-16s to miss their target and turn tail.

If anything, the above shows a superb level of training of IAF fighter pilots and their adeptness at BVR combat.

Shekhar Gupta is making a virtue out of PAF F-16s firing BVR missiles for the sake of firing and hoping to get a lucky shot. While it is the Indian SU-30 MKIs which acted as per BVR combat playbook.

Point 3:

Fortunately, two of the upgraded Mirage-2000s were on patrol. These have new French missiles (MICA, or Missile d’interception, de combat d’autodefense) which are the exact peers of the F-16/AMRAAM. They were able to lock-on to some of the PAF planes, which panicked into dropping their South African-origin stand-off weapons (SOWs) in a hurry, mostly missing the targets. Nevertheless, one fell in the middle of the Nowshera brigade headquarters compound. It was closer than we think.

This part is a bit funny because it mixes up things.

As discussed earlier and as evident from the map of the air battle over Kashmir, Mirage-2000 (upgraded) and Su-30 MKI were flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over two distinct geographies. While Mirage-2000 (upgraded) confronted a large mix force of PAF’s Mirage-III, Mirage-V and JF-17 in the southern part of Kashmir, Su-30 MKIs were duelling with 08 x F-16s up-north in general area of Poonch.

Su-30 MKIs managed to hold their own against a much larger force of F-16s and there is no evidence/report that at Mirage-2000s (upgraded) intervened in the air-battle between Su-30 MKI and F-16s. The South African Stand-of-Weapon (SOW) which were dropped in a hurry by PAF fighters were carried by Mirage-III/Mirage-V while F-16s are supposed to have dropped Laser Guided Weapons (LGBs).

Point 4:

Surprised, and outnumbered, the IAF scrambled six MiG-21 Bisons from Srinagar and Awantipur. Since these climbed in the shadow of the Pir Panjal range, the PAF AWAC failed to detect them. Their sudden appearance at the battlefield upset the PAF plan. This was fortuitous.

Mig-21 Bison armed with R-77 or AA-12 ‘Adder’ and R-73 or AA-11 ‘Archer’ missiles

As already discussed, IAF was not surprised. It had detected the PAF fighters from the moment they took-off and had already alerted the Indian fighters on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) in the area.

From the article quoted earlier by Nitin Gokhale:

The Indian flight control centre, aware of the danger, quickly alerted four fighters—two Su-30s and two Mirage-2000s—deployed on combat air patrol (CAP) in the area south of Pir Panjal and simultaneously ordered two MiG-21 Bisons, based in Srinagar to scramble. One of the MiGs was piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

All the forward airbases of IAF have fighters on Operational Readiness Patrol (ORP). It consists of 2-4 fighters, along with their pilots, ready to take-off within 2-minutes of the alarm being sounded. The fighters are fuelled, armed with missiles and pilots are in their flying overalls. To remove time wasted in taxing towards the runway, fighters are parked in Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) which are located on either end of the runways; fighters exit from their HAS and directly enter the runway to reduce reaction time.

Check the satellite images of ORP shelters at IAF and PAF bases.

ORP Shelters adjacent to runway at an Indian air base

An amazing 08 ORP shelters at Pakistan Air Force’s airbase in Sargodha, Pakistan. It is the most premier air base of PAF and most probably the largest. Home to their F-16 fleet and Combat Commanders School, the PAF’s equivalent of US Navy’s ‘Top Gun’ School.

So, between 2-6 Mig-21 Bison, on ORP at Srinagar and Awantipora air bases were scrambled the moment threat from PAF was discovered. The fighter controllers based in Barnala (Punjab) guided these fighters towards enemy fighters, placing them at an opportune position vis-à-vis enemy fighters. One account speaks of Mig-21 Bison diving down from 15,000 feet towards exiting F-16s which were at 7,000 feet. This allowed Wing Commander Abhinandan to at the right place, at the right time. And he managed to get a lock on PAF F-16.

In north Kashmir air-battle, Mig-21 Bison was part of the IAF’s calculation from the beginning and as Shekhar Gupta himself says, it was the attacker, Pakistan Air Force, which was surprised in the end and ended up losing an F-16D to Indian Mig-21 Bison.

Point 5:

It is only because of IAF’s good training, situational awareness, and some luck that this audacious PAF mission failed. No ground target was hit. Its larger objective of luring vastly outnumbered and out-ranged IAF jets into a pre-set “killing zone” was the bigger failure.

What good is an audacious plan if it fails to meet any of its objectives?

I mean, look at it from Pakistan’s side – no ground target was hit and they ended-up losing an advanced and precious F-16D. And has already been discussed, this ‘vastly outnumbered’ forces managed to achieve its objective – that of thwarting aggression from PAF and ensuring minimum damage to own assets, whether on the ground or in the air.

Point 6:

How did Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman cross the LoC? He was in visual pursuit of a PAF fighter for sure. But his controller was warning him to return. He didn’t. Because he couldn’t hear. As you’d expect in 2019, the battle zone had full radio-jamming. That’s why modern fighters have secure data links. Why didn’t that MiG have it? Ask the gallant Sir Humphrey of the MoD who blocked the purchase for three years claiming that a defence PSU would make it. Don’t ask me his name, find out. You might learn another truth you don’t want to face.

There is no denying the fact that any modern air force looking to implement network-centric warfare requires a digital data link for its fighter aircraft. A data link enables many functions like an exchange of information between fighters, between fighters and command & control nodes, fighters and AWACS etc. It enables increased situational awareness between participants. For example, a Su-30 MKI with its powerful radar could transmit its own radar picture to smaller Mig-21s which have smaller radars. This way, Mig-21s can be aware of air situation which otherwise they cannot detect because of their smaller and less powerful radars. Voice communication is one aspect of a digital link.

Coming to Wing Commander Abhinandan’s case, the article makes it seem as if radio-jamming was 0-1 kind of affair. We’ve other reports which talk about final communication between Wing Commander Abhinandan and Ground Controllers. For example, consider this report from Livefist:

Livefist has been given to understand that Wing Commander responded to two warnings from radar controllers to turn back (since he was minutes from crossing into hostile airspace) with radar calls saying he had an aircraft in visual range and was attempting a manual close combat lock. Moments later, with his lock confirmed, he gave a final call saying he had the lock tone, before launching a single Vympel R-73 heat-seeking missile.

It is not my argument that there was no radio-jamming or that IAF does not need fleet wide digital data-links. My contention is that information is presented in a highly skewed manner. For example, how come Wing Commander Abhinandan’s wingman could hear the call from fighter controller? How come Su-30 MKI did not face radio-jamming? Because while they’ve data-link to talk to each other, I doubt there’s a data-link between ground controllers and Su-30 MKI. Further, in any battle, ground or air or naval, it is known that frequencies will be jammed. And there are fall-back options to switch to other frequencies. We don’t know whether this happened or not.

Conclusion

Defence is a subject which very few people understand outside of a small circle of serving and retired armed forces personnel, career security & strategy people, academics in this field and some hobbyist like yours truly.

Given this scenario, when a journalist or an analyst pens an analysis of an event like Balakot strike or air battle on 27th February, you expect him/her to educate the public through facts and by breaking down complex military jargon into a language which common people can understand. Appreciation and critique are part and parcel of any such analysis. A good analysis should foster debate and discussion on the subject at hand.

However, what you don’t expect is half-truths or faulty analysis even when information to contrary is available. Which is actually painful because people like me who’ve read Shekhar Gupta’s article on armed forces and security aspect from the mid-80s have witnessed the amazing depth of his writing and analysis.

This particular article not only does not tell the reader what happened and how it makes broad assertions which will seed doubt into the mind of its readers about the capability of Indian Air Force and Indian Armed Forces.

This is not done! Mr Shekhar Gupta can definitely do better. Much better. Maybe.


Note 1 – All images have been sourced from the internet.

Note 2 – Inputs on the subject have been taken from the discussion on the bharat-rakshak forum. Special mention needs to be made of poster Karan M on the said forum for his analysis of BVR combat.

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