India, following the failed airstrike on February 26 and subsequent humiliation after it failed to back up its claim, has yet again claimed that the purported strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camp in 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”.
The air skirmish between the arch-rivals followed a suicide bombing, later claimed by JeM, that killed 40 troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Indian occupied 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.
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 which resulted in the downing of at least one Indian MiG-21 jet and the capturing of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
Pakistan later released Abhinandan, 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 defenses.
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. The 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 4 pm, the Spice-2000 [missiles] was loaded on to the Mirage 2000s. The specific coordinates of the JeM training camp were fed into the weapon systems,” he said. “We took off at 2 am 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. A 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.”