Operation Bravo Alpha Lima Alpha Kilo Oscar Tango: Unraveling the Balakot Strike

Indian Air Force Fighter Plane Cockpit

3.42.46 ACT Udhampur: Hello Alpha! What’s your position?
3.42.48 Alpha: Heading 270! Target 70 miles
3.52.24 ATC: Hello Charlie! Give the fire cover to Alpha, Delta, Romeo

3.53.43 Yankee: Roger! I am heading 360 Victor..Papa..Sierra in line
3.59.45 ATC: Attaboy! Job well done
3.59.53 Alpha. Roger! On course to Golf course (Gwalior Air Force Base)

This radio conversation may have taken place between the Air Force Traffic control at Udhampur and the 12 daredevil Pilots of Mirage 2000 and Sukhoi 30 MKI pilots who were giving fire cover to the 12 Mirage fighters. It was still early in the morning on February 26, 12 Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighters were being armed with a deadly arsenal in the form of lethal Israeli Crystal Maze long-range air-to-surface missiles and SPICE-2000 bombs to carry out air strikes on terror training centres at Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed at Balakot, Manshera, Pakistan.

In a surprise attack lasting 19 minutes, our brave hearts demolished the terror centres and killing around 300-350 militants and terror recruits. IAF has been preparing for this attack since last four days and were conducting night sorties from its frontline airbases at Amritsar and Udhampur, and when the Mirages and SU 30s took off early in the morning of February 26, there was no way Pakistanis would have known that these jets were going to venture into their airspace.

The Mirage 2000s bombed the targets in a 19 minute quick operation from 3.40 AM to 3.59 AM using either Crystal Maze missiles or SPICE -2000 bombs. The Crystal Maze missiles are manufactured by Israel’s Rafael is based on the standoff air-to-surface missile (ASM) family Popeye.

These missiles can hit the targets on the ground as well as sea from 100 kilometers away which means the aircraft launching them need not come very close to the desired target, thus making it extremely difficult for the enemy air defence and fighters to intercept the plane. These missiles are capable of carrying a payload of 80 kg and are extremely accurate with a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of less than three metres. India procured Crystal Maze missiles from Israel in 2005 and because of its capability of hitting a target 100 km away, the IAF Mirage 2000s were able to target Pakistani terror camps from a fairly long distance without bringing the fighters in the harm’s way.

SPICE-2000 are precision-guided bombs which IAF acquired in 2015 to target fortified and underground command centres. SPICE is an acronym for Smart, Precise-Impact and Cost-Effective and converts general purpose and penetration warheads into precision standoff strike weapons. A SPICE bomb has a standoff range of 60 kilometers and has a inbuilt feature of approaching the target through a unique scene-matching algorithm that compares the electro-optical image received in real-time via the weapon seeker with mission reference data stored in the weapon computer memory and accordingly adjusting the flight path.

This surprise air strike was meticulously planned by the Indian Air Force and every single detail was taken into consideration. The USP of this attack was taking Pakistanis off guard which it did. If we look at the developments after the Pulwama attack in Kashmir on the 14th February, the Pakistanis were expecting a retaliatory action from the Indian side but they would have never thought even in their wildest dreams that India will dare to attack so deep into their territory as the target of Balakot was a good 160 km from the LOC.

According to reliable sources, in an attempt to understand the planning behind the operation, it was a given India would respond to the Pulwama attack as soon after the February 14 attack on the CRPF convoy, India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was asked to look for suitable targets in Pakistan. RAW came up with suggesting as many as six targets, with Balakot, JeM’s oldest training camp, and another run by Yusuf Azhar, brother-in-law of the JEM founder Masood Azhar was right at the top of the list.

Balakot was an ideal target as it met most of India’s requirements for a possible target. Since JeM was responsible for the Pulwama attack, it was important to choose their training camp as a possible target. The second reason behind choosing Balakot was that this was a huge training camp and by destroying it, India would have given an appropriate and suitable reply to the Pulwama attack where we lost 40 of our CRPF soldiers. The third reason was curtailing the civilian casualties because of its location on the hilly terrain, far away from the civilian population. The fourth reason was exhibiting India’s capacity to use the deterrence of pre-emption in the light of imminent strikes.

It is understood that on February 18, Prime Minister Modi approved the air strikes and according to the intelligence officials, only seven people were privy of this decision – PM, NSA Doval, the three service chiefs, and the heads of RAW and IB.

Since last week, the Air Force started flying night sorties from various frontline bases of Udhampur and Amritsar to confuse the Pakistanis. Just a day before the strike, on February 25, intelligence inputs suggested the presence of a large number of JeM terrorists and new recruits, around 300-350, at the Balakot camp and the same evening it was decided to go ahead with the strike immediately. PM Modi was told by the Air Force on the 25th February evening that an attack could happen in the next few hours.

A total of around 12 fighters were used in the operation lasting for two-and-a-half hours from take-off to touchdown at the Gwalior Air Force Station. The Mirage 2000 fighters took off at 1.30am on February 26 from Gwalior and the Sukhois from other bases. After accomplishing their mission, these fighters landed back at the Air Force Station at 4.00am. The defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was subsequently informed about the early morning operation followed by the briefing to the Cabinet Committee on Security.

There is more to this surprise attack by the Indian Air Force as today morning couple of F 16s from Pakistani Air Force intruded in the Indian territory at Nowshera, Rajouri where they were intercepted by IAF planes which resulted in shooting down of one F 16 aircraft. India also lost one of its MIG 21 and reportedly one of its pilots was caught by the Pakistani authorities. It will be interesting to see as how next few days pan out. Will it escalate further into a full- fledged war or the better sense may prevail giving peace a chance?

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