Did India over play the “surgical strike” of September 2016 in an effort to draw maximum political millage from that? Pakistan’s reaction had resulted in, increase in cross border firing and more deaths of Indian soldiers and civilians on one part and on the other, an increase in infiltration of terrorists across the LoC. Final reaction surfaced at Pulwama. Though such an attack was neither first of its type nor the one that resulted in maximum casualties. Security Forces have suffered larger attacks and suffered more casualties, in a single attack, in the Maoist infested districts of India. However Pulwama was the first of its kind organized from across the border in J and K, using a local terrorist. It was a case of intelligence failure, because within 30 hours of the incident most of the miscreants linked to the attack were rounded up, implying thereby that adequate intelligence resources were at hand in Pulwama.
Indian’s diplomatic efforts, in the international field, subsequent to Pulwama attack, did bear some positive result, but the overall outcome will be gauged in due course of time. However this attack became the turning point in India’s policy of retaliation. While the “surgical strike” failed to achieve its purpose to dissuade Pakistan from carrying out cross-border terrorist acts, targeting Balakot, a major terrorist center and in Pakistan (as against PoK,) using IAF fighters bombers was expected to convey to it that any large scale terrorist attack from across the border will invite increasingly enhanced retaliation. Equally this act, in some manner, violated the sanctity of the LoC and set a precedent for breaching this line: sanctity India did not violate in spite of major incursion across LoC by Pakistan at Kargil.
As the attack targeted terrorist infrastructure and not the Pak Army, to infer that this attack on Balakot, called off Pakistan’s nuclear bluff is to display not only ignorance, but naivety about the likely threshold line, or ‘Lakhman Rekha,’ crossing of which by India, will possibly prompt Pakistan to reach for the nuclear button.
In retaliation, the very next morning Pak air force attacked Indian military posts in Poonch-Rajauri sector. The PAF aircraft dropped their payloads without targeting any military target. IAF immediately reacted to this attack, resulting in air battle in which we lost one Mig 21 Bison flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who claimed to have shot down a Pakistan F-16 in a “dog fight.’ Abhinandan’s aircraft would have had pictures of this hit on F-16 and its explosion. But then a Pak missile is claimed to have hit his aircraft, which would have normally resulted in this aircraft exploding. Fortunately he was able to bailout without being hurt in anyway.
However Americans, (who claim to have taken stock of all F-16 aircrafts with Pak Air Force, ) had initially denied loss of any F-16 aircraft, though subsequently there have been different inputs to this incident. At the same time it is claimed that Indian radars showed one Pak aircraft disappearing from the screen.
Again much political mileage was drawn, consequent to Balakot operation. One can understand BJPs efforts to draw maximum political mileage from this operation, in view of the parliamentary elections, but in the process it has resulted in an impression of politicising the military. Equally overplaying this card could result in internal pressures, building up within Pakistan, provided the airstrike was as successful as being claimed, for a retaliation, if not on an enhanced scale, but at least in equal measure. At some point all this can only lead to one more step on the retaliatory ladder.
Now about the Balakot airstrike, nearly 300 terrorists were assessed to be at that terrorist camp and these could be accommodated in 4 to 5 barracks and in addition there would be some administrative buildings as well. On all accounts this complex was hit by 4 to 5 bombs (SPICE 2000 – with 400 kg high explosive.) If that be so then it would be a picture of vast devastation and satellite pictures would clearly show this damage.
Indian claim is that these bombs, delivered from a stand off position ( the range of these bombs being 60 kms and Balakot is around 51 kms from the LoC) each penetrating the roofs of these barracks (such entry points were allegedly shown by the IAF to some defence analysts -Vishnu Shom and Ajay Shukla) and exploded inside the barracks killing terrorist sleeping there-in, without blowing up the barracks.
BJP President, Amit Shah had put the casualties at 250, while an Italian reporter had given ( based on hearsay ) a figure of 170 with many more wounded. Further the India’s foreign minister informed us that no civilian or soldier was killed. Evidently, the target was exclusively related to terrorist infrastructure.
When questions were raised about the strike, especially internationally, IAF didn’t have much by way of satellite pictures to show as evidence, making it easy for Pakistan to deny any damage from this attack. Pakistan PM observed that, “they hit some of our trees and we hit their stones.”
Now the IAF delivered bombs at the point given to it as the target. If what was hit was not the terrorist camp at Balakot then the fault could be with the intelligence inputs, which perhaps erred in relating the location of the camp to its position on the ground, else the programming of the bombs and consequently their trajectory was such that these bombs may have hit tall trees on the way.
Then there is the technical aspect of this undertaking. The strike could have relied on the SPICE 2000’s electro-optical guidance capabilities, but that would have required significant targeting support, including the development of topographically and architecturally precise modelling to program and guide the weapon. It is not a simple process and is dependent on considerable pre-strike imagery-collection and targeting infrastructure.
It is important to note two characteristics of GPS-guided weapons. The first is that GPS coordinates have three dimensions: elevation, latitude and longitude—something we tend to overlook in everyday life when we navigate using a mobile phone’s GPS function. Second, a glide weapon like the SPICE 2000 doesn’t fall vertically to its target; it follows an inclined trajectory. There are some more technical issues involved such as difference between GPS ellipsoidal height and orthometric height based on mean sea level. In Northeastern Pakistan, the difference is around 33 meters, although in many areas the difference is not precisely mapped, so it may be larger or smaller at a point such as Balakot. One explanation, if target is missed would be that the SPICE 2000 bombs were incorrectly programmed to fly precisely into GPS points that were, say, 33 meters above their intended targets. It is also possible that the bombs were released from own side of the LoC.
The other point to note is that it were French jets, Israeli weapons, US GPS and a targeting system that potentially used maps based on an older local Indian datum, there are other ways in which incorrect information could have been introduced or data shifts could have been omitted.
While we may never know as to what exactly happened at Balakot, but it is fair to assume that the strike had the desired effect as has been noticed in the transformed demeanour of Pakistan.
Unfortunately in the absence of satellite pictures of devastation at Balakot camp, some doubting Thomas’s in India have picked up this line of missing the target. Equally to dub any one seeking the truth, as anti-national would be wrong.
Indian Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa has remarked, ‘If we plan to hit the target, we hit the target. We do not count casualties.’’ It would be fair to go along with what the Air Chief says and accept IAF’s claim. Yet in its own , interest and for future effective use of this weapon, IAF need to know if Balakot was really blasted!