In the air clash with Pakistan at the end of February, India joined the lengthening list of countries resorting to aerial combat for fighting terrorists – the US, Russia, Israel, the UK, Germany and France. Since it was the first Indian-Pakistani air encounter in decades, it was an eye opener. Both performed poorly and soon retired for painful self-appraisals.
The flare-up was sparked on Feb. 14 by a Pakistani Jaish-e-Muhammad suicide attack in Indian Kashmir, killing 44 Indian paramilitary personnel. India hit back on Feb. 26. Prime Minister Narenda Modi ordered 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft to strike the terrorists’ camp in the city of Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was India’s first aerial bombardment over Pakistan since 1971.
The results were disappointing.
The Indian Air Force’s fleet of 814 combat aircraft is almost double that of the Pakistani Air Force’s app. 425. It is made up mainly of six squadrons of “vintage” 1960s Russian MiG-21 Bisons, which have been the IAF’s main warhorses for decades, and a few squadrons of more advanced aircraft, the Russian Su30-MKI and the French Mirage-2000.
Pakistan’s most advanced fighter jets are US-made F-16s and a few JF-17 Thunder jets co-produced by Pakistan and China. Islamabad can’t afford to finance the massive modernization or expansion of its air fleet.
In the event of a major conflict between the two nuclear powers, both would rely on their bigger allies to come to their aid. Pakistan counts on China, reckoning that the Indian Air Force is too small to take on the 2,400 combat-capable aircraft of China’s expanding and constantly upgraded air power. At the same time, Beijing’s air fleet is primarily designed for potential contests against the US or Japan, rather than India.
In search of big power counterparts for the Pakistani-Chinese alliance, Modi has been steadily cultivating Delhi’s relations with Washington and Tokyo.
The Mirage bombardment of the Jaish-e-Muhammad camp by Indian multi-role Mirage fighters on Feb. 26 appears to have been a washout. According to some versions, it was misreported as targeting Balakot. Competent aviation sources say the target was located at “Jaba top”, near the village of Jaba, roughly 10km south of Balakot. The Mirages were initially reported to have dropped 1,000kg of bombs, equal to the size of the Spice-2000, which can be carried by fighter jets. They were supposed to have bombed a JeM madrassa located there, but the only damage seen was a patch of nearby woodland. Images and videos later released showed all the targeted structures to be intact and no casualties. The Indian Mirages apparently missed their aim in their first assault on a terrorist target.
That was only the IAF’s first setback. There was a second.
The next day, Feb. 27, Pakistan retaliated for the Indian air strike by sending warplanes – either F-16s or JF-17s – across the Line-of-Control between Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir to bomb an Indian target. A dogfight ensued leading to the shooting down of an Indian MIg-21 aircraft and its pilot’s capture. There were also reports of a Pakistani F-16 being hit.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources noted that the large numbers of aircraft deployed by both sides at the start of the clash dwindled as it unfolded. Both India and Pakistan had suddenly woken to their air force’s unreadiness to face a drawn-out conflict. They pulled back from the brink to avoid risking the inevitable losses of manpower and aircraft that would have further exposed their weakness and ineptitude. Despite the large numbers of aircraft involved in the clash, they caused scant damage and few casualties. Both the Indian and the Pakistan air crews were shown up as struggling to master the fighter bombers and unsure how to use their ordnance.
The two air forces parted at length without altering the military balance between India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir. Their commanders also grasped that, while both their governments are laying out large sums for modernizing their air fleets, they had better first concentrate on acquiring better-trained and bolder professional air crews to fly them.
Indian prime minister Modi, fully aware that his air force was not up to scratch in the Kashmir clash, commented to a meeting in Jamnagar on March 4: “Rafale fighters could have achieved better results” in reference to the dogfight between Indian and Pakistani warplanes. When the opposition accused him of questioning the India’s air force’s performance in the bombing attack, he replied: “Use common sense,” quickly adding: “Of course, it is natural for us to be proud of our armed forces.”