Wednesday, June 23, 2021

How Did Then-IAF Chief Dhanoa Break The Balakot News To India’s NSA Ajit Doval?

The 2019 Balakot airstrikes by the Indian Air Force (IAF) were a well-planned operation, involving all modern assets of the Indian military. As soon as the operation got over, then-IAF chief BS Dhanoa dialed India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, saying, “Bandar Mara Gaya” (the monkey is dead), Hindustan Times reports.

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The airstrikes were carried out on Pakistani soil, across the Line of Actual Control, the first time ever by the Indian Air Force after the 1971 war. Many agencies worked in close coordination before and during the operation. IAF’s Mirage-2000 fighter jets, which released precision-guided munitions to destroy terror launchpads across the border, clearly stole the show.

This is how the ‘mission accomplished’ news was first delivered. At 0345 hours on February 26, 2019, NSA Ajit Doval’s phone rang at the most anticipated time. “Bandar Mara Gaya”,  said then-Chief of the Air Staff BS Dhanoa, who made the call.

The operation was carried out as a retaliatory strike against the February 14 terror attack at Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir, in which 40 Indian CRPF troops lost their lives. Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.

After receiving the confirmation call from the Air Chief Marshal, Doval informed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the HT report said.

Cross-border strikes or surgical strikes are easier said than done. Going into another country’s airspace, that too of the most hostile nation which was already on high alert in anticipation of a retaliatory Indian strike after the Pulwama attack, was an extremely risky proposition in the first place.

The threat was real. The Pakistani Air Force’s F-16s and JF-17s, coupled with the SAM batteries could pose a huge amount of challenge to the Indian ‘package’ involving Mirage 2000s and Su-30MKIs. The Mirage 2000 fighters carried the SPICE 2000 penetrator bombs, each packed with 90 kg explosives.

Exercise-Pitch-Black
A file photo of an IAF exercise

The closest Pakistani aircraft would be only about 150 kilometers away, a distance it could cover in no time to intercept the Indian fighters.

According to Hindustan Times, the codeword ‘Bandar’ was deliberately chosen to confuse Pakistani intelligence. The Indian side hoped Pakistan would take that as a reference to the JeM camp at Bahawalpur in Pakistan where the ailing chief of the terror outfit, Masood Azhar, was believed to be staying securely.

And to strengthen the impression, a posse of Indian fighters was scrambled in the Rajasthan sector to get the Pakistan Air Force to move all its assets to intercept the Indian jets over the skies of Bahawalpur. This deception tactic worked well for the IAF that night.

The Indian Air Force deliberately chose February 26 as the action day, as it was the last quarter of the full moon and the fighters successfully evaded Pakistani radars to a much larger extent flying low in the Pir Panjal ranges. According to officials quoted by the Hindustan Times, five bombs were released which successfully hit their targets at 0330 hours IST (or 0300 hours PST).

However, a sixth bomb to be released was aborted due to a software snag. The only place left untouched in Balakot was the mosque, which had already started preparation of the Fajr namaz, the report said.

The failure of this sixth missile, which carried an optical guidance kit, came as a setback for the Indian strategists after the airstrikes. The optical guidance kit aids the user to get a visual image of the target being struck, which could be used as a psychological tool as a “proof” of the strike against Pakistani or western propaganda. Surely enough, the Pakistani propaganda machine swung into action just after the strikes and made a narrative that the strike had failed.

According to the HT report, the senior officials also stated that IAF deliberately chose penetrator bombs so that there was minimal collateral damage; they added that images from within the Balakot camp showed at least 300 jihadists present a day before the strike.

Much of the actionable intelligence for IAF was routed through then RAW deputy chief Samant Goel (now the chief of the agency), and at least some of it came from a ‘mole’ within the camp.

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