In his first press conference after taking over as Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria touched upon quite a number of issues ranging from threats the country is facing, the Balakot air strike and the aftermath, to what lies in the future as far as the air force inventory is concerned.
The biggest and immediate threat India is up against is that of terrorism supported by Pakistan. By now it is a well-established fact that Pakistan has been using terrorism as state policy to counter the numerical, as in armed forces, and financial superiority India has over it. And Pakistan has been successful to an extent with it.
The insurgency being waged in Jammu and Kashmir for the last 30 years by Pakistan-supported proxies has tied down more than half of the 13-lakh strong Indian Army. Crores are being spent every day on maintaining such large number of soldiers.
Continuous deployment in a virtual warzone not only affects the mental well-being and morale of the soldiers but also leaves very little time for training and other tasks.
Indian Air Force (IAF) assets, including fighter aircraft, radars and surface to air missile (SAM) batteries, along the western border with Pakistan, have been in constant state of high alert ever since the February 26 Balakot strikes and the Pakistani retaliation on February 27.
How did the IAF fare on those two days, which brought both countries close to a full-blown conflict?
On February 26, the clinical precision with which IAF Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft destroyed the terrorist infrastructure on a hill top in Balakot inside Pakistan proper will go down in history of the IAF as one of its finest moments.
Pakistan Air Force didn’t have the slightest inkling as to what was cooking though they had combat aircraft patrolling the skies and both ground-based and airborne radars were keeping a close watch over their eastern border. However, the meticulously-planned mission and the way it was executed underlines the professionalism and the superb training of IAF pilots and support personnel.
On this front, the IAF is on par with the best but do they have the assets to harness the full potential of the highly-trained and motivated manpower?
The next day proved that though the pilots have the training, skills and courage to take the fight to the enemy, the machines and weapons at their disposal are not the best.
The moment the Israeli-made SPICE guided bombs were released by the Mirages and were making their way to the target on February 26, IAF knew that Pakistan Air Force would definitely retaliate in the coming days as they were caught napping, literally, and would be itching for revenge.
However, they had no clue that the retaliation, codenamed Operation Swift Retort, would come the very next day and that too in broad day-light.
Led by their best pilots flying F-16s, a package consisting of Mirage IIIs, Mirage Vs and JF-17s moved towards the Line of Control (LoC). IAF had a pair each of their best fighter planes on combat air patrol in the area at that moment, the Su-30 MKI and the upgraded Mirage 2000 flying in the air defence role.
Seeing that the Sukhois and the Mirages were outnumbered, MiG-21 Bison fighter aircraft were scrambled from air bases in the Kashmir valley to even up the odds.
Now, the Bison is the most advanced and lethal version of the third generation MiG-21, which first flew in the 1950s and entered service in the mid-1960s with the IAF. Around 100+ Bisons serve in the IAF and they are point defence fighter planes, which means their primary task is to quickly get airborne and intercept hostile aerial targets, be it aircraft or drones.
Bison is basically the Bis version of the MiG-21, hence the name Bison, son of Bis, which was upgraded to include newer avionics, weapons, electronic warfare suite and counter-measures dispensing system.
The upgrade was necessitated as the induction of Light Combat Aircraft Tejas was getting delayed. Basically, it was a stop gap arrangement until the Tejas was inducted, which it still is not in the numbers needed or with the capability envisaged.
Among the enhancements made to the Bis, Bison has a new radar which gives it capability to pick up targets much farther than what it was possible with older versions of MiG-21 and engage them with beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles like the Russian R-77. However, the rest of the aircraft is old. The newest Bison is more than 30 years old, which means it has only a few more years left, most probably till 2024, before it will be retired.
In the clear blue skies on the crisp morning of February 27, the Bisons were up against the best fighter plane in the PAF arsenal, the US-made F-16, flown by pilots from the elite Combat Commanders School, equivalent to United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program) — or Top Gun, as it is more famously known — and IAF’s Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE).
This was a contest between planes which are a generation apart. The F-16 is superior to the MiG-21 Bison in every aspect because its design was influenced by the experience US pilots had over Vietnam in the 60s and early 70s when the nimble MiG-17s and 21s proved to be a handful for the Americans in their bigger fighter planes like the F-4 Phantoms, which were not designed for dogfights with enemy planes, but shoot them down from beyond the range of guns. The F-16 was optimised for close, within visual rage combat and was more manoeuvrable, lethal and powerful than a MiG-21.
PAF also learned their lessons from the Kargil conflict 20 years back when they didn’t have BVR missiles like the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and F-16s were outdistanced by IAF MiG-29s armed with BVR missiles forcing them to remain well inside their side of the LoC. This time, the F-16s had the AMRAAMs and they were primed to hit back and seize back the initiative with vengeance.
As the PAF strike package consisting of Mirages and JF-17s made its way to targets just inside the Indian side of the LoC, the MiGs appeared on the scene, forcing the PAF planes to fire their air to ground weapons at their targets and withdraw.
The F-16s which were giving top cover to the strike package started targeting the Sukhois with their AMRAAMS while still being well inside their territory whereas the Sukhois were on the Indian side of Kashmir. Several AMRAAMS were fired and the Pakistanis claimed to have shot down a Sukhoi.
Though IAF has dismissed the Pakistani claim, the Sukhois were not able to fire back as the R-77 missiles they were carrying, though BVR, didn’t lock onto the F-16s as they were beyond their range envelope.
With AMRAAMS coming at them at supersonic speeds, the Sukhoi pilots had a torrid time avoiding them but what saved the day was their training and tactics.
Meanwhile, a Bison, piloted by Wing Commander Varthaman Abhinandan, went after PAF aircraft which were withdrawing from the battle, despite the fact that it was ordered to return. Abhinandan couldn’t hear anything as his communication system was jammed by electronic counter-measures deployed by Pakistan Air Force.
This is where things start getting interesting. Abhinandan’s MiG is shot down by an AMRAAM missile fired by an F-16 and he ejects over Pakistan occupied Kashmir and is captured.
IAF claims that before his MiG was hit, he managed to fire a missile at the very F-16 which fired a missile at around the same time, which took down the MiG! Reads like a script for a movie, doesn’t it!
IAF claims the F-16 though there is no independent verification of the plane being shot down.
On its part, Pakistan says it was a JF-17 which shot down the MiG, denying that F-16s were in the area. Pakistan also put on display what it says were the missiles carried by the MiG, which they says proves that before Abhinandan was shot down, he was unable to fire any missile.
Tragically, an IAF Mi-17 helicopter was shot down by friendly fire when it was returning to the Srinagar air base while IAF and PAF fighter planes were duelling it out around 100 km away. It was shot down by an IAF Israeli-made SPYDER quick-reaction SAM system when it was mistaken for a hostile drone. Six IAF personnel onboard the helicopter perished.
So, how did IAF fare on February 27 compared to the high of February 27?
It responded quickly when radars picked up the PAF package moving towards LoC. However, two confirmed loses, included the Mi-17, was a setback. PAF BVR air to air missiles outranging the ones carried by the Sukhois was also a cause of concern. Hence, it ended in a 1-1 draw. February 26 was won by India, while on February 27, PAF came on top notwithstanding the IAF’s claim of downing a F-16.
The inadequacies of the MiG-21 Bison in the modern battlefield were glaringly exposed. Its weapon load, fuel-carrying capacity and communication system were found to be inadequate. With just five weapon-carrying stations, two under each win and one on the underbelly, the Bison can’t be armed with adequate weapon load as two of the stations are needed for carrying fuel drop tanks as the plane’s internal-fuel carrying capacity is limited.
This leaves just three stations free for carrying missiles/bombs. If it carries an underbelly drop tank, it can carry four missiles under the wings but then its range and ‘staying in air time’ is considerably reduced, rendering it less effective.
Against an advanced contemporary fighter plane like the F-16 or the JF-17 and flown by well-trained and motivated pilots, the Bison can’t hold its own and dominate the engagement. IAF needs to hurry up procurement of a replacement if it wants to have an edge over PAF.
The IAF is procuring longer range missiles for its Sukhois. It is also planning to fit jam and eavesdrop resistant radios on its planes.
Had IAF inducted Rafales in good numbers, India would have certainly retaliated for the February 27 strike by Pakistan but it decided against it because of what happened during the aerial engagement when glaring shortcomings surfaced.
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