February 27 will be remembered by India, Pakistan and Indian Airforce (IAF) pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman for decades. Four years down the line, it is imperative to scrutinise critically who gained what from this brief skirmish.
Readers may recall that on 14 February 2019, India launched a false flag operation in the Pulwama district of Illegally Indian Occupied Kashmir (IIOK), resulting in the death of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.
Blaming Pakistan for the attack, IAF conducted a night surgical strike on Balakot, well within Pakistan’s sovereign territory in the wee hours of 26 February.
Indian media quoted official sources that twelve IAF Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft were involved in the operation. According to The Indian Express, the Mirage 2000s were equipped with SPICE 2000 & Popeye precision-guided munitions and that they were supported by four Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Netra and Phalcon airborne early warning and control aircraft, an IAI Heron UAV and two Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refuelling aircraft.
Following the incursion, ISPR released the news of the failed strike first; directly the xenophobic Indian media went berserk to the extent that Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claimed that IAF targeted an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan, which was leveled and “350 militants were killed.”
Pakistan not only denied the existence of any training center in the area but also stated that the IAF surgical strike had failed since the bombs only managed to create a few craters and destroy some pine trees.
The same was confirmed by the foreign and local media teams who were provided access to the strike site.
Analysis of open-source satellite imagery by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Laboratory, San Francisco-based Planet Labs, European Space Imaging, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concluded that India did not hit any targets of significance on the Jaba hilltop site in the vicinity of Balakot–thus exposing the Indian false claims.
Besides the IAF, Israel too, must have been disconcerted by the poor performance of IAF in the assault, since the SPICE 2000 & Popeye precision-guided munitions, Phalcon airborne early warning and control aircraft and IAI Heron UAV are all of Israeli origin but they collectively failed to achieve any success.
The next morning, after assessing that IAF was unsuccessful in causing any damage, PAF launched “Operation Swift Retort” to send a clear message to India, targeting multiple locations in IIOK but deliberately dropped their payload off the target sites to avoid any human casualty or collateral damage.
When IAF interceptors tried to retaliate, they were trapped and in the melee, two were shot down by PAF: a MiG-21 and a SU-30. The debris of the SU-30 fell in IIOK and its pilot was killed but the kill was recorded on PAF aerial reconnaissance platforms, yet no formal claim was made or awarded.
The MiG-21 pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who ejected safely, landed in Azad Kashmir and was captured alive.
On the same day IAF mistakenly shot down its own Mi-17 helicopter with SPYDER air defense system (ironically also of Israeli origin), killing six Air Force personnel and 1 civilian in a frenzy of confusion. Later, two Indian officers were court martialed for their faux-pas.
To hide its humiliation, India claimed that Wing Commander Abhinandan shot down a Pakistani F-16 Fighting Falcon before he was downed and awarded him a gallantry award Vir Chakra for his imaginary kill.
Despite insistence, India failed to provide any proof of shooting down an F-16 but US specialists carried out an inventory check, finding all PAF F-16s intact while the media was shown the missile pods of Abhinandan’s MiG-21 from which not a single missile had been fired.
The captured IAF pilot was treated well, interrogated and repatriated. His short interview on TV sipping a cup of tea, which he claimed was “Fantastic” became a social media meme.
Indian morale was shattered at this huge loss of face. To hide its shame, the Indian Air Chief appeared in the media, claiming that the 44-year old IAF MiG-21s were no match and no one even drives such an old car, what to say of flying a fighter aircraft of this vintage.
This was misleading because the MiG-21s of IAF have been upgraded. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on record to say that if the fresh acquisition of Rafael Fighter aircraft from France had occurred, Pakistan would have been taught a lesson.
He failed to acknowledge the 272 Sukhoi SU-30MKI, a very potent multi-role fighter, in IAF inventory.
Public disclosures by PAF personnel, in a special TV show aired on the occasion of Defence of Pakistan Day, depicted that PAF pilots were in a position to shoot down at least half a dozen Indian fighter aircraft but were ordered to keep the kills minimum lest the limited conflict escalates out of proportions and leads to total war.
It was also revealed that in the retaliatory air attack by PAF, a military installation in IIOK was targeted by PAF fighter aircraft where the top brass of India Army was holding an operational briefing.
Targeting them would have blown the Indian commanders to smithereens but the valiant PAF fighter pilots were ordered to deliberately drop their munitions on a playground adjacent to the military installation.
This was depicted through real time imagery on the TV screens and clearly proved the supremacy but restraint of PAF.
India finally got the first batch of Rafael fighter aircraft, despite the smear of corruption and kickbacks.
In 2021, according to France’s national financial prosecutors’ office (PNF), a French judge was tasked with investigating the controversial 2016 deal for 36 aircraft at 7.8-billion-euro ($9.3-billion) sale of Rafale fighter jets to India on “corruption” suspicions.
Despite the acquisition of the much-touted Rafales, India’s dreams of gaining air superiority will not materialise since PAF has always faced an adversary many times superior in numbers and sophistication of weapon systems.
The edge that PAF has enjoyed over its arch rival is better training, higher morale and level of motivation coupled with superior maintenance systems and close coordination of assets.
It would have been expected that India would have learnt its lesson and if Wing Commander Abhinandan now a Group Captain, would have been a fighter pilot worth his salt, he would have divulged the truth about the false claim of shooting down an F-16 and returned the gallantry award conferred upon him on a fake premise.
Unfortunately, he continues to relish the “fantastic” but very expensive cup of tea provided by his Pakistani captors, since he paid for it with an IAF MiG-21 and his own integrity.
There is however a method in the madness because Narendra Modi fully exploited the February 26/27 events, boasting that Pakistan had been taught a lesson for the alleged Pulwama “terror attack”, 350 Jihadists had been eliminated in Balakot and a state-of-the-art Pakistani F-16 was shot down by IAF. Building on his plethora of lies, Modi duped his gullible but chauvinistic nation and scored a decisive victory in the May 2019 polls.
Taking advantage of the support of his extremist vote bank, on August 5, 2019 Modi abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution and illegally annexed the disputed territories of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh into the Indian Union and kept the hapless Kashmiris in a state of lockdown for over three years.
In December 2019, a further emboldened Modi promulgated the draconian legislations: National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to target Muslims in India and unleash extreme barbarity to subjugate them, turning them into second class citizens, stripped of their privileges, rights and even dignity.
In retrospect, Pakistan has been gloating over its success in the air battle on February 27, 2019 but the Kashmiris and Indian Muslims have paid heavily in the aftermath.
While Pakistan itself is embroiled in economic, political and perhaps moral meltdown, India has progressed in leaps and bounds despite hiccups like COVID-19 and the Farmers’ Strike.
To borrow some statistics from Shahzad Chaudhry’s op-ed ‘On India’ “It (India) has the fifth largest economy in the world, ahead of the UK. It is aimed to be the third largest economy in the world by 2037. It is fourth in FE Reserves with over 600 billion USDs. Its growth rate in GDP matches the best performing economies over the last three decades after China. She is projected to stay on that path. India has world’s second largest army and the third largest military.”
India’s rise may have been based on a false premise but its international stature has become a reality.
Pakistan on the other hand may have gained a moral victory on February 27, 2019 , but it has not achieved stability economically or politically.
Resultantly it is neither in a position to provide more than moral support to Kashmir, the Indian Muslims or itself. Only having a strong air force is not an assurance of steadiness but a stable political environment, good governance, sound economic policies and robust foreign relations together make a nation strong and relevant.
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