Since the Balakot airstrike has become a major weapon in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s election arsenal, it is doubly important to assess what actually happened on February 26, 2019, when India targeted a site within undisputed Pakistani territory, and on the following day, when Pakistan’s Air Force retaliated, leading to a dogfight in which an Indian Mig-21 Bison was shot down and its pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman captured.

India claimed to have killed “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis” in Balakot and also to have brought down a Pakistani F-16. The Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said she knew the F-16 pilot’s name, but didn’t share it with the media.

Pakistan, meanwhile, claimed India had missed its target on February 26, hitting only a few trees near the terrorism academy/madrasa run by the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot. It also rejected India’s assertion about the F-16 fighter plane. Pakistani officers escorted journalists to the area, but only gave them a long-distance look at the structures. It would take a month for the country to allow media into the site proper.

By the beginning of March, international experts had begun offering interpretations of the events, and their responses were not kind to the Indian narrative. The most damning report was produced by Planet Labs of San Francisco, whose satellites took pictures of the site the day after the strike, and found no visible damage to any structures.

The Indian press and television channels then attempted to reconcile the satellite images with the official Indian story. Commentators insisted three dark marks on the roof of one of the buildings in the image distributed by Planet Labs were holes created by Indian bombs. They even spoke of a secret weapon that could kill people inside a facility while causing minimal damage to its exterior.

The holes-in-the-roof theory has now been disputed by a new source, European Space Imaging, whose satellites also pictured the Balakot area on February 27. These images, taken a little before or after a Planet Labs satellite did the same job, do not contain the three round dark patches, suggesting those were passing shadows.

Like Planet Labs, European Space Imaging, a major global provider of geo-spatial intelligence, was categorical in its conclusion. In an article headlined, “Satellite Imagery confirms India missed target in Pakistan airstrike”, European Space Imaging’s Managing Director Adrian Zevenbergen stated, “The image captured with Worldview-2 of the buildings in question shows no evidence of a bombing having occurred. There are no signs of scorching, no large distinguishable holes in the roofs of buildings and no signs of stress to the surrounding vegetation”.

A precise miss?

If the Israeli SPICE bombs missed, why did they do so despite being so hypersophisticated? In a previous column about Balakot, I suggested it might have been because “somebody keyed in wrong co-ordinates”. A fascinating and insightful analysis in The Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, explains how such an error might have occurred despite Indian officers making no typographical mistakes in the input.

Satellite imagery © 2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company, provided by European Space Imaging. Via The Strategist.
Satellite imagery © 2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company, provided by European Space Imaging. Via The Strategist.

The central issue to grasp is that, since bombs like those guided by the SPICE 2000 follow inclined trajectories, co-ordinates for targets need to be perfectly accurate in three dimensions, not just two. The article’s authors, Marcus Hellyer, Nathan Ruser and Aakriti Bachhawat, surmise that a miss could have been caused by confusing GPS ellipsoidal height and orthometric height based on mean sea level. There is a complicated difference between the two which I only understood after reading this explanation.

Satellite imagery © 2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company, provided by European Space Imaging. Via The Strategist.
Satellite imagery © 2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company, provided by European Space Imaging. Via The Strategist.

In the area around Balakot, the gap between the two measures of elevation is about 33 meters. If one was keyed in instead of the other, the bombs would have passed over the madrasa/terrorist hideout at a height of around 33 meters and crashed into a spot not too far off, the distance from their targets depending on the gradient of the hill in the respective areas. The three strike points identified by Nathan Ruser in a previous The Strategist piece tie in very well with the theory of a “precise miss” caused by a mix-up in elevation co-ordinates. It now seems almost certain that the Indian attack on Balakot did not result in Pakistanis counting corpses, as Narendra Modi would have us believe they are still doing.

Pakistani strikes

What of February 27, the day of the Pakistani retaliation? How could enemy airplanes penetrate Indian airspace without damage at a time when our defences had to have been on the highest of alerts? Journalist Shekhar Gupta tapped his many high-level contacts in the defence establishment to produce an account that, while staying coy about certain crucial details, made the case that years of delays and bad decisions by the BJP and Congress have left India’s armed forces underequipped and underprepared.

According to Gupta:

“The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was able to create surprise and local superiority – technological and numerical – in a chosen battlefield. It struck in daylight when least expected, and perfectly timed to attack the changeover of IAF AWAC [Airborne Warning and Control] patrols. The outnumbered IAF pilots (12 aircraft of three vastly different types), scrambled from various bases, and showed the presence of mind not to walk into the ambush set for them, but they failed to deliver a deterrent punishment on PAF.” 

Gupta, while softening the blow by describing India’s Balakot strike as “successful”, also alleged that a bureaucrat had blocked the purchase of equipment allowing secure data links to be established between pilots and controllers. This lapse led to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being unable to hear warnings that he had crossed the Line of Control and precipitated his plane’s downing.

However disastrous that episode was, at least the pilot survived and returned to India in good shape. Perhaps at some point he will be allowed to clear the air about the F-16. His story overshadowed a terrible tragedy that occurred that same day, an Mi17 V5 helicopter crash in Budgam that killed six Indian Air Force personnel, Squadron Leader Siddharth Vashisht, Squadron Leader Ninad Mandavgane, Flight Engineer Vishal Kumar Pandey , Sergeant Vikrant Sehrawat, and Corporal Deepak Pandey.

Reports are now emerging hinting that the helicopter could have been downed by “friendly fire” in the chaos surrounding the Pakistani incursion. An Israeli missile appears to have been fired at the misidentified target, bringing it down in a field where a civilian also perished.

Dodging questions

To recap the sequence as it now appears, India’s armed forces were given a free hand to attack Pakistan after a suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama district killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel on February 14. They chose to strike Balakot on February 26 in an escalatory incursion into Pakistani territory of a kind never attempted after 1971. Sadly, they missed their target, or perhaps it is fortuitous they did, for the site might have been a functioning madrasa. Killing dozens of children, even children being indoctrinated by a terrorist organisation that has repeatedly murdered Indians, cannot be morally justified.

The very next day, Pakistani jets, including F-16s, flew into Indian airspace and out again, evading our defence systems. They were harried and prevented from causing any damage, but India’s fighters were, in Shekhar Gupta’s words, “outranged and outgunned” on their own turf. In the ensuing dogfight, an Indian jet was brought down in Pakistan-controlled territory, possibly thanks to a lack of viable communications equipment.

Around the same time, a sturdy helicopter carrying several young IAF personnel crashed, perhaps because it was mistakenly targeted by our own air defences.

It is a mystery how any of this qualifies as a triumph worthy of being touted in an election campaign. At the very least, our government and armed forces ought to provide some details countering the international narrative that is building steadily about the Balakot mission’s failure. Yet, the authorities continue to dodge questions or suggest their very asking is unpatriotic.

This is true not just of political leaders, but also military heads. Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa typifies the “answers that are no answers” strategy adopted by Indian authorities. Last week, he quoted Bob Dylan while insisting Pakistan was in denial about the strike’s success. “I can only recall Dylan”, he said, “‘And how many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see; the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’.” Aside from the irony of a military man quoting one of the most famous pacifist anthems of all time in the context of an attack on a foreign nation, it is worth remembering that the refrain, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” is famously ambiguous. Ambiguity can be a virtue in poetry, imbuing verses with wider meanings, but is a vice in interactions between government and citizens.

What we desperately need in the case of Balakot is clarity from the Indian side.

If the BJP rides to victory on the back of unverified claims about the mission, it will guarantee greater misadventures in the future.

Read more:

Why seek proof of IAF strike damage? If a virgin birth can be taken on faith, why not virgin deaths?

Balakot, LoC and Budgam: What we still don’t know about the Indian and Pakistani strikes

What does the satellite imagery tell us about the Indian airstrike on Balakot?