From 16–20 February, the IAF worked with intelligence agencies at the operations room in Delhi’s Vayu Bhawan. With National Security Advisor Ajit Doval receiving a daily update on proceedings, the deliberations were honed by satellite imagery, human intelligence from the ground in Pakistan and PoK, and photographs from a pair of Heron drones flying daily missions along the Line of Control (LoC).

On 21 February, the IAF presented a classified set of “target tables” to the government via the National Security Advisor.

The first in the list of seven separate target options was a JeM terror training compound that sat on a hill called Jabba Top outside the city of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

The IAF recommended Balakot, just 100 km from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, since it was a secluded target with the lowest probability of non-terrorist casualties.

The two other “viable” targets presented to the government were in PoK – Muzzafarabad, 23 km south-east of Balakot, and Chakothi about 70 km away. But these two, along with Bahawalpur, carried not just the risk of collateral damage, but a slightly higher chance of being hindered by Pakistani air defences. Among the remaining options was Muridke, north of Lahore, the city that held the headquarters of that other dreaded India-focused terror group, the Lashkar- e-Taiba (LeT). This too was deemed a highly risky target to consider.

By midnight on 22 February, a highly controlled chain of command decided that the Indian jets would strike the first target in the list – the one outside Pakistan’s Balakot. Every man and woman in the secret chain was aware that if such a mission went through, it would be India’s first air strike on Pakistani soil since the 1971 war. What amplified the mission ahead was that the two countries weren’t at war in 2019. Could such a mission change that?

There was another important reason why Balakot was chosen.

Unlike Muzzafarabad and Chakothi, Balakot was in Pakistan and not PoK. As an international message, an air strike on sovereign Pakistani soil – as opposed to PoK, which India considers its own territory – would make all the difference in the world.

The target dossier submitted to the government also contained pages of data detailing the latest intelligence assessments of the kind of damage that could be caused to terrorist infrastructure in each case. In the case of Balakot, apart from satellite imagery and some medium-grade electronic intelligence, the Indian intelligence agencies had also been able to procure invaluable human inputs from Balakot town.

The intelligence, obtained from Indian “assets” on the ground, provided invaluable shape to the target, and was the original source of a number that would later be the subject of much controversy and debate. India’s assets in Balakot had reported that there would be at least 300 terrorists and terror trainees on site at Jabba Top at any given time. In other words, a facility that was known to house a significant enough number of handlers, terrorist recruits and ideologues, to justify a high-risk air strike from airspace peppered with and primed for anti-air defence.

As a fully intelligence-based operation, it was imperative that India chose targets that involved not just terror infrastructure, but the presence of a significant number of terrorists at any given time.

Apart from the National Technical Research Organisation’s (NTRO) signal intelligence inputs, it was this human intelligence that helped guide and lock India’s choice of target.

It wasn’t the first time India was using such human assets for an offensive operation in hostile territory. In September 2016, during the Indian Army Special Forces “surgical strikes” in PoK, Indian assets in the JeM had confirmed the terror launch pads as viable targets, revealed first in the first book of the India’s Most Fearless series.

A data analyst with one of India’s intelligence agencies told the authors, “An operation of this kind is very difficult without human intelligence on the ground. It would have been a huge risk to do so without a conclusive word to corroborate your other inputs, whether satellite or electronic.”

An Army officer who served on the composite intelligence team that formulated the target packages during the 2016 trans-LoC strikes says, “The question is not about whether ground assets were used or not. They 100 per cent were. The only question, might I add that nobody needs to ever know about, is whether these were the same assets that helped in 2016 or similar assets – or assets of a totally different kind. That will hopefully remain guesswork. Let films and books (!) do the guessing.”

On 24 February, pilots of the Mirage 2000 squadrons in Gwalior were briefed about the mission. That same day, aircraft would be airborne over central India for a short mock air drill alongside a Phalcon AWACS jet and Ilyushin-78M mid-air refuelling tanker from Agra. The jets taking part in the drill didn’t return to Gwalior, instead landing at a base in Punjab. They would remain at the base all of the next day.

The IAF was about to take a violent break from history, but in Delhi, every effort was made to ensure that it was business as usual. On the night of 25 February, hours before the Mirages took to the air on their mission, the IAF hosted a customary farewell banquet for the outgoing chief of the Western Air Command, Air Marshal C Hari Kumar – he was retiring three days later. The sit-down dinner was organised at the Akash Air Force Officer’s mess near Delhi’s India Gate, where just a few hours earlier Prime Minister Narendra Modi had inaugurated the country’s National War Memorial.

Excerpted with permission from India’s Most Fearless 2: More Military Stories of Unimaginable Courage and Sacrifice, Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh, Ebury Books.