An analysis of Pakistan’s air strikes against Indian Army installations along the Line of Control on February 27 by a reputed think tank indicates that while the neighbour wanted to be seen to be retaliating against the Indian Air Force’s strikes in Pakistan’s Balakot a day earlier, it carefully planned its response to misguide its domestic audience and ensure that the conflict did not escalate into war.
A new paper published by the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) on Friday said Pakistan was fully aware that it was no match for India in a conventional conflict and the air strikes were merely a “demonstration of will” and did not intend to target India’s military or civilian assets. The paper, titled Reality of Pakistan’s Counter Air Strike on February 27: A Demonstration that Failed, noted that Pakistan was encouraged by “false bravado and with the intention to misguide their masses.”
It said the “hurried announcement” about the “early repatriation” of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman also indicated Pakistan’s reluctance to escalate the military situation. Varthaman was captured by the Pakistan Army on February 27 after his MiG-21 Bison was shot down. He downed an F-16 fighter of Pakistan before his plane was hit. Varthaman was released on March 1. The paper, written by CENJOWS senior fellow Group Captain GD Sharma (Retd), noted that Pakistan planned its strikes at an altitude that cost them stealth and launched the attack during the day when its strike package could be easily detected.
“It appears that Pakistan planned strikes at 7000-10000 feet. Clearly, this denied them stealth and also gave Indian air defence a warning time of 10-12 minutes… strikes planned at lower levels could have remained undetected for a larger portion of their flight,” the paper noted, questioning the strike planning. “Planning of strike at 9000h-1000h is militarily illogical as strikes are planned at a time to achieve surprise. At late morning hours, air defences could be expected to be at their best performance augmented by visual observers to detect flights which escape the radar detection,” it added. The paper said the PAF’s objective was not to strike targets on the ground. It noted that only three F-16 attempted shallow ingress of less than 10 km and then exited with the Bison on their tail. “Missing a target is difficult unless the intention is not to hit. The only inference one can draw is either the poor state of training or intended drop of the arsenal was not meant to hit any military or civilian target,” Sharma wrote.
CENJOWS director Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), who has commanded an army division along the LoC, said the area targeted by the PAF has a high density of military and civilian population along with other installations, and it’s “near impossible” to miss a target there. The paper said it was clear that Pakistan could not afford an armed conflict with India because of its precarious financial situation. “At the same time, it did not want to present an impression to its masses that it has chickened out of the prospective conflict…,” it added.