In the early hours of February 26, 2019, Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets accomplished what had not been achieved since the 1971 war with Pakistan. The fleet of Indian aircraft crossed the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and dropped bombs targeting Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM)’s hill-top facility near Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The "non-military" and "pre-emptive'' airstrike, beyond Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), was India’s response to the terror attack that happened weeks earlier in Kashmir’s Pulwama.
The attack on Pulwama had shocked the nation. A convoy carrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Lethpora in Pulwama on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. The terror attack had resulted in the death of over 40 CRPF personnel, besides the attacker. JeM, a Pakistan-based terror organisation, had promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to news reports, on February 26, 2019, the IAF deployed a strike package comprising multiple Mirage 2000s. The jets were carrying Israeli SPICE 2000 bombs and Popeye precision-guided missiles. The package was supported by Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, a Netra airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS) and two Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refuelling aircraft.
Their target was a JeM camp located on the top of a hill called Jaba Top, away from any densely populated area.
With no scope for error, the IAF had to thoroughly plan the strike and use strategies to deceive the Pakistani defence forces. Reports suggest that SEPECAT Jaguars, or perhaps additional Su-30MKIs, were dispatched from an airbase in southern Punjab towards Barmer, Rajasthan. Then, they turned north-west towards Pakistan – to deliberately hint that they were heading towards the town of Bahawalpur where the JeM headquarters is located. Tasked to deceive, they successfully drew PAF fighter jets away from the main theatre of action near the LoC. Many of the mission's details remain unclear as they have been kept confidential by the IAF for strategic reasons.
The Indian fighter jets were able to enter Pakistani air space, drop bombs at around 3.00 am and return reportedly without being challenged by the PAF’s combat air patrol.
While the airstrike was a response to the Pulwama terror attack and was meant to send a signal of intent to the Pakistani establishment, the IAF’s action that day was significant for more reasons.
It was for the first time that India had broken its long-standing self-imposed red line of not carrying out aerial strikes across the LoC. IAF jets entered the Pakistani air space for the first time since the 1971 war. Further, the target was not just across the LoC in PoK, but in the Pakistani “mainland”. It was also for the first time that such an air operation was carried out after both countries became nuclear powers.
The following morning, IAF jets were scrambled when a large strike package of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) was seen approaching the Indian air space. The PAF’s objective was to carry out a counter-attack. The ensuing clash involved an aerial ‘dogfight’ between IAF’s Wing Commander Abhinandan in the MiG-21 Bison and a Pakistani F-16 jet. It was the first known dogfight manoeuvre between the two rival air forces since 1971.
Incidentally, the news of the airstrike first came from Pakistan's Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor. In a tweet, Ghafoor claimed that the Pakistani forces had intercepted the Indian fleet which caused IAF jets to retreat, release their bombs that hit an open area and dump fuel. Pakistan claimed that the bombs did not hit any facility and accused India of “eco-terrorism” over damaged pine trees.
Pakistan continues to claim that there were no casualties or damage to infrastructure caused by the airstrike. To bolster its claims, the Pakistani government organised a controlled site visit for some international journalists – but that came about 47 days later.
Indian officials asserted that analysis of before-after images from the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) clearly showed that four buildings in the target premises were damaged. Without releasing these images, the official said that the imagery from the first day after the airstrike showed that roofs of the buildings were missing. They maintained that it was up to the government to decide if they want to release the classified images.
The airstrike led to an escalation of tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours with bilateral ties remaining frozen to date.