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Five years of Balakote airstrikes: A retrospective analysis

Five years of Balakote airstrikes: The Balakote airstrike also exposed the limitations of Pakistan's nuclear deterrence. Pakistan had developed tactical nuclear weapons to counter India's conventional advantage and to deter any Indian incursion into its territory.

Reported By : Manish Prasad Edited By : Sheenu Sharma
New Delhi
Updated on: February 26, 2024 6:21 IST
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Image Source : PTI (FILE) Five years of Balakote airstrikes: A retrospective analysis.

Balakote airstrikes: On February 26, 2019, India carried out a daring airstrike on a terrorist camp in Balakote, Pakistan, in response to the Pulwama attack that killed 40 Indian security personnel. The airstrike, dubbed as "Operation Bandar", was the first time since the 1971 war that Indian warplanes crossed the Line of Control and entered Pakistani airspace. The operation was hailed as a success by the Indian government and media, who claimed that a large number of terrorists were killed and their infrastructure was destroyed.

Strategic implications

The Balakote airstrike was a significant departure from India's previous responses to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. India had refrained from using its conventional military superiority against Pakistan, fearing escalation to the nuclear level. Pakistan, on the other hand, had relied on its nuclear deterrence to shield its support for terrorist groups operating in Kashmir and elsewhere in India. The Balakote airstrike challenged this status quo and demonstrated India's willingness to use force against Pakistan's non-state actors, even at the risk of provoking a conventional or nuclear conflict.

The Balakote airstrike also exposed the limitations of Pakistan's nuclear deterrence. Pakistan had developed tactical nuclear weapons to counter India's conventional advantage and to deter any Indian incursion into its territory. However, the Balakote airstrike showed that India could strike Pakistan's non-military targets without crossing Pakistan's nuclear threshold. Pakistan's response was also constrained by the international pressure and the fear of losing its credibility as a responsible nuclear state.

The Balakote airstrike also had implications for the regional and global security environment. The Balakote crisis was the first time that two nuclear-armed states engaged in a limited aerial conflict, raising the specter of a nuclear war in South Asia. The crisis also highlighted the role of major powers, especially the United States and China, in managing the India-Pakistan rivalry. The United States played a key role in de-escalating the crisis and facilitating the release of the Indian pilot. China, on the other hand, tried to balance its strategic partnership with Pakistan and its economic interests with India and called for restraint and dialogue between the two sides.

Operational implications

The Balakote airstrike also revealed the operational strengths and weaknesses of the Indian and Pakistani air forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) displayed its professionalism, courage and precision in executing the Balakote operation. The IAF used a combination of Mirage-2000 and Su-30MKI fighter jets, armed with Israeli-made Spice-2000 bombs and Russian-made R-73 missiles, to strike the Balakote camp. The IAF also employed electronic warfare and deception techniques to evade Pakistan's air defense systems. The Spice-2000 bombs hit their intended targets and caused significant damage to the terrorist camp.

The Pakistani Air Force (PAF), on the other hand, showed its resilience, agility and readiness in responding to the Indian airstrike. The PAF scrambled its F-16 and JF-17 fighter jets, armed with American-made AIM-120 AMRAAM and Chinese-made PL-12 missiles, to intercept the Indian planes. The PAF also used its advantage of operating from a higher altitude and a shorter distance to launch a counter-attack on Indian military installations. This was the first time ever when any F-16 was hit by MIG-21 as a result one MIG-21 of IAF and one F-16 of PAF was shot and Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured by Pakistan.

Political implications

The Balakote airstrike also had political ramifications for both India and Pakistan. The airstrike boosted the popularity and credibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was facing a tough general election in April 2019. The airstrike showcased Modi's decisive and assertive leadership, and his commitment to national security and sovereignty. The airstrike also galvanized the nationalist sentiment and the public support for Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP won a landslide victory in the 2019 election, securing a second term for Modi.

The airstrike also had an impact on the domestic politics of Pakistan. The airstrike put pressure on Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was facing an economic crisis and a political opposition. Khan had to balance his response to the Indian provocation with his agenda of peace and development. Khan also had to manage his relations with the powerful military establishment, which had a vested interest in maintaining the hostility with India. Khan tried to project himself as a statesman and a peacemaker, by offering dialogue and releasing the Indian pilot. A Pakistan MP in parliament had revealed that Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released over fears of an attack by New Delhi.

The successful execution of the Balakote air strike along with the surgical strike of 2016 bolstered India's credibility as a responsible regional power capable of safeguarding its security interests. It showcased India's military capabilities, operational readiness, and political will to take decisive action against terrorist threats. This enhanced credibility fostered greater confidence among India's allies and partners, strengthening regional security cooperation and coordination.

Conclusion

The Balakote airstrike was a watershed moment in the history of India-Pakistan relations. The airstrike marked a shift in India's strategy of dealing with Pakistan's cross-border terrorism, and challenged Pakistan's nuclear deterrence posture. The airstrike also tested the operational capabilities and limitations of both air forces, and highlighted the role of major powers in managing the crisis. The airstrike also had political consequences for both countries, and affected the prospects of dialogue and peace in the region. Five years after the Balakote airstrike, the lessons learned and the implications for the future remain relevant and important.

ALSO READ: Balakot airstrikes: How Indian Air Force entered Pakistani airspace and destroyed JeM terror camps

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