According to defense sources, The Indian Air Force (IAF) has strengthened its offensive capabilities significantly since the effective bombing of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) targets in Pakistan’s Balakot exactly two years ago, and the months-long border standoff with China that saw IAF showcase its strength in the Ladakh theatre where it deployed cutting-edge weaponry that was inducted after the unprecedented cross-border strike on February 26, 2019.
IAF’s Mirage-2000s struck targets in Balakot on 26th Feb 2019 in response to the Pakistan-backed Pulwama suicide attack in Kashmir in which 40 CRPF troopers were killed on February 14.
Frontline equipment, inducted over the last two years, form a critical part of IAF’s force projection in eastern Ladakh, and have demonstrated its capability to carry out day-and-night, all-weather combat missions in the sensitive theatre, said officials familiar with the developments.
The platforms inducted over the last 2 years include Rafale fighter jets, missiles, smart air-to-ground weapons, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, and CH-47F (I) Chinook multi-mission helicopters. To be sure, these acquisitions were planned years before the Balakot strikes but were inducted during the last two years.
Referring to some of the new acquisitions, experts said IAF’s fighter, helicopter and transport fleets played a crucial during the Ladakh standoff that began last May. A disengagement process underway in the sector has raised hopes for the resolution of the border row, but de-escalation of the conflict is still a long way to go.
IAF’s fighter fleet, reinforced with new Rafale jets, and the Apache attack helicopters sent a strong message to Beijing, while Indian transport aircraft played a crucial role in the swift mobilization of troops and equipment to forward areas, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
The capability brought to the table by the Rafale jets armed with ultra-modern armament such as Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles and Hammer air-to-ground munition — capabilities that were not available during Balakot.
The need for Rafale jets with their superior weapons was felt during the dogfight with the Pakistan Air Force on February 27, a day after the Balakot raid.
A professional force learns from every engagement, and the Balakot strike was no different, said Bahadur. “While ‘Balakot’ was only a strike mission, the long-drawn-out face-off with China brought to fore the massive airlift capability of IAF.
The investment of planners more than a decade back proved its worth as the Indian Army inducted almost three divisions into Ladakh, along with heavy armor, using the transport fleet of IAF,” said Bahadur.
The air force’s C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft were used to move soldiers, tanks, and infantry combat vehicles to the Ladakh sector, while C-130J Super Hercules aircraft undertook sorties to the advanced landing ground in the strategic Daulat Beg Oldie sector to support the military’s deployments.
The deployment of the Apache attack helicopters made it clear that Chinese mechanized formations would face a formidable foe, he said. Armed with fire-and-forget Hellfire missiles, an Apache can track up to 128 targets a minute and prioritize threats. The missiles equip the gunships with anti-armor capabilities.
The induction of the Chinook multi-mission helicopters enhanced the IAF’s capabilities to transport troops and artillery to forward areas.
“Some capability gaps still remain, especially of combat enablers like AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) and flight refueling aircraft — deficiencies that the government must look into urgently,” Bahadur added.
If the Balakot airstrikes showed there was scope to use fighter jets for taking out targets in Pakistan below the threshold of conventional war, India’s firm actions in Ladakh have made it clear to the Chinese that the salami-slicing tactics in their playbook will not work against India, the people cited above said.
The defense ministry recently approved the purchase of 83 Tejas Mark-1A variants, including 10 trainers for the IAF for Rs 48,000 crore from HAL. The 83 jets will help fill the gaps in the IAF as its fleet is down to 30 squadrons, way below the sanctioned strength of 42. Each squadron comprises 18 fighter jets.
Post the Balakot strike, IAF fast-tracked the integration of the Brahmos missile with Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jets. In May 2019, the Indian Air Force for the first time successfully test-fired the aerial version of the BrahMos missile from a Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft.
The BrahMos missile provides the IAF with a much-desired capability to strike from large stand-off ranges on any target at sea or land with pinpoint accuracy by day or night and in all weather conditions.
Indian Airforce has also Inducted Astra BVR Air-To-Air missile that is designed to be capable of engaging targets at varying range and altitudes allowing for engagement of both short-range targets at a distance of 10 km (6.2 mi) and long-range targets up to a distance of 110 km (68 mi).
Astra has been integrated with Indian Air Force's Sukhoi Su-30MKI and will be integrated with Dassault Mirage 2000, HAL Tejas and Mikoyan MiG-29 in the future.