India-Pakistan Tensions

An airstrike and its aftermath

Tensions have been elevated since Pakistan-supported militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in a suicide bombing on Feb. 14, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an airstrike on what it said was a militant base inside Pakistan.

Indian officials said the raid near the town of Balakot in northeast Pakistan destroyed a training camp of Jaish-e Mohammad, the militant group behind the deadly suicide attack on Feb. 14. India said “a very large number of JeM terrorists.” had been killed.

The villagers, however, said only one person was wounded and they knew of no fatalities. From what villagers could see, the airstrike missed its target.

Satellite image Google, DigitalGlobe, Landsat-1-REUTERS

Satellite image: Google, DigitalGlobe, Landsat / Copernicus, CNES / Airbus

India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, said the strike killed “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated.” Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants on suicide missions.

Another senior government official told reporters that about 300 militants had been killed.

Pakistan disputed India’s death toll estimates, saying the operation was a failure that saw Indian jets bomb a hillside without hurting anyone.

It isn’t clear whether the discrepancy in claims will become a factor as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a second term in India’s general election due by May.

On the wooded slopes above Jaba village near Balakot, residents pointed to four bomb craters and some splintered pine trees. But there were little other visible effects of the explosions that blasted them awake around 3 a.m.

Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village-2-REUTERS

Pakistan army soldier walks near to the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan. February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Asif Shahzad

“It shook everything,” said Abdur Rasheed, a van driver who lives in the area. He said there weren’t any human casualties: “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.”

The target

People in the area said Jaish-e Mohammad did have a presence, running not an active training camp but a madrassa, or religious school, less than a kilometer from where the bombs fell.

“It is Taleem ul Quran madrassa. The kids from the village study there. There is no training,” said Nooran Shah, another villager.

A sign which had been up earlier in the week identifying the madrassa’s affiliation to Jaish-e Mohammad had been removed by Thursday and soldiers prevented reporters from going into the compound.

But it was possible to see the structure from the back. It appeared intact, like the trees surrounding it, with no sign of any damage like that seen near the bomb craters.

Western diplomats in Islamabad also said they did not believe the Indian air force hit a militant camp.

“There was no militant training camp there. It hasn’t been there for a few years – they moved it. It’s common knowledge amongst our intelligence,” said one of them.

A building, which according to residents is a madrasa is seen near to the site where Indian military aircrafts released payload -3-REUTERS

A building, which according to residents is a madrasa is seen near to the site where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan. February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Asif Shahzad

India’s military used 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, an airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft, a mid-air refueller and drones for surveillance in the attack, defence sources said. The Mirages were armed with Israeli developed air to surface Crystal Maze missiles and SPICE 2000 smart bombs, they said.

planes-lg-REUTERS

Mirage 2000
Fighter jets
EMB 145
AWAC
IL-78
Refuelling
IAI Heron UAV
Drone

The AWAC system is used to gather information from the airspace it surveys and facilitate communication between friendly aircraft. In some cases, it can use countermeasures that confuse enemy radar systems.

“For such an operation, decoy and surveillance missions are conducted to figure out when the radars are on and off. No equipment works around the clock, 24/7,” a former air force pilot said.

AWAC flight path

Indian airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft on the morning of the air strike

AWAC flight path-4-REUTERS

Indian air force veterans said the mission would have been planned meticulously to take advantage of the terrain and radar coverage patterns.

“For such an operation, decoy and surveillance missions are conducted to figure out when the radars are on and off. No equipment works around the clock, 24/7,” a former air force pilot said.

The jets may have flown low, hugging the terrain as much as possible to avoid being spotted by radar, which is less effective in mountainous regions.

“In general terms, for a radar located in the valley to look up, it will have severe restriction of view because of the mountains, however optimally you place them,” said a former Indian air force marshal.

Escalating tensions

The incident is the first Indian airstrike on Pakistani territory since 1971. The strikes by Pakistan and India marked the first time that two nuclear-armed powers have clashed using airpower.

escalation-md-5-REUTERS

 

International travel disrupted

Pakistan closed its airspace following the strikes, with commercial flights in the country cancelled.

International airlines that normally transit between Indian and Pakistani airspace have been forced to reroute, including flights by Singapore Airlines, Finnair, British Airways, Aeroflot, and Air India, according to online portal flightradar24.com, which tracks the movement of planes globally.

Air traffic

Feb 27th – 1300 GMT

traffic-lg-REUTERS-6

Source: flightradar24.com

Some flights were mid-air as events were unfolding, forcing them to turn back, circle over India, or divert to new destinations.

tracks-lg-7REUTERS

Finnair
AY142 – Bangkok to Helsinki
Singapore Airlines
SQ308 – Singapore to London
Azur Air
ZF7747 – Moscow to Phu Quoc

The truth behind the success of the Indian attack on Jaish-e Mohammad may become an issue in the Indian election. If the Pakistani version of events is correct and there were no or few casualties, then there will be major questions about whether the mission was a failure and whether the Modi government has deliberately misled the public. If indeed many militants were killed, it should help to garner support for Modi.

Sources: Google Earth; flightradar24.com; Maps4News; Reuters

By Simon Scarr, Chris Inton and Han Huang | REUTERS GRAPHICS
Additional reporting: Asif Shahzad, Alasdair Pal, and Krishna Das | Additional editing: Gerry Doyle and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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