Over a week ago on February 26th India conducted airstrikes on the JeM (Jaish-e-Muhammad) camp in Balakot, Pakistan. This was seen as a response to the vehicle based IED attack on the CRPF convoy in Jammu & Kashmir where 40+ personnel were killed. The airstrikes initially were praised by all across in India as they had delivered an appropriate response to Pakistan that their deeds wouldn’t go unpunished. The whole nation was united as one with all (regardless of political affiliation) congratulating this brave action by the IAF (Indian Air Force).
Since then a lot has happened including the downing of the Mig-21 pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, his capture by the Pakistani forces & his subsequent return. However the discourse regarding the air strikes has taken a turn for the worse after the initial euphoria of the triumph in a couple of respects:
- Discussion on the number of terrorist eliminated at Balakot training camp.
- Visual proof of the damage done by the airstrikes.
The original statement from Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale that was read out in a press meet on the afternoon on the strike had no mention about the casualties (counted or estimated) in the airstrike. Then the number of terrorists supposedly eliminated started doing the rounds in the media. This number was now being bandied around by the ruling party members (with some variations in numbers) without any confirmation from the government itself. Even the IAF Air Chief B.S. Dhanoa in a press conference a few days ago didn’t want to wade into this debate by saying “The government will clarify that. We don't count human casualties, we count what targets we have hit or not”. The opposition which was on back foot after the air strikes now sensing an opportunity asked the government spokespersons & ruling party members to clarify on how the number of casualties were arrived at. The discussion on casualties has been trivialised to something like how the dacoit Gabbar Singh famously said in the movie Sholay “Kitne aadmi thein”. Thus we have hit a new nadir in discussions on national security where in this mudslinging between both the government & opposition no one has covered themselves in glory. They are missing out on the bigger picture which I will come to a bit later.
Some initial reports when the reporters in Pakistan reached the location close to the airstrike reported that only 1 person was injured & the damage was mostly to the trees. However reporters could get to the camp on the top of the hill which was cordoned off by the military. This would immediately raise suspicion that if the bombs had indeed missed as Pakistanis claimed why not show the location on top of the hill to be absolutely fine. Also there were reports of 10 ambulances being dispatched to the location in question. Frances Mariona reported in a piece on FirstPost that “eyewitnesses present at the site of India's 26 February bomb strikes against a Jaish-e-Muhammad base say they saw up to 35 bodies being transported out of the the site by ambulance hours after the attack.”
Further she said “"Local authorities reached the site soon after the bombing, one witness said, but the area had already been cordoned off by then by the army, who did not even allow police to enter. The army also took away mobile phones from the medical staff on the ambulances.” Separately India Today reported that top leadership of JeM had been decimated including elimination of its top 25 commanders. Now these numbers might not have been around the 300 number reported by some in the media & by certain politicians but it is important to note that the capabilities of the group have been severely dented for sure.
The other big question which sceptics have today is that did we actually hit the locations in question. The above reports of casualties (whatever be the actual number) & ambulances being called into service can’t be happening without something major happening at the site. Regarding the release of photographic evidence until now the government has been unwilling to share any evidence. Many take this as a proof IAF having missed their targets something which the IAF chief denied. Some amateur hobbyists have tried to study it via open source satellite imagery which have been discredited by experts. It is unlikely that open source imagery would update as often to figure out the damage assement to the camp.
On March 5th retired Col Vinayak Bhatt in an exclusive on the ThePrint published the first pictures taken on 4th March with commercial satellites to assess the damage to the camp at Balakot. His assement shows there to be four black spots on the CGI (corrugated galvanised iron) sheet roofs of the structures in the camp. The images also show tents which were present before the strike to be missing meaning they were most likely lost in the strike. There were some burn marks on the top hilltop side away from the structures. However he reports that there doesn’t appear to be extensive damage to the buildings and walls from these air strikes. So to the common man the question would arise did the air strikes fail? I request you to hold that thought for a second.
In midst of this raging controversy on the so called “accuracy” of the air strikes Vishnu Som (Defence Editor at NDTV) reported a day prior to Col Vinayak Bhat’s assessment with a thread on Twitter.
Point 2 in the thread above where Vishnu Som has said that 4 targets hit their target within 1.2m of the selected point of impact. Interestingly Col. Vinayak Bhat reported separately that 4 black marks are observed which would be where the 4 bombs went through the roof to penetrate inside
Vishnu Som said that 4/5 targets hit within 1.2m of the selected point of impact. That means one bomb “missed” it target by a distance greater than1.2m. Could the burns at the top of hilltop that Col. Vinayak Bhat pointed out have been created by this “errant 5th bomb”? Maybe but one can’t say for certain.
Point 8 in the thread where Vishnu Som says that the penetrator variant of the Spice 2000 is not expected to necessarily bring down buildings. Col. Vinayak Bhatt reported that there doesn’t appear to be extensive damage to the buildings and walls from these air strikes.
The most important clue is point 7 in the thread above where Vishnu Som says that weapon uses “blast over pressure within a confined room which kills soft skin targets (read humans)”. Col. Vinayak Bhatt in his assement says “image also indicates that India may have used ‘fuel air explosive’ warheads”.
Both of them point to a common theme that the bombs used were of type referred to by Fuel Air Explosive (FAE) or Thermobaric weapons.
Most conventional explosives consist of a fuel-oxidizer premix (25-30% fuel and 70-75% oxidizer) to create an explosion while a thermobaric weapon contains a 100% fuel while using the oxygen in the air as fuel for the blast. A fuel-air explosive (FAE) device consists of a container of fuel and two separate explosive charges. After the munition is dropped or fired, the first explosive charge bursts open the container at a predetermined height and disperses the fuel that mixes with atmospheric oxygen The second charge then detonates the cloud, creating a massive blast wave. The blast wave is what causes the extensive damage to people present in the vicinity of it. These blast waves in enclosed spaces pose a higher risk to humans because waves reflecting off the walls travel at higher velocity than initial waves with multiple waves converging on the victim. Personnel not in the vicinity of the fireball are still at risk of suffering blast related concussive injuries. Hence this used in enclosed spaces like tunnels, foxholes, bunkers & rooms where the destructive power is magnified.
Now Col. Vinayak Bhatt has mentioned that the roofs were made of corrugated tin roofs which means that you didn’t need a true “bunker buster” type of bomb to penetrate it. Once the bomb enters the roof you can in theory have the conventional explosive charge go off which can blow the place all up. But remember that sometimes a lucky fellow might be able to survive the blast if he is in the right place at the right time. Though not an exactly “apples to apples comparison” but we have seen post-earthquakes people escape deadly building collapses due to the location of where he was in respect to fallen walls & roof.
Air power analyst Angad Singh points out that big penetrator weapons spend most their mass to “penetrate” the target. He goes on to say that the explosive filling in the bomb could be of very small proportion which means that it wouldn’t result in as he says doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up half the hillside. This means that how many are used to seeing the structure being completely demolished might not always occur.
Coming back to FAE now instead of trying to level the walls/roof of the place to bring the building down (like what many are used to seeing from pictures in older conflicts including WW2) you instead use the walls/roof in this enclosed space to magnify the impact of the blast wave which will kill everyone inside from the massive amplified blast wave (called over pressure wave) just in case the subject was lucky to have survived the initial fireball incineration of over a thousand degrees. Now when occupants of these buildings are subjected to temperature of a couple of thousand degrees & show waves up to thousand pounds per square inch bodies would be completely incinerated and/or mangled beyond recognition. In such a situation forget the Indians, even the Pakistani rescue personnel on ground will have hard time coming up with the casualty count. Also this is not a regular school or college or office when after a natural disaster the next of kin would let others know about their missing loved ones to give an accurate picture on the possible number of people present at the camp during the airstrike.
Now the way which an FAE works however might not satisfy critics who instead want to see “the whole building collapsed”. They would only be satisfied with destroyed ruins of the building which once stood, for them to say for certain that the airstrike was successful. To those sceptics I would say that it is best not to speculate & that we should instead leave it to the judgement to the Indian Air Force on what weapon to use (Conventional or FAE). Remember that the targets of the airstrike were the actual terrorists & not the buildings itself. These non-hardened buildings can be built back in quick time (which as per some reports Pakistan is already doing to fool the rest of the world) but the loss of personnel will hurt JeM for some time to come.
Some have literally taken the lack of evidence of the damage resulting from the airstrikes as a sign that the IAF had missed their targets & have “something to hide”. The training camp in Balakot would have to contain a significant number of terrorists to justify the selection of such a target to strike. A target with a much smaller number doesn’t justify the risk take during such a deep penetrative site in enemy territory. A damage assessment would have been done but releasing images is not exactly straightforward as many think. Vishnu Som in the thread above (Points 4 & 5) did confirm that we have confirmation of the damage from a “friendly partner nation” who might not be comfortable to release it because of the image resolution being classified.
India also has what we call as SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) assets some on which are on classified platforms to review the damage. Releasing them might satisfy curiosity of the public but it also will reveal you’re imaging capabilities to the enemy. In the zeal to please the doubting folks we have already revealed to the enemy that the number of terrorists 300 was identified by NTRO based on active mobile connections in the camp. Such information being revealed does in fact harm our interests as you can most likely expect the enemy to adapt. At the time of writing this article Shiv Aroor from India Today had just reported that 12 pages of high resolution images/evidence to the Indian government. Now it will be up to the government to release the evidence.
The fact of the matter is that we did cross the Rubicon where our aircraft crossed the border to strike targets deep within not just PoK but Pakistan. During the 1999 Kargil war crossing the LOC was forbidden by the Vajpayee government. Despite countless terrorist attacks, proposals by IAF to strike across the border fell on deaf ears. The fact that the government has shown courage to undertake a risky operation which will change the template for future provocations from Pakistan. Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd) recently stated in an interview that “'It is not so much about dropping bombs on a target, it is the effect that that bomb creates”. The days of Pakistan hiding behind the umbrella of nuclear weapons while waging asymmetric operations against India are gone. India while shedding its older strategy of “strategic restraint” post terrorist attacks & is willing to use all means at its disposal including air power to pay back in kind if Pakistan engages in terrorism against India. However the most important matter in this what I call this frenzy to identify how many people died & how many buildings did we flatten is missing the BIG PICTURE of the changed equations of how India deals with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. What this unnecessary debate is doing that many people are missing the woods for the trees.