Balakot: Forget SPICE-2000, IAF’s Success Depends on Much Else

What does the success of an air strike with modern aircraft, on targets deep within enemy turf, depend on?

5 min read
Rafael Spice; a guided bomb. Image used for representational purposes.

On 6 March 2019, a fresh “interpretation” of the damage done by the IAF air strikes in Balakot on 26 February was let loose.

This “interpretation”, ostensibly to counter reports in foreign media that the air strikes had caused no / minimal damage to the buildings comprising the Jaish-e-Mohammed seminary at Jabba Top, Balakot, held that the Israeli-origin SPICE-2000 ‘bomb’, utilised by the Indian Air Force (IAF), was equipped with penetration warheads – “these bombs "pierced roofs" of the buildings targeted, and exploded inside. So, the damage was "internal".

What is the SPICE-2000?

Firstly, the SPICE-2000 is a not a bomb at all – it is a guidance kit that is fitted to a “dumb” / gravity-guided bomb in order to convert it into a “smart” bomb. Secondly, even if the bomb had a penetration warhead and had detonated inside the building(s), there is no way an explosion of a 1,000 kg bomb would NOT fully blow out the walls of the buildings. Anyone who thinks otherwise, perhaps needs to see up close, the explosion of an air-dropped 1,000 kg bomb.

With Pakistan claiming that the strike had been ineffectual, and foreign media and some foreign organisations showing pre and post-strike satellite imagery to outline minimal or no damage, the number of militants “killed” soon got disputed.

While it is indeed possible that the strike did not do any ‘real damage’, but should this make us cast a shadow on the capable and professional IAF?

Why Only Question Balakot Air Strikes, Even US Missed Its Targets

It needs to be noted that the world’s foremost military power, the US, with the most sophisticated aircraft (including stealth aircraft), most accurate weapons and vast intelligence resources at its disposal globally, missed killing Osama bin Laden a number of times. It got Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq (the forerunner of the ISIL/ISIS) after a number of attempts. It has still not been able to kill the ISIS chief Baghdadi.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has missed its targets innumerable times, and has instead killed innocent people, among them, many children (insensitively labelled as “collateral damage in the GWOT”).

Ditto with armed UAVs (drones) in the tribal areas of Pakistan and elsewhere. According to US think-tank New America Foundation, the so-called ‘precision strikes’ with armed drones from 2004 to 2011 killed 2,551 people, of whom 20 percent were civilians.

On 1 June 2018, the Pentagon, in its annual report, detailed that US military actions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen in 2017 killed 499 civilians. And all this happened in countries where there was no anti-aircraft threat to the US fighter aircraft or its drones. In other words, air strikes, particularly those conducted inside the territory of a near-equal-capability enemy (read ‘Pakistan’) cannot always find that needle in the haystack.

The fact is that the success of an air strike with modern aircraft, on targets deep within enemy territory, is dependent on five main factors:

What Our IAF Needs: Quality Intel, High-Accuracy GPS...

  • The quality of intelligence, particularly the accuracy of the GPS coordinates. The latter requires someone to go to the site and take GPS readings with a sophisticated GPS instrument, an effort that is fraught with many risks, including loss of surprise. So, it’s possible that the target coordinates were picked up from satellite imagery. It merits mention that the US military is able to access more accurate GPS data, thereby endowing its weapons with higher accuracy. For other countries, a coarser version is made available, with attendant loss of accuracy.
  • The accuracy, or rather the Circular Error Probable (CEP), of the weapon utilised in the strike. The SPICE-2000 bomb kit has a CEP of 03 meters under ideal conditions.
  • On flat ground, this 03 m CEP is really immaterial, as it would still blow a building to smithereens. However, in mountains, a 03 m CEP could make a bomb fall in a gorge. This is explained in the graphic opposite. The IAF therefore cannot be faulted – it had delivered the bombs as accurately as possible.

On-Ground Human Intel Needed

  • Real-time intelligence updates: 300 cell-phones may have been monitored on a particular day or over a period of time – but were all the users there in the seminary at the time of the strike? This is a question that is best answered by on-ground HUMINT (human intelligence) providing last-minute, pre-strike real-time intelligence, as happens in many US’ drone strikes. It also needs to be noted that after 9/11 and 26/11, the Pakistani establishment had learnt to hide the camps and its establishment’s links to terrorist entities/groups, for full deniability. Thus, terrorist training camps are just that – camps – and they do not have a permanent presence.
  • Witnessing rehearsed bombing in a firepower display is one thing – having a pilot venture into enemy territory that has an active anti-aircraft threat, is quite another. It implies that the fighter pilot is juggling many things on a high-speed aircraft and is multi-tasking intensely. Such dynamics are not really akin to missions on PUBG - sipping coffee, taking a break, and then coming back to destroy the ‘enemy’, with the only tension being a mother shouting.

Has the Morale of Our IAF Been Damaged?

Finally, does a discussion on the efficacy of the strike have a potential to affect the morale of any part of the armed forces? Yes, if you believe guys who perhaps cannot distinguish between a gorilla and guerrilla, or a pistol from a revolver, or a bayonet from a “katchu”. The reality however, is that the Indian Armed Forces are well-trained professional organisations with career officers and soldiers, and consequently, their morale is not like a yo-yo, up one minute and down, another.

If that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to fight after suffering just one casualty per unit. Nevertheless, such a line of thought (on morale) has very ominous portents for the armed forces.

In the future, a combat sub-unit sent into enemy territory could well retort, ‘do not question me – just believe what I said – or I will lose my morale’ . It is therefore, time for all political parties to leave the armed forces out of this squabbling for votes. The IAF did the job they were asked to. Perhaps some expected them to overcome technological constraints beyond their control, alter the terrain and importantly, orchestrate the presence of militants at the site.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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