What follows is a rebuttal to a blog by Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail (Retd), PAF, on the not so recent, and well publicised military exchange between the Indian Air Force and the Pakistani Air Force following the terrorist attack at Pulwama in February 2019. His blog can be accessed at: http://kaiser-aeronaut.blogspot.com.
Prior to the publishing of this article, the Pakistani narrative with respect to Balakot was marked by a complete absence of any comment or statement from the Pakistan Air Force. To address this gap, Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail (retd) long-winded article explores the entire chain of events starting from the Pulwama attack, through Balakot, till the attempted Pakistani riposte on 27 February leading to the air engagement between the IAF and the PAF. That he represents the PAF’s quasi-official spokesperson is more or less evident from his article. The details he gives out make it quite clear that the PAF has given him complete access to records. The large gaps he plugs, with some creative imagination.
This is obviously an attempt by the PAF to create a narrative as per its requirements and free from the encumbrances of the ISPR, whose credibility has taken a hit after its DG, Major General Asif Ghafoor, faced ridicule for backtracking on many statements made on camera. Evidently, the PAF felt a need to chart its own course, and for this it enlisted the services of its most erudite blogger and historian.
Air Cmde Tufail starts off by eulogizing a ‘young Kashmiri lad’ whose act of hate he more or less justifies as being the product of the ‘torture’ and ‘humiliation’ at the hands of the Indian security forces. It matters not that in his own video, Dar did not ever mention this aspect but only gave out his hatred for ‘cow-piss’ drinking infidels. It is tragic to see a professional airman become a terror apologist. Air Cmde Tufail hints at a falsified Indian narrative of JeM involvement, and that political gain was the real reason for Indian actions. This line is consistent with the long held policy of denial that Pakistan has followed.
Air Cmde Tufail tries to score some points on India’s denial of ‘self determination’ for Kashmiris but displays a complete lack of knowledge, or a surfeit of convenience. Flogging the dead horse of the UN resolutions he omits explaining how Pakistan itself rendered them null and void by ceding the Shaksgam Valley to China.
Air Cmde Tufail then emphatically declares the IAF’s Balakot strike a failure. Though officially the High-Resolution imagery showing weapon hits on designated targets has not been shared by the Indian government, the same has been shown at closed door briefings to various members of the media. But even from open source alone, this is apparent. Sameer Joshi has in a detailed article demolished the denial over the Balakot terror camp using satellite imagery available online (https://medium.com/@sameerjoshi73/debunking-the-isprs-antithesis-of-a-precision-strike-at-balakot-2a4a9e7cc587). Some images of one of the main designated target, the Mujahid hostel at the northern edge of the camp are shown below. These clearly indicate impact of three SPICE 2000 bombs.
The pattern of damage was exactly as would be expected from a weapon of this type. This too was adequately explained in another article by the same author (https://theprint.in/opinion/balakot-air-strike-why-iaf-used-907-kg-penetrator-bombs-to-target-jaish-terror-camp/205227/) using logic and scientific reasoning and not hopeful theology preferred by Air Cmde Tufail. A similar pattern of damage has also been seen in Israeli strikes on Hamas. A screenshot of the twitter handle of journalist Vishnu Som who shared those images is given below :-
For those who have read these pieces and others (such as the one by journalist Francesca Marino which stated the number of those killed as between 130 and 170) which have appeared in the media, would by now be clear as to ‘which’ buildings were actually targeted by the IAF. The Pakistan Army certainly would be as they would have seen the effects firsthand. But, it is also an open secret that the PAF is completely marginalised in Pak defence decision making. The PAF would have no clue as to what happened there, and Air Cmde Tufail, with due respect, wouldn’t fare better either. And of course, he is silent about a number of uncomfortable questions. If indeed the seminary housed ‘children’ studying the Holy Quran, why did it figure in the US dossier? Why did it have a damning signboard with Masood Azhar’s name on it? Why was it removed? Why haven’t Indian intelligence agencies’ photo dossiers been negated? Was the pattern of damage at those so called ‘impact’ sites consistent with a penetration warhead of a SPICE bomb?
And finally, why the delay of 42 days? Surely no ‘security concerns’ could have been posed by these kids to visiting journalists. Then why the convenient silence. Isn’t it because the PAF has no idea of what happened on that hilltop. In light of this, can’t really blame Air Cmde Tufail for failing to mention that the journalists were given an exclusive, but carefully controlled and calibrated tour which avoided the buildings actually targeted. This becomes clear from the images below :-
Instead, he asks why the aircraft, which could have attacked from 60 km, came so close to release their bombs? Choice of impact trajectory and strong westerlies perhaps slipped his mind. Fighter pilots, after all, also have shelf lives, especially if they are occasionally the victim of ‘joy-rides’ every now and then, maybe? Somewhere along the way he also talks about ‘data link’ guidance of the SPICE bomb which must surely raise an eyebrow with the manufacturers!
Air Cmde Tufail then cites the Australian Strategic Policy Initiative (ASPI) theory about an incorrect terrain elevation model having been used and quotes a PAF expert. Such a fundamental error can happen, especially in countries which do not have advanced space based terrestrial imaging and mapping capabilities and no indigenous satellite navigation systems. So, it is entirely likely that the PAF has faced problems on this count as the PAF expert did admit that ‘such errors were not unusual’. But this reasoning may not extend across the Radcliffe line. Secondly, the shorter range and the near vertical trajectory that seems to have been employed, plus, the mode of terminal guidance of the SPICE munitions (DSMAC), would both eliminate such errors, even if they did exist. DSMAC would give precise guidance to impact based on scene comparison negating errors of height and even minor errors of position. A vertical final trajectory would mean the munition arrives directly above the target (remember, no horizontal errors are being spoken of, only vertical), and then vertically dives into it. A minor height error (33 m is the error cited in the ASPI article) is of no consequence in this. But the graphic shared (from the original ASPI article) shows a shallow oblique trajectory. Again, it’s one thing for satellite data/ OSINT analysts to comment on weaponeering when they don’t have a clue, but for a former fighter pilot who is expected to know better to espouse it, raises questions about the depth of his expertise in contemporary SMART munitions, his error of judgment, or a lack of access to authentic data from that day.
The PAF’s admission that such ‘errors were not unusual’ read in conjunction with the IAF’s claim of foiling the PAF’s attack the next day probably gives the reason why all PAF bombs missed their targets. It is now fairly clear that the targeting by Su-30s and Mirage-2000s of PAF Mirage-IIIs guiding the H4 bombs caused them to go astray. The PAF’s problems with the terrain modeling caused their Mk-83 REKs to land harmlessly away from intended targets.
Of course Air Cmde Tufail’s summary of the entire action by PAF can be summed up as ‘The IAF did not expect a response from PAF and hence PAF fighters came through unhindered to hit dirt as planned’. The only thing going in favour of this theory is the obvious fear of escalation and of incurring losses that the PAF had. Air Cmde Tufail cloaks this fear by repeatedly mentioning ‘all-out war under a nuclear overhang’ trying to resurrect the dead and buried nuclear bogey.
He further highlights the ‘instant response’ of the PAF, in a kind of proof of resolve. However, it is inconceivable that the PAF had not modeled a plan catering to just such an exigency as the air strike option has been on the table for India since at least 2001. In all probability, this was a much rehearsed plan, and not one evolved in the immediate aftermath. And regardless of what the COAS Gen Bipin Rawat may or may not have said, the Indian Army has been taking offensive action on the LoC as required. It is another matter altogether that infiltration is down to nearly zero.
Air Cmde Tufail’s account of the engagement between the forces makes for entertaining reading. But if he is to be believed, then the PAF has based its entire claim to a Su-30 kill on the range at which the blip was picked up, and how it eventually disappeared.The words ‘the blip vanished from the screens after a couple of tight orbits by the aircraft’ are most interesting. Nine out of ten line fighter pilots would agree that this is how a chaff (mass of thin cut metal foil dispensed by aircraft to give a decoy radar target) cloud appears on radar, more or less stationary, and descending with time, eventually disappearing as it dissipates. This is an admission that Sqn Ldr Hassan Siddiqui, of the ‘elite’ Combat Commanders School actually fired off a $ 400,000 AIM-120 C-5 AMRAAM at a few dollars worth of chaff that was, without a doubt, dispensed by IAF fighters as expected in BVR combat. This failure to discern a ‘chaff cloud’ from a bona fide aircraft by an ‘elite’ pilot should be cause for worry. Not to mention that the state of Pakistan cannot afford this kind of extravagance, with multiple such futile launches observed the day.
But while the PAF lays claim to a Su-30 after killing a chaff cloud, it remains completely silent about the mountain of evidence about its own F-16 loss. Air Cmde Tufail has nothing to say about eyewitness accounts, videos and photographs which have shown two different and distinct aircraft going into the ground, and two distinct and different pilots parachuting down. This is open source evidence generated from the Pakistani side of LoC alone. Add to this the radar picture shared by the IAF, visual sightings by the Indian Army, and communication intercepts between an NLI unit and a Mujahid battalion about two distinct and different pilots, and there remains no doubt that over and above Abhinandan’s Bison, another aircraft went down in PoK on 27 Feb in that engagement. Identities of pilots may take time to be verified in the ‘fog of war’, but counting would not. Specifics like the DG ISPR’s statement that ‘one is in custody while the other is injured and admitted to CMH and being taken care of’ indicate without doubt that there were two pilots, of which one was admitted to hospital.It is inconceivable that a counting error was discovered so late as to allow the Pakistan PM also claim custody of two pilots on TV. Later of course, DG ISPR stated in a telephonic interview that the second had died.
Curiously, the two ‘heroes’ of PAF have not been seen in public since then. Neither have they been exposed to the tightly controlled media, or a limited media interaction been organized. The PAF Chief enjoyed his moment in the sun at the National Day flypast but the two heroes were not honoured. Air Cmde Tufail does not offer any comment. Maybe because he has none to offer? Sadly, even during the Kargil war, Pakistan had disowned its troops who died in battle. They were then given honourable burials by the Indian Army. One can only imagine what the families of those who fall in battle and are then disowned by their country would feel. Something that is unimaginable in India is pretty much national policy in Pakistan. For the country that housed Osama and denied culpability it is unlikely that the loss of an F-16 and its pilot would ever be accepted.
The IAF’s ‘unsporting’ conduct of showing AMRAAM pieces proved the involvement of the F-16s, initially denied by DG ISPR. This was the first of DG ISPR’s lies which he later retracted, and which Air Cmde Tufail now confirms. He further discusses the possible fratricide of a Mi-17 V5 helicopter about which the Indian media has reported extensively. He claims it was monitored by ‘radar and VHF monitoring’. Again, it is difficult to comprehend, how the path of the Su-30 claimed to have been hit is not known to the PAF, but a low flying helicopter flying well below the radar horizon in the ‘bowl’ of the Kashmir valley was monitored in real time. And that despite knowing this, the PAF / Pak Army did not exploit this information at all. Perhaps it was the spirit of sportsmanship?
What follows is a mix of lies, half-truths and convenient assumptions, or possibly poor interpretation of available intelligence. This includes manufactured RT calls, and some deliberately provocative statements about the lack of gumption on account of IAF’s Mirage and Su-30 crew. The PAF seems to be using this opportunity to play some mind games of its own. It is possible that these remarks have been brought upon after the Pakistan Air Chief became the subject of ridicule with his rear seat joy ride in an F-16 trainer at the 23 March National Day flypast.
The ISPR line continues in the article. Now it pertains to the four missile layout, which Air Cmde Tufail says is evidence of none having been fired. But the reality is that the early footage of the wreckage of the MiG-21 taken when it was still burning, shows only one partial missile, attached to a mangled launcher. Subsequent images show a detached seeker head placed by the nose of the wreck which was missing in the earlier footage. The second R73 is nowhere on site.
This second and nearly intact (though broken in four pieces) R73 mysteriously appears, first in a tweet on 17 March 2019 alongside an R77 also mistakenly identified as an R73. For reasons best known to them, the PAF did not show the other R73, the one whose mangled remains along with its launcher were available at the wreckage and are actually seen in the background in the same photo. If indeed both R73s were available at the wreck, why would the first photo be released only more than ten days later? Unless, of course one factors the time taken to ‘manage’ an R73 in lieu of the one that was fired. Any number of places where that could be done from. Travel upstream on the CPEC, or go online on E-bay. The images given below explain this:-
If any further evidence of Air Cmde Tufail’s descent from erudite historian to a manipulated propagandist was needed, he gives it in abundance in twisting Wing Commander Abhinandan’s words. Perhaps what Air Cmde Tufail could have commented on was the ‘sportsmanlike’ conduct of the ISPR who videotaped Abhinandan on numerous occasions even when each and every video became a PR disaster. But perhaps he is currying favour with the Pak Army by parroting Abhinandan’s politeness as a thumping endorsement of the Pakistani Army’s (Not the PAF, mind you, but the Pak Army) ‘professionalism’. He was after all, out of favour after writing a severe indictment of the Pakistan Army’s ill-fated Kargil incursions wherein the PAF had been kept completely in the dark.
He gives puerile arguments about Abhinandan not being received with warmth when the reality was completely different and watched by all on live TV. Comments on his further remarks theorizing about how Indian officials may have reacted to him would be as pointless as the remarks are juvenile.
Finally, adhering to the standard ISPR pattern, he invokes one western author (Lara Seligman), and one US based commentator of Indian origin (Vipin Narang) to seal his opinion of the nature of exchange. Incidentally, the report on the F-16 count produced by the Foreign Policy was immediately discounted by the official spokespersons of the US government. No count up by any American agency was conducted and the entire report was a flight of fancy.
What is very clear is that the PAF is attempting to cement its claim of the ‘valiant few against the odds’ narrative. In addition, it seeks to emphasize the ‘dangers-of-full-fledged-conflict-between-nuclear-neighbours’, theory which Air Cmde Tufail repeats ad nauseam. There is of course a subtle shift in reasoning. From parroting the line that ‘if-you-cross-the-LoC-we-will-nuke-you’, the Pakistani establishment has shifted to ‘if-we-go-to-full-fledged-war-we-may-nuke-you’.
This shift is the result of the first bluff being called. The nuclear red-line has shifted in space, and circumstance. It now lies not at the LoC, but only at the outbreak of full fledged war. And that escalation to full fledged war is something Pakistan has sought to avoid this time. That showed rationalism in thinking. Which also implies that the nuclear threshold lies where it was always thought to lie, basically not at the ‘outbreak’ of conventional war, but rather only if Pakistan faces an existential threat. We may never reach the second stage. Thus, ‘escalation control’ rests firmly with India. And this is the reason why panic has set-in within the Pakistan defence establishment. Air Cmde Tufail’s article is a combination reflecting this panic, and the PAF’s desire to establish some control over the narrative. Hence, his last line, ‘fighter pilots do it best’.
Addendum: I write this not out of spite for Air Cmde Kaiser Tufail, but for my immense admiration for his achievements till date. His writings until now have displayed a rare sense of objectivity and balance, among South Asian military historians. I fear, however, that in this context, he has selectively chosen to embrace, (to paraphrase Brig. Gen. Robin Olds’ words) – ‘a desire to be good, to do well, in the eyes of your peers’. Surely, the need ‘to do good by one’s own mind’ couldn’t have been lost on him.