On 27 February 2019, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) conducted six airstrikes at multiple locations in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The airstrikes were part of the PAF military operation codenamed Operation Swift Retort and were conducted in retaliation to the Indian Air Force (IAF) airstrike in Balakot just a day before on 26 February.
It was the first time since 1971 that both countries’ airforces had conducted airstrikes on each other’s territory across the Line of Control (LoC). India conducted an airstrike in Balakot on 26 February while Pakistan responded by conducting airstrikes in Indian-administered Kashmir. Following Pakistan’s airstrikes, Indian Air Force (IAF) jets started pursuing Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets. In the resulting dogfight, Pakistan claimed to have shot down two Indian jets and captured one Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman. Indian officials acknowledged that one IAF jet was lost. Indian officials also claimed to have shot down a PAF F-16 jet. Pakistan rejected the Indian claim and said that the PAF did not suffer any losses in the dogfight. One IAF Mil Mi-17 helicopter was also lost due to a friendly fire incident.
1. Pulwama attack
On 14 February 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu–Srinagar National Highway was attacked by alleged Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed group’s vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Lethpora in the Pulwama district, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. The attack resulted in the deaths of 46 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and the attacker. The perpetrator of the attack was from Indian-administered Kashmir.
2. Balakot Airstrikes
After the attack, India said it targeted alleged militant camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed in an airstrike on Balakot, Pakistan, and killed a large number of militants. Pakistan condemned the violation of Line of Control and vowed to retaliate. In a press conference, spokesperson of the Pakistan Army, Major-General Asif Ghafoor, said that Pakistan will respond to the airstrike and will surprise India.
Additionally, he rejected India’s claims of hitting militant camps and causing any damage or casualties. Ghafoor said that if the airstrikes caused casualties, there would have been blood and funeral prayers, but not even a single brick or any debris was present there. He further stated that anyone can visit the site to verify the claims.
Operation Swift Retort
On 27 February 2019, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Pakistan Air Force had conducted six airstrikes at non-military targets in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistani officials stated that their fighter jets were able to lock onto the target with great accuracy but they were ordered to drop their bombs in an open space where there was no human presence to avoid any human loss or collateral damage. According to Pakistani officials, the strike was meant to demonstrate Pakistan’s capability to do without any wanted further escalations. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the strikes were meant to send a message to India. Indian Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor refuted Imran Khan’s claim, he stated that “Pakistan claims they intentionally dropped weapons in open space where there was no human presence, however, they dropped bombs on military targets (for IAF’s airstrike on terrorist camps). Therefore, the escalation has been done not by us by him [Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan]”. The PAF jets entered into Indian air space over Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch and Nowshera sector to hit targets. The locations struck by the PAF jets were identified to be Nadian, Laam Jhangar, Kerri in Rajouri District and Hamirpur area of Bhimber Ghali in Poonch by Indian officials. Indian officials, however, denied that the target of Pakistani airstrike were non-military targets. Indian officials claimed that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets had deliberately targeted military positions like the Indian army’s 25th division headquarters, ammunition and supply depot. According to Indian Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, the Pakistani airstrike missed their intended target. PAF jets were intercepted by an unspecified number of IAF jets. The IAF fleet was composed of MiG-21, Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Dassault Mirage 2000.
At 8:45 AM, Pakistani airspace was shut down for civilian flights and all commercial flights were cancelled. PAF aircraft took off about 30 minutes later coordinating the timing with the changeover of IAF AWACS. A combination of 25 aircraft including F-16 and Mirage 5 made their way towards Indian airspace but stayed within Pakistani airspace. Some of the aircraft went south towards Rajasthan to act as decoys.
The announcement was followed by a tweet of Director-General of the ISPR, Maj Gen. Asif Ghafoor, which revealed that the Pakistan Air Force had shot down two Indian aircraft after they encroached on Pakistan’s airspace. The ISPR stated that the wreckage of one of the aircraft fell in Azad Kashmir while the other one fell in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. One of the aircraft which crashed in Azad Kashmir was identified to be a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 flown by Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman. He was captured by a Pakistan military unit who were present in the premises. The villagers at the ground told Pakistani newspaper Dawn that they saw two jets in flame. However, Indian officials rejected Pakistani claims of shooting down IAF Su-30 MKI jets and said that they were an attempt by Pakistan to cover up the loss of its F-16. Indian sources claim that it is impossible to hide an aircraft crash as of now.
Indian officials initially denied that an Indian Air Force (IAF) jet was shot down. They also claimed that all IAF pilots were accounted for and denied that any IAF pilot was captured by Pakistani security forces. Later, Indian officials acknowledged that one IAF MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot was in the custody of Pakistan security forces. The Indian Air Force also claimed to have shot down one F-16 by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from his MiG-21 aircraft. However, Pakistani officials rejected India’s claim. Pakistani officials said that “in today’s day and age, it is impossible to hide downing of an aircraft”.On the Air Force day, 8 October 2019, IAF reportedly flew the Su-30 MKI claimed to have been downed by the Pakistan Air Force.
On the same day, around twenty minutes before the MiG-21 downing, an Indian Mil Mi-17 helicopter crashed, killing six Indian Air Force personnel and one civilian in the Budgam district. It was under the command of squadron leader Siddarth Vashista and crashed within ten minutes of take-off from the Srinagar air base. Indian defence ministry said it was an accident “during routine operation”, but friendly fire was speculated to be the cause. Ajai Shukla reported in April 2019 that the court of inquiry constituted by IAF to investigate the incident, had concluded that an Indian missile battery had misidentified the helicopter as Pakistani and shot it down. By late May, after the conclusion of voting in 2019 Indian general election, IAF sources had begun unofficially acknowledging friendly fire as the cause and the Air Officer Commanding of Srinagar air base was removed from the position.
Investigations, typically finished in three months, were said to require more time in this case as the metallurgical report hadn’t been received yet. In October 2019, IAF confirmed that the helicopter was shot down by an Indian SPYDER surface-to-air missile and said that five personnel were held guilty for the lapses.The investigation found that the helicopter had not been identified as originating in Pakistan by the Integrated Air Command and Control System in Barnala and that it had been in touch with the Air Traffic Control. But the helicopter’s Identification, friend or foe system, used to mark friendly aircraft, had been switched off due to interference with civilian transmissions and it had tried to land from outside the designated corridor of approach.
The Ministry of External Affairs in a press conference confirmed that the PAF violated the LoC and entered Indian airspace through the Nowshera and Poonch sectors, shooting down one IAF jet and causing its pilot to go missing. India also claimed to have shot down one PAF F-16 Fighting Falcon. A claim which was denied by Pakistan saying no F-16 was used in the operation. Additionally, Indian officials rejected Pakistani claims of shooting down an Su-30MKI. Indian sources claim that it is impossible to hide an aircraft crash as of now.
On 28 February, Indian officials again alleged that two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets had violated Indian airspace. According to the Indian officials, the PAF jets were intercepted over the Poonch and Krishna Gati sectors. However, no aerial combat took place and PAF jets returned to their airspace.
In April 2019, a joint Indian Air Force-Indian Army BDS unit claimed to have carried out a bomb defusal operation in Mendhar, Rajouri, where they had successfully defused 3-4 unexploded H-4 SOW bombs that had been fired from PAF jets.
The Indian Air Force was displeased with the performance of the R-77 missiles since they were outranged by the AIM-120 AMRAAM used by Pakistan Air Force. Hence, they are planning to rearm using the I-Derby ER missile instead.
DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor later conducted a press conference, stating: “Since today morning activity has been ongoing at LoC. This morning PAF engaged six targets across LoC from within Pakistani airspace”. He also said that the strikes were carried out to just demonstrate Pakistan’s aggressive capabilities. Pakistan asserted that no F-16 was used in the operation. Initially, Pakistani officials stated that two IAF personnel were caught but later corrected their statement and stated that only one IAF personnel was in their custody. Pakistani officials stated that it was the fog of war that led them to believe that there were two IAF personnel in their custody.
Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation saying that the sole purpose of our action was to convey that “if you can come into our country, we can do the same”. Khan also offered India for peace talks.
3. United States
According to Foreign Policy journalist Lara Seligman, U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter asserted that the US has recently completed a physical count of Pakistan’s F-16s and has found none missing. One US official also disagreed with India’s claim that usage restrictions disallow Pakistan from employing F-16s in military encounters with India.The Washington Post, Indian newspaper Hindustan Times reported that a United States Department of Defense spokesman claimed that he was “not aware” of any such
investigation that was conducted and stated, “As a matter of policy, the Department does not publicly comment on details of government-to-government agreements on end-use monitoring of US-origin defence articles. “However, The Washington Post reported that like the Pentagon, the State Department has yet to issue any public statement on F-16 count. On the other hand, according to The National Bureau of Asian Research, “The Modi Government’s public mischaracterizations of the February 2019 Balakot airstrike and subsequent air skirmishes, including subsequently debunked claims of a destroyed terrorist camp inside Pakistan and India’s downing of a Pakistani F-16 jet, have already raised questions in the United States about New Delhi’s credibility and communications strategy in the midst of an exceptionally dangerous regional context”.
A statue of the Indian pilot Abhinandan was installed in the Pakistan Air Force museum in an exhibit named Operation Swift Retort. The exhibit also displays the missing parts and wreckage of the MiG-21 as well as a tea mug.
An official Pakistani film on the topic was released on 14 August 2019. It was directed, produced and written by DJ Kamal Mustafa. The story of the film is based on the attack, and shows the Pakistan Air Force response to the Indian attack and the capture of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. It is the only single animated film released in Pakistan in 2019. Operation Swift Retort was a non-profit movie. The Operation Swift Retort film was made entirely in 2 months.