The February 2019 standoff between India and Pakistan, particularly Pakistan’s response to the Indian intrusion known as Operation Swift Retort, was unlike any other skirmish or war between the two countries. The technological element of the standoff played a major role in keeping the conflict localized and preventing it from escalating further. The previous stand-offs between India and Pakistan were marked by a shadow of WWII and cold war tactical and operational interplay, primarily because the military modernisation of both countries is not at par with that of the west.
However, in February 2019, Pakistan Air Force, much smaller in magnitude as compared to its Indian counterpart, was able to outmaneuver its rival courtesy of its tactical and technological brilliance. February 27th, 2019 has essentially disrupted the archaic notions of future Indo-Pakistan wars on the footing of 1965 or 1971 and has brought a touch of the 21st century to the conflict paradigm between two neighbors. Two technologies, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and Electronic Warfare were decisive for Pakistan Air Force to come out of Operation Swift Retort victorious and unscathed.
Beyond Visual Range Missiles
One of the most significant developments in air warfare has been Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. These missiles have a range of over 100 kilometres and do not require fighter jets to enter the airspace of the enemy state. During the 1991 Gulf War, BVR missiles played a critical role in the success of the coalition’s air campaign against Iraq. The United States Air Force used the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles to great effect, shooting down multiple Iraqi aircraft from beyond visual range. The ability to engage targets at ranges beyond visual range allowed the coalition to engage and destroy Iraqi aircraft without putting their own pilots at risk. BVR missiles have become a significant part of the package that modern fighter jets carry during Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) and not having one could be fatal in the most literal sense.
The last time both Indian and Pakistani forces came face to face in an active conflict was in 1999 during the infamous Kargil adventure. While the Indian Air Force was pounding the positions of Pakistani troops who had crossed over the LoC, Pakistan Air Force was left blindfolded by the planners of the operation until much later when practically all other options, including the Stinger missiles, had run the course of their efficacy. And once it became part of the calculus, apart from other operational and geographical constraints that the PAF top brass had to deal with, the BVR missiles of Indian fighter jets further narrowed the workable operational deployment. However, that was 20 years ago. A lot has changed since and the Operation Swift Retort is a testimony of the transformation that has taken place during this time.
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Pakistan’s BVR capabilities played a vital role in keeping the skirmish localized and preventing it from escalating into a full-blown war. One of the key factors that made Operation Swift Retort unique was the use of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder and F-16 fighter jets were equipped with the Chinese-made SD-10 BVR and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles respectively. Squadron Leader Hassan Siddiqui was able to lock on to an IAF Su-30MKI and fired an AIM-120C (AMRAAM) at the target. The missile was launched at a range where the Indian fighter aircraft did not have enough time to react and take evasive maneuvers.
The result was uncertainty regarding the fate of the Indian Su-30MKI aircraft, which could have been damaged or destroyed. After a short while, WG Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman of the Indian Air Force attempted to surprise the PAF fighters by flying low and switching off his Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder. However, PAF’s electronic warfare wizards were able to detect and track his aircraft through their advanced radar systems, providing the necessary target data to the F-16 pilot who launched a BVR AIM-120C missile, ultimately leading to the downing of Abhinandan’s MiG-21.
Electronic warfare at its best
Electronic warfare is another critical aspect of modern warfare that played an important role in the standoff. The use of electromagnetic weapons like jammers can disable high-tech enemy equipment or inhibit communication between enemies, bridging the numerical gap between the two sides. The effectiveness of electronic warfare in modern warfare has been demonstrated in several conflicts, including the Gulf War, where the US military used electronic warfare to disrupt Iraqi communication and radar systems, and in the ongoing conflict in Syria, where Russia has deployed advanced electronic warfare capabilities to disrupt communication and navigation systems of its adversaries.
Electronic warfare played a crucial role in Pakistan Air Force’s success during Operation Swift Retort, as evident from the details of the aerial encounter on 27th February 2019. Pakistan used electronic warfare to its advantage by jamming Indian communication systems and defuncting Indian high-tech equipment. The PAF had deployed their SAAB Erieye AEWCS aircraft and DA-20 Falcon equipped with electronic warfare capabilities to monitor and disrupt Indian Air Force’s communication and radar systems.
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A critical factor behind the fate that IAF WC Abhinandan had to suffer was the lack of communication between him and the IAF ground resources. The PAF’s electronic warfare capabilities enabled them to disrupt Indian Air Force’s ground control communication, as evident from the frantic warnings from Flt Lt Minty Agarwal to Abhinandan, urging him to “flow cold” to avoid getting hit. The PAF’s ability to jam Indian Air Force’s communication and radar systems gave them a significant advantage in aerial engagement.
The probability of conventional military hardware such as artillery and armor playing a crucial role in the future Indo-Pakistan conflict is very low, if not completely out of question, because of the nuclear overhang. The large-scale escalation was actively prevented by both sides during February 2019 crisis. Therefore, the focus has slanted heavily in favor of air warfare and its complementary aspects like BVR, air defense, drone and electronic warfare. Hence, the successful execution of Operation Swift Retort has impacted the future of conflict in South Asia in more than one way, where ‘sophisticated, high-tech and smart’ military hardware will be preferred over overly expensive and bulky traditional equipment in the future.
The author is a Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.