- 6 months after Balakot airstrike, the Chief of Mission is telling the full story of that night for the first time
- On the evening before the strike, he was drinking whiskey-colored juice at the pre-retirement party, even his wife did not know anything about the mission
- 6 jets were sent to the other side to dodge Pak, then carried out the attack in Balakot
Air Marshal C. Hari Kumar, the chief of the mission that had surprised the world on the night of 25-26 February this year in Balakot, Pakistan, retired two days after the attack.
He told Dainik Bhaskar that on the night of the mission, he went home at 12 in the night and cut the birthday cake, so that no one may have any doubt. Then he reached the control room and completed the mission.
The strike started at 3:28 am and the aircraft returned at 4 am. This is his first interview given to the media after the airstrike. The last 15 days of his 39 years of service were the most exciting for him. During this, he planned and executed the airstrike. Edited excerpts of the conversation:
Bhaskar: When and how was the strike decided?
Air Marshal Hari: On 14 February when the attack took place in Pulwama, the same day the Air Force Chief spoke to me. Said that our role may be needed, so we must have a plan. Then the Cabinet Committee on Security met. The air chief also attended the meeting. The Chief gave the option of airstrike there.
Bhaskar: How did preparations begin after that?
Air Marshal Hari: There is no use to say that. We were ready for the mission. We just wanted a target.
Bhaskar: When did you get information about the target (Jaish-e-Mohammed’s terrorist hideout in Balakot)?
Air Marshal Hari: The night of February 25-26 was fixed. We were informed about it exactly 7 days before that.
Bhaskar: How IAF chose a pilot for the mission?
Air Marshal Hari: Knowing this will not help anyone. We had utilised every necessary resource.
Bhaskar: What happened on the night of the mission? There was a retirement party that evening. You were supposed to retire on 28 February.
Air Marshal Hari: I’ll never forget that evening. It was my birthday the same night after 12 midnight and I had a big mission in mind. The retirement party was predetermined, so did not postpone it to maintain the secrecy of the mission. At the party, I called the waiter and told him secretly in his ear to give a double dose of lime cordial (a non-alcoholic drink made of juice and sugar) with water so that it may look like whiskey. The motive was that I wanted others to think that I was taking whiskey but in reality, I only took lime cordial. There were 80 officers in the party. Air Chief BS Dhanoa took me towards the lawn. Asked me about the final preparations and said that when the operation is over, just speak ‘monkey’ on the phone.
Bhaskar: How difficult was it to keep the mission secret?
Air Marshal Hari: While returning from the Sky Mess at night, I told my wife that I might not be able to go to the inauguration of a school for special children in Chandigarh tomorrow. She became very angry on hearing this. She was entitled to board the aircraft with me as the chairperson of the Air Force Wives Welfare Association. On reaching the Western Command, I left the house on the pretext of some urgent work and reached the operation room. The mission was to be reported to the air chief, who was in contact with the NSA. At 12 o’clock, a message came from the house that friends had arrived to celebrate the birthday with a cake. I went home so that nobody may get suspicious about the mission. I cut the cake and reached the control room.
Bhaskar: Why was the night of February 25-26 chosen for the airstrike?
Air Marshal Hari: I can’t reveal all the reasons but there were three main reasons. The first and major reason was that we wanted to attack at a time when all terrorists are gathered in one place. It could have been night time. We had noticed that the stir at this terrorist hideout starts at four in the morning when there is Namaz in the early hours. So they were to be in their beds an hour prior to that. It will be 3:30 in India and 3 o’clock in Pakistan. The second reason was the special position of the moon. It was Poornamasi on 19 February. The moon was to be at 30 degrees above the horizon from 3 to 4 am at the time of the mission. The moonlight was ideal in this situation. On that day, the impact of the western movements was less. Winds could have affected accurate bombing.
Bhaskar: Who gave the target of the attack?
Air Marshal Hari: Intelligence agencies. The government had gathered information about terror bases of Pakistan from RAW.
Bhaskar: How many targets were there? Why attack only in Balakot?
Air Marshal Hari: We did not want to harm the civilian population. We avoided the targets where the public could be harmed. The motive was just to hurt the terror. Balakot had become a suitable target for this.
Bhaskar: Some flights were also flown from Gwalior to Balakot, what was happening in Gwalior at that time?
Air Marshal Hari: In order to maintain privacy, we thought deeply about whether Internet and mobile services should be blocked in the local area around the base in Gwalior. But, ultimately it was decided that any such step could abolish secrecy.
Bhaskar: But, how could the activity of a large number of Air Force pilots be kept confidential?
Air Marshal Hari: A comprehensive strategy was devised for this. It was necessary to meet personally with the brave pilots who went on the mission. I went to Gwalior on 21 February. Met the pilots. The big problem was keeping the flight secret. The problem with the air route was that daily civilian flights departing from Delhi were heading upwards (after take off), while the incoming domestic and foreign flights were heading downwards (for landing). In such a situation, the blip (a kind of information) of a large number of fighter aircraft on the radar installed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi could have caused a stir. To eliminate this possibility, an Air Force officer was dispatched to the airport with a special government envoy to ignore the blip on the Raytheon radar.
Bhaskar: During the airstrike, was there any such situation which increased your heartbeat?
Air Marshal Hari: Yes, there was a situation. In fact, as our fighters were heading towards their destination, we saw a Pakistani Air Force reconnaissance aircraft and a fighter aircraft patrolling in the sky of Murid (a place near Rawalpindi, where Pakistan has an airbase). In order to divert them from there, we swiftly sent two Sukhoi-30 and four Jaguar aircraft towards Bahawalpur. Seeing the movement of these aircraft, Pakistani aircraft rushed towards them and the danger was averted. Our fighters had taken the position. The first airstrike occurred at 3.28 am and 4 am the mission was completed. All the combat aircraft returned safely and landed at two bases of the Western Command.
Bhaskar: How did the Pakistani Air Force react during this mission?
Air Marshal Hari: They were on high alert, but this strike left them stunned. We noticed that their aircraft were cruising in Balakot immediately after the strike. Perhaps they felt that there was going to be another strike.
(Story By Mukesh Kaushik)