I have a very small story to share with you today. And I can't think of a better day to tell it. I sometimes keep military snippets and anecdotes in my notes, hoping to find occasion to use them. Today definitely seems like that day.
When Indian Air Force Mirage 2000s crossed the Line of Control over Athmuqam town into PoK in the darkness of February 26 this year, it was powerful history at 16,000 feet. The package of fighters, from Gwalior's 'Wolf Pack' squadron, would spend the next few minutes flying in a south-westerly direction before letting off a set of Spice 2000 precision-guided bombs towards the Jaish-e-Mohammad's terror training facility on the lonely hill feature of Jaba Top outside Pakistan's Balakot city. By now, amidst the frenetic and uninterrupted storm of claims and counter-claims, you know the broad story.
You also know that in November-December 2008 in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Indian Air Force leadership had famously expressed its readiness to strike targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, including Muridke, the town of the Lashkar-e-Taiba's birth. The strikes never happened for a variety of reasons. A comparison between the two occasions has since become battlefield on political will. This was fanned furiously earlier this year when IAF chief during 26/11, Air Chief Marshal Fali Major (Retd.), told me that it was indeed a lack of political will that had kept Indian Air Force fighters from punitive strikes on Lashkar facilities eleven years ago.
After the Balakot strikes, some straight talk from ex-IAF chief Fali Major (whose push for air strikes after 26/11 was declined) on why he’s happy with this week’s use of air power against terror — and why there should be no looking back. #LetsConclave19 pic.twitter.com/Ny75E5Ptu3— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) March 2, 2019
But lost in the sands of 11 years is a surreal little tale, recounted to me over the years by pilots. A tale reflective perhaps of the Indian system's nerves after being caught totally off guard by a small group of commando-style terrorists.
Amid early discussions on military intervention in 26/11, a senior IAF officer is said to have wondered aloud at the Air Force Headquarters as to why a Sukhoi Su-30MKI jet fighter from Pune couldn't simply be scrambled to drop a precision laser-guided bomb (LGB) with pinpoint accuracy through the room at the Taj where the Pakistani terrorists were last known to be hiding. It is unclear who the officer was. What is known is that the suggestion was made with complete seriousness. That suggestion has since become a quiet part of air force lore from a time when the leadership was very much inclined to strike targets across the border.
It is difficult to corroborate conversations, but the officer who made the suggestion was, again with some seriousness, informed that the idea was absurd for a variety of reasons, including collateral damage, the impossibility of sanitising the area around the Taj for such a mission and the idea of dropping a bomb on one's own territory. One officer is said to have wondered who would pay to rebuild Ratan Tata's prized property if a mission like that was ever to be carried out.
IAF Su-30s remained ready at the northern air base well into December 2008 in anticipation of orders to conduct strikes very much like the Balakot mission a decade later. In late December, a pair of Su-30s, armed with air-to-air missiles, was flown to Bengaluru to remain in operational readiness on a fresh intelligence input on the terror groups using light aircraft to conduct kamikaze strikes on the Kalpakkam nuclear facility. The Sukhois returned to their home base in Pune after the input evaporated.
Eleven years since the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, it's hard to not feel time eroding the texture of detail and decision-making from that week. In the decade since, 26/11 is many things to many people, but there are undeniably unifying threads: an act of horror that hasn't seen a modicum of justice delivered. An act that stirred a hunger for retribution in even the most pacifist minds.
I was among the several journalists who reported from right outside the two hotels and Nariman House that November in 2008. The memories of that time are still punctuated with the echoing clatter of assault-rifle fire which, after the first two days, had lost its ability to make you sit up.
Having been consumed, in one sense, in the reporting of India's quest for justice, I haven't stopped feeling anxious about how the picture has begun to blur. I'm sure that there's overwhelming detail that will remain officially secret. Hidden away in files, pen-drives and the memories of pilots.