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Do clouds really affect air strikes as PM Modi said?

Last updated on: May 15, 2019 13:11 IST

'The impact of merely innocent clouding on radar waves is not expected to be significant on air defence radars of either country to affect operational profiles in modern day context.'

'Where clouding will definitely play a role is in obtaining Battle Damage Assessment, as indeed does appear to have been the case over Balakot. Hazy or cloudy conditions during night time especially, is likely to have affected the aerial visibility required to obtain a clear "look through" to the target area,' says Group Captain Murli Menon (retd), India's former air adviser in Pakistan.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election barb about the role played by prevalent clouding in prosecuting the Balakot air strike , albeit a left-handed one of a "lay man", may yet play out electorally in his favour. There is no gainsaying the criticality of weather in an operational scenario, the worst case of course being thundery or stormy conditions over or en route to the target area.

Having personally experienced a default entry into a thunderous cumulonimbus cloud eons ago during an MiG 21 ferry over Ranchi, let me assure you that it can be quite unnerving. The turbulent updrafts and downdrafts in the vicinity of a Cb cloud, especially over the Gangetic plains during monsoons, are definitely not what the doctor ordered for a fighter plane! In an operational scenario such as Balakot, however, it would be a NO-GO situation.

 

Be that as it may, the impact of merely innocent clouding on radar waves is not expected to be significant on air defence radars of either country to affect operational profiles in modern day context. Clutter factors of such radars of course depend on their "transmitting power" and operating "frequencies". Yes, a certain amount of "clutter" would obtain under conditions of clouding, which could technically be exploited to conceal the approach of a strike force. I very much doubt if this was a planning consideration for the IAF battle staff! The purported delayed air defence reaction of the PAF would have been on account of IAF's "decoy" tactics and other diversionary ruses.

Mere clouding also would not impact the weapon delivery itself of the Crystal Maze or Spice 2000 category, unless certain flying inaccuracies in achieving planned delivery parameters creep in on account of air turbulence and the like. Lessons from how a dust storm created a virtual fiasco during Operation Eagle Claw in the Iran hostage crisis in April 1980, needs to be remembered.

If an experienced and competent US military could make such phenomenal planning blunders, any air element could.

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Where clouding will definitely play a role is in obtaining Battle Damage Assessment, as indeed does appear to have been the case over Balakot. Hazy or cloudy conditions during night time especially, is likely to have affected the aerial visibility required to obtain a clear "look through" to the target area.

The same would be the case for satellite and UAV imageries, unless other spectra such as infra red or synthetic aperture (SAR), which are in any event hard to come by. In simple terms, clouding over Balakot on the early morning of February 26, 2019, would have precluded the obtaining of meaningful BDA via satellite or UAVs given their spectral limitations.

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If the prevailing weather were indeed not of a quality that permitted successful prosecution of the mission, the planners would of course have rescheduled the time over target. But striking on the thirteenth day after Pulwama may also have been one of the political signaling considerations.

The PM's statement itself need not trigger undue concern among cognoscenti about his "interfering" in a military operation. Modern technology enables higher formations to virtually "look through" on to tactical aerial operations. Recall how President Barack Obama and his senior functionaries observed the Bin Laden special ops over Abbottabad from the Situation Room.

The PM and his minions are reported to have had a ringside of the Uri surgical strike. This could be a desirable requirement for various reasons, political or military, and is part of modern C4I2 configuration. It is not meant to "intrude" into the realm of operational or tactical execution by higher functionaries in the military chain.

There are reports of our own NSA having been at the Air HQ during the Balakot strike. That I presume was deemed a requirement on account of the strategic criticality of the mission. Traditionally, of course, in a classic doctrinal sense, the job of an air commander at the strategic or operational level of an air war, is to air task his lower practitioners to undertake a particular mission to achieve a particular aim or objective. In other words, he states WHAT needs to be done and the executor decides on the HOWs -- which is not the tasker's problem.

Indeed, trying to overindulge in the air operation by micromanaging the goings-on by a higher level functionary, is fraught with danger and may ultimately lead to a collapse of the different levels of war on to each other.

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Balakot was a one off affair, perhaps designed to be one, given the prevailing circumstances. Clearly, there are several lessons in planning and execution that we need to learn for posterity.

In the peculiar ambient situation of nuclear thresholds and "drawing room" wars, the IAF has to rejig and rethink its contemporary aerial doctrines to achieve objectives in such set piece political scenarios.

Another important planning consideration is to cater for a "red team", to critique planning aspects for such critical missions.

Group Captain Murli Menon (retd)
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