by Palepu Ravi Shankar
The articles ‘New High Res Satellite Imagery Suggests Balakot Airstrike a ‘Precise Miss’’and ‘Were India’s airstrikes in Pakistan a strategy for public approval’? by a set of researchers from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have been doing the rounds. The first time I gave them a miss. The second time when they came around, I read them. I found them a bit condescending. The articles were brazenly suggestive that the IAF doesn’t know how to carry out targeting. Specially the last part when the authors say “Some militaries, such as those of the US and Australia, have spent years developing the technologies and systems that enable precision strike and employing the skills required in actual operations. But proficiency should not be taken for granted. It takes more than the weapon itself to launch a successful precision strike.” The first question which came to my mind was – when did Australia fire the last weapon in anger? Hmm. The deputy sheriff to USA is at OK Corral gunfight again! Having said that, I re-read the articles. Some interesting thoughts came up. I would like to share them with my readers and a few intellectuals who have fought wars on paper specially from the safety of the Southern Hemisphere.
The authors mention that “The first is that GPS coordinates have three dimensions: elevation, latitude and longitude – something we tend to overlook in everyday life when we navigate using a mobile phone’s GPS function. Second, a glide weapon like the SPICE 2000 doesn’t fall vertically to its target; it follows an inclined trajectory. Therefore, an incorrect vertical coordinate will result in the weapon missing as surely as an error in latitude or longitude.”
Look at the diagrams above. In fig 1, the range to the target T from the gun is derived as a differential between the coordinates of the gun and the target. There after an elevation matching this range is worked out and fired at. The weapon follows a trajectory to hit the target T. Simple. If the target T is on a hillock as at fig 2 and if the weapon is fired with the same elevation based on the horizontal range the weapon trajectory gets intersected at X and the impact occurs well short of the target. So, to compensate for this, one must fire at a greater elevation as shown in fig 3. Then the shell hits the target. I learnt that elevation is an important part of targeting in the 70s, when I became a Gunner. It is true for unguided/ guided missiles also. My point is that if the target elevation was not accounted, the impact should have been short of the target. The ASPI team has stated that the bombs have gone over since they missed the target by 33 m. Height was not factored in and hence the bombs sailed over and fell in the valley yonder as shown in the picture below. If height was missed out/ ignored in targeting as implied, the error of 33m due to the differential of ellipsoidal height and orthometric height  would have helped the bombs reach nearer to the target. The authors have a logic which needs a re look scientifically.
Secondly, it has been stated that a glide weapon like the SPICE 2000 doesn’t fall vertically to its target; it follows an inclined trajectory. That’s not correct. All surface attack weapons which are to be employed in mountains have a steep dive/ vertical terminal phase. That is par for course in all our weapon systems. We insist upon that since most of our northern borders are Himalayas. Just look at the You Tube videos of the Spice Bombs and the US equivalent, the JDAMS . Both indicate a very steep, almost vertical, terminal phase. Any incline over 60 degrees is enough to take out the height quotient in targeting. Beyond 60 degrees the targeting is literally two dimensional. Even if the approach /dive angle (in the worst case) was 60 degrees and the height error was 33 m as shown in the photo in the article the miss distance could have been only about 17m. See illustration below. Not hundred meters or more as is being propagated. For a miss of 100-200 m as shown below, the angle of attack/ dive would have to be shallow around 10-15 degrees. That is ridiculous. IAF is not daft.
This theory is reinforced in the write up in Wikipedia, which says about JDAM (the Spices cousin), that “Another important capability provided by GPS-based guidance is the ability to completely tailor a flight trajectory to meet criteria other than simply hitting a target. Weapon trajectories can be controlled so that a target can be impacted at precise headings and vertical angles. This provides the ability to impact perpendicular to a target surface and minimize the angle of attack (maximizing penetration)” . In addition, the Spice/JDAM guidance kit has multiple settings for guidance to home on to the target. So to assume that all of these have failed since we do not know how to handle them is a bit preposterous. India is a reasonably technical competent nation which has just finished demonstrating ASAT capability! Let us continue to assume that the theory put out is correct and all the bombs landed as shown in the photograph below.
As per the article “infrared satellite imagery indicates three circular areas – each roughly 30 metres in diameter – in which vegetation disappeared in the two days either side of the strike and which are consistent with explosive impact sites”. If these are the impact sites, a circular patch of 30 m dia indicates a vertical impact not an inclined / shallow impact. So, the original theory of the authors of an inclined dive is out of the window. A shallow/ inclined impact would have created a furrow, longitudinal in nature. Look, that’s standard terminal ballistics. There is some thing called crater examination which I used to do when I was a second lieut. Even at 50 degrees angle of descent, one could decipher the direction of firing from the crater. What’s more one can even assess the caliber of the projectile. Go to any firing range in India, the locals always come to collect the Sikka(debris) after the firing. So where is the bomb debris? Every shell / bomb burst leaves a debris. Some body part, fin, fuse, some unfragmented piece will always be found at any impact site. Surely if these were truly impact sites, the Pakistani Army, which is a professional Army, would have got hold of the debris and would have paraded it with all regalia. The DG ISPR would have had a field day. His PR concert would have been heard by aliens in Mars. But…all we heard …silence.
Look at this picture above. It is put out as an impact site. At first sight it looks like a soldier standing there. Look again carefully. It is more like a tree stump adorned as a soldier. This looks more like target in a shooting range! Bingo. It then occurred to me that these three distinct patches devoid of vegetation, were in all probability, firing areas for the merry inmates of Balakot hill resort. They would be coming here down the hill to exercise their weapons (grenades, rifles, IEDs) for education and entertainment. In fact, if one analyses the surrounding areas further in a professional manner, the entire terror training apparatus will tumble out and start looking like the ideological Jihad Infantry School which it actually is. Balakot was not exactly the Vatican where Pope Hafiz Sayeed and Pope Azhar Masood gave their weekly sermons on universal brotherhood.
Of course, the biggest baffler is that the Pakistani Army has cordoned out the area and not permitted any one from inspecting the area so far. Why? Are they scared that corpses will tumble out? (literally). The more one thinks of it the more one gets the feel that this issue is being kept alive for reasons beyond professionalism. There are clear vested interests at work.
Conversely, by my logic the bombs could not have missed. I am now convinced about it. It was a carefully planned operation. The target was chosen carefully. The Foreign secretary clearly stated that it was an intelligence-based operation. Consider this, if the targets were not hit, he could have well said that India has fired bombs in the vicinity of a terror camp. The narrative could have been positioned as a warning shot across the bows. That kind of a cover up would have achieved the same strategic effect and avoided the tactical debate. Instead a carefully considered statement was put out which clearly indicated that the intended targets were hit. The Home minister has also stated that several mobiles were active in the area which went silent after the attack in that location. Either they were all hit, or they were well trained and scared enough to switch off their mobiles. In both eventualities the strike is proven. If there were only civilians in that area, the mobile phone chatter would have increased. That’s what normally happens when disaster strikes you isn’t it?
Finally, my Chief of Air Staff has said “if we plan to hit the target, we hit the target”. There is no way he is incorrect. I will leave all of you with a poser. We all know that the Spice Guidance Kit was used. We are all assuming that the warhead is High Explosive and hence a big bang should have taken place. Who ever mentioned that the warhead was High Explosive? Well there are other warheads which will achieve severe effects after penetration of the roof tops, without disturbing anything. Use your imagination. We are dealing with deadly terrorists who were not exactly following Chatham House rules.