NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India said its warplanes struck a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday, raising the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
The airstrikes hit a training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the group that claimed credit for a suicide bomb attack that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir on Feb. 14.
The Indian air force attacked the hillside camp of JeM in Balakot in Pakistan more than 50 km (30 miles) from the border.
Balakot is about 60 km north of Abottabad, the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed there by U.S. forces in May 2011.
The terrain in the region is mountainous, which would have helped Indian planes take cover and hide from radar.
The strike took place between 3:45 a.m. and 4:04 a.m. Indian time on Tuesday, a time when the alertness of radar system operators is more likely to be lower, an air force veteran said.
India used 12 Mirage 2000 fighter jets, an airborne early warning and control (AWAC) aircraft system, a mid-air refueller and drones.
The AWAC is typically used to jam an enemy’s radar. This can be done for a very short time until the enemy’s anti-radar technology kicks in, said a former Indian airforce pilot.
The drones would help with surveillance.
The attack on Balakot used 1,000 kg bombs which can devastate a large target.
Indian air force veterans said the mission would have taken meticulous planning to take advantage of the terrain.
“For such an operation, decoy and surveillance missions are conducted to figure out when the radars are on and off. No equipment works around the clock, 24/7,” a former air force pilot said.
The jets may have flown low, hugging the terrain as much as possible to avoid the radar, which face limitations due to the mountainous nature of the region.
“In general terms, for a radar located in the valley to look up, will have severe restrictions of view because of the mountains, however optimally you place them,” said a former Indian air force marshal.
If Tuesday’s mission had been discovered earlier by the Pakistan military it could easily have run into trouble.
Pakistan’s army and air force have a combined arsenal of more than 400 surface-to-air missiles, according to estimates from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Typically once they are alerted, it only takes about three minutes for fighter jets to respond on an incursion and get airborne, the former air marshal said.
In this case, it was likely the Pakistani security forces were only alerted after the strike, allowing Indian jets enough time to cross back into their own airspace.
Additional Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Martin Howell