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Wings Over Chagai - A Story of Israel’s Threat to Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal
Article Posted from Pakdef.info
By: RMS Azam
This article was written to mark the Fourth Anniversary of Pakistans nuclear tests of May 1998.
WINGS OVER CHAGAI
The Role of the Pakistan Air Force during the
May 1998 Nuclear Tests
After the Israeli attack on Iraqs under-construction French-built nuclear Osirak-type reactor, Tammuz-I, south of Baghdad on 7 June 1981, Pakistan felt that it would be the next target of an Israeli misadventure. The Israeli Air Force (IDF/AF) had, at first, explored the possibility of such a plan and, later, put together operational plans for a possible air strike against Kahuta in the 1980s using satellite photo and intelligence information provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These operational plans are still kept updated in the Headquarters of the IDF/AF and pilots of some specially assigned IDF/AF F-16 and F-15 squadrons are given special training exercises to carry out mock attacks on Kahuta. So much so that a full-scale mock-up of the Kahuta facility was built in the southern Negev Desert for the IDF/AF pilots to train on.
The Kahuta plan was made concurrently with the plan to attack Osirak using the same pilots of the Iraq mission, if it went through successfully. The Israelis planned to either use Indian airbases or fly non-stop from Israel to Kahuta while refuelling their aircraft using airborne tankers. Israeli Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft would jam Pakistani air defence radar while the Israelis took out Kahuta - or at least attempted to do so.
To this effect, India had played its part in cajoling and trying to convince Israel to carry this ill-advised plan through. However, Israel was insisting on using Indian air bases but India was reluctant to allow them such a facility for fear of sparking of another Indo-Pak war. According to a paper published by the Australian Institute for National Strategic Studies, Israeli interest in destroying Pakistans Kahuta reactor to scuttle the “Islamic bomb” was blocked by India’s refusal to grant landing and refueling rights to Israeli warplanes in 1982. India wanted to see Kahuta gone but did not want to face the blame or the retaliation nor bear any responsibility. Israel, on its part wanted it to be seen as a joint Indo-Israeli strike so that responsibility could be shared. The Reagan Administration was against this plan, not out of any love for Pakistans nuclear programme, but because at that time it was busy fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and considered Pakistan a key ally in the conflict. It informed Israel and India that it could not support such a plan. This plan, therefore, never materialized and was indefinitely postponed, and rightly so, after Pakistan reminded the Israelis that they were not the Iraqis and the Pakistan Air Force was not the Iraqi Air Force. Through indirect channels, Pakistan had also conveyed the message to Israel, if Kahuta was attacked, Pakistan would lay waste to Dimona, Israels nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.
Pakistan, however, was not taking any chances. Soon after the Osirak raid in 1981, then President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan directed PAF Air Headquarters (AHQ) to make contingency plans for a possible Israeli attack on Kahuta. In lieu thereof, the PAF Chief of Air Staff issued an Air Tasking Order to the Air Officer Commanding of the Air Defence Command to take suitable measures for the air defence of Kahuta and prepare a contingency plan for a retaliatory PAF strike on Dimona, in case Kahuta was attacked. As a follow-up to this directive, a special Operations Room was established at AHQ, Chaklala to oversee the task of defending Pakistans strategic nuclear facilities at Kahuta and Karachi. A study of the air defence ground environment of Kahuta was carried out and gaps and weaknesses in the air defences were filled and strengthened. On 10 July 1982, a special contingency plan was issued. In the event of an Israeli attack on Pakistan’s strategic installations, plans were drawn up for a retaliatory Pakistani strike on Dimona. The strike would be carried out by Mirage III/Vs. When Pakistan received 40 General Dynamics Block F-16A/Bs from the US from 15 January 1983 onwards, this new weapons system too was incorporated in Pakistans contingency plan to carry out retaliatory strikes on Dimona.
In the backdrop of the above scenario, it was, therefore, not surprising that in the aftermath of the Indian nuclear tests of 13 May 1998, Pakistan felt that there was a strong possibility of a joint Indo-Israeli strike against Pakistan’s nuclear installations. The PAF had an essential role to play in defending Pakistan’s strategic installations and airspace to thwart any such plan. The tensions were so high that a PAF F-16 flying low over the Ras Koh test site in the Chagai District of Balochistan on the eve of the Pakistani nuclear tests was, for a moment, mistaken by the personnel on the ground, to be an Israeli warplane. The incident sparked off a diplomatic squabble between Pakistan and Israel, with the Israeli Ambassador in Washington D.C. denying the existence of any such plan.
Then Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ahmed Kamal told CNN that Pakistan had reliable information about Indian intentions to launch air strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear test facilities. Kamal told CNN that if India strikes, Pakistan’s response would be “massive” and would “bode ill for peace.”
“We’re involved in this threat and in making sure that it does not arise because if it does, the world must understand that Pakistan is ready, that it will react, that the reaction will be massive and dissuasive, and that it would lead us into a situation which would bode ill for peace and security, not only in the region, but beyond,” Kamal said.
As soon as the decision to conduct the nuclear tests had been taken, the PAF was ordered to assume air defence duties over Chagai and the strategic nuclear installations of Pakistan, including Kahuta, Nilore, Fatehjung, Chashma, Khushab and Karachi.
Operation Bedaar 98: PAF Squadron Roles during Chagai
The PAF operations for the defence of Pakistans strategic nuclear installations during the May 1998 nuclear tests were codenamed Operation Bedaar 98 by the PAF.
This was a unique operation in which all four PAF command sector Headquarters (HQ) were involved, namely:
(a) HQ NORSEC (Northern Sector) based at PAF Chaklala (Rawalpindi, Punjab) and falling under the control of the Northern Air Command (NAC) at Peshawar;
(b) HQ CENSEC (Central Sector) under the Central Air Command (CAC) and both based at PAF Sargodha (Punjab);
(c) HQ WESSEC (Western Sector) based at PAF Base Samungli (Quetta, Balochistan) also falling under the command of CAC; and
(d) HQ SOUSEC (Southern Sector) based at PAF Faisal (Karachi, Sindh) and falling under the control of the Southern Air Command (SAC), also based at Karachi.
No. 6 Air Transport Squadron (ATS) Squadron, equipped with C-130 Hercules medium-lift tactical transport aircraft and based at PAF Base Chaklala, commanded by Group Captain Sarfraz Ahmad Khan, extended the necessary logistical support to the rest of the PAF squadrons that were being redeployed for air defence alert (ADA) duties. The Squadron carried a total of 12,66,615 lbs. loads in 71 separate sorties during the nuclear tests.
No. 7 Tactical Attack (TA) Squadron, equipped with ex-Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Mirage III EAs having recently undergone Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE I) upgrades at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra and based at PAF Base Masroor (Karachi, Sindh), commanded by Wg. Cdr. Shahid Mahmood were moved to PAF Base Shabaz (Jacobabad, Balochistan) for day-night ADA duties. This squadron is now due to be transformed into a multi-role squadron following the ROSE upgrades and after being equipped with new radar.
The PAFs elite No. 9 Multi-Role (MR) Squadron Griffins (falling under No. 34 Wing led by Grp. Capt. Shahid Shigri), equipped with F-16As, commanded by Wg. Cdr. Azher Hasan, was deployed at PAF Samungli (Quetta, Balochistan) on 27 May 1998 to provide night-time air defence cover to the nuclear test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan.
No. 11 MR Squadron “Arrows” (No. 34 Wing), equipped with F-16A/Bs commanded by Gp. Capt. Akhtar H. Bukhari was moved to PAF Shabaz for day-night ADA duties on 24 May 1998.
No. 14 MR Squadron The Tail Choppers, equipped with F-7P aircraft and based at PAF Sargodha, commanded by Wg. Cdr. M. Jamshaid Khan, was deployed at PAF Base Chaklala for the point defence of KRL, Kahuta; PINSTECH, Nilore and NDC, Fatehjung.
No. 17 Air Superiority (AS) Squadron “Tigers” (falling under No. 31 Wing led by Grp. Capt. Rashid Hasan Bukhari), then equipped with F-6 aircraft and commanded by Wg. Cdr. Muhammad Jamil Memon carried out standing day-time Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions from its parent base, PAF Base Samungli and its Forward Operational Bases (FOBs), PAF Bases Shahbaz and Sukker (Sindh) respectively. No. 17 Squadron was re-quipped with F-7PG aircraft from China on 27 March 2002.
No. 23 Squadron “Talons” (No. 31 Wing), then equipped with F-6 aircraft and based at PAF Base Samungli, commanded by Wg. Cdr. Ghulam Mustafa Abbasi was deployed at PAF Base Sukker for about a week for day-time ADA duties. Members of the Squadron who participated in the ADA duties included Wg. Cdr. Irfan Idrees, Sqn. Ldr. Khan Maqbool, Flt. Lt. Anwer Karim, Flt. Lt. S. Atta, Flt. Lt. Waqas Moshin, Flt. Lt. Zeeshan Saeed, Flt. Lt. Aamir Shaukat, Flt. Lt. Ali Asher, Flt. Lt. Nadeem Afzal and Flt. Lt. Nasir Jamal. No. 23 Squadron is also scheduled to be re-quipped with F-7PG aircraft from China later this year.
At PAF Base Samungli, F-6 aircraft belonging to the re-equipped No. 25 MR Squadron (now a SAGEM-upgraded Mirage V EF (ROSE II) squadron) and which were being kept in reduced flying status (hot storage) by the Field Maintenance Unit (FMU) at the Base were also activated and made operational in a days notice for emergency back-up if the need arose.
No. 314 Ground Combateers Wing of the PAF, located at PAF Samungli was tasked with providing enhanced ground security cover to the F-16s of Nos. 9 and 11 Squadrons deployed at the Base.
No. 481 Control & Reporting Centre (CRC) based at PAF Base, Lahore, along with seven Mobile Pulse-Doppler Radar (MPDR), was deployed at designated sites till the exercise was called off on 1 June 1998. No. 482 CRC based at PAF Base Malir (Karachi) deployed its MPDR-45 radar in the Sukker area at short notice on 21 May 1998. The radar handled a number of CAP missions that were launched to counter any aerial threat to the nuclear installations. No. 484 CRC based at PAF Chaklala remained on usual alert for the point defence of Kahuta. No. 486 CRC based at PAF Chaklala since November 1985 has been exclusive assigned to the task of defending Pakistans nuclear installations. It deployed its MPDR-90P radar at Pasni, Balochistan at short notice to detect any attack approaching from the sea. No. 403, a mobile Squadron based at PAF Base, Lahore and equipped with TPS-43G high altitude surveillance radar also participated in Bedaar98. No. 408 Squadron based at PAF Malir, (near Karachi) and equipped with FPS-20A high-altitude long range static radar and TPS-43G high altitude radar successfully controlled a number of hot CAP mission and intercepted US Navy aircraft flying close to Pakistans 12 nautical mile wide territorial sea. Incidentally, this was the same squadron that participated in the several joint PAF/USN exercises called “Inspired Alert” between 1994 and 1997 in which the Squadron had experienced an opportunity to intercept aircraft like the F-14s and F-18s. No. 410 Squadron equipped with TPS-43G radar provided round-the-clock operations and controlled 26 high altitude CAPS during Operation Bedaar98. No. 4091 Squadron based at Kirana Hills near Sargodha and equipped with Siemens MPDR-90 low-level static radar located at a height of 1,600 feet, provided a surveillance capability for the point defence of Sargodha Air Base and the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) with its ability to detect aircraft flying at low level at extended ranges.
No. 541 Squadron, a mobile Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) squadron based at PAF Chaklala, and equipped with Crotale 2000 performed its duties for the point defence of Kahuta. No. 904 Squadron, based at Murree and equipped with MPDR-90S radar provided both independent and hooked-up mode operations with No. 486 CRC by providing early warning on low and medium level ingressing aircraft towards the national vital points from Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir. No. 451 Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron based at PAF Chaklala, and equipped with the Crotale 2000 SAM system provided air defence to the Kahuta and Nilore area. No. 454 Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron based PAF Chaklala, and equipped with the Crotale 2000 SAM system provided air defence cover to the national vital points. No. 455 Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron, deployed in the Kilo area and equipped with the Crotale 4000 SAM system provided air defence cover to the national vital points. No. 242 Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron, based at PAF Base Rafiqui, and equipped with the French Mistral SAM system provided air defence cover to PAF air bases. No.471 Squadron, a SAM squadron, based at PAF Chaklala and equipped with the Black Arrow (Chinese Red Flag II) high-altitude SAM system provided day-night air defence coverage upto 80,000 feet over the Kahuta, Nilore and Fatehjung area.
It was felt that a joint Indo-Israeli attack could target not only Pakistan’s nuclear installations but the nuclear test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan as well. According to intelligence reports, US and Indian intelligence did not know about the Kharan Desert site, which came as a total surprise to them. To counter any high-level threat emanating from the west or south-west, a TPS-43G high level radar had been permanently deployed in the Quetta area since October 1982. The same radar was, therefore, used to provide surveillance on all flying aircraft in the Chagai area.
Dalbandin Airfield had an important role to play during Pakistans May 1998 nuclear tests. In fact, two names gained prominence around the world during the tests: (i) Chagai Hills and (ii) Dalbandin airfield. Dalbandin is located among sand dunes some 30 km south-east of the Chagai Hills near the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border. The Koh Khambaran Massif in the Ras Koh Mountain Range, the site of Pakistan’s nuclear test, lies south of the Chagai Hills and Dalbandin.
The airfield at Dalbandin was constructed in 1935 to serve as a satellite for Samungli Air Base at Quetta. During the Second World War, it was made operational by the Royal Air Force in order to counter a possible Russian invasion through Iran and Afghanistan. During the 1970s, Dalbandin remained a disused airfield. Although the airstrip is visible from extremely high altitude, pilots making landing approaches often find the airstrip disappearing from view, with sand dunes and sand collected on the runway obscuring it - like a natural camouflage. Dust storms are frequent and cause delays in take-off and landing schedules. The airfield was taken over by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1985, it received a major face-lift and overhaul, which provided modern navigational aids, air traffic control facilities, a passenger terminal and a paved runway. There are regularly scheduled Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) services to the airport. While not a military facility, this airfield is available to the PAF for emergency landing and recovery of aircraft during peacetime and wartime. During May 1998, Dalbandin air field became the centre of activity for all personnel, military and civilian, flying to and from the nuclear tests sites to the rest of the country.
The nuclear devices were themselves flown in semi-knocked down (SKD) sub-assembly form on two flights of PAF C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft from PAF Chaklala in northern Punjab to Dalbandin airfield, escorted even within Pakistani airspace by four PAF F-16As armed with air-to-air missiles. At the same time, PAF F-7P air defence fighters, also armed with air-to-air missiles, were on CAP guarding the aerial frontiers of Pakistan against intruders. Both the nuclear devices (the bomb mechanism, the HMX explosive shields and casing) and the fissile material (the highly enriched uranium components) were divided into separate consignments and flown on separate flights of the Hercules. The PAEC did not want to put all its nuclear eggs in one basket in case something adverse was to happen to the aircraft. The security of the devices and the fissile material was so strict that that PAF F-16 escort pilots had been secretly given standing orders that in the unlikely event of the C-130 being hijacked or flown outside of Pakistani airspace, they were to shoot down the aircraft before it left Pakistans airspace. The F-16s were ordered to escort the C-130s to the Dalbandin airfield in Balochistan with their radio communications equipment turned off so that no orders, in the interim, could be conveyed to them to act otherwise. They were also ordered to ignore any orders to the contrary that got through to them during the duration of the flight even if such orders seemingly originated from Air Headquarters.
On 30 May 1998, when Pakistan sixth nuclear device shook the ground in the Kharan Desert, Operation Bedaar ‘98 had accomplished its mission - that of deterring any misadventure by either India or Israel to strike at Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure.
But how real was the possibility of a joint or unilateral Israeli or Indian raid on Pakistan’s nuclear installations during May 1998? The answer is that we really don’t know. The threat is of such a nature that it can neither be overestimated nor underestimated. Overestimation may lead to minor diplomatic embarrassment, but underestimation will surely lead to catastrophe for Pakistan. So Pakistan prefers to overestimate the threat and pay the price of minor diplomatic embarrassment rather than underestimate it and face the prospective annihilation. This is not to say that the threat was never there during May 1998. Pakistan preferred to be safe rather than sorry. Furthermore, there is concrete evidence that India and Israeli have been planning exactly such an operation to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear capability. It is only the PAF and the risk of nuclear retaliation that is holding them back.
According to an Indian official, Subramaniam Swamy, a former member of the Hindu fundamentalist and extremist Bharati Janata Party (BJP) that rules India today, Israel in 1982 asked him to sound out other Indian leaders to see if India would grant Israeli warplanes landing and refueling rights were they to undertake an Osirak-type raid against the Kahuta nuclear reactor in Pakistan. India refused, probably for a combination of reasons. As one expert on South Asia speculated:
“First, the Kahuta facility is well-protected and is thus a hard target to destroy. Second and more important, India expects that any first strike by India against Kahuta would be swiftly followed by a Pakistani attack against India’s nuclear facilities. Such an exchange would leave India worse off, since any potential deterrent capability against China would thereby be eliminated. Finally, India would be wary of launching such an attack against Pakistan as it would cause not only great death and destruction to Pakistan, but could blow radioactive fall-out back over India. Such an attack against Pakistan would also alienate the Muslim Middle Eastern states whose amity India has assiduously cultivated.”
In a meeting in Paris in July 1985, senior Israeli diplomats and a personal envoy of the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reportedly examined the option in detail. As an incentive, Israel held out an offer to cooperate with India on military intelligence, defence production and transfer or technology. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli Defence Minister, reportedly pinned a lot of hope on that meeting. But India, which had not yet forged diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, ultimately rejected the proposal, ostensibly because of the fear of possible nuclear retaliation by Pakistan and for fear of a possible backlash by Islamic states, including an oil embargo against it by the Muslim member-states of OPEC.
In 1991, India and Pakistan signed a treaty pledging that neither would preemptively attack the nuclear facilities of the other. However, as Indias and Pakistans animosity grows, this treaty has been rendered toothless and is unlikely to be adhered to by either side.
In the early 1990s, reports surfaced in London claiming Israel had repeatedly tried to pressure India into launching a joint strike on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development plant at Kahuta. The reports claimed Israeli and Indian pilots would be aided by detailed satellite photographs of Kahuta provided by convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
According to a report in The Washington Times, citing US officials, Pakistans then Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed had notified the US government and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Israeli and Indian warplanes, equipped with long-range refueling gear and operating out of India, had planned to attack Pakistani nuclear facilities at dawn on Thursday, 28 May 1998.
It is possible that for Kahuta, the Israelis will use F-15 Strike Eagles to carry out the actual attack with F-16s providing air cover - a reversal of the roles in the operation against Osirak. Furthermore, it is almost certain that if Israel ever attempted to take out Pakistans nuclear weapons facilities, Kahuta will not be the only target and it is highly likely that the Plutonium Reactor at Khushab and the National Development Complex (NDC) at Fatehjung, among others, will be additional targets high on the priority list of the Israelis.
Senior Israeli military intelligence officials had, of course, dismissed the notion that any kind of attack was being contemplated against Pakistan. Pakistan and India “are coming out of the closet and they are trying to drag us with them,” one senior intelligence official said. “We have nothing to do with it. They are trying to force us into being a party in this. “The official also maintained that Pakistan’s infamous espionage and counter-espionage agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was acting on “faulty intelligence.” The Israelis maintained that the misinformation may have been propaganda fed to them from some other body, the Iranians perhaps. “They took it seriously. They could have believed it, but they did the responsible thing and checked it out with the Americans,” the official said. Not that the Americans could be trusted, given the fact that it was the United States which has supplied all the information and satellite photos of Pakistan’s nuclear installations to both Israel and India.
The assessment in Israel is that it does not believe that Pakistan sees the Jewish State as its enemy - not directly and at least not in the short-run. Israeli intelligence officials also do not believe that Pakistan has transferred nuclear or missile technology to nuclear-wannabe Iran. Moreover, they have no proof that Pakistan is or intends to engage in any nuclear cooperation with any other country. An Israeli defence analyst commented to this effect, “Pakistan will not transfer nuclear know-how to any other Muslim country, not out of fear of Israel, but because that would diminish its own importance in the Islamic World. Today, Pakistan is the Islamic world’s sole nuclear power, if there are two, Pakistan’s position would be reduced. So it is using its nuclear prowess not only as a deterrent against its enemies but also to bolster its relationship with its strategic friends”.
Shai Feldman, Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel once stated, “I am certain that the Pakistanis have enough trouble on their hands and would refrain from doing something that would actually increase Israel’s incentive to cooperate with India. Why would they buy another enemy when the situation is as bad as it is?” Feldman said. “They are not stupid, and they probably know that if we had any evidence of transfer of technology to one of our adversaries then Israel would react and it wouldn’t be very pleasant,” he added.
And vice versa, Mr. Feldman.
[This message has been edited by Abdullah k (edited May 31, 2002).]