Skies Over PoJK
Day 1. 06:10 Hours
Pakistan Air Force had sent fourteen Mirage-III and Mirage-V jets belonging to 15th and 25th squadrons from Rafiqui airbase to attack Indian ground targets. Eight F-16Cs of the 5th squadron and six JF-17s of the 2nd Squadron from Jacobabad airbase were flying with them to provide air cover. Mirages in Pakistani service were almost completely obsolete and had been kept in service with huge efforts and multiple upgrades over the years. All other air forces had retired all such planes from their inventory, but PAF was forced to keep them to maintain squadron numbers. They were not completely useless though and could still attack undefended ground targets with dumb bombs and standoff ammunition which had been integrated with their fire control system with considerable expense and effort. But they lacked any good enough system for self-defence and needed protection in all but completely undefended airspace.
F-16 on other hand, although old, was still the most capable fighter in PAF inventory with AIM-120 AAMs and old but still fairly good radar. JF-17s were touted by Pakistan as highly lethal homegrown fighters and were a good cheap replacement of the ageing F-16s, Mirages and F-7s in Pakistan inventory. Yet they suffered from various weaknesses like intensive maintenance, smoky engine, average radar and avionics. Although introduced as a low-cost fighter meant for export to multiple nations, it had found no other customers except Nigeria and Myanmar.
Pakistani plan was to sneak in as the Indian tried to fight off the Chinese raid in the north-east, bomb a few Indian positions near the Uri and Poonch border and destroy a few Indian aircraft with long range shots from AIM-120s on F-16s and PL-12s on JF-17s. A SAAB Erieye AEW plane assigned for support had noticed Indian aircraft getting into the air a bit sooner than expected but the pilots were ordered to go on with the mission nonetheless.
Nearly half of the Mirages were armed with H-4 and H-2 glide bombs with declared ranges of 120 km and 60 km. H-4 was a copy of South African Denel Raptor-II and H-2, its lighter version. Actual ranges and accuracy depended upon numerous factors like altitude, velocity, wind and terrain and thus was only a fraction of the claimed range. So in theory, Pakistani Mirages could have hit an Indian Brigade HQ in Handwara from just east of Mangla dam. But in reality, they had to travel well past Muzaffarabad, acquire and feed the target data to bombs over the high mountains and then fire while trying to keep away from enemy air defences.
Phalcon AWACs acquired the formation on its huge radar from more than 300 km away and vectored all available aircraft to intercept. Six Mig-21s from Srinagar which were waiting on the tarmac scrambled to intercept the invaders along with Mig-29s and Rafales. The other four remained in the area just north of Srinagar to deal with incoming Chinese missiles. Satellite images and HUMINT sources had reported deployment of a single HQ-16 SAM battery near Mangla dam and all Indian aircraft were warned against rushing within its maximum range of 40 km. Although it was unlikely to hit any fast moving target at its maximum range, it was something to be wary of.
On the Indian side, Mig-21s acquired the positions of Pakistani aircraft first via a datalink from Phalcon. But they were still far from the maximum firing range of R-77 AAMs. Although Indian Mig-21s were also pretty old, the latest BIS upgrade had made them capable of BVR combat. Combined with their small size and very low radar cross-section, they had the capability of sneaking up to the enemy and hitting before anyone knew what happened.
Erieye had a much weaker and less capable radar compared to Phalcon and even Netra and it struggled to get a proper reading on Mig-21s which were using the mountains to hide their approach. Pakistanis knew that the Indian aircraft were within a certain area, but couldn’t detect the exact position. It forced the F-16s and JF-17s to turn on their onboard radars which lit up radar consoles on the Indian side like a house covered with Diwali lights. By this time, the situation was pretty much clear on both sides. Indians noticed JF-17s and F-16s flying at higher altitudes while Mirages were trying to fly as low as possible trying to sneak by. Pakistanis on the other hand could see Mig-21s, but not Mig-29s and Rafales which were a bit further back and rushing in with their radars turned off.
Phalcon’s Flight Controller realised the Pakistani plan quickly and ordered the Mig-21 flight to split up and attack different targets, “Shikra 1,2 break formation and engage F-16s and JF-17s. Shikra 3,4,5,6 fire at low flying bandits from maximum ranges. Stop them from coming within firing range. Break formation and disengage as soon as possible after firing. Leave the rest for Ranger and Baron”. Ranger was callsign for brand new Rafales and Baron for Mig-29s which were only minutes away from entering the fight. Mig-21s were outnumbered more than two-to-one just compared to interceptors and asking them to hold on for long was just suicide.
Mig-21s turned on their radars and their onboard computers fed the target to R-77s which left their pylons seconds later. Pakistani interceptors also launched their BVR missiles at nearly the same time. A total of 12 R-77s and 16 AIM-120 and PL-12 missiles were in the air racing towards the general vicinity of their assigned targets guided by the host aircraft. With Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) beeping near continuously, aircraft from both sides started to launch chaff and perform manoeuvres to break off the radar locks. Three of the R-77s fired at Mirages found their targets even as they manoeuvred frantically as much as was allowed by the terrain and their lower altitudes. They had no active jammers onboard and were easy targets for AAMs dropping on them from a higher altitude.
Indians were not so lucky with the interceptors and all Pakistani interceptors managed to escape the first BVR salvo without damage. Two Indian Mig-21s were lost in exchange and the rest were ordered to fly to Srinagar to engage the last salvo of Chinese cruise missiles with their remaining WVR missiles and guns. Although they had suffered losses, they had managed to break the cohesion and situational awareness of the Pakistani fleet. The Mirages were just beginning to realign themselves to their assigned flight paths when their RWRs started ringing again.
Pakistani interceptors noticed a single radar signature speeding towards them even as they noticed Mig-21s retreating. Few of them surged forward to engage it, while the rest tried to acquire retreating Mig-21s and destroy them with BVR shots. In the heat of battle, they had made one mistake. The single radar signature they had detected was that of a single Rafale of Ranger flight. Certain fighters like Rafales and Sukhois are capable of painting a radar target for other aircraft which can fire missiles without turning on their own radars. Pakistanis made the mistake of assuming that it was just another Mig-21. They realised that something was wrong when they detected 12 missiles heading towards them. The Meteors launched by Rafales cut through Pakistani aircraft formations like a hot knife through butter and two JF-17s, two F-16s and five Mirages crashed out of the sky in bright fireballs. Even before the Meteors had hit their targets, Mig-29s reached the area, turned on their radars and started acquiring their targets. Two more Mirages and one other JF-17 were lost in the next minute as R-77s fired by Mig-29s took their toll.
Mission controller onboard Erieye realised the pickle they were in just now and started ordering the remaining Mirages to disengage and head back. Two of the Mirage pilots had acquired their ground targets in the meanwhile and managed to fire off five glide bombs. As they started to turn back, they tried to turn too hard thereby slowing them and offered themselves to Indian aircraft on a platter. Two R-77s fired from a single Mig-29 took both of them down within seconds of each other.
A Mig-29 was lost to a F-16 which sneaked in from the north behind the cover of a mountain range and fired two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat seeking missiles. Two more JF-17s were lost to MICAs fired by Rafales even as they manoeuvred to regain the upper hand in this suddenly desperate air battle. Their ground attack was a failure for all intents and purposes and they wanted to have at least a few more kills than just three for their efforts. But the fight had not gone their way and instead of drawing Indian fighters out, Pakistanis were being forced to engage in WVR combat with vastly more manoeuvrable Mig-29 and Rafales. They had lost 14 out of 28 aircraft and were fast running out of missiles to fight with.
A complete withdrawal order was issued and they tried to disengage, some of them in panic. One JF-17 pilot paid the price of mistake and was shot down by a MICA as he tried to turn too quickly without bothering to check the position of enemies around him.