Signalling a paradigm shift in India’s engagement with Pakistan and setting the tone and tenor of future geopolitical ties between the two nations, India on Wednesday acknowledged and awarded gallantry medals to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and five other Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots who spearheaded the Balakot operation.
IAF’s woman Squadron Leader Minty Agarwal was awarded the Yudh Sewa Medal for her role as a fighter controller during the very same mission.
Aggarwal was part of a team of seven fighter controllers on duty on the morning of February 27, and controlled IAF’s interception package launched to stop Pakistan’s fighter jets, two officials said on condition of anonymity. The fighter controllers, two of them women including Aggarwal, were operating from an underground bunker at the Ambala air base. She joined the air force nine years ago and is 30 years old.
Fighter controllers play a crucial role in the air force. “Fighter aircraft don’t fly in isolation. They need a supporting environment. Radars and fighter controllers play a crucial role not only in terms of controlling our aircraft but also detecting enemy intent,” a fighter pilot said.
Women officers in IAF hailed the award as a watershed. “I think women officers are on a roll in IAF. We have women flying fighter jets, and now one of us has been awarded a YSM for the first time. We have come a long way since the IAF opened its doors to women in early 1990s. All of us are absolutely delighted,” said a woman IAF officer who asked not to be named.
“Slowly but surely, women are making a mark. Yet another feather in the cap,” said Wing Commander Anupama Joshi (retd), from of the first batch of women officers commissioned in the force in 1990.
Apart from Aggarwal, four other officers were awarded YSM for the Balakot operation, the unprecedented cross-border strikes during peace time.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was awarded a Vir Chakra on Wednesday, was one of the pilots who took off to engage the intruding Pakistani fighter jets and scripted military aviation history by downing a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet during the aerial dogfight that followed.