On 14 February, a suicide car bombing targeted an Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Awantipora of Pulwama District in Jammu Kashmir State. The bombing resulted in at least 40 deaths and the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) extremist group has claimed responsibility for the attack. In the wake of the JeM bombing targeting the CRPF convoy, Osprey Flight Solutions issued a Critical Alert on 15 February stating that “short notice airspace restrictions for FIR Lahore (OPLR) covering northern Pakistan and/or FIR Delhi (VIDF) covering northwest India may be enacted should armed clashes between the two countries significantly escalate along the Line of Control (LoC)”. Our analysis team anticipated that the bombing represented a clear indication that airspace access over Pakistan could be severely disrupted within the 30 days following the attack.
On 26 February, the Indian military conducted a series of airstrikes targeting a Pakistani-based JEM extremist group training camp in Balakot (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan). The Indian Air Force fighter jets conducting the airstrikes reportedly crossed the LoC and carried out the airstrikes from within Pakistani airspace, FIR Lahore (OPLR). Pakistan military fighter jets were reportedly scrambled in response to the Indian Air Force activity though no kinetic aerial engagements occurred as a result. On 27 February, hostile military air activity escalated in the Kashmir region as both Pakistan and India claimed to have shot down opposing combat jets, and Pakistan carried out airstrikes across the LoC between Pakistan-administered Kashmir and India’s Jammu and Kashmir State. As a result, Pakistan closed the near entirety of its airspace – FIR Lahore (OPLR) and FIR Karachi (OPKR) – to overflight from 27 February through 15 July.
On 23 March, the US FAA issued a revised conflict zone advisory and background information for Pakistani airspace, which notes that military activity by Pakistan and India along the LoC poses a potential inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations at all altitudes (NOTAM KICZ A0008/19). EASA along with the US, UK, German and French civil aviation authorities have each issued advisories to operators in the past year regarding overflight of FIR Lahore (OPLR) below FL260.
Osprey analysis indicates there was a monthly average of 15 conflict zone dynamic incidents related to the India-Pakistan conflict from September 2017 through September 2018; compared to a spike of an average of 39 incidents per month from October 2018 through January 2019. This indicates a documented change in the aviation operating environment along the India-Pakistan border prior to outbreak of significant armed clashes along the LoC in February 2019 and the subsequent closure of Pakistani airspace through mid-July.
Despite the full re-opening of Pakistani airspace in mid-July, the Indian government revocation of the special status of the Indian-administered portion of the disputed Kashmir region on 5 August, has led to both Pakistan and India have raised the alert levels of their armed forces along the LoC, separating the two countries. there has been near-daily artillery shelling along the LoC by both Indian and Pakistani military forces since 29 July, coupled with a sustained spike in aviation activity by the respective air forces of each country. Both India and Pakistan have military airbases with combat aircraft and air-defence units with conventional surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems operationally stationed in areas near the LoC. The SAM systems and combat aircraft are capable of engaging targets at altitudes well above FL260.
The situation as it stands has a notable potential to mirror what occurred from late February to mid July when Indian and Pakistani air and air-defence forces were heavily active during armed clashes along the LoC as well as the border separating the two countries. Given the upsurge in military activity on both sides of the border and potential for unrest, we assess there remains an increased likelihood of further escalation in armed clashes along the LoC between Indian and Pakistani military forces through the remainder of 2019. Consequently, there remains a greater likelihood of short-notice airspace restrictions being enacted for Pakistani and/or Indian airspace in the months ahead.
Looking at the India-Pakistan situation, there was a clear increase in conventional military activity and conflict zone dynamics events in the run up to and immediately prior to a significant security event (in this case the closure of Pakistani airspace) that highlighted the operational environment over each country had changed.