Surgical strikes after Uri and at Balakot have not ended terrorism and infiltration has increased despite lockdown. The post-COVID-19 environment may provide a window to restart process
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the use of surgical strikes has become the new-normal in resolving intractable problems like cross-border terrorism, black money and Jammu & Kashmir. After Balakot, the airstrikes appear to have turned the page in terrorism but in real terms, little has changed. Black money has altered the “colour” and “terrorism” is just on “pause.” The new invisible enemy is COVID-19. Not even a nuclear strike will conquer this pandemic, which only time, more human lives and a vaccine can cure. Preliminary studies are showing how Coronavirus will change the way we live and cohabit. One can only hope that our existential difficulties with Pakistan will ease and end.
The Government and the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrated February 26 as the first anniversary of Balakot. Exaggerated claims were made to perpetuate the ones made last year without new evidence and factoring the Pakistani perspective. It is too early to begin rewriting the doctrine and call the airstrikes as “game-changer.” Claims on behalf of the IAF have been made mainly by former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, through interviews and parts of an internal IAF report that were leaked to the media. His successor, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, simply reinforced Dhanoa’s claims through the same medium at a public event titled, ‘Air Power in No War No Peace Scenario,’ organised by the Centre for Air Power Studies, which was presided by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF)’s perspective came from a conference held at the University of Lahore, which was jointly organised by the Centre for Security Strategy and Policy Research and the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). The event was attended by former PAF Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Kaleem Saadat. A report was published in the British Air Force magazine by Alan Warnes through his interviews with retired PAF officers. The PAF’s response to the IAF air strikes was called “Operation Swift Retort.”
On the most provocative, emotional and in India even anti-national question of hitting the target, the IAF has stuck to its claim that it hit the target, though the Crystal Maze 142M missile, which was to produce battle damage assessment, could not be fired. Last year, among others who expressed doubts whether the IAF missiles were on target, was Ashley Tellis of the US’s Carnegie Endowment and Christine Fair of Johns Hopkins University. The Air Force magazine was more direct: Bombs aimed at a religious boarding school at Balakot…hit wooded area a few hundred metres away…all bombs overshot their targets. The CASS report refers to the mishit as “tactical error and technical inadequacy.” Even so, this was the first time after the 1971 war that the IAF bombed Pakistan at Balakot. Perhaps carried away, Bhadauria described the bombings as “the most significant air action of the IAF in over four decades.” That was a bit unkind to the IAF veterans, who took part supporting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka for 22 months, and the sterling precision IAF bombings at Kargil for over three months.
Bhadauria further said that Balakot has shown that you can use the IAF and still have “escalation control.” He was backed by Army Chief, Gen MM Naravane, who said: “For years we were told that if and when air (force) crosses the International Border (IB), it would escalate to a full-fledged war. Balakot demonstrated that if you play the escalatory game with skill, military ascendancy can be established in short cycles of conflict that do not necessarily lead to war.” Elementary, my dear Watson?
In his paper on air escalation control circulated by the US’ Stimson Centre in 2003 after Operation Parakram, IAF’s Air Commode, Ramesh Phadke, argued that limited air operations against Pakistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) were possible with minimal escalation. Reason: IAF to PAF air balance ratio at that time was nearly 2.5 to 1. Today, that ratio has declined to less than 1.3 to 1 (IAF 28 squadrons versus PAF 21 squadrons). The CASS report further says that the probability of crisis recurrence between India and Pakistan is high and during a crisis, neither side will be able to guarantee controlling or dominating the escalation ladder.
PAF Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan told the Air Force magazine that one lesson for India is not to use air power “flippantly.” He said Operation Swift Retort was inevitable to demonstrate both the resolve and restraint and was designed to de-escalate. Pakistan has found wriggle room in explaining its nuclear bluff being called. The CASS report titled, “Deconstructing Balakot” reads: “Pakistan’s carefully calibrated response strategy served well in dampening the fears in policy analysis that portray that any attack inside Pakistan’s territory would invoke Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. However, Pakistan, through its retaliation, Operation Swift Retort after Indian strikes in Balakot, demonstrated that it has valid conventional means of deterrence to raise the cost of aggression.”
As someone who has studied Pakistan’s military and strategic thought, I do not recall Pakistan seriously threatening the use of nuclear weapons against an enemy airstrike. The four conditions for that were clearly codified by Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, the intellectual custodian of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. He had said — and that has not changed till date — that Pakistan would use its nuclear weapons as weapons of ultimate resort in four eventualities: Loss of large territory, especially in Punjab; crippling military attrition; economic blockade; and largescale political destabilisation. None of these conditions was violated by the Balakot airstrikes.
One year on, AFM has said that PAF will be outnumbered but will innovate to outmanoeuvre the IAF. It does not matter what technology the IAF gets, the PAF will have the capacity to defeat it. CASS has said that for the foreseeable future, it will be in retaliatory mode but the threat of the use of force is essential when Pakistan’s support for Kashmir will go beyond political, diplomatic and moral paradigm. Kashmir has been made central to crisis and conflict.
Balakot airstrikes had the potential to escalate and spin out of control. One single factor that enabled the daring and risky operation was a strategic surprise. This is not likely to be replicated. Airstrikes are not the new-normal but a one-off like the ground surgical strikes. Surgical strikes after Uri and at Balakot have not ended terrorism. Infiltration has increased despite lockdown and unprecedented troop density in Jammu & Kashmir.
Pakistan’s support for Kashmir will not cease and despite the internal constitutional changes in Jammu & Kashmir, the dispute will ultimately have to be resolved politically. The post-COVID-19 environment may provide a window to restart the process.
(The writer, a retired Major General, was Commander IPKF South, Sri Lanka and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff.)