Little Cause to Cheer the Balakot Airstrike and its Aftermath
By Pravin Sawhney
The Modi government might still win the war of perception within India, but India’s conventional deterrence has been compromised. Its war-fighting capabilities – pivoted on air power – have been blunted without a fight. This will have implications for the on-going proxy war by Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Pakistan maintained credibility of both its first combined civil-military government and its air power.
While India’s political leadership failed, its military, this time the Indian Air Force (IAF), saved the day through the courage, skill and resolve of its pilots. Moreover, as respect for the seven-decades old MiG-21 fighter was restored, all Russian aircraft might now be assessed with added deference by India.
By using air power for political and electoral gains, the Modi government appears to have scored in the perception war. Three main arguments being bandied around in its favour are:
(a) It demonstrated extraordinary courage by ordering the IAF to strike beyond Pakistan Occupied Kashmir inside Pakistan;
(b) The government’s pressure compelled Pakistan to return the captured pilot, wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman post-haste, and
(c) International opinion favoured India’s strike for self-defence against Pakistan’s unending terrorism. Being a strong leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has created the new normal by use of air power, which done repeatedly like the 2016 (army-led) surgical strikes, would force Pakistan to stop terrorism across the Line of Control. More on this later.
To recapitulate the events, on February 26, the world was informed that the IAF had struck at Balakot (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in the early hours, around 3.30am. Following its ‘intelligence-led, non-military strike avoiding civilian casualties’, the IAF killed ‘a large number of terrorists, their handlers and supporters’ and returned safely. With official obfuscation done, it was left to the ‘reliable’ journalists to spin the unending yarn of uncorroborated news and theories.
The entire operation, people were informed, was known to only seven people — the Prime Minister, National Security Advisor, three services’ chiefs, and heads of India’s external and internal intelligence agencies (RAW and IB). The defence minister, we are told, was not kept in the loop.
RAW identified the target, a Jaish-e-Mohammed seminary and training camp. The IAF then planned and executed the operation keeping two things in mind: no aircraft should be lost or intercepted, and the aircraft should return fast after releasing their payload.
It was evident that the operation was meant for publicity. A case in point, unsubstantiated media reports claimed that 300 to 350 Jaish terrorists in Balakot were eliminated by IAF strikes, a claim that has since been questioned by the international media, which was allowed by Pakistan to visit the target site. Subsequently, other media reports have emerged claiming that the IAF fighters did not actually cross the Line of Control. Instead, Balakot was attacked using stand-off weapons. Hence, deliberate confusion continues.
Balakot was a well-chosen target since it is a hilly, foliaged area away from habitation; it had the least air defence cover of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The nearest civilian airfield is 40km away at Muzaffarabad, while the nearest PAF station is over 100km south in Islamabad. Bahawalpur is a known Jaish stronghold, but since it has four PAF stations in the vicinity, it was not considered for the strike.
Since the war was neither on, nor imminent, it would have taken any professional air force (PAF is no exception) minimum 10 minutes from detection to reaction and interception. Moreover, the PAF did not have its airborne early warning aircraft in the air (AWACS cannot stay more than 24 hours in air), and the time was such that observers manning the Ground Based Air Defence System (GBADS) could not have been vigilant (it is not possible to remain on high alert 24×7 in peacetime).
Given this setting, the IAF’s Mirage-2000 (four instead of the claimed 12) supported by other aircraft within Indian airspace, breached PoK airspace, and released precision guided payloads at stand-off range well before the PAF could scramble and intercept them. The IAF had surprised the PAF and shocked Pakistan.
Waking up to reality, Pakistan realised that India had breached PoK airspace and delivered bombs within its sovereign territory. This was a first. Use of land-based artillery firings had remained within PoK territory. The optics of India’s action had demoralised Pakistanis revelling in the strength of their first civil-military government with defined division of work.
Pakistan was faced with the dilemma of how to avenge India’s unprecedented action: to use or not to use the PAF. It was decided that the PAF too would breach Indian airspace while calling it a non-military strike. Unlike the IAF, the PAF strike would be done with menacing force in broad daylight ensuring that Indian military installations close to the Line of Control were not damaged enough to compel India to raise the ante.
The PAF package comprising 24 combat aircraft struck next morning on February 27 with a few breaching Indian airspace. They were challenged, a dogfight ensued, which resulted in the downing of one Pakistani fighter and the capture of an Indian pilot (who had to eject from his MiG-21 inside PoK) by Pakistan. Briefing the media on February 27 evening, the Indian military delegation said that Pakistan had committed military aggression by seeking to hit military installations. They admitted that it was an act of war. When asked how India would respond, the reply was that India was prepared for all contingencies. Left unsaid was that unless PAF provoked further, the matter was over.
Here are four observations on what happened during the two fateful days.
First, the expensive Israeli SPICE (Smart Precise Impact and Cost Effective) guidance kit converts dumb/unguided bombs into smart guided air-to-surface munitions dropped from 60km stand-off ranges with accuracy of less than three meters. These SPICE kits were fitted on 2,000 pounds (about 900kg) bombs and dropped by Mirage aircraft. Since the distance from the LC (it was breached in Muzaffarabad sector) to Balakot was 90km, the Mirage, given the 60km stand-off ammunition range, would have done shallow breaches (maximum 30km) and delivered the payload. The air raid would have been over in less than five minutes. While the Mirage remained in POK airspace, the bombs hit Pakistani territory. Moreover, SPICE-bombs, given their accuracy, require Designated Mean point of Impact (DMI); in this case, it would have been given an area target to avoid collateral damage.
Since the purpose of such use of air power was raising the profile of the government, no new ‘red-lines’, as expostulated by analysts, were created. It would be nigh impossible for the IAF to do another such strike without a war. All talks of a ‘new normal’ in counter-terrorism operations crafted by the Modi government are baloney.
Second, against India’s non-military strike, the PAF responded with military aggression in daytime, which India said was an act of war. Why did India not respond to Pakistan’s act of war with offensive counter-strikes? Because the political leadership and the IAF were not prepared for an escalation which could have easily led to a full-blown war, whose dynamics are uncontrollable. Pakistan, given its aggression, was ready for an escalation.
The Indian leadership is unprepared for war because it does not understand the dynamics of war-fighting, including transition of conventional war to use of nuclear weapons. The Modi government was worried by a powerful message from Pakistan on the day the IAF struck. On February 26, Pakistan held a meeting of its National Command Authority (NCA), the highest civil-military leaders’ body chaired by the Prime Minister which purportedly decides on nuclear issues. In reality, the purpose of the NCA is limited to signalling, since all aspects of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are controlled by the Pakistan Army. Pakistan has declared full-spectrum capability: nuclear weapons capability for all three — strategic, operational/war-fighting, and battles/ tactical levels — of war.
The IAF (and other services) do not have adequate capacity and capability for war escalation; the equipment and ammunition shortages are well-documented and are not hidden from Pakistan. In the 1999 Kargil conflict, where the army chief, General V.P. Malik said ‘we will fight with whatever we have’, India was lucky since Musharraf had kept his leadership in the dark. In 2001-2002, India lost nearly 1,084 soldiers (to shifting land-mines) without firing a shot and blinked first; in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India was once against caught unawares; and in 2016, India bluffed with its fake surgical strikes.
Moreover, since war would be a joint-services effort, it is not even clear whether the army or the air force would be the lead service in the land war. Worse, the army, unwilling to give up counter-terrorism operations, has failed to focus on its primary task of war-fighting. The Indian military lacks reforms, and the indigenous defence-industrial complex is pathetic to say the least.
Given the abysmal state of military preparedness, the question is: why did the Modi government order air strikes when the IAF lacks escalation-fighting capabilities, not to speak of escalation dominance? Pakistan’s belligerent reaction to the IAF’s strike has compromised India’s conventional deterrence predicated on air power.
Third, the PAF strikes were meant to maintain the credibility of its air power and to disallow shrinking of conventional warfighting space.
In technology-driven modern war, the air force, and not the army would have primacy for a desirable war outcome. The core competencies of air power comprising its enormous reach, unmatched flexibility, information superiority, precision engagements and air and space superiority are not available to the land forces.
India army’s former director general military operations, Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia, noted on Twitter that Pakistan’s strikes were for “domestic compulsions and optics”: “Pak air force employed on targets within their artillery range. You never employ air assets where ground-based weapons are effective.”
The fact is that if Pakistan had responded to India’s airstrike with land-based artillery systems, its air power credibility would have eroded. This would in turn have signalled that Pakistan would be willing to use its nukes early in a war. Despite its declared full-spectrum capability, Pakistan’s military, given its elongated geography and too many high-profile assets close to the border, would desist from early use of nuclear weapons in war. Nukes are not central to Pakistan’s war-fighting. To maintain this posture, Pakistan has to ensure parity at the operational (or war-fighting) level of conventional war.
Thus, it does not matter whether the PAF undertook shallow breach of the LC in the February 27 strikes. What mattered is that it responded with air power and that too in daylight. What appeared a tit-for-tat equal and proportionate response helped maintain conventional warfighting space, and strengthened the Pakistani people’s confidence in the Imran Khan government.
Fourth, once the above objectives were achieved, Pakistan took the high-moral ground and returned the captured Indian pilot for regional peace. Pakistan’s strategy was supported and influenced by China. The US, Saudi Arabia and UAE do not have much influence on Pakistan to goad it to review its national security strategy. Pakistani foreign minister Mahmood Qureshi twice spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, which resulted in China’s criticism of India’s Balakot strike. The Chinese foreign ministry statement released on February 28 said that sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations should be respected.
China’s finger-pointing was on Balakot; Indian bombs had severed Pakistan’s sovereignty. Beijing had seemingly given a go-ahead to Pakistan to undertake PAF strikes, following which, Pakistan was asked to comply with the regional peace agenda. China not only wants peace between India and Pakistan, it also wants India to get on the Belt and Road Initiative.
Reading between the lines, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in constant touch with his American counterpart John Bolton. Before the Indian strike in Balakot, Bolton, reacting to the Pulwama tragedy in Kashmir, had spoken about India’s right to self-defence. After the Pakistani strikes, it was US President Donald Trump who had mentioned about the end of the crisis between India and Pakistan.
The Indian action of involving the US in crisis with Pakistan to avert war is not new. The former US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice wrote in her book: No Higher Honour that the national security advisor in the Vajpayee government, Brajesh Mishra, called her to help avert a war between India and Pakistan in May 2002 during Operation Parakram. Like the then Vajpayee government, the Modi government too sought refuge in the US administration to end the crisis it created solely for effect and image management.