The air skirmishes between India and Pakistan on 26-27 February following the Pulwama attack had a very interesting fallout, which can bring a transformation in the armed forces — one that has long been overdue. The postmortem of the Balakot Strike and the air battle the next day, brought the Indian public face to face with military technology and its decisive role in modern warfare.
Capabilities of rival aircraft, their beyond visual range missiles, electronic warfare (EW) packages to neutralise enemy missiles and the support aircraft/ systems in form of Airborne Warning and Control (AWAC) aircraft, tethered Aerostat systems (a large balloon with radars and EW systems), EW aircraft, and ground controllers were discussed both in technical terms and in layman’s language. And it was clear to even the general public that victory in future conflict will be contingent on technology exploited by a highly trained human resource.
That the 90-hour military conflict ended in a stalemate with both sides proving their resolve and capabilities is a cause of serious concern for India, which is a larger power with a much bigger economy and a much higher defence budget. While a national security driven Lok Sabha election campaign may obfuscate the issue temporarily, the next government will sooner or later have to face up to the reality. Until we create an overwhelming technological military edge over Pakistan, our strategy to force compellence on Pakistan will remain indecisive.
Nuclear weapons and the international environment foreclose the option of a conventional decisive war in which absolute defeat is imposed on Pakistan. Apart from a quid pro quo counter fourth-generation war in Pakistan, we have two broad hard options – operations below the threshold of war without major ground operations, or a limited war. At the recent Army Commanders Conference, the latter was discussed in form of ‘swift and sustained retaliation of 10 days’ duration’. In my view, being a responsible world power and the world’s third largest economy, it is not in India’s interests to impose a reactive or proactive limited war on Pakistan. Economically, we have everything to lose vis-à-vis an impoverished Pakistan. At best, limited war should remain a Plan B option with Plan A being based on sustained operations below the threshold of a limited war. The success of this strategy will remain contingent on an overwhelming technological military edge.
Over the last two decades, Pakistan has bridged the gap as far as our relative technological edge is concerned. We still have a numerical edge, which would come into play only in a war of longer duration. Our armed forces require a holistic quantum jump in technology and this costs money. A two-pronged approach would be prudent. First would be to increase the defence budget (not including the pensions) to 3 per cent of the GDP from the existing 1.44 per cent; and second would be to optimise the size of the army.
The technological edge that we must create should be so overwhelming that Pakistan is not able to match it economically. Its principal ally, China, will support it only up to a point because apart from bad economics of free military aid, Beijing desires peace around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Once India’s superiority is evident, simple economics will compel Pakistan to adopt the easier option: stop its interference in the internal affairs of India.
Fast forward to 2022. After a major terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir, the international media reported that multiple terrorist targets had been hit by armed drones in Pakistan which claimed to have shot down one armed drone. India denied having launched the attack. The following night, India shot down two intruding Pakistani armed drones. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) also engaged multiple targets with standoff missiles/bombs being fired by aircraft flying in its own air space. India responded by using its long ranges air defence systems and shot down two aircraft 40-50 km inside Pakistan. Thereafter, all was quiet on the western front. Over the next one year, one more flare-up took place with similar results. Covert talks began between India and Pakistan and the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir underwent a turn for the better.
In the hypothetical scenario described above, I focussed on only two aspects of military technology – armed drones like the Predator and long-range air defence systems like the S 400. Both are well within our reach in near future. Weapon systems using precision guided munitions backed by state-of-the-art EW packages can be extended selectively across our land, air and sea capability.
Of course, Pakistan can procure similar systems, but modern technology is contingent upon economy. India’s GDP is eight times that of Pakistan and its defence budget five times larger. Holistic national security reforms, ‘optimal right sizing’ of the armed forces, and increase of the defence budget to 3 per cent of the GDP will ensure that we create an overwhelming technological military edge that Pakistan cannot match.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.