The Balakot air strikes have dramatically changed the predominant thinking about the Indian Air Force and the strategic diffidence that had come to define India’s use of air power until now.
The employment of offensive air power in pursuit of national security objectives had gone into slumber after the 1971 war because the armed forces operated in distinct silos. The thinking was: The IAF was mainly meant for conventional conflict; it is escalatory everywhere else and therefore it’s best to leave it to the Indian Army to look after the rest.
After flirting with the use of offensive air power against the Mizo and Naga uprising in the 1950s and 1960s, which has not been studied objectively so far and drowned in a sea of emotional baggage, the Indian state totally eschewed the employment of offensive air power against insurgencies. And rightly so. The argument related to insurgencies was that they largely comprised indigenous people who deserved a chance to be cajoled and mildly coerced without facing the heavy hand of air power, even if they briefly flirted with the idea of secession.
Many in the strategic world said that offensive air power was meant for the ‘big battle’ and not for what they called ‘dirty wars’. It was partly an outcome of the manner in which Israel was unable to force a decisive outcome in Lebanon against the Hezbollah by using air power. But what had failed wasn’t the air power, but the way it was employed in isolation, without ground support. But in our own neighbourhood in 2008, Sri Lanka used air power effectively in the decisive battle against LTTE and its top leadership.
There was a strong case for using air power in the 1990s in Jammu and Kashmir when we had adequate intelligence about several Pakistan ISI-supported jihadi training camps just along the Line of Control and out of the range of Indian artillery and the Indian Army. The Indian Air Force argued that it did have the capability to inflict damage on these jihadi training camps without violating Pakistani air space. However, dogma and scepticism prevailed within the political establishment at that time over trying new strategies. So, India continued with an attrition heavy strategy, fatalistically accepting casualties and hoping that the jihadi movement would run out of steam.
Even during Kargil war, Indian air power continued to be exploited sub-optimally with clear instructions not to cross the Line of Control even in the sector of conflict. This frustrated the IAF commanders because they could not even interdict supply nodes a few kilometres into the Gilgit-Skardu sector and had to instead engage in seeking out enemy positions on mountain tops and the stray logistics hub. The IAF fought with one hand tied behind the back, but played an important role in de-escalation. The state argued that India was not ready to test the escalation ladder, and it reflected the characteristics of a diffident power.
The 2003 ceasefire and the coercive impact of the post-9/11 pressure from the US, saw many of the terrorist camps being dismantled and moved inland by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) as they sought refuge in populated areas like Muridke and Bahawalpur under the protective umbrella of the ISI. India had lost a window of coercion from 1990-2003. The Mumbai attacks of 2008 reinforced Indian diffidence over the utility of air power despite the air chief of the time indicating that the IAF was ready to respond.
Critics of the Narendra Modi government argue that the post-Uri surgical strikes of 2016 have done little to curb infiltrations and terrorist attacks. But the strikes opened a window of opportunity for exploring new options. Even the Balakot air strikes may not prevent recurrent terrorist strikes, but India chose to change the narrative and demonstrate what air power brings to the table. It will also hopefully lead to a better understanding among the services that exploiting and complementing each other’s competencies is the only way forward in combating the changing paradigms of conflict.
As India grapples with the events of the last 48 hours, it becomes essential to slow down the rollercoaster ride and reflect on some strategic and operational possibilities and outcomes.
There have been several extremely hawkish propositions that range from calls for the complete destruction of terrorist networks in Pakistan to extensive degradation of Pakistani military capability – both completely improbable propositions. On the other extreme are the doves who suggest that India ought to accept PM Imran’s call for talks with a state that has demonstrated time and again that talks are merely a cover for deflecting attention from the core issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India. In the middle are wise, informed and battle-hardened veterans like Air Chief Marshals Tipnis, S. Krishnaswamy along with former Chief of Army Staff Ved Malik who argue that having decided to change the narrative, India must have the resolve to carry through its operational strategy that seeks to change, or at least make a genuine attempt to change, the behaviour of Pakistan.
This will only be possible if the current situation is managed with calibrated punitive action keeping a concurrent window open for diplomatic initiatives that revolve around credible and actionable strictures against the JeM and its leader, Masood Azhar.
Moving down to the operational realm, the aerial action Wednesday was a classic ingress mode interception that saw a large package of PAF fighters (could be a combination of F-16s and JF-17s) intruding into Indian air space and being intercepted by a few pairs of SU-30s and MiG-21 Bisons. There would have been multiple interceptions that seems to have forced this large package to turn back before dropping their weapon load on their assessed targets of a brigade headquarters and ammo dump. In the ensuing melee, it appears that the MiG-21 Bison was in the best position to take a shot.
Despite denials from PAF that any of their aircraft were shot down, reports and photographs of engine pieces recovered by Pakistan military suggest it was probably an F-16. In the absence of any confirmation from both sides, it remains in the speculative domain. In any case, this is splitting hair over minor details when one looks at the larger picture of what is emerging.
Will India escalate to de-escalate? I would reckon that is the only option available, which could lead to an outcome largely acceptable to India.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the IAF and a strategic commentator.
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