India today produced debris of the AIM-120 missile which was fired by the Pakistani F-16
Airforce spokesperson Group captain Anupam Banerjee with debris of the AIM-120 missile which was fired by the Pakistani F-16 | Suraj Singh Bisht/ThePrint
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Deterrence theorists have long underscored that a deterrent’s credibility is in the eye of the beholder — namely, is the target of deterrence (the potential aggressor) sufficiently convinced that the other side has both the capability and the will to act so as to make aggression not worth the risk? Whether a foe is deterred is thus a function of its understanding of the deterrer’s strengths and intentions.

Pakistan has waged a protracted proxy war by terror against the much stronger India since the 1980s because it has repeatedly tested the will of successive Indian governments and found it wanting. No prime minister after Indira Gandhi has been willing to impose sufficient costs on Pakistan to dissuade it from continuing to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts.

The February 26 Balakot airstrike was a potential game changer. It revived bitter Pakistani memories of the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Even before India said a word, Pakistan admitted Indian warplanes struck at Balakot without being interdicted or challenged. That India struck a target in the Pakistani heartland with impunity was momentous. The extent of damage or the death toll was immaterial. However, boastful toll-related claims, starting with the foreign secretary’s statement that “a very large number” of terrorists were “eliminated”, generated partisan controversy that undercut the chilling message that the Indian Air Force (IAF) delivered to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals.

Worse still, India has allowed a defining moment to slip away by failing to hit back after Pakistan’s aerial blitz. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces, employing them cost effectively as a force multiplier against India. So, India’s contention that it struck a “non-military” target at Balakot did not wash with the Pakistani generals, who responded barely 30 hours later with a daring, daytime aerial onslaught, in which India lost a MiG-21 — and, in perhaps friendly fire, a Mi-17 helicopter.

The F-16 downing issue has not only detracted from Balakot’s main message but also obscured the absence of Indian retribution for the Pakistani blitz. The IAF is sure it shot down a Pakistani F-16. Yet, remarkably, a short, sketchy April 4 US news report, which quoted anonymous sources to claim a US inventory probe found none of Pakistan’s F-16s missing, attracted front-page Indian press coverage and was quickly seized upon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics at home and abroad — until the Pentagon said “we weren’t aware of any investigation like that”.

The intruding Pakistani warplanes brazenly tried to bomb Indian military sites. Although “no significant” damage was caused, according to the Indian military, Pakistan’s transborder targeting of army formations opened a long-sought opportunity for the Indian armed forces to wreak massive punishment. Underscoring this opportunity is the fact that a near-bankrupt Pakistan cannot afford a military conflict. Indeed, such is Pakistan’s vulnerability to a punitive attack that, as this newspaper reported, only one Pakistani submarine currently is operational — that too partially.

Yet, India’s political leadership held back the armed forces from retaliating. New Delhi chose to defer to Washington’s assurances on Pakistan. Consequently, it was US President Donald Trump who signalled de-escalation, saying the tensions were “going to be coming to an end”. Hours after Trump’s announcement, an overcautious India finally allowed its armed forces to brief the media. But by then, parts of Pakistani propaganda had already taken hold internationally.

Modi has oddly relied on the ministry of external affairs (MEA) to issue statements about a military crisis. Naturally, MEA has been out of its depth in that role, as was illustrated during the Doklam crisis, when India had no answer to China’s full-throttle information warfare. In the Balakot saga, MEA’s tardy, unforthcoming briefings ceded perception management to a mendacious Pakistani military, whose claim of downing two Indian warplanes dominated international news for days. Indeed, MEA’s February 26 statement inexcusably failed to identify where Balakot is located. This led the international media to wrongly assume it is in Pakistan-held Kashmir and to spotlight the Kashmir dispute.


Also read: Pakistan took 43 days to show media Balakot Madarsa intact, but took them to wrong place


Despite Modi letting go the opportunity to wreak vengeance on Pakistan, the threshold-breaching Balakot strike after years of Indian inaction has helped sharpen his image as a strong leader at election time. Pakistan, however, still fears Indian reprisals to its blitz, which explains why its airspace remains closed to most commercial overflights. It has reopened just one of its 11 airways for flights between Asia and Europe — that too a marginal route through Balochistan to Iran.

Meanwhile, international pressure on Pakistan to take concrete, verifiable actions to root out terrorist groups is gradually easing. The US lists North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria as “state sponsors of terrorism” but not the main sponsors — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Its latest action in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as “terrorist” but not the biggest terror-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — highlights the increasing politicisation of the war on terror.

India, alas, has yet to build a reputation for resolve, which, as the social scientist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, is a prerequisite for deterrence. All the weapons India is frenetically importing can offer no effective deterrence in the absence of political will. India failed to capitalise on the Balakot strike to compel the Pakistani generals to start cleaning up their terror act. Far from imposing deterrent costs to prevent further terrorist attacks, India reinforced the Pakistani generals’ belief that its bark is worse than its bite. This is why the present lull is likely to prove only an interlude.


Also read: What Pulwama-Balakot proves: A ‘third’ actor can still push India and Pakistan into a war


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5 COMMENTS

  1. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala (Punjab)
    Quite thought-provoking, eye-opening and sounding a note of caution write-up based on sound and rich
    experience -expertise in the realm of defence strategies and preparedness !

    Mr. Brahma Chellaney has dwelt at length the whole saga of Indian Air Force February 26 air strikes at
    Balakot following February,14 Pulwama Terror Bomb Attack !

    He has very deeply, thoroughly and objectively analysed the sequence of events originating from February,
    14 Pulwama Terror Bomb Attack and their far reaching ramifications in the perspective !

    The article reflects that Aerial Strikes at Balakot after proving to be a game changer initially , frittered away
    an opportunity to uphold and keep up deterrent’s credibility and initial upper hand !

    The glory attained by the valiant Air Force Pilots was sacrificed at the altar of hollow” political vested interests”
    and “cheap populism ” ! Prime Minister Modi could not wait even for a single day rushing to Churu in Rajasthan
    on February , 26 forenoon to milk political mileage out of the aerial strikes !

    What an example of strong political will and nationalism ? The Pakistan Air Force counter aerial strikes followed
    that too in broadday light settling the scores instantly !

    Some soul- searching questions still crop up in the best national interests ?

    The nation’s polity is maintaining a close-guarded secret as well silence on the crux of the menace of Terrorism :
    ” Who is liable and accountable for gross negligence and dereliction of duty for February, 14 Pulwama Terror Bomb
    Attack ? Even after more than two months of the attack resulting in sacrifices of brave 44 CRPF Security Persons
    ironically , no clue whatsoever, how one suicide bomber alone succeeded in achieving his target upto the mark
    uninterrupted, unchecked very successfully ?

    Chowkidars were in deep slumber, not agile and alert allowing an individual a free and safe passage to hit his target
    alone driving a vehicle carrying explosives, it bears testimony to the fact !

    Deterrence angle is still under the cloud because terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir have not yet come to a
    standstill ! After an eyewash, Pakistan does not at all seem to be keen, clean and serious to clear the terror act camps
    from its soil ! Has the spectre of transborder terrorism vanished once for all from the Kashmir valley ?

    Modi is just dramatising, playing up the “national security” and “nationalism” sentiments only to win Lok Sabha
    Polls ! For petty and sinister political designs, NaMo and BJP are playing havoc with national security to win polls !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala (Punjab)

  2. Analyst/strategists like you are the reason for a dead horse ie Indian Armed Forces. Only one Pak submarine serviceable (bloody joke), economically vulnerable Pakistan ( whose side you really are?) blah blah. Pakistan has never taken its enemy easy. Therefore it has always shown more resolve. A bloody Air Force of 700+ aircraft against 350 odd fighters with post Pulwama baggage can only be termed as an unprofessional horde and burden on a nation of 1.4 billion. Painting Pakistan as vulnerable is like doing disservice to Indian Armed Forces who tend to further relax. Miscalculation or misjudgment regarding Pak response to any future aggression would most likely strip India of any regional status which it is trying desperately to acquire courtesy USA.

  3. यार क्या उम्र और ज्ञान की बाते करते हो
    RAW Must Adopt Some Dashing Dynamic Featured individuals Groom Them For People Society Nation Country
    Before Presenting Them To international Platform must Keep Away From Political Kinpins Only Defence Secret Not Access To SoCalled Temporary Ministeries Only Attached To जैंहिन्द no other Tantrum

  4. Capture of Abhinandan, restricted our full scale response. The next 2 days, focus was on his retrieval rather than punitive action against Pak misadventure.
    However, given the bad financial status of Pak, India should continue to keep up the pressure by artillery and aggressive combat fighter manouvers to bleed Pakistan daily in trying to defend against these onslaughts.
    If our fighters go unchallenged they should attack military installations on the other side to send the message.

    • What part of word “Stand Off” weapons you are unable to comprehend?? IAF fighter planes shot their spice missiles from a distance of 100 kms. So no free hall pass any time soon in the future even with rafaele. If u will strike our military installations we will strike back with 3 times more force. So kindly analyse higher end spectrum of escalation ladder when missiles will be running havoc in delhi, Vishakhapatnam, Madras, Port Blair, Banglore, Raipur, Patna, Gandhi nagar, Mumbai etc. At least wait for S-400 before seeing such dreams, it might be able to shoot down 25% of hundreds of missiles flying towards those cities.

      As far as we pakistanis are concerned u already know for the last 50 years that we are on the brink of failure, economic collapse, terrorism hell etc etc. So like every body else we dont care that much about ourselves. 😉

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