14th February 2019. A huge convoy of Central Reserve Police Force is moving from Jammu to Srinagar for deployment. There are 78 vehicles and 2500 troops in the convoy travelling on the National Highway 44. The highway had been shut down for the past few days due to snowfall and urgent repairs. The 175 km of the highway which runs through the valley is used for both civilian and military movement. This was not always so. In the militancy-infested state of Jammu & Kashmir, during the 1990s and most of the 2000s, civilian traffic was not allowed on the highway during military movement. However, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had pleaded for opening up the roads to civilian traffic to ‘win over the hearts & minds of the Kashmiri people’.
Around 3:15 PM, at Loatoomode in Avantipur, a speeding car laden with RDX and other explosives appears from a side road and rams into the CRPF convoy. A CRPF bus and its occupants are blown to smithereens while militants posted around the site, open fire on rest of the troops. When the carnage is over, over 40 CRPF men are believed killed. Their bodies are badly charred, burnt and mutilated due to the intensity of the blast. Some body parts are found as far as 80 metres from the blast site. Soon, the Pakistan based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claims responsibility for the audacious and barbaric attack. The JeM Chief Masood Azhar is safely ensconced in Pakistan and receives security from the Pakistan security agencies. The bomber is Adil Ahmad Dar, a radicalized Kashmiri Muslim youth.
In the last 5 years, prior to the Pulwama attack, there had been other major terrorist attacks on Indian Armed Forces in Kashmir. Chief amongst them were the 2018 Sunjuwan attack, 2016 attacks at Nagrota, Uri, Pampore and Pathankot. In these attacks, the AFs had lost scores of men. A Nuclear Power State with the world’s 2nd biggest Army and 4th biggest Air Force was held hostage by several hundred armed and trained terrorists from Pakistan. India had responded to the Uri attack by using its Special Forces to conduct a surgical strike against militant launch pads inside Pakistan Occupied Kashmir inflicting heavy casualties. However, it was a one-off action with no follow up to keep up the heat on Pakistan based militants and their mentors. A Bollywood movie inspired by the strike captured the imagination of the nation with government ministers and even the Prime Minister invoked the ‘How is the josh’ line from the movie script.
A stunned India watched in disbelief as coffins draped in tricolour started rolling out to various cities across India. As the images of wailing widows, little kids and distraught families went viral across various news outlets, a wave of deep anger and frustration swept across millions of Indians. The nation as one wanted the killings to be avenged and demanded retribution from its elected leaders. The nationalist government of PM Modi, nearing the end of its 5-year term in office was left with no other option than to retaliate militarily against Pakistan.
The beleaguered PM looked towards its Armed Forces for a solution to the immediate crisis.
Successive governments had neglected the Armed Forces and even reduced the defence budget, forcing the AFs to cannibalize and even go for junkyard and warehouses shopping to maintain its equipment. Even the Kargil war, where the Indian Army Chief, General V.P.Malik was forced to say ‘We shall fight with whatever we have’ had borne no major reforms or acquisitions for the Armed Forces. Things continued to be drastic. The 10 years of UPA government had set back the Armed Forces by over a decade. The holier-than-thou Defence Minister A.K.Antony had ensured that under his watch practically no defence deal went through. From basic equipment like bulletproof jackets, assault rifles, night vision devices, machine guns to howitzers to batteries and torpedoes for the Naval ships; there existed a gaping hole in India’s defence preparedness.
Not to mention the fast depleting strength of Indian Air Force and its usage of 60’s vintage Mig’s. In 2014, Indian Navy Chief, Admiral D.K.Joshi had resigned following an explosion and sinking of the Kilo Class INS Sindhuratna off the coast of Mumbai which had killed several sailors. A distraught Admiral stated in a TV interview “The operating environment was dysfunctional and I felt being a service chief is not just about preening about on national TV, taking a salute on Republic Day. People tell you, ‘oh you looked so smart in your uniform’, in actual fact you are unable to get a set of batteries for your submarines and to my mind, that was a completely untenable situation for continuation as chief, it had been building up.”
India lives in a hostile neighbourhood and wars are not won by choking the Armed Forces of funds for modernization and upgrades. India’s allocation for funds for Military expenditure has consistently fallen over the past 10 years and does not address the threats it faces. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( SIPRI ), India’s Military expenditure (% of GDP) since 2010 is as the following:
That Indian Air Force is still using the ‘flying coffins’ or ‘widow makers’ Mig 21’s should be an eye-opener. For nearly 3 decades since Bofors were inducted in the Indian Army, no 155 mm Howitzer was acquired till the M177 was inducted last year. The scenario is equally alarming with the submarines. Clearly, lip service by our politicians is not enough for the Indian Armed Forces.
India’s covert ability to conduct intelligence-led operations in Pakistan also lay in tatters. It was on the insistence of PM I.K.Gujral in the 1990s that extensive human intelligence network was dismantled and the Pakistan special operations desk of R&AW shut down leading to a major gap in India’s intelligence capabilities.
Traditionally India had responded to any terrorist strike by snapping internet across major parts of the valley and by targeting & pounding Pakistan Army outposts by heavy artillery shelling and even by sending across soldiers to attack a particularly vulnerable enemy post.
However, it was clear that this time, the standard response was not enough to calm down public anger and avenge the horrific killings.
Suddenly the cupboard was bare when India was in the middle of an unprecedented crisis.
Indian Air Strike in Balakot
Around 3:30 AM on 26th February, a strike formation of Indian Air Force comprising of 12 Mirage 2000’s supported by four Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Netra, Phalcon airborne early warning and control aircraft, an IAI Heron UAV and 2 Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refuelling aircraft struck a JeM facility at Balakot in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Mirage’s used 1000 pound laser-guided bombs to pound the terrorist targets.
The air strike was the first strike launched across the LoC since the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Clearly, India had raised the ante in its fight against terrorism and had drawn a new red line.
Terming the strike as “non-military preemptive” strike, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said
“Credible intel [intelligence] was received that JeM was planning more suicide attacks in India. In the face of imminent danger, a pre-emptive strike became absolutely necessary.” India also claimed that “a very large number” of JeM terrorists and their trainers were “eliminated”
As expected, Pakistan downplayed the air-strike and questioned its efficaciousness. Even some western media houses like the NYT, WaPo, Al Jazeera termed the casualty figures as grossly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army was fuming. Its air defence and response systems had been breached and it needed a strike of its own to maintain its credibility in the eyes of the people of Pakistan. Having a puppet PM like Imran Khan helped the cause.
On the morning of 27th February, a formation of Pakistan Air Force comprising of 8 F-16s, 4 Mirage-3 aircraft and 4 JF-17 struck positions in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Air Force intercepted using 4 Sukhoi 30 MKIs, 2 Mirage 2000s and 2 MiG 21 Bisons. In the ensuing dogfight, an Indian Mig 21 Bison and a PAF F16 were brought down. While the pilot of the PAF F16 was lynched by Pakistani villagers, the IAF pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan was captured by the Pakistan Army. On 1st March, under immense International pressure, Pakistan returned Wing Commander Abhinandan back to India.
Post the horrendous Pulwama attack, Pakistan suddenly felt isolated at the international stage, with nearly every country unequivocally condemning the attack and calling upon Pakistan to rein in the terrorist groups.
France, US & UK moved a proposal in the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. The UN Secretary-General, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and many countries around the world condemned the attack on the CRPF convoy in the strongest terms.
Pakistan’s ‘stronger than steel and sweeter than honey’friend, China was caught off guard by the strong world opinion and could not spring to its rescue.
India’s growing economic clout had ensured that India won this round of international opinion & support.
Attacks and Casualties continue to mount
As the armies locked horn at the LoC, business continued as usual in J&K. Cross border firing and terrorist encounters continued. On 28th February, a woman was killed & an Army jawan injured in the shelling from by Pakistan Army. On 1st March 3 members of a family were killed and 2 others injured in the shelling. On 3rd March, 2 militants and 5 security personnel were killed in an encounter in Kupwara.
As the body bags kept piling, it became apparent that a single surgical strike or even an air strike across the border was not having the desired results for the Indian security establishment.
Opportunities lost and the way forward
Pakistan is a rogue state that uses nuclear weapons as blackmail to propagate its use of terrorism as a state policy. It realizes that it can’t match the hugely superior Indian conventional forces. So it uses the N word to hold the world to a ransom.
Declassified documents reveal how in 1981 and then in 1984, India in collaboration with Israel had planned to bomb Pakistan’s nuclear reactor at Kahuta. The attack would have severely crippled & delayed Pakistan’s effort to develop nuclear weapons. However, those operations were shelved and a golden opportunity lost.
Cold War strategist Herman Kahn who had coined the term ‘escalation dominance’had defined 44 “rungs” on a metaphorical ladder of escalating conflict. In 2011, Rodney Jones had drawn up 18 “rungs” on Nuclear Escalation Ladders in South Asia.
However, Kargil war has amply demonstrated that a threshold exists for suboptimal limited war, short of full-fledged operations, without the risk of nuclear escalation.
Post the Indian and Pakistan air strikes, General V.P.Malik who had led Indian troops in Kargil & remains unconvinced by Pakistan’s nuclear bluff tweeted “Pakistan unwilling to take action against its terrorist assets. We should prepare ourselves for more preemptive strikes, proactive diplomacy & its economic squeeze. Silence those working for Pakistan in Kashmir. Strengthen our armed forces. Need continued political will & unity”
Meanwhile, General H.S.Panag PVSM, AVSM, ADC, who had formerly commanded the Northern Command urged Indians to not get disheartened by a few losses and stay on course for dealing effectively with the menace emanating from Pakistan. He tweeted “Friends war is a two-way street. There will be gains and there will be losses. These are just the opening rounds. No need to jump up in glee at success or be dismayed after setbacks. Indian Armed Forces have the capacity and capability. We shall prevail.”
India is in the middle of 4thGeneration Warfare as enumerated by William Lind & others in 1989 and expanded by Thomas Hammes in 2006. This will include mobilization of all the pressure points which will include Political, Economic, Social, and Military. It will also include psychological warfare and propaganda. Future conflicts are going to be characterized by these multi-models. This tactic was effectively used by China against India in the recent Dokalam crisis. India should similarly be prepared to deal with Pakistan.
The Indian air strike is clear proof of India losing patience with terrorism emanating from Pakistan soil. It is also a rare resolve by the political dispensation to order a strike across the LoC using air assets. India has also demonstrated to the world that its policy of ‘strategic restraint’with Pakistan is over now and that any Pakistani misadventure would invite punitive and even crippling Indian retaliation. This is a new and unexpected situation for the strategists in Rawalpindi who were convinced that their irrationality and threat of use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) will prevent any tough Indian retaliation. If Pakistan were to breach the nuclear threshold, the stated Indian position of a massive second strike using nuclear weapons to take out entire cities will now give Pakistan sleepless nights. Pakistan can no longer count on international support to prevent its own self-destruction.
However, it would be naive to think that a single air strike by India can force a rethink in Pakistan and deter it from harbouring & supporting terrorists who strike India. India has historically let Pakistan off the hook while the heat is truly upon Pakistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, has adopted the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ policy towards India & is not going to mend its way anytime soon. India needs to respond to the terrorism emanating from Pakistan by employing the full spectrum of its capabilities. It would require a concerted effort by India which would call upon all elements of its statecraft to deal with a rogue neighbour. The Indian war strategy of Cold Start and the Tri-Service doctrine with integrated battle groups needs deployment. It would also require collective political will and national resolve to absorb some losses but continue to hit at the root of the terrorism in Pakistan. It is time to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff & punish it for its active support to terrorism and thereby ensure a safe & peaceful existence for a billion strong Indians.