India sought strategic compellance from Pakistan by ratcheting up military escalation raising fears of increased hostilities among the nuclear armed neighbours.

by Amjad Bashir Siddiqi

Considering Pakistan to be behind the uprisings in Kashmir and frustrated by the inability to subdue it through LOC skirmishes, the Indian military has changed plans to use preemptive air force strikes as we witnessed in Balakot. The Indian National Security Council, Lt Gen Prakash Menon (Retd)  in his book “The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow,” “says the limited war strategies anti-denial and anti-access (AD/A2) and hybrid warfare involve keeping the nuclear weapons alert to a certain degree.” He advocates the use of air power arguing that the low scale skirmishes along LoC and surgical strikes did not deter Pakistan from fundamentally altering its behaviour.

The Indian air force superiority, in his viewpoint, will be an effective tool to hurt Pakistan. Warning, however, that Pakistan could hit back with the associated risk of serious escalation. He goes on to says the ‘force use’ has found a political utility by the governments to assuage revenge and demonstrate a political resolve that they are being tough against Pakistan.” This looks true for BJP’s Modi led government who has an election to contest.

Scarred by the country’s split in 1971 through a war with India, Pakistan developed a Full Spectrum Deterrence to target India’s tactical, operational and strategic forces as a last resort. Stephen Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Illinois and a renowned South Asian security expert, says nuclear weapons made “demolishing” Pakistan a difficult task.

As part of psychological warfare and propaganda for Indian domestic audience, the Indian officials claim that the IAF airstrike called the “Pak nuclear bluff”. The Indian jet striking in the mainland Pakistan was certainly an escalation, but it never required a nuclear response. An interception by scrambling aircraft or a salvo from an anti-aircraft system was only needed and the PAF struck back against the aggression. The thresholds for any nuclear strike are clear to both sides and any eventual use of a nuclear weapon “if at all would have to be at a far advanced stage and not on the Day-one of battle.” The scenarios projecting use of nukes by Pakistan at a very early stage of the conflict are grossly misplaced, at best naive.

Even during Kargil crisis, despite serious hostilities and with both sides shooting down each others’ aircraft nuclear weapons were never deployed. Former Director Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs at the Strategic Plans Division, Brig (retd) Naeem Ahmad Salik in his book “The Genesis of South Asian Nuclear Deterrence” quotes senior officials of the nuclear establishment insisting the military situation never warranted any such steps” for employing or deploying nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s conventional deterrence remains integral to the maintenance of strategic stability in South Asia.

Islamabad’s conventional deterrence has increased the nuclear threshold through an array of non-nuclear, non-escalatory response options. While the conventional military balance is clearly tilted in India’s favour, Islamabad has a manageable ratio of forces and equipment to prevent India from overwhelming it. The perpetual kinetic exchanges at LOC, the navy’s detection of the Indian submarine, PAF’s downing of two Indian jets that prompted the sacking of the chief of the IAF western command, showcases the robust capabilities to respond to the conventional threats. The Indian submarine intrusion was not the first. Back in 2016, another Indian Navy submarine was tracked, located and hounded out of the territorial waters. The Indian submarine was on a harassing and reconnaissance mission for Gwadar Port which had operationalised at that time and the ships had begun to use the SLOC from there. The navy’s anti-access and anti-denial capabilities can easily outmatch the Indian Navy’s attempts to impose a blockade on Karachi and Gwadar.

Ever since 1980s, India always sought to explore the space for limited conventional war below Islamabad’s nuclear thresholds leading it to develop Limited War and Cold Start strategies threatening regional stability. Pakistan was able to offset the Indian limited war plans through relatively quicker mobilisation of troops and synergised tri-service strategies achieving a relative degree of comfort against the enemy thrust. Conventional asymmetry lowers the nuclear threshold and invites aggression, which needed to be addressed. The induction of the Tactical Nuclear Weapon Nasr, which is low-yield, short-range ballistic missile system, has offset the Cold Start doctrine, preventing any Indian thrust to seize strategic objectives inside Pakistan. Balakot precision air strikes with stand-off weapons demonstrate just one tactic tucked up in their sleeve. India has strategised and repeatedly war gamed several tactical manoeuvres ranging from guided missile attacks and more escalatory attempts to capture military, political objectives close to the international border by ground or paratroopers under the garb of hot pursuit.

Pakistan hit back strongly in response to the air strike in Balakot, which New Delhi seeks to term the ‘new norm’. Post-Balakot, Islamabad was particularly disturbed by India employing the US, Israeli military jargon of nonmilitary, self-defence, preemptive strike, which not only has international takers but has serious implications for Pakistan also. In the aftermath of Pulwama, the US NSA, John Bolton, supported India’s right to self-defence, signifying international support for Indian actions. But has it become a ‘new norm’, that only time will tell. But India missed the several rungs on the escalatory ladder that Pakistan had built into its strategy prompting PAF retaliation. Knowing without a response, India would be emboldened to ritualise such strikes and worse it could try conducting strikes much deeper, Pakistan went ahead with forceful and quick retribution to keep any future strikes at bay.” But if India does, Pakistan will surely retaliate, upping the ante, entering into the dangerous realm of uncontrolled escalation. Some Indian commentators think “the magnitude of force with which Pakistan swiftly retaliated caught the Indian leadership by surprise. Noted Indian defence analyst and author of several books including The Line of Control: Travelling with Indian and Pakistani Armies,” Happymon Jacob says “PAF’s strong action was not expected. It was not war gamed and further, the IAF strikes failed to achieve any strategic objective.”

Seeking to continue the escalations, India ratcheted up the escalation level by quickly deploying missiles against predetermined targets in Pakistan, including Karachi and Bahawalpur. Pakistan promptly shut down airspace anticipating Indian mischief against any local or international flights in transit. Pakistan conveyed strong warning of a swift retaliation persuading India to back off one more time.But it certainly looks this Indian election year will continue to keep the region on edge.

Some strategists believe that the Indian Army as well as the political establishment would realise that any further escalation could be counter productive during the election year. The Indian Army, it is believed also realises that no strategic gains could be achieved with any further hostilities. The corollary is that all the hostile actions remained strictly restricted to the LoC theatre and have not been allowed to spread to other sectors particularly the international border, keeping tensions from spreading. The dogfight also took place over the LoC. This has been an unwritten convention over the long period manifesting the rational actors on both sides to keep the temperatures from flaring up. However, wars have never been calculated affairs, miscalculations and misperceptions can potentially turn a ‘limited strike’ into a savage, senseless revenge cycle, slipping into an absolute disaster.