by Manmohan Bahadur

Power is best utilised as a deterrent – Sun Tzu downwards every strategic thinker has said so. As technology evolved over time, the means of signalling of deterrent power also changed. With the advent of air power, the deterrence possible due to its ‘reach’, potency and precision has magnified manifold. Or has it? Afghanistan, Iraq et al have shown that there are limitations and it all depends on the type of war one is dragged into.

So, while the air power effects of ‘Balakot’ – demonstration of political resolve and doctrinal change – have been much expounded, it is time for a reality check. What India may face now is a new Pak strategy of smaller nibbles to keep the instigation below the ‘Pulwama level’. Using air power every time a mini Pulwama happens would be a tough call to take, and while IAF has the capability to do it repeatedly, the military, economic and diplomatic costs would weigh in heavy.

The question is, are we ready for the costs of staying on alert 24×7, radars churning, pilots at operational readiness, army and navy deployed, and much more? Pakistan, with a much smaller economy, will surely be stressed much more but will respond to every air strike since air strikes cannot be hidden and domestic pressure would not give their leadership any other option. So, while Balakot has settled the misgivings amongst the doubters of ‘resolve’ and ‘capability’ (strategic and operational level issues), the issue of ‘capacity’ to last a long drawn engagement is live, especially since a sizeable deterrent on the China border has to be maintained.

Controlling escalation, noted strategist Bernard Brodie wrote, “is really an exercise in deterrence, which means providing effective disincentives to unwanted enemy actions”. The disincentives come from a nation’s hard power capability and capacity. The recent critical comments of the CAG on our defence procurement and the defence procurement procedure do not show India’s hard power capacity in good light. Since air power would be an inescapable weapon of first choice in any subsequent conflict, it is imperative that the prowess of the nation’s sword arm be analysed; this would be done via five segments.

First, the good points. In the singular aerial engagement that happened over the skies of Rajauri against the Pakistani retaliatory strike, our air defence actions prevented any air to ground weapon delivery of substance by Pakistan; the Pak rationale that their air force deliberately lobbed some million dollar weapons on open fields to prevent escalation, is laughable; the losses of the MiG-21 and Mi-17 are sobering thoughts though. IAF’s airlift and heli-lift capability is substantial; as a matter of fact, with 11 C-17, 10 odd IL-76 and many scores of An-32, it is superior than that of China too, including in the Tibet region. The same can be said of helicopters also, with more inductions of heavy lift Chinook helicopters in the offing.

Second, the not so good news is that this happy state is valid for the next 10 years or so only – and a decade in matters military is a very short period. Third, the bad news is that the IAF’s AWACS and flight refuelling aircraft fleet is stagnant at operationally untenable numbers for a war of sufficiently long duration or spread over a broad frontage. These are critical combat enablers and their use in the Balakot strike showed their indispensability in modern combat.

Fourth, the critical news is the depleting fighter squadron strength. IAF has great stakes in HAL performing to its promises; anything short in terms of non-acceleration of production of Tejas fighters and meeting of time lines of the numerous aircraft upgrades that it is tasked with, would be grave. The few incoming Rafales would add punch but the 114 fighter aircraft acquisition programme needs to be on afterburners, literally.

Lastly, kick-starting of the indigenous industry is long overdue, especially since China’s defence industry is improving by leaps and bounds and Pakistan’s focus on indigenous manufacturing is showing results. This, in our politically surcharged atmosphere, can happen only if a radical suggestion is accepted. Can political parties rise above petty politics and call a ceasefire? If politicians can be so brazen as to kiss and make up with those at whom they were hurling the choicest of abuses just the other day, surely they can come together to avoid thrusting the brave IAF pilots into another MiG-21 vs F-16 duel.

Can sagacity prevail and the opposition parties be brought into the defence acquisition loop, for they are as Indian as the ruling dispensation? If this is not workable, then, as the situation is really critical, can the supreme commander exercise his moral authority over our political class to see reason and stop the cyclical accusations that have crippled decision making in the MoD? Is this an impractical suggestion? Well, let’s give this too a try as there is no other option.