A drone attack on an Indian airbase in Jammu has raised concerns that an escalation in hostilities could put at risk a ceasefire between Pakistan and India. Two Indian soldiers were wounded when two drones dropped explosives on the Indian Air Force base, which is also used as a civilian airport, on June 27.

While the drones were not captured, Indian experts say there is little doubt they originated in Pakistan. Anti-India rebel groups based in Pakistan have previously used drones to drop ammunition and narcotics to terrorists in India’s Punjab. However, no rebel group has taken responsibility for the latest attacks, leading some in India to point the finger at the Pakistani government.

India has long blamed Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism for violence by militant groups in Kashmir, a charge Islamabad denies. Experts said that if such attacks continued, India would be forced to retaliate, putting in jeopardy a ceasefire agreed in February. That ceasefire had brought to an end two years’ of border skirmishes that followed an attack by Pakistani terrorists on a bus carrying Indian security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama.

India had responded to the attack by sending fighter aircraft into Pakistani airspace to strike a terrorist camp in Balakot. Happymon Jacob, who teaches in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, said it was clear the drones had come from Pakistan, but it was not clear whether the Pakistani government was involved.

“If the attack was carried out by Pakistan state agencies, New Delhi must communicate in clear terms this was a violation of the ceasefire agreement and there will be consequences,” Jacob said.

However, Lt. General Deependra Singh Hooda, former head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, who retired in 2016, urged caution.

“Let’s not jump to a conclusion without knowing the Pakistani state’s involvement,” Hooda said. He said only if such a link were proven would New Delhi draw up a strategy to respond.

For Pakistan, any increase in tensions threatens to exacerbate an already deteriorating security situation, adding to problems on its eastern flank just as it is presented by a security vacuum on its western flank caused by the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. India too must be careful of opening up conflicts on two fronts, with its forces involved in a stand-off on its Himalayan border with China that has lasted more than a year and recently heated up with the news India had sent an additional 50,000 troops to the area.

“The drone attacks have the potential of creating new and dangerous complexities in a situation that is already very difficult,” said Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting on June 29 with his senior cabinet colleagues and advisers to assess the scenario.

Battlefield Revolution

Alessandro Arduino, principle research fellow of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, did not think the drone attacks would lead to an open conflict, but they were “a wake-up call for India to enter the race for counter-drone solutions”.

In less than three decades armed drones had evolved from highly sophisticated and expensive weapons systems to being a widespread, cost-efficient tool on the battlefield, Arduino said.

“The Middle East experienced first-hand this transformation with terrorist organisations operating cheap off-the shelves commercial drones as kamikaze bombs or aerial scouting platforms,” Arduino said.

Lt. Gen Hooda said the Indian air defence system was not geared to picking up the drones as its radar systems could not detect something flying so low and close to the ground. He said there were two challenges. Firstly, identifying low-flying objects and determining what they are carrying, as many drones are used for commercial purposes. Secondly, bringing down drones identified as hostile. This was not easy as such drones would typically fly close to the ground and could harm others while being neutralised.

What Next For India?

The Jammu attack happened soon after Modi met leaders of Jammu and Kashmir in his first meeting with Kashmiri leaders since August 2019 when his government withdrew the special semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir. It was also just days after a car bomb exploded outside the Lahore house of Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that killed 179 people. In Pakistan, some have speculated the Indian security services may have been involved in the car bomb, using the attack to “send a warning” to Islamabad. Some Indian observers meanwhile have suggested that if Pakistan wanted to scuttle the Jammu and Kashmir political process it could blame the drone attacks on Saeed and his supporters in Kashmir.

Kanwal Sibal, a retired Indian foreign secretary, wrote in a column for News 18 that through the drone attacks “the message that our bases close to the Pakistan border are now vulnerable has been conveyed”. “A clear warning should go to Pakistan that India reserves the right to react appropriately to such a dangerous provocation at a time of its own choosing,” he wrote.

But can India afford to end the ceasefire with Pakistan while it remains engaged with China in the Himalayas? That is a question India may soon have to confront.