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Posted at: Mar 1, 2019, 7:02 AM; last updated: Mar 1, 2019, 7:02 AM (IST)

The chance India took

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Surgical strikes, by air or land, are designed to convey a message of intent
The chance India took
High costs: Escalation is a big challenge and must remain under control.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former GOC, 15 Corps, Kashmir

In assessing an ongoing military situation, things can change in a matter of minutes. That is why it is good to limit assessment to only trends and actions already taken. India has already responded to the Pulwama outrage by selecting one option from the large spectrum before it. Each such option had its pros and cons. The option at the high end was a full-scale mobilisation of all its military resources and readiness to go to war without restraint, just as it had done in 2001 in the wake of the Jaish attack on Parliament. Other options included surface-based surgical strike along the LoC, a repetition of the 2016 operation. However, the element of surprise would not have been afforded due to high predictability of a repeat. 

Considering proportionality as an essential element of the concept of response, a potential offensive operation across the LoC to capture a couple of Pakistani posts may have hit a higher than desired level of escalation, right at the outset. All this is being explained to highlight the dilemma existing before the highest leadership in India. It is not a simple decision of only activating the military domain. The diplomatic aspects and the overall state of relations with the international community, and in particular key players, is always an essential aspect. The risk to the nation involved in carrying out a military response has to be thoroughly analysed and the flanks and rear secured as part of the planning. Many times, the diplomatic and military domains complement each other, one or the other taking a higher level of priority at any point of time.

The final choice of launching the IAF in a surgical strike against the JeM facilities at Balakot was the most apt. The quantum of aircraft employed, along with the munitions, were the right package for such an operation. There are many reasons for this belief. First, it was sufficiently lethal and in enough depth to convey India’s intent of searching for and striking terrorist leaders anywhere in Pakistan. The lethality aspect also carried an inbuilt assurance of accuracy as the munitions were all state of the art. The aspect of proportionality conveyed that India was calibrating and not escalating a war-like situation, by targeting only terrorist-related infrastructure. Since India had already succeeded in achieving certain traction with the international community, any overkill in choice of objective or method of operation could prove counterproductive. That was adequately built into the selected option.  There was the option of targeting the more visible high-profile JeM facility at Bahawalpur, just 8 km from Pakistan army’s 31 Corps. However, it may have been assessed to have a more effective air defence cover due to the proximity to the corps HQ and was probably discarded as a potential objective.

Potentially losing an aircraft in the strike was definitely a risk and would convey a very negative message about IAF capability. The IAF overcame that problem quite professionally through some deception and suitable selection of launching airfields and routing. One aspect that the public by and large has not understood is that such a strike, as also the surgical strike of 2016, was never intended to be actions to cause deterrence. In hybrid war conditions, achieving deterrence is extremely difficult as there is a range of domains which can be employed for response even if the classic military domain is closed. These surgical strikes, by air or on surface, are essentially designed to convey a message of intent and political will to calibrate higher than usual. A Pakistani response to the Indian surgical air strike could not be deterred and India was aware of it. The moment the Indian operation was completed, a Pakistani response of some kind was inevitable. Pakistan, too, had its options and would have done a risk analysis, especially in view of its precarious economic condition, which in no way gives it the option of an all-out war. It found solace in doing a demonstration of an intrusion into the Indian air space near the LoC and was promptly engaged by a combat air patrol (CAP) comprising two Indian MiG-21 aircraft. Pakistan lost one aircraft (reported as an F-16) while an Indian MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot captured by Pakistan.

Is this enough provocation to initiate higher escalation? India again has many options, but will probably prefer to bide its time and await more conciliatory gestures by the Pakistan leadership. PM Imran Khan addressed the nation and a change of attitude appeared evident. He is aware that his nation has lost international support for the sake of a few terrorists, his military counts as strategic assets. The immediate release of the pilot in Pakistani custody may help mollify Indian opinion but meaningless gestures will not cut ice.

Most analysts agree that it is international pressure on Pakistan which will work the fastest and most effectively. Given that, India may not wish to escalate the situation and continue to provide the international community sufficient traction to pressure Pakistan. However, also given the history of sponsored terrorist acts, this may just about be the last time that India may follow such a course of action. Hereafter, options much higher in escalation dynamics would become the order of the day.

The political connect is something on which little is being written today because it’s the professional military and diplomatic sphere which is in focus. However, there is no taking away credit from the decision-making process adopted by the political leadership in India. Besides all other risks, it was also a political risk. A setback to the IAF in the conduct of aerial strike could have been disastrous for the ruling dispensation. However, further risk will continue as the crisis is still on. Escalation remains the major challenge. It must remain firmly under control while considering all risk.

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