[IAF’s MiG-29 at a forward base]
The delayed Indian riposte to the Pulwama attack finally took place with the aerial attack on Jaish-e-Mohammad ops centre in Balakot, fairly deep into the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It played out, however, in the usual fashion when India and Pakistan are involved — a lot of patriotic noise covering up for minimal action, and also on the Indian side, the familiar charges of intelligence failure. The eventual Bahalwalpur feint followed by the Mirage 2000 strike sortie was, however, nicely staged by IAF.
The important thing about the Balakot strike was not the numbers of JeM cadres eliminated or the extent to which JeM’s terrorist infrastructure was destroyed, but the fact that the strike took place at all. During the time it took the Modi government to gird up its loins and seek armed retribution, it seemed Delhi was going down the familiar path of doing little itself but relying on other countries to pressure Islamabad to rein in the terrorist outfits under its wing, and otherwise trying its hardest diplomatically to “isolate” Pakistan — as if this somehow would restrain GHQ, Rawalpindi, or convince Imran Khan to go on bended knees to Pakistan COAS General Javed Bajwa. Indeed, prior to Balakot the Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Qureishi all but laughed at MEA’s contention that his country was isolated in the world for its sponsorship of terrorist gangs as asymmetric means of warfare. So, when IAF finally went into action against Balakot, it was a huge relief.
The downside of the Balakot episode was that Modi government felt compelled to first touch base with Washington, rather than immediately after the strike had gone in. US President George W Bush’s National Security Adviser (NSA), Stephen Hadley, candidly described US’ role in India-Pakistan crises on Christiane Amanpour’s CNN programme, February 27, as divulging to each side intelligence on the other side it could trust – a sort of honest intelligence broker! This leads one to wonder, if Hadley spoke true, about the kind of intelligence that Modi’s NSA Ajit Doval was after when he betook himself to America mid-February to meet with his US opposite number, John Bolton. It would appear from a consideration of Indian intelligence capabilities, the operational planning predicates and the interval between Pulwama and Balakot that what Doval sought and was provided were refinements of the Indian military’s target coordinates for the JeM training centre that the Indian Mirage 2000s pulverized on February 26. This reading is reinforced by GOI sources conceding that owing to technical infirmities of its satellite and other sensors gauging exact damage done and killing of JeM personnel in Balakot was “speculative”. The US government would have been interested in letting IAF obtain extremely accurate target data to preempt the possibility of large scale collateral civilian damage, which could have prompted Pakistan to escalate. This is a more positive read on events than if Doval met with Bolton with the sole objective of seeking US’ “blessings” for the operation then under planning, because that would have resulted in India’s status as a self-respecting independent country taking a hit. It did not prevent President Trump from hinting in Hanoi (after the failed summit with North Korean President Kim Jong-un) about a mediating US role and even a peaceful outcome. “They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop…..It’s been going on for a long time — decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately”, he said. “So we’ve been in the middle, trying to help them both out and see if we can get some organization and some peace. And I think, probably, that’s going to be happening.”
The downing of the IAF pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, however, raises the troubling issue of why the aged MiG-21 bis were sent up to blunt the incoming counter-strike by the Pakistan Air Force? May be Varthaman’s R-73 air-to-air missile did down the F-16 and the Wing Commander, once he rejoins his squadron, can sport this kill on the next plane he pilots. But why was the far more advanced and immeasurably more capable air defence aircraft in the IAF inventory — the MiG-29, not deployed for air defence in the first place? This is not to second-guess IAF’s operations staff but to flag a legitimate concern. Why keep your best horse in the stable when the adversary is fielding his prize steed? Is IAF’s Western Air Command to blame for this operational faux pas? Doubtful, considering how much of the operational thinking was taken over by Air HQrs with CAS ACM BS Dhanoa in constant touch with NSA to craft a just-so response. So, the question: why was the MiG-29 ignored?
If the late-1950s vintage MiG-21, a wonderful plane in its day, could take out an F-16, the redoubtable MiG-29, it is reasonable to assume, would have made mincemeat out of the equally antiquated F-16 aided and assisted by a bevy of PAF’s bulk multi-role aircraft — the ex-Chinese JF-17. Considering MiG-29’s extraordinary agility, the chances would have been minimized of getting an IAF plane shot down and a pilot captured. So, why wasn’t the MiG-29 used? There are two explanations. One, that the MiG-29, like every other combat aircraft an ultimate switchable military asset, was deemed too valuable to risk in live action. And two, that most of the MiG-29s were not in operational readiness, and couldn’t, therefore, be called up.
The latter explanation doesn’t cut mustard and, in any case, with so much time available between the Pulwama provocation and Indian reaction, sufficient numbers of MiG-29s would have been brought into fighting-fit condition. If, on the other hnd, the MiG-29 was considered too valuable to lose, how much more operationally hesitant would Vayu Bhavan be in using the Rafale in similar situations – the point I have repeatedly made in questioning the military utility of Rafales in the IAF inventory, and particularly of only 36 of them? I bring up this aspect because Prime Minister Modi, without perhaps realizing the import of what he was saying, implied that Varthaman would not have been shot down had he been riding Rafale rather than MiG-21, in making the political point in an election year about the decade-long delay by the Manmohan Singh’s Congress regime in making the MMRCA decision and its responsibility in undermining military preparedness.
Lucky for Varthaman that he was not kept prisoner and used as a political pawn as many in the Pakistan military would have preferred to do, and that Imran prevailed on Bajwa to let the Indian pilot go. With Varthaman in captivity, moreover, the pressure would have daily mounted on Modi to ratchet up India’s counter counter-response in the hope to, if not get the Indian flier back, than inflict more attrition and pain on Pakistan, in the process, possibly triggering an action-reaction sequence that Western strategists have long feared as a “nuclear flashpoint”.
This fear, however, got diluted once Pakistan was armed by China with nuclear missiles some 35 years ago, and also on the basis of the last 20 years record of Delhi’s inaction when confronted by Pakistan’s terrorist excesses. It led US thinktankers to try and explain India’s restraint by conceiving of something they called the “stability-instability paradox”, which got traction in this country with their local acolytes (C. Raja Mohan, et al) supporting it and, for obvious reasons, in Pakistan. I showed it up as a flawed and nonsensical concept during the time I spent in 1996 at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington DC, among the main propagators of this concept, and deconstructed this concept at length in my 2002 tome — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security.
The paradox concept is as follows: By acquiring nuclear weapons Pakistan gained strategic parity with India making for stability at that level and, because of the fear of tripping the nuclear wire, also at the conventional military level. But Pakistan army, protected by the overhang that its nuclear weapons provides it, feels free to wage sub-conventional/asymmetric warfare in J&K making for instability, with nuclear weapons deterring India from responding in kind and that this, in turn, makes for Indian non-response but also for stability.
The fatal flaw in this concept, as I pointed out, is in its basic premise — of parity at any level when the fact is India can up the ante every level. In fact, the disparity is not only in terms of the resources India can muster to assure an edge in the conventional military sphere, but also in the sub-conventional military and covert warfare sectors to exploit Pakistan’s far deeper and more serious socio-cultural, sectarian (shia-sunni), and regional-ethnic faultlines than anything India suffers from. For every Srinagar Valley there’s an independent Baluchistan, Baltistan, or even Sindh to egg on, and for every Khalistan, a Jinnahstan (propelled by the grievances of the muhajir community in Pakistan) and even Seraikistan! And that, attempts at radicalizing the Indian muslim can fetch Delhi (in cahoots with Iran) radicalized Pakistani shia enclaves and an energized Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. All it needs is for a strong-willed Indian government to ratchet up the response in kind in any or in all three of the hostile engagement sectors that Pakistan chooses to venture into including, I have said, the nuclear warfare field.
Have admired the strategically-driven Pakistan army for its professionalism, a main component of which is its ability to measure the risk in pushing India only so much and no further, to generally appreciate that country’s geographic, political and economic limitations when facing a comprehensively superior adversary, and to call a halt to the hostilities when they begin trending against it. So, like in previous conflict situations, this time too Islamabad terminated the budding action-reaction sequence once its F-16 was downed, the Indian AD firmed up, the Indian army was geared for movement, and the Modi government showed an appetite for still bigger military action.
Thus, I have argued that while Pakistan, run by its army, is far better at holding its nerve in crises than the Indian government ruled by a disinterested political class and advised into responding sub-optimally by a strategically slow-witted military and civil servants manning the permanent secretariat of government, if a conventional military push actually comes to nuclear shove, GHQ, Rawalpindi, will ultimately be persuaded by the logic of the exchange ratio.
The exchange ratio (ER) refers to the cost and destruction one suffers compared to what can be inflicted/imposed on the enemy. The ER is so adverse to Pakistan and so skewed in India’s favour — two Indian cities for Pakistan – with all its eminently targetable main population and wealth-producing centres lying in a north-south corridor within easy reach from the border, becoming extinct as a social organism — that even the most rabid Pakistan COAS – and Bajwa is far from being one — would not ever contemplate a nuclear exchange, let alone a full-fledged, no-holds, nuclear war. This is exactly the calculus embedded in former Pak President and COAS General Parvez Musharraf’s recent statement to the press that “if we drop one bomb, they [India] will drop 20.”
This unalterable fact of geography will always leave Islamabad stuck in the terminal nuclear sabre-rattling mode, and well short of risking annihilation. Hence I concluded that the stability-instability paradox is a dud concept. It is a conclusion dutiful Indian supporters of the US policy line and concepts are, in the face of the Balakot Indian reaction, belatedly coming round to accepting. (Refer https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/pulwama-attack-pakistan-narendra-modi-balakot-air-strike-iaf-5609325/ )