[Nasr on Parade]
All this seems a bit orchestrated with the United States the conductor. Two only slightly different narratives have emerged in newspapers in India and Pakistan today. According to the Hindustan Times story ( https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-pakistan-came-close-to-firing-missiles-at-each-other-on-february-27/story-rVsBjZ5qmxXMprktzDNqcM.html ) attributed to a source in the Cabinet Committee on Security, the day WingCo A. Varthaman was shot down on the morning of Feb 27 is when NSA Ajit Doval got on the horn to ISI chief Lieutenant General Asim Munir to tell him that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was prepared to escalate hostilities if the downed Indian pilot was not returned safe and in good health, and as evidence of the PM’s intent referred to the 12 batteries of short range ballistic missiles — presumably the Prithvi 150km range, deployed on the western border. He then repeated this threat to his US opposite number John Bolton. The Trump Administration had previously stated that any Indian reaction”in “self-defence” would be fine with Washington. Doval also informed the Saudi Arabian and UAE governments about India’s resolve and urged them to pressure Islamabad to pullback by releasing the pilot forthwith or face escalatory Indian actions. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi in a Feb 27 early evening TV news programme warned his country about the possibility of India attacking Pakistani cities using land and/or air forces, but hoped Delhi would show restraint. It was a warning the Imran Khan government took seriously enough to order blackouts in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore and in areas with important military installations. The likelihood of an Indian aerial attack on cities was repeated in the Majlis (Parliament) by the foreign minister the next day, Feb 28. But Islamabad also communicated its intent to retaliate by firing 13 Nasr rockets should Delhi carry out its missile threat.
The Pakistani narrative written by Ambassador Zamir Akram, former permanent representative to UN, Geneva, and published in the Express-Tribune (https://tribune.com.pk/story/1934394/6-razors-edge/ ) apparently agreed with the essentials of, and the datelines in, the HT story, including the details (such as the Doval- Munir communication, etc.). Except it gave the entire post-Pulwama episode, not unreasonably, a nuclear colouring, besides maintaining that Modi’s decision to send in the Mirage 2000 punitive strike sortie against Balakot on Feb 26 was prompted by the prior “self-defence” justification provided by Washington.
At the core, the views clash. Delhi believes that its threat of missile strike gave Islamabad pause for thought while Islamabad’s point is that its counter-threat to fire 13 Nasr rockets for the 9 Prithvis India had in mind to trigger, sobered up Delhi.
Both the Prithvi SRBM and the Nasr 60mm-diameter rocket are touted by the two sides as vehicles for nuclear warheads. And, in any case, because there’s no current technology available anywhere to distinguish an incoming warhead as conventional, prudence dictates that the first blip on radar of a fired Nasr, or Prithvi for that matter, will be apprehended by the other side as an incoming nuclear attack whence a response calculus would kick in. The state espying an underway N-strike could (1) wait and suffer actual destruction to ascertain its conventional or nuclear nature, before responding in kind, and flexibly, proportionately and appropriately, (2) fire off a missile/rocket or two of its own and take the risk that the adversary’s delivery system if conventionally warheaded would result in it being responsible for starting a nuclear exchange, (3) decide that the devil takes the hindmost and fire a small launch- on-warning salvo on value-cum-area targets — in the subcontinent major military facilities are also in or near big cities, so it is collateral civilian or military damage either way, or (4) decide to go the whole hog and let loose an annihilatory salvo using various vectors.
The targeted country, especially if it is India with its record of buckling under US and international pressure will, in this situation, always be at a disadvantage because, as I have argued, it will be pressed relentlessly to limit its nuclear retaliation and to keep it proportional — which, of course, will make nonsense of the Indian nuclear doctrinal injunction for “massive retaliation”. But this is not the sort of consideration that will generally play on the Indian government’s mind in the circumstances because the Indian population for certain will demand that, with Pakistan violating the nuclear taboo, Delhi go all out.
The fact is any which way one cuts a nuclear weapon-use scenario — short of a harmless demonstration by Pakistan of its nuclear use intent by setting off a 5-KT battlefield nuclear ordnance in a remote part of its own territory to warn India against using its conventional superiority to endanger its vital interests, the [prospects are dicey. In the event of an N-demonstration explosion, Pakistan would have to ensure that west-east winds don’t blow radioactive clouds formed by the rising debris over into India and precipitate a radioactive rain on some Indian town — which, as I have argued (in my latest book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’), could be seen as a nuclear strike on an urban target, and a war of annihilation would follow.
This brings up the matter of ‘red lines’. There’s no doubt that Modi has redrawn the red line twice. The first time by sending IAF aircraft to take out a target fairly deep inside Pakistan. And followed up by pushing the red line some more to expand India’s operational space yet again, by intimating first use of its nuclear Prithvi missiles. He, thereby, proved that there’s far greater elasticity in the Pakistani nuclear stance — something I have long argued in my ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ (2002), ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ (2008) and ‘Why India is Not a great Power (Yet)’ (2015) — than Strategic Plans Division, Chaklala and GHQ, Rawalpindi, let on, and reflects, I have said, the survival instinct of the very professional Pakistan Army.
Recall that in the 1965 War Pakistan sued for peace once its War Wastage Reserve was down to a week’s supply (compared to India’s 10 days) and, in December 1971, ‘Tiger’ Niazi ordered the mass surrender of his army in Dhaka when General Yahya, a 1000 safe miles away, was urging the Pakistan army units in the then East Pakistan to die fighting. “Fighting to the last man” , it turns out, fares better in rhetoric and war films than in actual military hostilities, especially when all hope is exhausted in the face of imminent defeat or when the enemy is perceived as having a decisive edge. This to say that for Pakistan to mount a nuclear challenge would definitely be infructuous.
This brings the discussion back to Modi’s reason for contemplating a missile-qua-nuclear strike in the first place, and for what? If the CCS-leaked story is correct, then the non- release of a healthy Varthaman was the trip-wire. While it is all very well for a government to do its utmost to ensure the safe return of its captured military personnel, does it make sense to make it cause for nuclear war? This is so outlandish, many in CCS seemingly realized it. The HT story’s CCS source races uncomfortably past this troubling aspect. “Don’t know about nuclear button or nuclear flashpoint”, he told the newspaper, a bit airily. “But PM Modi gave green signal to all measures if any harm came the IAF officer at the hands of Pakistan Army….India was prepared to go down the missile road on February 27.”
At one level, use of the phrase “all measures” is vague enough to permit the Modi government and its champions to claim, with hindsight and in light of the inevitable criticism in the future about Delhi preparing to initiate a nuclear affray on a flimsy excuse, that no such nuclear first use was ever contemplated, and that option wasn’t even on the table. And that the CCS source misconstrued the PM’s orders — Modi nowhere said use nuclear weapons!
Lucky, it worked this time around against a Pakistan which, as I have analysed in my writings, relies on nuclear bluster as an effective deterrence measure against an India that it is convinced cannot hold its nerve in a crisis and will fold, but is in no position to actually convert the threat of nuclear first use into an actual go decision. The fact is threatening nuclear missile use for the safe release of a pilot trivialized Indian nuclear weapons, and suggests that no one in the Modi government is even aware that nuclear weapons are strictly strategic weapons meant for strategic purposes, and not means to gain tactical advantage and, even less, a bargaining chip to get back a downed pilot. In this respect, Ambassador Akram is right in concluding that perceived deficiencies of India’s conventional land forces to muster a hefty punch is what compelled Modi to bypass ‘Cold Start’ and step on the escalation ladder with the threat of missile strike.
The trouble is, as mentioned in my previous post, Varthaman would not have been brought down had Air HQrs sent up the MiG-29s instead of the venerable MiG-21 bis — a point now supported by Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd), VrC, arguably the finest IAF MiG-29 pilot to-date, in a piece published in the Indian Defence Review on March 21 (http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/the-f-16-vs-mig-21-bison-more-questions-than-answers/ ). Masand also wondered why Varthaman, given the known limitations of the bis platform, had not used the longer ranged Russian R-77 A2A missile from a standoff distance to shoot down the PAF F-16 rather than close in to fire the R-73 A2A missile and get in harm’s way of other PAF aircraft in the vicinity.
In the preceding post I also referred to India exposing itself to diplomatic arm-twisting by inviting major states to evaluate the Indian evidence of Pakistan’s support for JeM-directed terrorism in Pulawama as provocation for India’s Balakot action. By painting itself into a nuclear corner and then depending on Washington, Riyadh and Dubai to get it out of a bad situation by having them prevail on Pakistan to back down, was once again to hand foreign countries the whip hand. It is the kind of deleterious strategy Pakistan has always used to get itself out of a jam. More and more, the Modi government, by aping Pakistan, seems bent on shrinking India’s stature and standing.