We have options, we have numerous options, army chief General Bipin Rawat told india today late last year on his likely response to a sensational strike by Pakistan-based terrorists. He discounted the possibility of surgical strikes IIspecial forces reprising their 2016 cross-border raid. An action taken once puts the adversary on the alert because he knows what’s going to happen. This, senior army officials say, is precisely what is happening now across the border with Pakistan with the other side putting its troops on high alert. On February 15, a day after a suicide bomber killed 40 CRPF troopers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in a rally at Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh that our forces have been given total freedom.
A senior army official says this means that the retaliation for the attack will come from the army and not the air force or the navy, which would mean a significant escalation.
As India ratchets up its diplomatic offensive to globally isolate Pakistan, withdrawing the Most Favoured Nation status and building up a case for a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist, which would make it increasingly difficult for Pakistan’s struggling economy to raise loans, it is also preparing for a military option. Retribution for the attack is only a matter of time, army officials say. There are several reasons to suggest that this may be so. US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s February 15 phone call to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval gave India a virtual carte blanche for a retaliatory strike.
Cold War strategist Herman Kahn drew up a 44-rung Cold War superpower escalation ladder showing how small incidents between the USA and the USSR could spiral out of control into a full-fledged war. A 2011 study, Nuclear Escalation Ladders in South Asia’, by Rodney Jones draws up a simpler 18-rung escalation ladder between India and Pakistan, thematically similar in construction to Kahn’s pre-war, conventional, pre-nuclear and nuclear war thresholds.
(Photo: Yasir Iqbal)
India’s strategists will aim to prevent the military action from spiralling into a conflict or even a limited war. There is a high possibility that military action will be targeted across the LoC, to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), which India claims, and not, say, the Punjab province, which is the Pakistani heartland. Hence, India’s response could be below step five (see Why All-out War is Not an Option) on the Jones escalation ladder.
Options such as a cruise missile or air strike could be difficult because they could quickly escalate and invite retaliation from the other side. Our retaliation will be determined by the outcome we seek. If we seek a mere firepower demonstration, then Pakistan can do the same in return. If the outcomes are not commensurate with the effort, it will embarrass the Indian army, says Lt General P. Ravi Shankar, former DG, Artillery. The fact is that there is no risk-free option anymore. While General Rawat says he has promised to undertake any hard option the political executive tasks him with, he is fully conscious of a few other facts. The Indian army took the Pakistan army by surprise when it crossed the LoC in 2016. Quite frankly, we were lucky to have not lost any lives then, says one of the strategists. The Pakistani armed forces are now on a heightened state of alert. This essentially means activating all their early warning elementsAirborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) in the skies to detect for intruding IAF aircraft, posts and bunkers along the LoC on full alert and reconnaissance aircrafts sweeping the Arabian Sea to look for Indian Navy warships. This time, India faces an adversary who is fully prepared and has threatened retaliation; Pakistan premier Imran Khan was quite clear and categorical. That would mean casualties. This is why any option chosen by the government will be tough and could potentially draw it into an escalatory chain creeping. Every option will be debated, says Lt General D.S. Hooda (retired) who, as the Northern Army Commander, oversaw the 2016 surgical strikes. How far are we willing to go and how many casualties are we prepared to take will form the basic debate. But it won’t stop at that; it will continue, to ascertain what we will do when there is a response from the other side.
(Photo: Pankaj Nangia /Mail Today)
If the government indeed chooses to go in for sub-conventional covert options, then it could choose to launch a fire assault using an array of 155 mm howitzers firing at terrorist targets and launch pads along the LoC. A commando raid of the kind launched in 2016 will be tough given that vast sections of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps area, which covers 450 km of the LoC’s 750 km, is now extensively snowbound, making cross-border movement difficult. Also, many of the paths, the dry nullahs leading across the LoC, have been extensively sown with anti-personnel mines by the Pakistan army, following the surgical strikes. Strikes by ground-based BrahMos missiles and air-dropped smart munitions on terrorist infrastructure are distinct possibilities, too. The aircraft could launch precision-guided munitions (PGMs) without crossing the LoC, just as they did during the Kargil war.
The key challenges for these strikes, as Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, a former air chief, says, is for precise, actionable intelligence on such targets of opportunity’. The information has to be precise because you don’t want to carry out a strike and incur heavy civilian casualties, he says. The challenge here is to get excellent real-time intelligence on the movement of terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar and the other Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) leaders.
(Photo: Abid Bhat)
The trouble with air strikes is that they will significantly escalate the situation and almost certainly invite reprisal attacks from the Pakistan air force. If the PAF is going to respond, how much of an escalation is the Indian government going to accept? This is a major question to which no one knows the answer. In short, there are no painless alternatives if the government actually decides to act.