Just how far India can escalate tensions with Pakistan without going to war is difficult to forecast. The Indian air strikes of February 26 have rejigged the spectrum of possibilities. For decades, conventional wisdom was that the use of air power was somehow an escalation.
So, India did not use its air force in the 1962 war, where it may have prevented our disastrous defeat. In 1965 too, operations went on through August in J&K minus the use of air power. Only when Pakistan attacked Chamb and threatened to cut the Jammu-Poonch road, the IAF was hurriedly brought into the battle by then defence minister Y.B. Chavan at around 4 pm. He sought and got the cabinet sanction for his action later.
Over the years, the Indian and Pakistani forces have battled it out, at times through mortar and artillery duels along the LOC. At other times, they have conducted commando strikes against each other across this line. Pakistan initially tried to pass off the Kargil incursion as one made by militants, but this did not wash, and it was soon evident that it was an Indo-Pak military clash, albeit, one of a lower intensity.
It took nearly three weeks, after Pakistani intruders were first reported in May 1999, for the air force to be sent in. The then IAF chief turned down the request of the army chief for help and waited for the Cabinet Committee on security to order action. Caught unprepared, the IAF lost two aircraft on the second day of its operations, resulting in the death of one pilot and the capture of another.
The recent Indo-Pak military clash seems to be taking place largely in the air. Beginning with the Balakot strike, it has now featured aerial battles on or near the LoC. Unfortunately, we had a parallel to the Kargil experience when this time too, on February 27, a day after the Balakot strike, an IAF Mig-21 Bison was shot down by the Pakistani air force and a pilot captured.
There is a red line somewhere, notional of course, which, if crossed, could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. From the Indian perspective, that line is fairly clear—as a country that has pledged “no first use”, nuclear weapons will be used only if the other country employs them against us first. However, most people would agree that were India convinced that it was facing a nuclear attack, it could pre-emptively use its nuclear weapons to strike first.
Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that it will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons in the event of an Indian military attack with conventional weapons. They say that given their geography and smaller military, Indian penetration of their borders could pose an existential threat to the country. To this end, they have developed tactical nuclear weapons which, they say, they could use in the event of a large Indian military incursion.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies says Pakistan has a spatial threshold that will be triggered if Indians reach the Indus, or an economic threshold resulting from any Indian naval blockade or if Indian military action threatens the destruction of the Pakistani military. There's also a political threshold in the event of developments that could lead to the breakup of Pakistan, just as it happened in the case of Bangladesh.
Clearly, a conventional war by itself is not a threshold, in other words, if there were skirmishes along the LoC or even the international border, it would not necessarily trigger a nuclear conflict. But the danger here is the escalation as the nations seek to gain the edge in what began as a localised clash. Commanders seeking advantage in a particular tactical situation could lead to a competitive circumstance, resulting in a quick climb on the escalation ladder.
Neither India nor Pakistan is really prepared to fight a conventional war. But, to paraphrase General V.P. Malik during the Kargil war, they will fight with whatever they have. Because they maintain large establishments, they suffer from obsolescence and thus, they are desperately seeking to modernise their forces. There is little point in retailing the size, numbers and equipment of the two opposing forces. Suffice to say, Pakistan maintains enough strength to counter any Indian incursion.
Through the decades, the Pakistani military has been oriented towards India. In contrast, the Indians have had to develop a serious conventional deterrence capability vis-à-vis both Pakistan and China alongside maintaining a substantial force deployed against domestic insurgents in the North-east and in Jammu & Kashmir. However, since 2008, the Pakistan army, too, has had to develop counter-insurgency capabilities in relation to the formidable threat it has faced from the Pakistani Taliban.
The guiding principle of the Pakistani force’s structure is to maintain an effective parity with India. We say “effective” because there is no question of real parity between a country that is continental in scale and one that is less than one-third of its size. Further, its GDP of some $279 billion can hardly compare with one which is $2.4 trillion. The Indian defence budget—at $52.5 billion in 2017—is more than five times that of Pakistan’s—at $9.72 billion. But the Pakistani military has made the most of what it has. It can indeed give the Indian army a run for its money. One major reason for this is India’s inability to restructure and reform its huge military and make it more capable of fighting a modern, high-tech war.
Over the years, Pakistan has used four techniques to maintain effective parity. First, they have spent a disproportionate amount of their government revenues on defence. Second, they have been helped enormously by external allies; in the 1950s and 1960s and again in the 1980s, it was the United States, currently, it is the Chinese. The allies have provided the Pakistani military substantial weapons systems and equipment at throwaway rates. Third, Islamabad has used what is called “sub-conventional” means, aka terrorism, to undermine India. Fourth, they have developed a nuclear weapons force to protect themselves against any Indian retaliation to their covert war.
The current conflict is being played out in the skies above the LoC. And this can easily lead to a wider conflagration. Having carried out a so-called surgical strike across the LoC in 2016 that did not deter Pakistan, New Delhi was compelled to resort to an aerial attack. Given the level of the provocation—the biggest casualty count of security forces in the Pakistan-supported covert war in the Valley—India had to dramatically step up its level of deterrent violence, and it did.
Pakistan would like to avoid any conventional war since it has successfully used terrorism to keep India off balance. And now, it could well be that Islamabad’s only option is to retaliate through more, rather than fewer terrorist actions, just as it did after the so-called surgical strikes. If that happens, India may expand the menu of its actions along the LoC. It may undertake sustained army action across the LoC backed by air power. Given India’s military and economic strength, it will eventually prevail, without necessarily crossing Islamabad’s spatial, economic, military or political red lines.
The global geopolitical situation favours India, whose economy is growing despite the missteps of its political class. The experience of the Islamic State has driven home the importance of combating Islamist terrorism to countries as diverse as the US, China, Russia and the European Union. None of them wants to appear backing unsavoury characters like Masood Azhar.
However, it will not be cost free. India will have to pay a price—a direct one on account of stepping up military hostilities, and a larger one in opportunity costs relating to the fulfilment of its economic and social needs. But perhaps the biggest danger could be that in its mortal struggle with Pakistan, it could fatally weaken itself vis-à-vis a greater adversary—China.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)