IAF’s goofs and Delhi’s post-Pulwama debacle

IAF's goofs and Delhi's post-Pulwama debacle1

A Post-mortem

By Bharat Karnad

Many things are incomprehensible when pondering the post-Pulwama developments. The nature of the retaliation is one issue, and India’s reluctance to say anything, do anything, that would be taken askance by China, is another. If the idea of the aerial strike on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training centre in Balakot in the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was to send a message of India going fully punitive, display Indian resolve to hit the terrorists hard, and cause such losses as to signal clearly India’s willingness to escalate, and to escalate again, should the Pakistan military react to the initial IAF foray, then why was a PGM (precision guided munition) the weapon of choice?

The 500kg glide bomb outfitted with the Israeli Spice 2000 terminal guidance set is very accurate and may, in fact, have penetrated the roof of the JeM hostel and killed off and incapacitated many trainee mujahideen / jihadis. But such a precision strike was inappropriate if the aim was to impact Pakistan and the world with wide-area destruction to take out the entire terrorist complex, which outcome, at a minimum, wouldn’t have been questioned or spawned, as has happened, an alternative Islamabad narrative of IAF Mirage 2000s dropping their ordnance harmlessly on some trees and scooting to avoid engaging with PAF aircraft in a dog fight.

In light of disputed satellite imagery, the effect of the Indian strike was diluted and lost what  deterrent value it had because it was seen to have, if not missed the target, then caused only minor damage. If massive area weapons several 1,000kg bombs  to level much of the forested hilltop and the JeM facility were used instead and, post-attack, ‘Before’ and ‘After’ pictures with clearly labeled but destroyed terrorist support structures  hostels, arms depot, firing range, etc., been released to the Indian and international media, Islamabad would have had little wiggle room and the world would have been stunned into pondering a suddenly decisive India.

So, the question arises: Why did IAF choose a PGM not an area weapon? If it did so under Prime Minister’s instructions to minimize collateral damage, then it apparently failed to inform Modi, or the latter was not properly briefed by his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and the Intelligence agencies, that the selected JeM targets were, in fact, situated on a hill far from Balakot town, whence the possibility of civilian casualties was nil, and the use of wide-area destruction bombs was appropriate.

True, this may have upped the pressure on PAF to respond in kind but to hit what targets and where? After all, Pakistan has never claimed that India is conducting a terror campaign inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Had General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, in the circumstances chosen to escalate, target selection would have proved a major headache for it, because attacking military targets within India would have invited Delhi to up the ante by striking at tempting Pakistan military installations within easy reach of the border, and all-out war would have been risked that Pakistan was in no position to win.

Further, had such conventional military exchanges tripped the nuclear wire, Pakistan wouldn’t have been able to prevent its own extinction as a social organism in return for the destruction of two Indian cities at most, owing to a very adverse ‘exchange ratio’ (the ratio of destruction absorbed to the destruction inflicted). In the event, rather than daring Pakistan to climb the escalation ladder, the Indian government and IAF were left defensively to argue their claims of Balakot damage in the face of world-wide skepticism based on satellite images that showed most of the structures still standing. The lesson to learn from this cross border anti-terrorist aerial strike is that to finish off a gnat it is sometimes necessary to use an elephant gun.

So, two major goofs by the Indian Air Force: The incorrect choice of ordnance and the equally strange absence of the MiG-29 in operations. Sending up the old and venerable MiG-21bis against the F-16 while keeping the MiG-29, rated among the best maneuvering air defence aircraft, grounded, led to the embarrassment attending on an Indian pilot’s capture. These two mistakes point to something very wrong with IAF’s operational mindset and, naturally, with the conduct of operations.

To match, the post-Balakot dud initiative at the UN Security Council (UNSC) showed up a deficient Indian diplomacy. Delhi revels in symbolic victories while our adversaries, in the main, China, seeks substantive gains. For the Narendra Modi government it was apparently enough that several Western nations, especially US, UK and France, voted for or co-sponsored the Indian resolution to designate Masood Azhar a global terrorist, when the odds of success were huge considering China’s veto on the anvil.

The only proof, in this respect, Beijing may be convinced by is if JeM cadres hit Chinese troops in Xinjiang. Not content with the UNSC failure, Delhi has now exposed the country to further foreign depredations. By declaring that third countries are free to verify and validate India’s painstakingly accumulated evidence about the terrorist infrastructure inside Pakistan, it has handed China as well as US, UK and France the means to interpret whatever material Delhi provides them through the filter of their own national interests and contingent imperatives, adding still another layer of diplomatic complication.

What happens the next time there’s a terrorist strike and India responds similarly? These states may choose to meddle by publicly doubting India’s reading of the threat as credible cause for its armed action, and thus put India in future diplomatic jeopardy. That this move was made with such little thought as to its ramifications speaks volumes about the impulsive thrust of Modi’s foreign policy.

The Indian government still doesn’t understand that Beijing’s reasons for its veto have little to do with the piddling matter of JeM and Masood but with reassuring Islamabad that it can rely on China, against India anyway. The MEA, bereft of historical knowledge and basic strategic common sense, is yet to realize that China is playing the role for Pakistan that the erstwhile Soviet Union did for India such as during the 1971 Bangladesh War, when it provided political cover at UNSC to realize its goal in the then East Pakistan. And that Beijing won’t budge because the benefits from having Pakistan wage, in effect, a meta-level proxy war against India to serve China’s interests at little real cost is too tempting to pass up.

But, why is it so easy for Beijing? Why has India not imposed any costs on China? Well, in the extant case, because MEA rates its own persuasive power very highly, which is reflected in its statement that Delhi will “show patience for as long as it takes” to bring Beijing around to conceding that Masood is, in fact, a bonafide terrorist. Such are the small stakes that the Modi regime envisions for the country.

Modi and MEA are surely habiting an alternative universe, one in which hurt to the country’s status and prestige with China repeatedly kicking it in the teeth is readily ignored. This because Modi expects the “Wuhan spirit” to pay dividend. Really, when this Spirit is taken as license by Beijing to act detrimentally against India’s vital interests while Delhi sits on its haunches hoping its reticence will someday be rewarded by Beijing?

In fact, all this will do is reinforce the unalloyed contempt Beijing has always had for India. When the late K.C. Pant, as defence minister, visited China after Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 state visit featuring the long and memorable handshake with Dengxiaoping, he asked his hosts where India stood in China’s threat compass. Nowhere, he was assured condescendingly by his opposite number “India is not on our threat radar.”

That was 40 years ago! How much more disdain and disrespect would the Xi Jinping regime feel for Modi’s India that resembles a punching bag, letting China do as it wills, hesitant to turn off the Chinese trade spigot, ban the sale of Huawei telecommunications hardware and mobile telephones despite legitimate concerns about cyber warfare bugs inserted into them, and not responding in kind to the gravest possible provocation of nuclear missile arming Pakistan, by strategically missile arming states on China’s periphery, with Vietnam and the Philippines in the van? (Imposing killer tariffs on Chinese goods is entirely within India’s ambit under World Trade Organization rules and regulations considering Chinese manufacturing Companies, without exception, enjoy built-in subsidies free land, free power, free water, etc.)

All things considered, the Balakot episode, it turns out, is only the latest instance in India’s ignominious history of drawing defeat from the jaws of victory.

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