Pakistan’s proxy war can be limited by restoring the IAF’s combat edge
The usual script followed the recent terrorists’ attack on the Sunjuwan army base. The defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman warned that Pakistan will have to pay for the Jammu and Kashmir misadventure and that a counter-terror plan was afoot; Pakistan promised a befitting response. And, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti said that war was not an option and India needed to talk with Pakistan to end the bloodbath.
Meanwhile, one television channel had three generals to discuss India’s military options. While unanimously agreeing that perimeter defence around army bases (especially those close to civilian habitations) should be strengthened to minimise damages, one general, a former northern army commander, conceded that ‘we are left with too few options’. Responsible for the September 2016 surgical strikes, he knew that they neither deterred Pakistan, nor had any serious consequences.
Another general, preferring to obfuscate matters, dwelt on the need to understand the Hybrid War unleashed by Pakistan for an appropriate riposte. Hybrid warfare implies a mix of conventional, unconventional, cyber, psychological and diplomatic warfare. Also called the fifth-generation warfare meant to make the enemy fall in line, it should be backed by credible conventional war-fighting capability to be successful. Now, if India had this, why would Pakistan continue with the proxy war? The third general, while underlining the strengths of the Pakistan Army spoke about the need to think two-steps ahead; what they could be was not discussed.
Before we deliberate on the two-steps, let’s discuss the need for securing army bases from terrorist attacks. The government has sanctioned Rs 1,487 crore for building perimeter fences to protect thousands of military bases, units and formations. The army chief, General Bipin Rawat, according to reports, has been mulling over the optimal fence to protect soldiers. Should it be the motion-sensor fence offered by the United States, or the electrified concertina fence coupled with manual patrolling, similar to the one on the Line of Control (LC)?
The motion-sensor fence, which detects any motion close to the fence and can even launch pre-emptive grenade (recent technological advance), is undoubtedly the better option. The Cooperative Monitoring Centre in Albuquerque working under the US’ Sandia Laboratories has been doing commendable work in this area. As a visiting scholar there in 1998, I was shown how the motion-sensors of various kinds were used on the US’ porous border with Mexico to discourage smugglers, bootleggers, criminal and illegal immigrations. Stray animals were a problem, but they could be identified by discerning sensors and sharp observers.
In India, the army has identified a major problem with the motion-sensor fence. The reported one is that since civilian population has mushroomed close to army bases, the motion-sensors are likely to raise frequent false alarms. The way out, it is reasoned, is to isolate army and civilian habitats. Despite this, the army would still do manual patrolling to be doubly sure.
The other option of using concertina fence with a few add-on smart sensors seems to be gaining acceptability (French Safran company could help with tailor-made smart sensors). This would be the natural extension of the fence on the LC since 2004, which the army believes has served it well. However, what about army’s numerous convoys of leave-parties, logistics vehicles, children buses, road opening parties and so on? Surely, ways would be found to secure them as well.
According to the generals on the debate, the fence is needed to protect troops from the deteriorating political and security dynamics in Jammu and Kashmir. This of course is an alibi. Recall the year 1990 when similar conditions existed. At that time, let alone the terrorists, the Pakistan Army was extremely worried about the massive influx of the Indian Army in the border state. Much in awe of the Indian Army, they approached the United States, which then sent the Robert Gates mission in 1990 to calm the situation. The problem now is that decades of counter-terror operations have, ironically, turned the tables since the army’s war fighting capabilities have been seriously eroded. Instead of the terrorists and the common people, the Indian Army fears about its own safety. Successive army leadership should take the blame for this tragic situation; this was precisely why the army chief General B.C. Joshi had told me in 1993 that the army should go back to its primary task soonest.
That said, what are the two-steps that could throw-up military options for India. At the strategic level, it should be clear that, notwithstanding its war-preparedness, the Pakistan Army cannot afford more than a limited escalation; an all-out war is ruled out. Since Pakistan is heavily dependent on China (politically, economically and militarily), it would do nothing to jeopardise the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project by delaying its time-lines or incurring Chinese casualties in a war with India. Debates about an escalation of war to nuclear exchanges are rhetorical and academic, certainly not real.
Given this, the need is to strengthen the Indian Air Force (IAF). This can be explained by events in the aftermath of the Pakistan-supported 26 November 2008 terrorists’ attacks in Mumbai. Recalling the meeting of the three services’ chiefs with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one of the chiefs told me that military retaliation was considered seriously. An abandoned Pakistani hamlet, Fort Abbas, in Pakistan’s south Punjab, facing India’s Rajasthan state, and close to the border, was considered a good option for occupation. It was assessed that while the Indian Army had lost its combat edge vis-à-vis the Pakistan Army, the combined combat edge of the Indian Army and the air force was believed to be adequate.
A decade later in 2018, the IAF, plagued with deficiencies in its combat squadrons’ strength, requires urgent attention. If this were to be done on priority basis, India would acquire the true surgical strike option. To be sure, surgical strikes are done against legitimate military targets (Pakistan Army) and not terrorists, to generate shock and awe, and minimise collateral damages. While the army can do raids and hot pursuit, surgical strikes remains the prerogative of the IAF across the LC.
Were India to do this, it would create a Catch-22 situation for the Pakistan Army leadership: Retaliation with its air force would escalate matters against Chinese wishes. Not doing anything would amount to losing face. Thus, if the combat edge of the IAF was restored, Pakistan would feel constrained to limit its proxy war against India.
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