A year after the Indian Air Force Balakote strike anniversary on Feb 26, a new concept for responding to terrorist attacks seems to be under consideration by the Indian Armed Forces.
For want of an official name this is being referred to as Short Cycle Controlled Escalation Precision Strikes or use of air power to target terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan as a response to a major attack attributable across the border.
While the use of airpower to counter Pakistan’s terrorist attacks was debated in the past, preference was given to land-based counter-response.
Towards this end, a multi-front shallow land offensive duly supported by air popularly known as the Cold Start Doctrine was promulgated after 2003 wherein the much-vaunted Operation Parakram restrained deployment of the armed forces on the Indo Pakistan border led to India and Pakistan agreeing to a cease-fire in March that year.
Multiple war games have been held on both sides of International Border by India and Pakistan with reference to Cold Start – apparently with the objective of a response below the threshold of nuclear escalation.
The Cold Start, however, entailed mobilisation of armed forces within a short window of a week to ten days and possibly was seen as too cumbersome while Pakistan claims to have developed full scale deterrence in response to the same through Nasr battlefield nuclear rockets.
Cold Start was replaced or rejigged by the Indian Army as Short Notice Intense Proactive Escalatory [SNIPE] operations limited the penetration to limited frontages in localised areas amongst other connotations.
However as terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir continued with Pathankot airbase and Uri forward base the most prominent in 2016, Pakistan continued denial and deliberate delay in investigations. This led the armed forces to review counter-response strategy.
Thus in 2016, cross border attacks by infiltration were undertaken with political ownership by the government of the day for the first time in September 2016.
This was in response to terrorist attacks in Uri when the now-famous “surgical strikes,” were launched destroying terrorist launch pads and training areas across the border.
Pakistan, however, continued to deny that any infiltration had taken place and there was destruction on its side of the Line of Control (LOC).
Post the incident, Indian political leadership military commanders notably then Army Chief and present Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had indicated that the next surgical strike will be different.
This was an apparent reference to an airstrike, which was considered to be a challenge on two accounts, the dense air defence environment on the India Pakistan International Border and Line of Control (LOC) and possible escalation.
The Indian Air Force devised tactics of deception and decoy sorties to divert the Pakistani air defence fighters away from the target selected for the Balakote Air Strike – Jaish e Mohammad base training camp well inside Pakistani territory and was thus regarded as a secure zone.
Effective strategic messaging and restricting response to Pakistan’s counter strike named as Swift Retort by the Pakistan Air Force prevented escalation.
Speedy return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan was part of the de-escalation dynamics.
External stakeholders mainly Saudi Arabia, the UAE and of course, the United States and Russia, may have played a role in the de-escalation, which is not clear at present.
Having synthesised the lessons of Balakote the armed forces have possibly prepared a new concept – not necessarily a full-scale doctrine for now for employment of air power to counter terrorist attacks by Pakistan in the future.
This would entail effective penetration of the air defence umbrella in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Pakistan mainland, selection of targets that can be justified as a proportionate response to the international community and structuring the narrative and escalation dynamics to prevent an adverse fall out.
The evolution of such a concept is evident from the speech given by the Indian Army Chief Gen M M Naravane on Mar 04 at a seminar at the Manekshaw Centre New Delhi organised by Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
“For years we were told that if airpower is used across the international border, it would lead to a full-fledged war. Balakot demonstrated that if you play the escalatory game with skill, military ascendancy can be established in short cycles of conflict that do not necessarily lead to war,” said General Narawane.
In February the former Indian Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa who strategised the plan and conduct of Balakote also spoke in a similar tone. Speaking on ‘IAF In The Changed Security Paradigm’ at the fifth Flying Officer Nirmal Jeet Singh Sekhon PVC annual memorial lecture organised by the Gujarat chapter of the Air Force Association, Dhanoa propagated that the IAF should, “reorient and retrain” to a new paradigm of war.
“Though the Indian Air Force has trained itself to fight a full-scale conventional war in a joint campaign with sister services, it has to reorient and retrain itself to the changed paradigm. It must plan and address capability voids in due course of time,” the former Air Chief Marshal said.
The new paradigm apparently appears to be, neutralising select strategic [not necessarily military] targets for effective messaging, skirmishing rather than full-scale aerial combat restricted to a short cycle with carefully planned de-escalation to achieve military ascendancy.
There are many moving parts in the concept which will have to be managed to perfection to ensure that the short cycle does not spin out of control and skirmish does not turn into a wider conflict.