Airman on a Short Fuse? Indian Air Chief Speaks on Surgical Strikes on Pakistani Nuclear Sites

6 December 2017 Rizwan Zeb, FDI Associate

Background

Responding to a question regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons at the press conference for the annual air force day held earlier in the year by the Indian Air Force, Indian Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa stated that the Indian Air Force has the capability to successfully locate and destroy Pakistani nuclear and other military targets. He claimed that, ‘As far as IAF is concerned, it has the ability to locate, fix and strike and that is not only for tactical nuclear weapons but also for other targets across the border.’ The Air Chief Marshal further added that the Indian Air Force has the capability to carry out a full-spectrum offensive at a short notice to counter any threat to India and that the IAF has the ability to sustain operational vigilance for an extended period of time.

The key questions to address are: what prompted the Indian Air chief to issue that statement?  What is the context of the statement? Was he just claiming that the IAF has the capability to conduct strikes inside Pakistan – including against its nuclear sites – or was he hinting at the capability (as well as the existence) of operational plans to strike Pakistani nuclear targets? What exactly would New Delhi achieve with such an attack? Above all, does the Indian military have the capability to successfully conduct such an attack or attacks?

Comment

With the passage of time, the timing of the statement indicates that the Indian Air Chief was aiming at multiple audiences. For Islamabad, it was a clear nuclear signal. For the Indian defence and security establishment, it was an assurance and a much-needed morale booster in the wake of the recently-concluded Pakistan-China Shaheen IV joint military exercise in which, among other manoeuvres, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted successful joint sorties involving Su-27s and Su-30s. The statement was also aimed at the Indian Ministry of Finance, which is currently discussing, and will soon be finalising, various budgetary proposals that will be placed before the Parliament in January 2018.

Responding to the statement, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif stated that, in the case of an Indian strike on Pakistan’s nuclear installations, ‘nobody should expect restraint from us.’ Although there are indications to assume that the Indian Air Chief’s statement was more a claim of having a capability (however unrealistic that claim might be, in keeping with the lessons from recent air wars), than a real threat to attack Pakistani nuclear sites, Islamabad’s reaction was understandable. In general, the statement was viewed by Pakistan’s strategic community as yet another manifestation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ill-designs towards Pakistan.

Islamabad viewed the statement as a continuation of what General Bipin Rawat, India’s Chief of Army Staff, stated earlier in the year when he acknowledged the existence of Indian military doctrine of “Cold Start” and claimed that the Indian Army is ready to strike inside Pakistan. Islamabad is convinced that Prime Minister Modi, through his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, is taking every step to destabilise Pakistan.

Militarily speaking, despite the over-confidence demonstrated by New Delhi in its military capabilities, it is still not clear how that confidence can be translated into action. After the nuclearisation of both India and Pakistan, New Delhi started discussions on a limited war under the nuclear umbrella, but it was Islamabad that tested it in Kargil. The 2002 standoff made New Delhi realise the flaws in its military doctrine and, despite twice planning to attack Pakistan, it could not do so due to uncertainty about the likely Pakistani response.

That realisation resulted in the “Cold Start” doctrine. After denying its existence for several years, the Indian Army chief finally accepted its existence. Islamabad responded by introducing tactical nuclear weapons. Nasr is the Pakistani response to the Indian Cold Start. It could have been a destabilising factor for Indo-Pak strategic stability, but it made Cold Start a very risky proposition. In the last few months, however, New Delhi has decided to up the ante. That is the context and background of Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s statement. It is highly unlikely that the Indian military can successfully conduct such a co-ordinated attack on Pakistan. For such an attack to take place, the element of surprise is paramount but that is not available to India. Another important factor is the response of the international community. The standoff of 2002 and the Mumbai terror attacks are cases in point. Militarily speaking, India lacks the required numbers. The terrain is also unfavourable for advancing Indian forces and would be a major hurdle for the Indian military attempting multiple incursions into Pakistani territory.

The situation of the Indian Air Force is equally problematic. Currently, it is facing major technical issues with its Su-30MKIs. Any future India-Pakistan conflict, especially before 2019 when the IAF will induct a batch of Rafale jets, would not be a one-sided one. The Pakistani Air Force would be able to match the IAF with its F16s and JF-17s, not taking into account the two-frontal war that the Indian Army and Air chief claim to have the capability to fight. Also, what is meant by “nuclear targets” is not exactly clear. Does that mean Pakistan’s nuclear plants, command and control, missiles or weapons storage sites? Does the Indian Air Force have more advanced surveillance capabilities than those of its Western, NATO and US counterparts? Which air force of those much more technologically-advanced countries, involved in air combat in the last 30-odd years, could boost of having a capability to ‘acquire, engage and destroy all varieties of military targets in enemy countries’ that Indian strategic thinkers like Gurmeet Kanwal are claiming the IAF to have?

All in all, Dhanoa’s statement was aimed at the domestic audience and for boosting the morale of the IAF and the Indian public. That is not surprising to any one privy to the political culture of the wider Indian subcontinent. Yet it is also an indicator of fluctuations in the civil-military relationship in India. Pakistan, for its part, responded in exactly the expected way in which nuclear signalling is traditionally done between New Delhi and Islamabad. In the Subcontinent, appearing weak is more dangerous than actually being weak and that is the true essence of Indo-Pak nuclear signalling.

About the Author

Rizwan Zeb, Ph.D., is associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK, and visiting scholar at the India-South Asia Project at the Brookings Institution. He is also consulting editor of the soon-to-be-launched weekly e-paper Pakistan Review. He tweets at @SRizwanZeb.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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