Soldiers during India’s Republic Day parade in New Delhi, Jan. 26, 2015. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
By Komal Khan 16 March 2023
Operation Swift Retort provides a clear precedent and communicates Pakistan’s resolve and ability to pay back promptly to India’s offensive operations against Pakistan, especially at time when the international support and partnerships with India against China has been abused by India to pursue its regional hegemonic objectives under a far-right nationalist government.
Providing scholarly account of India’s strike package against Pakistan on February 26, 2019, Air Commdore (R) Kaiser Tufail states that India’s offensive operation consisted of sixteen IAF Mirage 2000 planes that took off from Gwalior, including six armed with one Israeli Spice 2000 bomb each and four armed with Israeli Crystal Maze missile each. They were escorted by six upgraded Mirage 2000I armed with six MICA air-to-air missiles each and supported by an Il-78 in-flight refueling tanker and an Airborne Early Warning and Control System AEWCS aircraft for surveillance. Being across 40 km, five bombs fell in a forested area, a few hundred meters from the intended target near Balakot.
In response to India’s violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty, Pakistan launched Operation Swift Retort the very next day. F-16 and JF-17 fighters of the Pakistan Air Force intercepted the IAF aircrafts that were following IAF attack package and two of them – Mig-21 and SU-30 were hit; the MIG-21 fell into Pakistan’s territory while it is difficult to determine whether the SU-30 was downed, slightly damaged or evaded the AMRAM missile fired by a PAF F-16 on February 27, 2019.
The PAF decided to go for a stand-off attack similar to the IAF’s, with the crucial difference of going against military targets in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). Unlike India, measured and controlled response was agreed upon by the civil and military leadership in Pakistan based on the responsible assessment of the conflict escalation potential to a point of no return. While on the other side, Modi’s emphasis on winning the forthcoming elections caused him to prioritize punitive measures against Pakistan, disregarding the possible escalation dangers between two states possessing nuclear weapons.
An assessment of the Indian offensive implies that the Indian civilian establishment miscalculated Pakistan’s resolve and ability to pay back promptly. Owing to the failure, India has presented the notion of “technical asymmetry” as a façade to conceal the operational and tactical deficiencies of the IAF.
The two nuclear powers were on the brink of a war is something which needs serious reflection, specifically for the initiator of the conflict. The Balakot incident indicates that the Indians also intended to keep the conflict limited, however, the event also demonstrates the tenuous state of deterrence stability in South Asia.
International support could enable Pakistan to go beyond what Pakistan already did in response to Balakot incident. However, unless Pakistan attains international credibility at diplomatic, economic, and political fronts, India would continue to maneuver international support in its favour, particularly because India’s strategic community has a considerable international outreach. International community is capable enough to put a restraint over India’s offence towards Pakistan, however, they would use this clout in a manner that promotes their own interests at the cost of South Asian security.
Pakistan’s counter-response to India’s aggressive behavior by incorporating cross-domain deterrence as a crisis management mechanism to reinstate strategic deterrence has an impact on strategic stability in South Asia. Significantly, the U.S. and the West have recognized India as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific affairs, making it necessary for Pakistan to integrate cross-domain deterrence at operational level to deter India.
In response to the Balakot strike, Pakistan engaged in limited warfare, downing and hitting Indian fighter aircrafts. While Pakistan responsibly managed the situation by not escalating the conflict and restricting to a self-defense operation, yet the conflict had escalation potential. Furthermore, advancement in and perusal of tactical and strategic weapons by Pakistan to restore a military balance in relation to India are inevitable conflict management tools that Pakistan is compelled to employ to ensure deterrence stability in South Asia. However, in the long term, it may also be perceived as challenge to strategic stability in South Asia.
It is possible that Modi may resort to a false flag operation to restore the IAF’s lost reputation, which is a precarious scenario that the world should be cautious about. Significantly, possibility of military attacks targeting strategic sites and surgical strikes, which could be misinterpreted as pre-emptive strikes, poses a significant risk of nuclear escalation and undermines deterrence stability in the region.