Precision airstrikes on targets inside the enemy territory are among the key options that defence experts and political leaders are talking about in the aftermath of the Jammu and Kashmir suicide attack.
New Delhi is accusing Islamabad of covert backing the Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant outfit that has claimed responsibility for the attack on February 14 that left scores dead. There is a range of options on the table as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has not ruled out any form of response. Modi has said the government has left it to the military leadership to shape an appropriate response. The only matter clear is that military and political opinion is weighing on the side of a retributive response. The country's political atmosphere is also charged up with the general election 2019 only weeks away and this will have a bearing on the response.
There is the talk of surgical strike 2.0. Media outlets are drawing a parallel in the current situation to the much-publicised surgical strike of September 29, 2016, when Indian army personnel entered territory across the Line of Control (LoC) at various points and destroyed terrorist launch pads. Defence experts vouch by the utility and effectiveness of such a strike on some key defensive asset on enemy territory. But such a strike will be effective only if the objective of the strike is limited to causing punitive damage. Such operations will always have deniability that will come in handy for the target nation like what happened in 2016. Even the limited video footage that the military released last year could not fully lift the cloud. The deniability factor is true for any form of covert operation.
Some defence and political opinions support precision airstrikes deep inside the enemy territory. DS Hooda, a former lieutenant general who was Northern Army commander during the 2016 surgical strikes, told media that the government would be under pressure to take military action against Pakistan. "Not taking military action is not an option. I can't say what that action could be but it has to take place across the border," the Hindustan Times quoted him as saying. Fali Major, a former IAF chief, believes there are a "million options" depending on what level India is willing to escalate the conflict.
The question is whether the country has a military doctrine efficient enough to conceive an effective mission and the hardware to deliver the mission objective. Experts say that the Indian armed forces are now configured for the Cold Start Doctrine prompted by a failure to launch an effective response to an attack on Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, blamed on terror group backed by JeM. It took weeks for the military to mobilise to advanced positions denying it any element of surprise. The situation exposed the weakness of the Sundarji Doctrine credited to a former army chief that deployed the army as holding corps closer to the border and strike corps deeper inside that would strike out deep into enemy territory in case if a conflict. The Cold Start Doctrine has formed the military into self-sufficient Integrated Battle Groups (IBG) that have all the elements required for a successful assault on an enemy target including the authority to procure air cover. The IBGs will come into play only in case of a wider war. The Cold Start Doctrine of the armed forces makes precision air strikes inside the enemy territory easier to achieve.
Precision air strikes require the element of surprise and highly capable military hardware. Depending on the quality of intelligence, Indian Air Force (IAF) air superiority fighter Sukhoi-30 (Su-30MKI) can take out targets like terrorist training centres or terrorist launch pads on the other side of LoC. According to experts, in some case without even crossing over. The Russian-built Su 30MKI is a twin-engine combat aircraft that is the spearhead of IAF and can conduct air-to-ground attacks with precision. IAF has 232 such high-performance aircraft a few squadrons of which are stationed in Sirsa in Haryana within striking distance of the LoC and the international border. IAF also has 66 newly upgraded MiG-29 multirole fighters that have proven their worth in high-altitude battle situations. MiG-29 is famous for apparently causing a sonic boom. Both these fighters are armed with precision ground-attack missiles that can cause severe damage to ground installations.
While IAF has the military hardware that could effectively deliver an operation that can contribute the atmospherics required for a successfully poll re-run of the government in power, what would guide the defence forces is a consideration of the fallout of such an operation. While a limited conflict will work to the benefit of the government, the absence of a guarantee that it would not escalate into a wider conflagration will act as a deterrent. Therefore, it's more likely that India might resort to covert operations or even another surgical strike and not a major air operation.