In considerations of retaliation to Pakistani sub- conventional provocation, air power is approached hesitantly. While surgical strikes exist as an option, apprehensions exist over Pakistani reaction leading to an escalatory spiral. Such escalation could be due to successful military defensive maneuvers by Pakistan bringing down Indian aircraft or from political pressures in case of extensive collateral damage. Given precedence of air power being used discreetly even in a conventional war setting in the Kargil conflict, it can only be more so in a sub-conventional scenario. Given the escalatory characteristic, the demands on limitation become even more acute. Since Limited War is what can at best be envisaged in the nuclear age, the implications for air power require focus.
Thus far, the discussion has been confined to ‘Cold Start’ and penetration up to limited depth by offensive integrated battle groups. The implication of limitation for the role of air power has escaped scrutiny. At best the argument has been that India’s greater air capability would dampen Pakistan’s escalatory instinct, knowing that it would come out worse from any engagement. A consequence of this lack of attention to limitation could well be an attempt to replicate ‘shock and awe’ from the use of air power over the Balkans and in Operation Enduring Freedom. Doing so may militate against the political intent. What then requires minding? Firstly, possibly nuclear targets need being avoided. The lists exchanged of nuclear installations on the first of every year as per the agreement, is a fair start point.
Pakistan’s nuclear capability is known to have been spread around to a minimum of ten locations across the country. It is best that these be accurately appreciated and struck off targeting lists. There is no need to place Pakistan in a ‘use them or lose them’ position. The signal from such self-restraint is for Pakistani reciprocation. Secondly, Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, though not signed up to by India, is a useful guide in terms of balancing military necessity with humanitarian concerns. That this is not to the fore in air power use is evident from the report on an air power demonstration in Pokhran mentioning that one of the roles displayed was the destruction of a dam from the air. This is a replay of Dam Busters from World War II. While air power theorists have elevated destruction of civilian infrastructure to a fine art in the two Iraq Wars, it bears reminding that the political consequence of the war in Iraq is still unfolding.
Thirdly, lessons from the use of air power in recent conflicts need to be approached with caution. The asymmetry that currently exists between India and Pakistan is liable to be evened by reliance on Saudi transferred platforms to Pakistan. Arguments for ‘air alone’ or ‘air predominant’ operations are suspect in a continental setting. With a large proportion of fighting likely to be done in mountains or build up areas, it is the land warrior who would hold sway. Air power would require reconciling with a supportive role. Lastly, the argument that air power could cause attrition on enemy reserves while land forces are poised outside the perceived nuclear threshold has shortcomings. A disadvantaged enemy is not likely to wait for air to do its worst. Being an Army dominant military, Pakistan will take the battle into India’s land forces.
Thus, even if the original intent was for limited depth operations, this intent would be upset by air operations goading an escalatory response by Pakistan. Even if militarily this can be met, what it implies politically is of greater consequence. In light of these Limited War imperatives, air power theorists must revise their arguments.
—Col Ali Ahmed(Retd) is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi