27 March 2019

Indian-Pakistani military duel - Tit for tat, MiG-21 against F-16

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

In Kashmir, the gunpowder to destroy the India-Pakistan relations is just to blow up.  India accuses, Pakistan denies.•The Indian Air Forces have attacked on the Pakistani territory. Pakistan responded with an air attack on the Indian territory. An Indian pilot was captured and freed after only two days in captivity. India promises to continue the surgical airstrikes.

Conflict`s sparking

On the Contact Line which divides, but also separates, Kashmir areas which are under Indian and Pakistani control, the fire can start any time, the gunpowder to destroy the communities relations being just about to blow up. As usual, the sparkle comes from a terrorist attack. Also as usual, it is started on the Indian side of the border. There is a pretty simple explanation: while the territory controlled by Pakistan is ethnically and religiously homogeneous, the Indian one is more varied, with more obvious domestic tensions. It is also the only Indian state to have its own flag, constitution, and the Indian laws are locally applied only if they are approved by their own parliament. The nationalist and religious agenda of the local groups are prevailing over other topics, but, when evolutions are becoming more dangerous, both capitals, Delhi and Islamabad, must react, because nothing remains at this level anymore. This is the standard action for a normal incident, when there are only few victims.

The 14th of February attack, from Pulwama, the Indian Kashmir, produced the highest number of victims in the last 30 years: 40 deaths and around 35 wounded.  They were all members of the Indian security personnel. The attack was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (Mohamed`s Army), a terrorist group from Pakistan which wants to“free not only Kashmir, but also the entire India. This cannot be seen only as an isolated incident, neither in Delhi, nor in Islamabad.

Reactions and counterattack preparations

India has announced state funerals, the families of those killed have received financial compensations ($17.000 each), and for the closest relatives, have offered governmental jobs. The taxes for products imported from Pakistan have increased with 200%, and Pakistan has received a final warning that it will be added to the black list of the states involved in illegal financial activities. There were recorded other incidents as well, the bilateral events were boycotted, the sports events in Pakistan were excluded from the Indian television broadcasts, the Pakistani actors were banned from Bollywood. Pakistanis banned also the broadcasting of Indian movies.

Politically speaking, India has accused and Pakistan has denied:“It is not in Pakistan`s interest to offer safe heaven for terrorists, stated the Pakistani prime-minister, Imran Khan. Actually, the terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, got banned in Pakistan since 2002. The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, sent his condolences immediately after the attack. But it was not enough.

Because a military counterattack was necessary as well. India`s wounded pride had to be nursed with a forceful action.

Air duel

Twelve days after the attack, on 26th of February, the Indian forces have attacked a training camp belonging to the terrorist group, placed on Pakistan`s territory. The Indian side has stated that they have annihilated hundreds of terrorists. The Pakistani side has denied the human loses and sued, with a juridical sarcasm, the attacker in court for “destruction of the ecological environment”.

Although the information regarding the number and the technical performances are contradictory, indeed both states have sent a varied aircraft arsenal to mission. India has used, probably, eight Russian fighters - MiG 21 (2) and Su MKI (4), and French Mirage 2000 (2). Pakistan has used 24 aircrafts, whereof only 16 have participated to operations, those French-based production- Dassault Mirage III (4), American - F 15 (8) and Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder (4).

Following the cricket games model, the people in both states have applauded their own successes across air duels. Long distance, the score seems equal, however, according to the official press releases and the biased public perception, each side can claim its victory.

Of course, an Indian pilot was captured in the Pakistani Kashmir, after the aircraft he was riding, a modernized MiG 21, it was hit by a missile. Before that, he had stroke, in his turn, one F-16. This was not, of course, recognized by the Pakistani side, which is accusing the Indian side for creating fake news in order to balance the fight with propaganda. In this type of armed incidents, that could be seen as preludes for much serious armed confrontations, but could end through some political armistices, there is always an zone between what is happening in the battlefield, what it is stated in the military communiques and what each part admits. Especially when the common objective is for the things not to escalate.

Both states have bombed targets from enemy`s territory. The military commanders have proved speed of reaction and decision. The political leaders have shown firmness and constraint. Firmness for the domestic public, constraint for the international plan. Press agencies have frozen their news releases for a few days. When two proud nuclear powers have a dispute which involves military force, evolutions can become extremely complicated.

The political rhetoric

Both prime-ministers, Narendra Modi, India`s nationalist leader, and Imran Khan, the pragmatic prime-minister, former great cricket champion and leader of Pakistan`s national team, had an important role in events` evolution. For prime-minister Modi, it is a difficult time, the parliamentary elections are a few months away, again unannounced, in April-May. As for prime-minister Khan, he is still in the period of grace of his first year since being in power, after the unexpected success of 25th of July 2018`s elections. The perspectives are different, and the one who enjoyed more freedom of movement in these circumstances was the Pakistani prime-minister, who acted with the firmness of a leader, in times of crisis, however with the constraint necessary to leave some space for situation`s détente.

The transfer of the Indian pilot, colonel Abhinandan Varthaman, captured after his aircraft was taken down, was quick and opportune. BBC is considering Khan`s diplomacy as a great cricket move (reverse swing), pointing out his sport history. Modi`s answer, who is in the middle of an electoral campaign, which he did not interrupted during these tense days, was one to fit the moment, taken by most of the Indian press as it follows: Pakistan conceded by giving the pilot in.

And this is how the crisis ended. None of the leaders seemed to have wanted its escalation.

Both countries have had, decades ago, their own Cuban crisis and did not want history to be repeated.

Old models, new perspectives and approaches in a conflict which lasts for decades

Each of the sides involved in the conflict is transferring towards the enemy the initial escalation of hostilities. This is how things always went when gunpowder and spirits fired at common border. Across previous confrontations, there could have been identified a series of models of actions, which were repeated this time also: air counterattacks over some insignificant targets, firefights over the contact line, threatening statement. However, there were always some new elements, not necessarily positive, which are connecting the current and future relations between both countries, in a different political, economic and security equation. 

Some of the new and old elements, as used in the last period and days:

  • after mutual strikes, the conflict is heading towards a low intensity confrontation, with firefights on both sides of the Kashmir border. Of course, with new victims added to conflicts tragical record;
  • the model of the classic terrorist attack has been repeated, as well as the Indian counterattack;
  •  a novelty was the surgical attack over the border, in the Pakistani territory, following the model used by other states which are under terrorist threat;
  •   Pakistan has denied the effectiveness of this attack, of course the existence of a terrorist camp as well, but it responded similarly, with an air attack on India`s territory;
  •  the first one took place during night, the counterattack during day, which was seen as an Islamabad defiance;
  •   the Indian side waited some time until the air counterattack, probably due to a slow identification process of the significant target, but also due to difficulties in managing the Indian military air force issues;
  •  as for the lack of information to prevent attack`s magnitude and sophistication (there were used hundreds of kg of explosive, different types, probably a whole human support system as well), there is no reference towards the local Indian intelligence and security structures;
  •  the choice of MiG 21 Russian aircrafts,  probably modernized, however inferior to those from the Pakistani air forces endowment, proved to be risky. It might have been also a signal sent to the Indian political environment to hurry the acquisition process of those more than 100 fifth generation aircrafts, as it comes out from the Documentary on the India-Pakistan force  relation, made by Defence and Security Monitor (https://monitorulapararii.ro/documentar-monitorul-apararii-si-securitatii-raportul-de-HYPERLINK "https://monitorulapararii.ro/documentar-monitorul-apararii-si-securitatii-raportul-de-forte-militare-dintre-india-si-pakistan-1-12681"forte-militare-dintre-india-si-pakistan-1-12681), exactly by the current chief of the Indian Military Air Force. But this is just an analyst`s assessment;
  • evolutions have revealed a Pakistan which is ready to fight back, but also capable to make acts of kindness;
  •   the Indian side has reacted slowly, but the decisional process is cumulative, even if prime-minister Modi called India`s air attack over the Pakistani territory a pilot project, which could be repeated in the future;
  •  Pakistani`s’ decisions seem more coherent on short-term, the military logic being uppermost, meanwhile India`s decisions were softer, in a rather political logic and, maybe, economical;
  •  the international reactions were in India`s favor. Even China has adopted an equidistant position in this triangle, wherein, otherwise, on a political and economic plan, it is closer to Pakistan;
  • economically speaking, the difference between these two states is increasing and it will be seen in the military aspects;
  • in this punctual conflict, Pakistan has acted with a force that placed its domestic issues on a second plan, meanwhile India has sent threats that, for now, cannot materialize in a similar conventional conflict. But time is on its side, as its economy has increased in the past five years, according to some media sources, with the equivalent of three Pakistani GDP`s;

It is up to the two countries` leaders not to restart this smoldering conflicts at the first sparkle which will, again, fire at the common border