How India and US Have Both Used Airstrikes For De-escalation
Both US & India have tried to stop Pakistan & Iran from using terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
Balakot air strikes enabled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a decisive electoral victory. The air strikes contained seeds of high risk escalation which the political leadership may not have understood. Additionally, the IAF to date has provided no credible evidence that the Jaish e Mohammad training base in Balakot was hit.
In an interview to The Hindustan Times on 11 February 2020, former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has said: ‘we hit the target with five stand-off weapons. The target hit information was delayed as weapons for video-recording the kill failed and the satellite pass as 8.30 am could not pick up much due to clouds. The first confirmation came through synthetic aperture camera…’
He added that only after the three Service Chiefs had confirmed they were prepared for escalation and all-out war did Prime Minister Modi give the go-ahead.
Escalation could have spun out of control due to need for secrecy. This was high risk the government took.
The Balakot strikes were a big gamble in escalation control at a time when prevention of high-stake military action—initiation or retaliation—from escalation is the new challenge.
India and US Have Limited Appetite for War
Recent air, drone, missile and commando strikes in the subcontinent and West Asia have demonstrated diminishing appetite for war. A military incident or skirmish has invariably led to de-escalation. Uri, Doklam, Balakot and the targeted assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani—whom President Trump called the father of the roadside bomb at yesterday’s press conference in New Delhi—showed marked preference for containment and de-fusion rather than confrontation and escalation.
Language and vocabulary employed following these incidents make clear that both the initiator and responder aimed at de-escalation.
Both US and India have tried to alter the behaviour of Pakistan and Iran making both states end their use of terrorism as instruments of state policy.
India’s Preemptive Strikes and Retaliation Aimed at Containment
In retaliation to acts of terrorism, neither India nor US has wanted escalation after they had initiated pre-emptive strikes or acted in anticipatory self defence – terminology used by India and US in its defence. Although India’s air attack at Balakot was retaliation for Pulwama suicide attack, it was presented as pre-emptive strike to ward off imminent terrorist attacks.
US drone strike on Soleimani was portrayed as revenge for earlier Iranian attacks on US interests and allies in the Gulf region as also to prevent future attacks. As India wanted no escalation, it stated upfront that air attacks targeted terrorist bases and that no further action was planned.
The read out was similar to pre-emptive attacks in 2016 against terrorist launch pads as reprisal for Uri. By completely denying Indian attacks, Pakistan absolved itself of any response.
But in response to Balakot where IAF struck for the first time inside Pakistan after the 1971 war, and not in PoK, a Pakistani retaliation was inevitable.
It came swiftly the next day when a package of 24 F16s crossed the LoC and dropped their payload in Nowshera in a void, not on Indian military installations to obviate escalation.
Indian fighter jets scrambled and in the dogfight, India claimed shooting down a F-16 while Pakistan shot down a MiG 21 Bison taking its pilot hostage. Content with retribution but intent on de-escalation, Pakistan agreed to return the pilot though under US pressure. Pakistan’s announcement of release of Indian pilot and New Delhi declaring there would be no response to the Nowshera foray hastened the process of de-escalation .
Airstrike Exchange Between US and Iran
Washington explained the drone strike that took out Soleimani as anticipatory self defence. In order to deter wider conflict and asymmetric retaliation by Iran, US counselled proportionate response even as Tehran put a bounty of US$80 million on Trump’s head. Foreign Minister Javed Zarif said: “US act of international terrorism targeting and assassinating Gen Soleimani is extremely dangerous and foolish escalation. US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei promised revenge which came through 12 precision-guided missile strikes against two US bases in Iraq which were programmed to cause no harm to US soldiers and assets (like Pakistan bombing in Nowshera) to minimise scope for escalation despite Trump’s high octane warnings for reprisals.
Retribution delivered, Zarif said: ‘action taken in self defence under Article 51 of UN charter has been concluded. We do not seek escalation or war.’
Like Pakistan’s retaliatory strikes after Balakot caused no harm to India, Iranian missile strikes were sanitised to avoid escalation. Trump chose to step back and imposed only additional sanctions on Iran.
Pakistan and Iran Exaggerated Claims of Damage Inflicted on the Enemy
For consumption of domestic audience, Pakistan Air Force claimed causing huge damage in Nowshera. Similarly, Iran fed its people the fake news that 80 US terrorists had been killed in revenge attacks. Neither US nor Iran targeted each other’s territory. US was deterred from escalation by threat of stepped up asymmetric Iranian response against more than 70,000 US troops in the region scattered over US bases in 10 allied countries.
While in India-Pakistan stand-off the nuclear bomb was a factor of deterrence , in the US-Iran fire fight it was not. Prime Minister Modi had questionably claimed during an election rally after Balakot that he had a couple of missiles ready for launch in case the Indian pilot was not released.
Responding to Action of Non-State Actors is Complicated
Although both the ground and air strikes launched across LoC/IB were in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Uri and Pulwama in J&K, New Delhi did not invoke Article 51 and right to self defence to retaliate but utilised principle of preemption to thwart imminent attacks in both cases.
Arguably between preemptive action and anticipatory self defence, the latter is more acceptable in international law. While US invoked anticipatory self defence in eliminating Soleimani, Iran used right of self defence in attacking US bases. The problem arises when responding to non-state actors—as India did in response to JeM attacks in Uri and Pulwama—terrorist launch pads/training bases in Pakistan were targeted. The UN Charter covers only armed attack by one state against another state under Article 51 self- defence provision. In the US- Iran case, US attacked a terrorist entity in a third country, Iraq; and Iran also responded in Iraq.
Whether it is IAF air strikes or US drone strikes, restraint and de-escalation exercised by the players prevented conflict from escalating though on Balakot some questions remain.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He is a former Maj Gen from the Gorkha Regiment of Indian Army, and was in Nepal in November/December 2019, and spoke to many Nepali experts on the Kalapani issue. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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