There is an old Punjabi adage “Kehna Tei Noh tay sunana Noh Nou”. This adage best describes Indo-Pak nuclear signaling in a nutshell. Other important points to keep in mind are the timing and the target audience. Keep these points in mind when analysing Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa’s statement that the Indian Air Force has the ability to locate, fix and strike nuclear targets inside Pakistan, adding that the IAF has the capability to carry out a full-spectrum offensive at a short notice to counter any threat to India and can sustain operational vigilance for an extended period of time.
What prompted the IAF chief to issue that statement? What is the context of the statement? Was he just claiming that the IAF has the capability to conduct strikes inside Pakistan including nuclear sites or was he hinting at the existence of operational plans to strike Pakistani nuclear targets? What exactly would New Delhi achieve with such an attack? Above all, does the Indian military have the capability to successfully conduct such an attack(s)?
The timing of the statement indicates that the Indian Air Chief was aiming at multiple audiences. For Islamabad, it was a clear nuclear signal. For the Indian defence and security establishment, it was an assurance and a much-needed morale booster in the wake of the recently-concluded Pakistan-China Shaheen IV joint military exercise in which, among other manoeuvres, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted successful joint sorties involving Su-27s and Su-30s. Another target was the Indian Ministry of Finance, which is currently finalising, various budgetary proposals to be placed before the Parliament in January 2018.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif responding to this stated, in case of an Indian strike on Pakistan’s nuclear installations, nobody should expect restraint from us. Islamabad viewed the statement as another manifestation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ill-designs towards Pakistan and as a continuation of Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement acknowledging the existence of cold start and that the Indian Army is ready to strike inside Pakistan.
Militarily speaking, despite the over-confidence demonstrated by New Delhi in its military capabilities, it is not clear how it can be translated into action. After the nuclearization of India and Pakistan, New Delhi started discussions on a limited war under the nuclear umbrella, but it was Islamabad that tested it in Kargil. During the 2002 standoff, New Delhi realised the flaws in its military doctrine and, despite twice planning to attack Pakistan, it could not do so due to uncertainty about the likely Pakistani response.
This gave birth to the “Cold Start” doctrine. Islamabad responded by introducing tactical nuclear weapons. Nasr is the Pakistani response to the Indian Cold Start. It might be a destabilising factor for Indo-Pak strategic stability, yet it made Cold Start a very risky proposition. In the last few months, however, New Delhi has decided to up the ante. That is the context and background of Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s statement. It is highly unlikely that the Indian military can successfully conduct such a co-ordinated attack on Pakistan. Neither the required element of surprise nor the required numbers are available to India. The terrain is also unfavourable for advancing Indian forces and would be a major hurdle for the Indian military attempting multiple incursions into Pakistani territory. Another important factor is the response of the international community. The standoff of 2002 and the Mumbai terror attacks are cases in point.
The situation of the Indian Air Force is equally problematic that is facing major technical issues with its Su-30MKIs. Any future India-Pakistan conflict, especially before 2019 when the IAF will induct a batch of Rafale jets, would not be a one-sided one. PAF would be able to match the IAF with its F16s and JF-17s, not taking into account the two-frontal war that the Indian military claims to have the capability to fight. Also, does the IAF have more advanced surveillance capabilities than Western, NATO and US air forces? Which air force of these technologically advanced countries, involved in air combat in the last 30-odd years, could boost of having a capability to ‘acquire, engage and destroy all varieties of military targets in enemy countries’ that Indian strategic thinkers like Gurmeet Kanwal are claiming the IAF to have?
All in all, Dhanoa’s statement was aimed at the domestic audience and for boosting the morale of the IAF and the Indian public. That is not surprising to any one privy to the political culture of the wider Indian subcontinent. Yet it is also an indicator of fluctuations in the civil-military relationship in India. Islamabad for its part, responded in exactly the expected way in which nuclear signalling is traditionally done between New Delhi and Islamabad. In the Subcontinent, appearing weak is more dangerous than actually being weak, and that is the essence of Indo-Pak nuclear signalling.
n The writer is Senior Research Analyst, Institute of Regional Studies and associate professor, Iqra University, Islamabad. He is also associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (Sage). He is a former Benjamin Meaker professor, University of Bristol, UK, and visiting scholar at the India-South Asia Project at the Brookings Institution.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in FDI’s weekly Strategic Analysis.