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Can India pull off a covert strike?

delhi Updated: May 06, 2011 19:48 IST
Rahul Singh

The option of India launching covert military strikes inside Pakistani territory has taken centre stage, with two serving chiefs declaring that the Indian military had the capabilities to carry out a US style commando raid and Islamabad warning of dire consequences.

Pakistan on Thursday cautioned against such a “misadventure”, saying it would result in a “catastrophe”.

In the aftermath of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, New Delhi had struck down an air force proposal to bomb terror hideouts inside Pakistani territory.

The belief of military commanders that India can emulate the success of the bin Laden mission is not far fetched. The gumption stems from the fact that India’s special forces rank among the most professional and respected fighting units in the world.

But that’s not enough if India has to mount its own 'Geronimo', the codename for the US mission to capture or kill bin Laden, security experts point out, amid a growing clamour for bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice.

The pieces of the jigsaw will fall into place only if there is sufficient consensus within the political system for developing such capability and fixing rules for its use. The need for real time intelligence is equally critical, as the success of clandestine operations depends on far more than merely military ability.

“The biggest question is that of political resolve”, said former air force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, who favoured surgical strikes in the aftermath of Mumbai.

“Our special forces are trained to carry out surgical strike operations and deploy deep behind enemy lines. But technical and human intelligence has to be flawless. Intelligence gathering has improved, but we aren’t there yet,” said Major.

Army chief Gen VK Singh and IAF chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik asserted this week, that India had the capabilities to mount covert operations, if asked to do so.

Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Bashir reacted by charging the Indian establishment and armed forces with trying to subvert Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s peace agenda.

Experts, however, pointed to pitfalls of military machismo. The consequences of Pakistan being a nuclear armed state, which advocates first use, have to be weighed in before launching an operation.

“Pakistani deterrence revolves around first use. A covert assault by India could have disastrous consequences. Moreover, we do not have a joint special operations command, like the US to coordinate such a strike,” said a former top official of India’s spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Israel, the acknowledged master of targeted ops, has no nuclear armed opponents, partly because it keeps destroying nuclear facilities of its enemies.

As borne out by Operation Geronimo, covert operations are no instant coffee. Developing capacity and chasing down targets will and can take years on end, experts said.

Former army chief Gen VP Malik said, “Our men are as good as the US Navy SEALs. But unlike the Americans, we may not be able to mark out a hiding place and keep it under surveillance for years.”

A senior Israeli security official in India a few years back, was asked what was needed to mimic his country’s success in targeted operations.

He replied, “It all boils down to political will. If you send soldiers to hunt down one man, they must know that they will be supported by their government irrespective if elections happen, prime ministers change. If that isn’t there, then it can never happen.”

Top US military commanders have, meanwhile, proposed more Abbottabad like strikes to hunt down top terrorists including chiefs of the Taliban and Haqqani network.

Why India could carry out targeted ops

1. It has Special Forces and a large military who are considered among the most professional in the world. Indian Special Forces have beaten their counterparts from other countries in competitions.

2. India lives in a tough neighbourhood. It needs to be able to punish countries or attack non-state actors at a threshold below full-scale war. One reason it gets hit by terrorists is that they know there will never be a military response.

3. India is now close to countries like Israel who specialize in such attacks. India is the largest buyer of Israeli arms. It should consider importing Israel’s know-how in this field as well.

Why India cannot carry out targeted ops

1. India’s main two security threats are Pakistan and China. Both are nuclear-armed countries. A targeted operation could lead to military escalation and push the region into an atomic crisis. No country with nuclear weapons has been hit by targeted ops.

2. It would require a complete, decade-long revamp of India’s military, intelligence and political decision-making system to get targeted ops capacity. This is an enormous task and given the country’s many other pressing domestic problems probably best not undertaken.

3. India is positioning itself as a responsible rising power. Pakistan can afford to support terror strikes because it has no such ambition. The US is a country that is an established power. India needs to carve out a place for itself before it can afford to take military gambles.