Drone arms drop: A new security threat emerges on India’s western border | Opinion

Pakistan’s drone drop reflects inimical intent and enhanced capability. Our offensive defence must continue
The insane proliferation of drones has worried security establishments across the world(Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO)
The insane proliferation of drones has worried security establishments across the world(Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Oct 08, 2019 06:52 AM IST
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ByManmohan Bahadur

The media discourse over the past fortnight has been all about the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting. Lost in it was the significant news about the use of drones by Pakistan-based entities to airdrop arms and ammunition in Punjab. Pakistan-based Khalistanis have always planned to resurrect themselves. But what they lacked was an effective capability to arm their sympathisers in Punjab, and/or be a conduit for transfer of weaponry to terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where supplies are choked due the security clampdown in the Valley. Be that as it may, a new security threat has opened up on our western border.

In the field of national security, a confluence of a nation’s intent and capability results in action. While the intent is governed mainly by politico-economic factors, the availability of new technology becomes a catalyst in implementing the State’s intent through enhanced capability. The drone drop is evidence of the confluence of inimical intent and enhanced capability, and is actually an invasive action against India. It should be read as a statement of offensive intent, akin to the message the Indian Airforce strikes on Balakot terrorist camps sent.

Balakot changed the rules of the Indo-Pak dialogue, not just vis-à-vis J&K but on the wider canvas of inter-State relations. India upped the ante and signalled that there was a change in the way New Delhi would approach matters of security. The narrative until then had been one of strategic restraint, but Balakot conveyed that, hereafter, it would be offensive defence.

The strategy of offensive defence has generally been associated with the strategic culture of China. Andrew Scobell, a professor in the US Army War College, in a landmark 2002 study, brought out that Chinese officials “.. broadly define defence as virtually anything, including a pre-emptive strike”. It was prominent in China’s 1998 White Paper, where Deng Xiaoping was quoted as saying: “active defence is not merely defence per se, but includes defensive offensives. Active defence includes our going out, so that if we are attacked we will certainly counter attack.”

The 2019 Chinese White Paper re-emphasises that “the military strategic guideline for a new era adheres to the principles of defence, self-defence and post-strike response, and adopts active defence”. It keeps to the stance that “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counter-attack if attacked”.

India neglected this approach of China to its disadvantage in 1962, but has been resolute ever since vis-à-vis its northern neighbour — as seen in numerous border stand-offs, the last one being at Doklam. The same had not been so vis-à-vis Pakistan till Balakot happened. Can the drone drops result in a response in the category of offensive defence?

The Indo-Pak narrative has always been led by Pakistan, with India reacting to events. This has been so right from the 1947-48 war, the 1965 and 1971 conflicts, and the last big skirmish at Kargil. In between, from the end-1980s, the Pakistani methodology changed to retaining the initiative via sub-conventional means. Till Kargil, it tried to blunt India’s conventional advantage by attempting to lower the nuclear threshold, unsuccessfully. Balakot was the final proof that it has failed.

Nobody is buying the nuclear bogey raised again at the UNGA by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and hence the only option for Pakistan would be to keep the sub-conventional pot simmering. It is in this context that the gravity of the drone arms drop in Punjab needs to be seen. With India’s new normal of offensive defence, the Indian military could well be authorised to take pre-emptive action against an imminent drone launch from across the international border in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This would raise political temperatures in Pakistan, with the public demanding a response, and this cycle could easily get out of hand. So, the ball is squarely in Islamabad’s court, and the leadership there will have to decide whether it should risk such a turn of events.

The almost insane proliferation of drones in the open market has added to the woes of the security establishment of every country. While its use as an “errand boy” in operations other than war is noteworthy, the misuse of the capability it brings to bad guys can have enervating effects on a nation’s security. India can afford to take it easy on the drone drops in Punjab at its own peril. New Delhi must not leave any element of doubt in its approach to this serious development on its western front.

Air Vice Marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur is additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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