The big picture after the Balakot airstrikes: Does the fate of F-16 matter?
In the recent India-Pakistan crisis, two major claims of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have been called into question. One, did the IAF hit the terrorist infrastructure in Balakot with precision on February 26? Two, did an Indian Mig-21 Bison shoot down a Pakistani F-16 in the skirmish that followed the next day? There have been a lot of claims and counterclaims, so there is no point revisiting the same debate. I aim to investigate how much the truth behind both claims matter in the bigger picture. Which one of the two claims is more important to the future of the deterrence equation in South Asia? And why?
Let’s begin with an answer. The claim of an F-16 kill is more important than the efficacy of Indian airstrikes in Balakot. The airstrikes in Balakot were about redrawing a line, which India did successfully. Till now, the Pakistani assumption had been that it can sponsor terrorist attacks on Indian soil with impunity because it could threaten the first use of nuclear weapons to prevent a conventional Indian response. If at all India would respond, its choices would be circumscribed by the threat of Pakistani nuclear weapons, especially the low-yield battlefield variants. One particular manifestation of this thinking was the perceived inviolability of the international border. India’s response, if any, would never go beyond Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, it was assumed. But with Balakot in Khyber Pankhtunkhwa — undisputed Pakistani territory — having been targeted, the conventional wisdom has been overturned and the Pakistan’s “full-spectrum deterrence” significantly dented.
The political objective of the Balakot operation was, therefore, met, even if we go by the theory that the IAF did not hit its targets. This was the reason why Pakistan hastily chose to respond with its own air force the next day in an attempt to restore deterrence. Pakistani air force chose to limit its operation to Kashmir, but it did manage to shoot down a Mig-21 Bison and capture its pilot. But more important, according to New Delhi’s own version, Pakistan targeted military installations as opposed to India striking non-military targets in Balakot. So this in itself represented an escalation from Pakistan. And here the truth about F-16 becomes important. If the IAF did indeed kill an F-16, the scorecard gets settled in India’s favour — an F-16 is a far bigger prize than a Mig-21 Bison. Pakistan’s escalation then actually backfired. However, if no F-16 went down, Pakistan actually managed to escalate and end the air skirmish in its favour.
This talk of a scorecard with 1-1 or 0-1 kill may sound a bit juvenile but is important once we factor in the political objective of the Balakot operation. Certainly, the idea was to reset the threshold for nuclear conflict by using air power to hit undisputed Pakistani territory. But the objective could not have been said to be successfully achieved if Pakistan managed to mount heavy damages on India on the next day. Therefore, the political objective had to be twofold: 1) expanding the space for conventional response after a terrorist attack by openly challenging the vague nuclear red lines; and 2) dominating the escalatory ladder thereafter. If the leadership in New Delhi decided not to escalate despite Pakistan escalating and capturing an IAF pilot, then clearly India is nowhere close to dominating the escalatory ladder.
The events of February 27, therefore, show that though the space for conventional warfare has expanded post-Balakot, that window is still limited. If the nuclear bluff had been entirely called — as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been claiming on the campaign trail — India could have brought to bear sufficient firepower in order to achieve an unambiguous victory. While India has established space for a first response to terrorist attacks, nuclear deterrence continues to play a role in subsequent rounds of combat. The Indian forces will have to figure out how to make the best use of this new conventional space to achieve maximum dominance over their Pakistani counterparts. The other area of improvement is communications — key to projecting advantage/victory in limited warfare.
A couple of US-based scholars have suggested that the failure to decisively win the February 27 dogfight is indicative of India’s lack of utility as America’s Indo-Pacific partner against China. Now, this is a quite a stretch. The US doesn’t want India to have an overwhelming advantage over Pakistan — it would complicate America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and would reduce its leverage over New Delhi. Moreover, it cannot be realistically expected that the US would have wanted the IAF to shoot down a few American-made F-16s at a time when Washington was itself counselling restraint, just because it would have proven India’s worth as a potent balancer to China. The IAF’s success against Pakistan would have hardly counted as a preparation for China. Equally, a setback in a minor skirmish under a nuclear shadow against Pakistan is no prophecy for doom on the China front. The US is too smart to start selling Indian stocks based on the results of the February 27 dogfight.