Driven by its colossal economic might and its diplomatic footprint, India has been projecting its hegemony in South Asia. With Indian aggression on the rise in the region, Pakistan has always maintained deterrence stability. It has been three years since the Indian provocation in Balakot, where it claimed of allegedly targeting Jaish e Muhammad (JeM)’s training camps. The Indian hostile adventure of launching airstrikes on Pakistani soil was politically driven by the ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the far-right Hindutva ideology. India had launched the Pulwama episode, followed by the strikes in Balakot in a bid to appease the Western partners for foreign aid, to divert the public attention from the poor performance of the government, and to have support for the impending elections.
Balakot Operation codenamed “Operation Bandar” was launched on February 26, 2019. Indian jets violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and allegedly claimed that they had bombed a terrorist compound with 300 terrorists. It was an operation that comprised of twelve planes loaded with Israeli SPICE 2000 bombs that are air-to-surface guided weapons system. Balakot Operation highlighted India’s heightened degree of its willingness to initiate a crisis with Pakistan despite its military planners failing to manage its doctrine of offensive deterrence.
The next morning, on February 27, 2019, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was caught by surprise by Pakistan Air Force (PAF), when the latter launched a counter strike named “Operation Swift Retort” which was wisely coordinated to avoid any collateral damage. The Indian claims of establishing a “new normal” went missing in a broad daylight. The Indian air defence system, based on the Base Air Defence Zones (BADZ) and Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES), was unable to detect or target the PAF jets, thus rendering the IAF’s operational readiness and combat preparedness ineffective. The PAF launched retaliatory air strikes on India’s sensitive military targets, demonstrating PAF’s resolve and ability to deter the aggressor and keep the crisis below the threshold. PAF succeeded in bringing down two IAF fighter jets; Mig-21 and SU-30 MKI and capturing alive a pilot of Mig-21, who was later returned as a gesture of goodwill and a face-saving for India to avoid going up the escalation ladder.
For India, Operation Swift Retort caused humiliation and a serious blow to the perceived effectiveness of India’s conventional superiority. It exposed the Indian military’s operational inefficacy on the battlefield, planning, communication and coordination and training. Shooting down its own fighter jet when the IAF was on high alert, exposed the weaknesses and unpreparedness of India’s Command and Control System and the failure of its defence system during a crisis. Prime Minister Modi’s statement of “the country has felt the shortage of Rafale”, remains a testimony of the limitation of the IAF. Moreover, the Balakot crisis revealed a credibility gap between the IAF’s capabilities. Despite the losses that IAF was incurred upon, the Indian side refrained from giving up on its war-mongering posture. It was stated by IAF Air Chief Marshall RKS Bhadauria that “India now has an edge in its ability on both the Western and Northern fronts to react fast, respond fast and hit fast” and that “induction of Rafale jets has helped in bringing the “next level” of operational transformation”.
Three years have passed since the Indian hostile misadventure and PAF’s Swift Retort – a major loss of face for India. Operation Swift retort indicates PAF’s combat preparedness, effective communication, calculated planning, and qualitative training. The events of February 2019, demonstrated that Pakistan’s Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) remains intact. PAF’s prompt, mature and rational response was intended to deter the aggressor and retain the nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, Pakistan’s response was very calibrated in its exercise of full escalation control and dominance over India. Despite the Indian desire of dominating the escalation ladder for re-establishing the power equilibrium, it was deterred due to PAF’s operational preparedness. The Indian aggression in Balakot marked an abnormal act of breaching the sovereignty of Pakistan and terming it as a new normal. India’s attempt to establish the so-called new normal by carrying out a limited war with Pakistan took a nosedive when the PAF conducted a proportionate retaliation. Operation Swift Retort presents an encouraging factor that Pakistan managed to prevent the Indian aggression by upholding its conventional capability, without straining its nuclear strategy.
The Indian false claims of calling Balakot strike a pre-emptive action reflects the bolstering of strategic thinking in Indian politico-military thinkers to engage in a conflict under the nuclear threshold with Pakistan, which can lead to a full-blown escalation. Pakistan’s proportionate response during the 2019 crisis, reasserted the efficacy of its conventional deterrence. The retaliatory strike by the PAF indicated Pakistan’s escalation management capability and rejection of the Indian false sense of superiority. So, it can be rightfully stated that Pakistan’s Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) has proven its efficacy in the Balakot crisis.
Despite Pakistan’s repeated overtures for peace, India’s offensive postures signal the risk of an accidental escalation or a misadventure-led miscalculation that may spark a more serious conflict between the two nuclear-armed states Pakistan and India. Prospects for India to launch a false flag operation and a two-front war with Pakistan and China to acquire political, diplomatic, and military support from its allies, increases the vulnerabilities for the strategic stability of South Asia. The prevalent security environment of the region remains in a state of flux. The Balakot crisis indicates that any Indian misadventure in the future can increase the chances of vertical escalation in the region. However, Operation Swift Retort suggests that Pakistan Air Force is ready to give a timely and befitting response to the Indian aggression.