By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
A mere three days after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, two of India’s service chiefs made statements to the effect that India’s armed forces were both ‘competent’ and ‘had the capability’ to carry out a similar operation. This seems to be at variance with the facts and also ignores much deeper operational and doctrinal issues, added to the military’s seeming inability to grasp geopolitical reality.
Beginning with capability – photos of the crashed chopper from the Abbottabad compound indicate a heavily stealthy version of the Blackhawk, a version never seen before – and probably one that would have never been seen had it not crashed. That India could manufacture a covert-ops stealth helicopter, given that it is still struggling to indigenize the ostentatiously ‘indigenous’ Dhruv, stretches credibility to the limit. The live link to the White House which enabled the joint special operations command (JSOC) to give critical directions at critical turns is heavily dependent on advanced satellite communications facilities of which India has no demonstrated capability and is excluded from, due to the refusal to sign the communications interoperability agreement (CISMOA) with the US.
One also needs to remember that unlike the West, India has no significant heliborne combat rescue capability or experience – a prerequisite for covert insertions of this kind. Since after 1991, the West has successfully rescued every one of its downed pilots, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Contrast this with Kargil in 1999, where Indian aviators were downed owing to lack of counter-measures on their aircraft. In addition, those that did eject on the wrong side of the border did not have the training to evade capture nor the Air Force a credible extraction capability. Moreover the Mi-8/17’s (the backbone of India’s helicopter fleet) crudeness should be contrasted with the sophistication of Pakistan’s latest F-16 fighters mated to advanced air-to-air missiles and the Aspide surface to air missiles. The Mi-8 incidentally is the same machine that was shot down by 80s era Stinger missiles in Kargil, indicating that the Air Force had not factored it in as threat even a full decade later.
The creation of a joint chief of the armed forces was torpedoed by both the Navy and the Air Force fearing Army domination of any such institution – effectively ruling out any synergistic effort on the lines of JSOC. Political interference in military matters for its part has made a joke of operational secrecy. This was demonstrated during Kargil when Defence Minister Fernandez’ absolution of Nawaz Sharif was criticized, proved by the release of recorded conversations that blew the cover off one of India’s highest value intelligence assets – the surveillance system that had enabled these recordings of the deliberations of the Pakistan military to be made. The DRDO too is notorious for thoughtlessly trumpeting new weapons systems unmindful of the consequences, the latest being the Ballistic Missile Defence programme that drove Pakistan’s recent expansion of its nuclear arsenal. This is a heavy price to pay given that most DRDO programmes are proven failures. As for RAW evidently the Indian media is able to locate wanted fugitives with greater accuracy than a ‘professional’ organization as India Today’s exposé on Dawood Ibrahim’s hiding place in Karachi proved.
Geopolitically an operation like this would be a disaster since Pakistan could then justify shooting down Western planes claiming ignorance of their origin – crippling the latter’s targeted elimination operations in the FATA – a significant own goal the Americans would not take kindly to. Also one must remember that Pakistan’s eastern border is guarded by twenty strong divisions, all on high alert, while the western border merits a mere five weak divisions, trained to treat air incursions as both routine and authorized. While India may be able to launch some haphazard strike – whether it can militarily or diplomatically contain the fallout remains doubtful. The option of targeted assassinations has long existed – but raises questions as to why the military never presented it as an option before – settling instead for the dangerous delusion of ‘Cold Start’. In fact the drones that India could use for such an operation have high radar visibility optimized for Israeli operations where the opposition has no credible air defence as opposed to the Indian scenario where the opposition has mauled the Indian Air Force repeatedly.
Given that the then Army Chief’s lack of knowledge of ammunition stocks led to stalemate instead of victory in 1965, given that the Army initially tried to hush up Kargil, given that the official war histories of 1965 and 1971 are off-limits – even to those studying in the defence academy, given that ‘Cold Start’ is proving itself an unusable liability, given that the military takes decades to gauge and respond to new threats (if at all), the question begs asking – Is not the political leadership’s distrust of the military legitimate? One can only hope that the advice given to the Prime Minster in private is of better quality than the wild hyperbole fed to the public.
Research Intern, IPCS
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