Technology, Air Power, and Escalation

The more I interact with policy makers in Delhi, the more I grow convinced that a holistic appreciation of technology and its possibilities is lacking. Obviously the issue seems more relevant to arms vendors. For example during the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition vendors had expressed the view prior to selection that the Indian Air Force had no clue as to what they were looking for. Similarly Ashley Tellis in his report “Dogfight” for Carnegie had recommended against a spilt purchase precisely because of such confusion. In private interviews there was a uniform opinion that someone in air headquarters had been reading glossy magazines, circling “sexy” technologies, and had decided that they needed these.

The more insidious implication of this though is how it tends to force maximalist positions on the government – especially during periods of high tension.

A theory that I’ve been working on is that India (and this refers to both the military and the bureaucracy) views airpower as somehow being the most escalatory response possible, while boots on the ground are viewed as the least escalatory. For example the Air Force Act of India forbids the use of airpower within Indian territory as airpower was deemed too blunt an instrument. Similarly it is for this exact reason that during the 1962 confrontation with China India’s political leadership banned the leveraging of India’s local air superiority in the conflict zone. Even the military tended to overestimate the effects of airpower deployment. For example during the Kargil conflict, the air-force refused to deploy assets without political clearance. This theory has been buttressed in my interactions with bureaucrats and military – both serving and retired.

This view is rooted in WW2 thinking and experience and prior to the advent of smart weapons. A platoon of soldiers would restrict fighting to a set battle space as opposed to strafing or carpet bombing which were seldom precise. The obvious example here was the horrific “all collateral” strategies employed against Japan and Germany.

This obsolete understanding of military power had produced deeply destabilising and dangerous doctrines like the Sundarji doctrine and cold start which are maximalist in the extreme, which do not exploit the precision, gradability or flexibility of modern airpower.

Thus far it has not been Indian “forbearance” that has prevented war in the sub-continent, but rather the Indian military’s inability to come up with a set of graded responses and consequently the Indian political leadership’s unwillingness to accept the “Yamamoto answer” (I guarantee victory for x period but no further) since they want to be able to calibrate the response.  Given that the civilian leadership have always been deeply distrustful of the military, to expect them to hand over escalation control at times of crises to generals is unrealistic. It is for that exact reason that India’s massive retaliation doctrine is aimed as much against the Indian military as it is against Pakistan – designed to keep tactical devices out of military control. The down side is that it renders the Indian deterrent both unusable, and incredible.

However what is to say that a future gung-ho political leadership won’t give the green light to such unwise options? This begs the fundamental question – What constitutes escalation? For example if India attempted anything remotely close to NATO’s recent air campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Libya, the result would be outright war.

Escalation in the South Asian context, is according to me, based on three assumptions

1)      Scale of the attack

2)      Plausible deniability

3)      Relative invulnerability at the same level

Applying this theory to a recent event – say Mumbai 26/11 a) busts most assumptions and b) I believe proves my theory. (It works equally well with the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament)

26/11 saw a handful of terrorists arrive from Pakistan and wreak havoc on Mumbai. First Indian myth busted – boots on the ground are not escalatory – since this attack led to a period of high tension that needed significant external intervention to diffuse. However while the scale of the attack was minimal for Pakistan, it was significant for India. The mitigating factor was plausible deniability, which gave Pakistan some room for manoeuvre, and certainly gave external powers significant arguments to calm down tensions. Adding to this situation was that Pakistan was relatively invulnerable to a similar Indian attack : India due to its traumatic blowbacks from supporting terror in Punjab and Sri Lanka that claimed the lives of two Indian prime ministers is now loathe to use proxies.

Now if we transpose this theory to Pakistan’s western borders we see quite the reverse – especially with regards to drone strikes. Second Indian myth busted – Airpower is highly escalatory. First – these drone strikes are too “low signature” to merit retaliation and hence escalation. Second – given that the targets (though often not the victims) are terrorists, plausible deniability forces Pakistan to prevent any serious investigation of who exactly was killed and effectively denies it casus belli. Equally the imperative of plausible deniability vis-à-vis Pakistani popular outrage, sidesteps investigation into its own ineffectiveness and unwillingness in shooting down these drones.  Third – NATO is relatively invulnerable in the same spectrum as most retaliatory options at Pakistan’s disposal would constitute significant escalation.

To end I’d like to caveat that this is not an advertisement for selling armed drones to India. Far from it if history serves as an example – such covert instruments have been used callously and illegally by the Indian government. Notice the hundreds of Indian citizens who simply “disappear” every year and the impunity with which government agencies carry out these disappearing acts. This is merely to examine one aspect of many that drives India to maximalist and honestly “foolish” responses. Also that some of the examples have been simplified – this has not been done to deny complex multi-causality – but rather to keep the narrative focussed.


Posted in , Air Power, Defence, Doctrine, Drones, Escalation Control, India, Pakistan, Security, Technology, Theory

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

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2 thoughts on “Technology, Air Power, and Escalation

  1. India is a pacifist country that does not like to use weapons unless it absolutely needs to, does not mean weapons are for show. A strong human or nation does not need to flex and show its muscles, that is the refuge of a weak mind.
    Air Power is a potent weapon best kept in wrap. I am glad that the Air Force Act does not permit the use of Air Power within the country. No Democracy unlike a Dictatorship or Monarchy can allow it since the people who elect a Government cannot be bombed.
    It is news to me that terror was used in Punjab — do you mean the flushing out of terrorists from the Golden temple ? As an ordinary citizen I visited the Golden Temple just a week after Operation Bluestar, very happy that the sanctity of this wonderful place of worship was restored.
    You have made too many sweeping statements without sources and proof, thereby lacking in credibility. Do you seriously believe that hundreds of Indian citizens disappear every year ? The top most Cops in Gujarat are in jail for killing two criminals in a staged encounter and you believe people can disappear. They must be running away from their wives or debts, not disappearing like you would like us to believe.
    It took me thirty years to travel in buses and trains across all the twenty eight states that form the Indian Union to get a very faint idea about what is India and the values dear to the people. I am no expert but I wish those who write about India would spend greater time in study and less in writing.

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