In the aftermath of Pulwama terror attack, one specific portion of Saturday’s firepower demonstration by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the deserts of Rajasthan was telling — the demonstration of its capability to accurately target convoy vehicles.
“It’s a hint that we can locate, fix and then destroy tactical targets, in this case represented by a tactical ballistic missile,” said a top IAF official, without mentioning that Pakistan had test-fired the 70-km range surface-to-surface ballistic missile Nasr on January 31.
Even though the firepower demonstration titled ‘Vayu Shakti’ was planned weeks before the Pulwama terror attack, the security establishment sees it as a means of sending a signal to Pakistan while also assuring the political leadership that certain options exist. But these come with their own set of risks, which top government officials are aware of because of their discussions before the surgical strikes.
“The IAF as an option is always on the table, for it is much safer. It was there even during the surgical strikes. But Army was chosen then. This time, we have very limited options for the Army. And this demonstration has come at the right time for IAF to make its case,” official sources said.
“Saturday’s demonstration was about hitting fast, hitting hard with precision, in day and night, under all weather conditions. If clouds obscure the target and lasing is not possible, then we can hit the targets with Navigation Bombing mode. We can locate metallic targets like Nasr convoy through our synthetic aperture radar in our Su 30, LCA Tejas and Jaguars,” a top IAF official told The Indian Express.
But the use of IAF against Pakistan raises questions too — the ramifications of crossing the LoC or the IB and the question of collateral damage caused by an air strike which could lead to civilian deaths.
“The real question is of identifying the targets that we want the IAF to hit. The targets will have to be terrorist targets and not military ones. When it comes to high-value terrorist targets, most of them are either in Muzaffarabad in PoK in dense civilian areas or in areas close to PoK’s border with Pakistan,” an official source said.
IAF sources contend that the question of crossing the LoC or IB is redundant as it can fire its precision weapons from a long stand-off distance, i.e. while flying within own borders. The use of precision weapons also reduces the risk of collateral damage, if the target has been correctly identified and located, said IAF sources.
“During planning for Surgical Strikes, one of the IAF options that was considered was of using the drones it has to target enemy radars during war. These drones, we were told, dive down on specific targets and destroy them. But they are meant for very limited destruction of open targets. Can they destroy an RCC bunker or more than one building harbouring terrorists? Those factors will be held against their use even now,” said the official source.
As for another surgical strike, the element of surprise has been lost and options are further constrained, sources said, because of heavy snowfall in many areas around the LoC.
Also, as per military sources, Pakistan Army has enhanced its security posture to highest alert in areas on the LoC which are not snow-bound, including in Rajauri.
Sources said the government will need to build a diplomatic case before taking any decision. With Saudi Prince visiting Pakistan and India soon, that brings its own set of issues, sources said, adding that Saudi Arabia has also condemned the attack.