After the attack on Parliament in 2001, it was clear to all right thinking members of the strategic community that the most likely scenario for conflict in South Asia would be that of punitive retaliation after a Pakistan terror strike. In 2001, the prime minister and the chiefs of the three services discussed what could be done. The PM wanted a swift, surgical and punitive action whereas the chiefs were offering a war of attrition. None of the three services offered what the PM wanted because either they did not have the intelligence, or the hardware, or the training or a concept. The situation actually called for a surgical strike by special forces to be launched across the border in specially equipped low-flying, night-flying helicopters, of which we had none at the time.
It is assumed that the chiefs would have gone back shamefaced and addressed this lacuna immediately. But seven years later came the Mumbai horror and the then PM and the chiefs had the same kind of conversation they had had in 2001. The PM asking for options for punitive retaliation and the chiefs offered none, for the same reasons as in 2001. If it wasn’t clear in 2001, it should have been clear in 2008, that a war arising out of punitive retaliation would be the most likely scenario for conflict in South Asia and that the three services should prepare single-mindedly for that scenario. Incredible though it seems, nothing was done towards preparing for that scenario. Then came Pathankot and now Uri.
None of the three services have worked towards a punitive retaliation strategy using special forces in a cross-border raid of the kind that eliminated Osama bin Laden. The reasons in 2001 and 2016 are the same. No helicopters, no integration, no intelligence, no training and no operational concept. A special force raid will probably result in escalation, but the onus for escalation will rest on Pakistanis. The same applies to an air force precision strike towards which the IAF has put in no effort since 2001. The army has 10 battalions of para-commandos — and many of them are special forces — but have no helicopters with low night-flying capability, though these are available off the shelf in western markets.
The lacuna was attempted to be redressed by creating a CDS and putting a Special Operation Command (SOC) under him consisting of special forces, RAW and helicopters with analysis units. But the proposal has been hanging fire with the defence minister ever since he took over. Much money has been spent on hardware by all the services between 2001 and 2016. So it isn’t the shortage of money that has prevented the three services from setting up a punitive retaliation capability. A special operation command would cost under Rs 1,000 crore and it is a national requirement, so why should a service shy away from opening its purse strings?
So after Uri, we had politicians issuing aggressive warnings and service chiefs talking of retaliation in a time of “our own choosing”. Hot pursuit is an internationally recognised concept; retaliation in a time of our own choosing is not. This is one occasion when a knee-jerk reaction was called for and we should have been ready, considering that Pakistan has an avowed strategy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts.
Ideally, the special forces of the army and the night flying helos of the air-force (if they have any) should be integrated into one command and be pre-trained on a number of possible missions in peacetime to conduct raids during the dark hours. Similarly, Marcos of the Navy should be tasked off the coast of Balochistan to help the local resistance movement with intelligence driven surgical strikes. All this should be practiced in peacetime so that a knee-jerk reaction is possible when the opportunity offers itself, like now.
A certain amount of hardware updating like individual night vision glasses, throat mikes and weapons would be necessary. Foreign assistance for training should be taken from the US or Israel so that we don’t simply flaunt our special forces when they have no operational capability. Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar are flaunting their actions in Pakistan and they will act in the same manner again, but let us be prepared. Escalation is something we are ready for but Pakistan, with its weaker conventional strength, is not. By carrying out a precision strike we leave it to the Pakistanis to choose escalation, which, “gaming” has shown, they will not resort to. But there is no gaming in India although the South Asia scenario has been repeatedly gamed abroad and there is a much clearer idea of outcomes outside the establishment than inside it. If the services are waiting for a directive to prepare for punitive retaliation then give them one, but there are enough experts in each service to advise the chiefs where to put the money, and embark without further delay on creating the requisite capability. Without this the hollow threats that are being issued will once again fizzle out.