Pakistan Promises Retaliation, Makes Nuclear Threats After Indian Jets Bomb Its Territory

Pakistan has downplayed the strikes and denied they destroyed a major terrorist camp, but some form of military response seems increasingly likely.

Indian Air Force

The past 14 hours or so have been particularly tense in South Asia after India launched the first air strike on Pakistani territory in nearly five decades. Pakistan has now vowed to retaliate, while also threatening the potential use of nuclear weapons, and there are already reports of clashes along the Line of Control that divides the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, raising concerns about a larger potential conflict between the two nuclear-armed countries.

There are still many conflicting and otherwise unconfirmed details about the Indian operation, but what is clear is that Indian Air Force Mirage 2000s crossed the Line of Control and subsequently struck targets near Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region in the early hours of Feb. 26, 2019 local time. This is the first time that India's aircraft have publicly entered Pakistani airspace on a combat mission since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

India says that strikes destroyed a camp belonging to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for a deadly vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on Indian troops in Jammu and Kashmir on Feb. 14, 2019. Indian media and politicians have already nicknamed the mission "Surgical Strike 2," a reference to a cross-border ground raid across the Line of Control in 2016, which was also aimed at neutralizing terrorist camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. 

Google Earth

A map showing Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, at left, and the Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir, at right. Some initial reports suggested that the Indian strikes might have occurred in the similarly named Balo Kote in Poonch, but this does not appear to have been the case. The dotted line that snakes above the "Jammu and Kashmir" title on the map effectively marks the Line of Control between Indian and Pakistani forces.

Though Indian authorities say they are still assessing the results, the operation resulted in the deaths of a significant number of "terrorists, trainers, senior commanders," and a group of individuals who were preparing for new attacks in India, according to an official statement from India's Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale on Feb. 26, 2019. India also claimed that the camp near Balokot was under the command of Maulana Yousaf Azhar, brother-in-law of Masood Azhar, who is head of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

India has described the strikes as "pre-emptive" rather than defensive, but said that they were limited to "non-military" targets, meaning that they were targeted non-state actors rather than Pakistani forces. Indian authorities have blamed Pakistan for persistently refusing to even acknowledge that terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed use the country's territory to launch attacks.

"I want to assure you that the country is in safe hands," India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a rally later on Feb. 26, 2019. "I vow that I will not let the country bow down."

The exact size and scope of the operation remain unclear. Indian media reports, citing anonymous sources, say that as many as a dozen Mirage 2000s took part in the mission. One of the country's EMB-145 Netra airborne early warning and control aircraft, an Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tanker, and at least one Israeli-made Heron drone were also reportedly involved.

Initial stories suggested that the aircraft had employed laser-guided bombs, but this conflicted with official Pakistani statements that the aircraft had only flown between three and four miles into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, dozens of miles to the east of Balakot, before turning back. The planes would have had to have been close to their targets to have employed this type of precision-guided munition.

India's NDTV subsequently reported that the Indian jets had employed Israeli-made Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective (SPICE) standoff glide bombs. Though this is still unconfirmed, it would make sense since the plan would have allowed the aircraft to strike their targets without spending any time in undisputed Pakistani airspace. This tactic would have also reduced the risks to the Mirage 2000s from Pakistani air defenses or aircraft scrambling to intercept them.

There may have also been up to five strikes on additional targets, including camps belonging to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the spectacular 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and Hizbul Mujahideen, which is fighting for an independent, Islamic Kashmiri state. But the Indian government has not officially stated that it conducted these other strikes.

So far, the operation has reportedly been a major boon for Prime Minister Modi's approval rating. Modi, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, are facing significant political challenges ahead of a general election that will occur between April and May 2019.

For it's part, Pakistan has primarily chosen a strategy of denying and minimizing the strikes, claiming that the Pakistani Air Force chased away the Indian jets and that there were no casualties or significant damage to targets in Balakot. Reports from local villagers said that the Indian aircraft did appear to target a madrasa, or Islamic religious school, that Jaish-e-Mohammed runs in the area, but missed, wounding only a single individual. Those same reports, however, said that these individuals were hesitant to talk more about the terrorists.

In a press conference on Feb. 26, 2019, a Pakistani military spokesperson invited the Indian press to come to the area and see for themselves that the strikes had had no meaningful impact. This response is very similar to Pakistan's reaction to the cross-border raid in 2016. 

However, in that case, the entirety of the action was limited to Jammu and Kashmir, the status of which has been in dispute for more than a half century. Balakot is inside Pakistan proper, which could make it difficult, if not impossible for the Pakistani government to avoid feeling compelled to retaliate. That India was able to strike deep in Pakistani territory with apparent impunity could only further drive demands for a more forceful response.

"We will respond and we will surprise you," the Pakistani military spokesperson, addressing India directly, added at the press conference in the aftermath of the Indian strikes. That "response will come at a point and time of our choosing."

Pakistan has publicly announced that there will be a meeting of the country's National Command Authority (NCA) on Feb. 27, 2019. This high-level, joint command oversees Pakistan's strategic components, most notably the country's nuclear arsenal. 

The disclosure of the NCA meeting was clearly meant to be a threat of nuclear retaliation. "I hope you know what that means," the Pakistani spokesperson said. They also declared that Pakistan would "dominate escalation ladder." 

It seems unlikely that this incident would actually precipitate a nuclear exchange by itself and it's more likely that Pakistan is looking to take an especially hard line immediately to discourage further Indian incursions. Whether or not Pakistan looks to conduct its own conventional strikes on Indian soil remains to be seen. Since Pakistani forces were not on the receiving end of the Indian strikes it is unclear what targets Pakistan could even engage and still claim their actions are a proportional tit-for-tat response. 

Indian combat aircraft have been patrolling near the Line of Control and air defenses on the ground are reportedly on high alert since the strikes to guard against potential Pakistani retaliation. Cargo aircraft have been flying regular missions into Jammu and Kashmir, as well, possibly carrying reinforcements or additional supplies. An EMB-145 has also been seen in the area, which would provide additional radar coverage in the mountainous region to help spot any incoming aircraft or low-flying cruise missiles.

There are reports of sporadic exchanges of fire at various points along the Line of Control. Though there appears to be an increase in these incidents, it is also worth noting that Indian and Pakistani forces have historically fired artillery and other weapons at each other in these areas with some regularity. 

Between the cross-border incident in 2016 and 2018, there were dozens of violent skirmishes, many of which ended in the deaths of Pakistani and Indian soldiers. None of these confrontations provoked a larger conflict, though. At the same time, as already noted, fighting limited to the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region has not historically demanded a broader response. 

There was also reports that Indian forces shot down a small Pakistani drone intruding into India's Gujarat region, much further to the south. Gujarat, which sits along the Arabian Sea, has a direct border with Pakistan. One of India's Israeli-made Surface-to-air PYthon and DERby (SPYDER) surface-to-air missile systems reportedly brought down the unmanned aircraft, which, if true, would mark its first operational use.

All told, whatever the exact outcome of the strikes in Balokot, it is hard not to see there being increasingly vocal demands for some kind of Pakistani military response, especially given the jubilant reaction in India. We will be continuing to keep an eye on the still-evolving situation and update this story as new information becomes available.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com