Indian-Pakistan Air War Erupts Ending In Captured Pilot And Growing Fears Of All Out War

The two countries both dispute each other's claims about additional aircraft losses as fighting continues to escalate.

Jyotirmoy895 via Wikimedia/Pakistan Armed Forces

In a second day of major skirmishes, tit-for-tat air operations along the contested Line of Control in the Jammu and Kashmir region dividing India and Pakistan has resulted in reports of numerous shoot downs and left an Indian pilot in Pakistani custody. Both sides continue to dispute many of the basic facts of the incidents, prompting new concerns about the likelihood of further escalation and dangerous miscalculations between the two countries, both of which have nuclear arsenals.

What is clear is that a number of unspecified Pakistani combat jets flew across the Line of Control into the portion of Jammu and Kashmir that India administers on Feb. 27, 2019. They released weapons at a number of targets before returning to their bases in Pakistan. In response, India launched a counter-strike into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Pakistan insists that its strikes in Kashmir were not in direct response to India's unprecedented strikes in Pakistani territory on Feb. 26, 2019. This was the first time Indian combat aircraft had crossed the line of control publicly since the two countries fought a major war in 1971 and the first time this has occurred since both countries acquired nuclear weapons.

"Pakistan has ... taken strikes at non military target [sic], avoiding human loss and collateral damage," according to an official Pakistani government statement. "Sole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defense. We have no intention of escalation, but are fully prepared to do so if forced into that paradigm."

Pakistan's statement also seemed to suggest that the targets its aircraft struck were unspecified pro-India militant groups, which have existed in the past, but have been relatively small compared to pro-Pakistan or pro-independence factions, rather than the Indian military. This does not appear to be the case. 

In a separate press conference, Pakistani Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesperson for the country's military, said that the targets had been six Indian military facilities. India also said that the targets were military posts.

Ghafoor further claimed that Pakistan's planes had bombed empty areas nearby, specifically to demonstrate their capabilities without causing any damage or casualties. There is no independent confirmation that the Pakistanis deliberately avoided hitting actual Indian positions.

The Pakistani government's mention of India-based paramilitary forces, combined with the use of the phrase "non-military," appear to have been more aimed at mimicking India's statement from the day before, which described its own operation in these terms because it targeted the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. The Indian operation was a direct response to Jaish-e-Mohammed's terrorist attack, using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, on a military convoy in Jammu and Kashmir on Feb. 14, 2019, which killed 40 Indian soldiers.

There are unconfirmed reports that India shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet during the strikes. Pakistan denies it lost any aircraft in the operation.

Despite Pakistan's insistence that its strikes were not intended to be escalatory, India did retaliate, sending its own jets flying back across the Line of Control. The Indian Air Force lost two planes in the process, one of which crashed in Pakistani-controlled territory, while the other hit the ground on the Indian side, according to the Pakistani military.

India has since confirmed that it lost one plane, saying it was a MiG-21 Bison aircraft, but has not confirmed that another one of its planes got shot down. Pictures also emerged of the wreckage of the MiG-21.

Pakistan captured the pilot of the Bison, who it identified as Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhi Nandan. They subsequently released images and video of him in custody, as well as of his personal effects.

In an unrelated incident, an Indian Mi-17 helicopter also crashed in Kashmir, reportedly due to a mechanical issue, killing all six personnel on board. Amidst all the aerial activity and heightened tensions, India closed a number of airports in its northern regions.

Pakistani authorities went even further and shut its airspace down entirely to commercial flights. The official Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, says Pakistan's skies will remain off limits until 2:59 AM local time on Feb. 28, 2019.

In a formal statement, India has since rejected Pakistan's assertions that its strikes were "non-military" in nature and described them as an "unprovoked act of aggression." Indian authorities also criticized the Pakistani government's "display" of Wing Commander Nandan, saying it violated international law with respect to the treatment of prisoners, and they have demanded his immediate and safe return.

"It was clearly conveyed that India reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism," the Indian statement said. "Due to our high state of readiness and alertness, Pakistan’s attempts were foiled successfully," Raveesh Kumar, a spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said separately.

The obvious concern is that the situation will continue to escalate between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Pakistan, in an apparent attempt to deter further Indian incursions into its territory proper, has already declared its intention to "dominate the escalation ladder," if necessary, and made references to the use of nuclear weapons.

Though the aerial engagements have received the most attention, there has also been a spate of skirmishes on the ground along the Line of Control, which have reportedly led to numerous casualties and civilian deaths, though the exact details remain largely unconfirmed. Both India and Pakistan have reportedly been moving additional forces to or near to the front lines to reinforce their positions. Still, it is worth noting that these sorts of clashes are by no means rare and have led to deaths and injuries in the past on both sides without precipitating a larger conflict by themselves.

After the written statement from Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the subsequent press conference by officials from that same ministry, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan himself made a renewed appeal for diplomacy with his Indian counterparts. In a televised address, he also warned that if the situation continues to escalate, it could take on a life of its own.

"I ask India, given the weapons capability on both sides, can we afford a miscalculation?" Khan said. "It will neither be in my control nor [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s. We are ready to come on the table and talk about terrorism that affects both the countries."

Domestic politics in both India and Pakistan are sure to be key components of how this violent spat continues to evolve. India's Modi is facing a general election in April and May 2019 and his popularity received a noticeable boost from taking a hard line against Jaish-e-Mohammed and Pakistan. Rahul Ghandi, an Indian parliamentarian who is the leader of the main opposition Congress Party, also came out in support of the Feb. 26, 2019 strikes. Public support for additional forceful action against Pakistan would seem to be high.

Pakistan's Khan only became Prime Minister in August 2018 and has faced significant political challenges from both opposition parties and his own bloc. This latest crisis, the most serious in South Asia in decades, now puts him in a position where he is also up against the powerful interests of the country's military and main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as well as general public sentiment demanding a defense of the country's national pride.

It could be the fate of Wing Commander Nandan that determines where the brewing conflict goes next. Though it is unclear what the Pakistanis may be compelling him to say and what statements may be of his own volition, he has indicated that Pakistani authorities are treating him well and rescued him from mob violence after he parachuted down inside Pakistani-controlled territory.

India and Pakistan could use Nandan as a vehicle for diplomacy and his safe return as a means of de-escalating the crisis. His release would certainly be a goodwill gesture on the part of the Pakistani government. At the same time, Nandan's detention could prompt more calls from within India for action, especially if the Pakistanis continue to hold him for a protracted period of time and if there are any indications whatsoever that he is being treated poorly. 

The international community is also starting to wake up to the severity of the situation, with the United States, Russia, China, the European Union and other all urging both parties to exercise restraint. In particular, behind the scenes diplomacy involving China, a major Pakistani ally, and the United States, which ever-strengthening ties with India and historical connections with Pakistan, could help the two brawling neighbors reduce tensions.

We certainly hope that cooler heads will ultimately prevail to prevent the situation from transforming into an all-out war between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com