South Asia’s Nuclear Scenario After Five Years of Balakot

Balakot-strikes-IAF, India

India has conducted air strikes inside Pakistani territory in Balakot for almost five years, following the Pulwama attack in 2019.

The attack, which resulted in the death of 44 security personnel, sparked a significant military conflict between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed adversaries.

The crisis has significantly altered Indo-Pakistan’s nuclear and conventional dynamics, leading to unprecedented air strikes by the Indian government against alleged terrorist training camps in Balakot.

This action was unprecedented, as previous Indian governments have shown restraint in response to provocation and cross-border terrorism by Pakistan-based groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attempted to alter this tradition by ordering limited kinetic action against terrorist hideouts across the border in Kashmir.

However, the use of air power in mainland Pakistan was unexpected, as the last time the Indian Air Force targeted Pakistani territory was during the 1971 war over Bangladesh.

India’s retaliation against Pakistan led to a meeting of its nuclear command body, the National Command Authority, suggesting further escalation would invite a Pakistani nuclear reaction. This was a desperate ploy, as India’s conventional escalation tactics were questioned since the’surgical strikes’ against terrorist hideouts in September 2016.

However, Pakistan’s response was conventional. On 27 February 2019, Pakistani Air Force planes breached Indian airspace and attempted a bombing raid on an Indian military base near the Line of Control in Kashmir.

India lost a fighter jet, which was captured by the Pakistan Army and paraded on Pakistani media. The Indian Air Force claimed to have shot down a US-supplied F-16 fighter jet of the Pakistani Air Force. The international community, led by the US, forced Pakistan to release the pilot, paving the way for the eventual de-escalation of the crisis. This crisis introduced two new variables in South Asia’s strategic scenario.

India’s military action and use of air power have redefined the cost of Pakistan’s support for anti-India terrorist groups. India’s previous restrictions allowed Islamabad to continue supporting such groups without incurring any costs.

The Indian air strikes at Balakot signaled New Delhi’s commitment to holding the Pakistan Army directly responsible for terrorism in Kashmir and engaging in punitive military action. Directly engaging the Pakistani military was a better strategy than allowing generals to sleep peacefully while letting terrorists do their bidding.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence provided information on a possible terrorist attack in Kashmir to avoid another military response from New Delhi. India’s response to the Pulwama attack and Pakistan’s counter to Indian air action also shattered the idea that limited military engagement would lead to a nuclear war.

Since the 1998 nuclear weapons tests in South Asia, India’s military restraint has partly resulted from fear of a conventional military crisis escalating into a nuclear one. After the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, the Indian government resisted military action against Pakistan, focusing on diplomatic rather than military approaches.

Pakistan has continued to lower the threshold for nuclear use in the subcontinent, introducing tactical nuclear weapons as part of its strategy. The Balakot incident led to a significant revision in conventional military and nuclear dynamics in the subcontinent.

New Delhi has shown a political will to punish Pakistan militarily, requiring the Pakistan Army to prepare for kinetic action when a Pakistan-based terrorist group targets India. Islamabad has also revised its nuclear’red lines’, demonstrating that nuclear weapons use is not inevitable in a nuclear crisis.

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