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Drones: Bleeding India Without War

By N SATHIYA MOORTHY
June 28, 2021 13:50 IST
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Unless each attack drone can be neutralised, India will be literally deploying elephants to stamp out ants -- and the ants may still survive! points out N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Security forces arrive at the Indian Air Force's Jammu station after two low intensity explosions caused by drones occurred in its technical area, June 27, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

Sunday's drone attack on the IAF airbase in Jammu may have opened a new chapter, and not just in India's continuing tryst with terrorism. Instead, it could well mark a new chapter in warfare in this part of the world, imported as it has been from Syria and Iraq.

Until proved otherwise, New Delhi needs to assume that Pakistan and the ISI are involved one way or the other. That makes for two enemies along the border all over again, what with China still pitching its tents along the Galwan valley, after having made the Doklam tri-junction worthy of Indian deployment in 2017.

Together, the Chinese encampment and the drone attacks of the future could make for a long war for India, but without a battle. In terms of economic cost and the morale of our fighting forces, it could mean China and Pakistan, together or separately, bleeding India even more in these times of the pandemic -- but without New Delhi being able to point a finger before the international community, which already holds Pakistan as a pariah State for economic assistance and military cooperation.

It is not as if India has not strategised for such an eventuality. But the question also remains if we as a nation rested on our laurels following the dramatically successful surgical strikes of September 28-29, 2016.

In the past, the euphoria over the 1971 War victory lulled India to Zia-ul Haq's unleashing of low-intensity cross-border terrorism which has continued for four decades.

Pakistan's strategy of 'bleeding India through a thousand cuts' has made India possibly only the second nation in the world to have faced continual terror attacks, after Israel.

If India is able to pick up a few failed drones and analyse them, or otherwise establish a Pakistani signature to Sunday's attack, it would mean a return of Zia's dictum in the 21st century, prefaced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto;s vow to fight a 'thousand-year war' with India.

Experts tell us that drones against Indian targets can be fired from within the country. Closer to the target the launch pad is, difficult will it be to detect and neutralise them, especially if they are dumped in dozens.

Unless each such attack drone, whether it flies out in isolation or in formation of tens and hundreds, if not thousands, can be neutralised or diverted by deploying counter-techniques and technologies, which may come relatively cheaper in terms of costs, India will be literally deploying elephants to stamp out ants -- and the ants may still survive!

It is this 'asymmetric war' India has been fighting against Pakistan for decades now. Beginning with the ISI-designed 'Khalistan terrorism' centred on Punjab, but which extended up to the national capital and beyond, India has lost human lives, both of uniformed men, their families and common citizenry.

It also made a minor dent on the nation's standing on occasions, but it did not lose territory -- nor a war, as was the case with Chinese aggression of 1962. It may continue to be the case, and unless India has irrefutable evidence to prove Pakistan's complicity, as with previous acts of terrorism, the world would have little patience for New Delhi's calls for continuing to keep Islamabad in the red list.

Whether Pakistan is behind it or not, or even China is arming and funding the drone-deployers, any Indian inability to arrest this trend, here and now, could become a force multiplier for China, which is still in no mood to withdraw from much of the territory it had illegally occupied a year ago.

Suddenly, Indian defence may look impotent to some Western analysts, though in a real theatre, our soldiers would disprove such conclusions or apprehensions.

Through the unmentionable and un-war-like 'Galwan massacre' of 20 Indian soldiers in a brutal manner, China has ensured that India is on the alert all along the eastern borders, from Ladakh all the way up to Arunachal Pradesh. The recent report of Chinese deployment of Russia-made S-400 along the LoAC should be an additional cause for Indian concern.

Experts agree that the S-400 is one of the most advanced anti-aircraft systems in the world with a proven track-record in West Asia. India's post-Cold War US ally did not look kindly at New Delhi insisting on purchasing the S-400 from Russia.

Now it remains to be seen if the Indian decision served a purpose in terms of not only deploying it, but also understanding the system and acting accordingly when employed by China -- or, if it was a flawed decision in that Moscow has sold the same equipment to two traditional adversaries, who could not but be expected to use it against each other.

But the larger question remains. How long does China intend keeping the Indian soldier and his machines on high alert, and through how many harsh winters of the Galwan and such other areas up north?

Long-time deployment, war or not, burns money, whether or not it burns weapons, which need to be replaced at a faster pace than in the normal course.

Today, China seems to have done to India what India did to Pakistan through Operation Parakram, by deploying 500,000 troops along the border. To face off, Pakistan amassed 300,000 troops.

Barring an 'accidental war', which could have escalated into a'tactical nuclear strike', the strategic community did not expect any real escalation.

While India had calculated that the cost of the stand-off was both bearable and worth it, the same could not be said of the Pakistani economy. It is also one major reason why Pakistan is 'behaving' just now -- as its economy cannot afford a full-fledged war or even possible deployment of the Parakram kind.

It is unclear whether under the post-demonetisation, Covid conditions, India can now afford a longish deployment all along the border. Given the terrain chosen by China for an escalation with minimal cost for itself, India has been forced to import mini battle-tanks that won't get stuck in the snowy slush as its main battle tank could. The list of the Indian weapons purchase is long, so is the cost high.

In this background, there may be an added need for the government to consider the timing of the continuing intra-services discourse on structural reorganisation of the armed forces. According to media reports and analyses, the IAF in particular is not comfortable with the proposed 'theatre command' concept. <?p>

There may be other elements within the armed forces that too may have near-similar views, which need to be fully explored as it has the potential to demoralise the middle-rank officer-class especially, and even the upper reaches.

Independent of technicalities, the new concept empowers those in charge of the theatre commands to communicate directly with the ministry of defence, over the head of the tri-Services chiefs. This questions the very orderly conduct and behaviour of the armed forces as a disciplined section of our society and bureaucracy -- and the only one, so to say.

More importantly, it hands over even tactical decision-making powers in the political class and the defence ministry bureaucracy, which is not manned by the military class, as once claimed.

One thing is becoming increasingly clear since the creation of the chief of defence staff, and the maiden incumbent General Bipin Rawat's simultaneous induction also as the first secretary to the department of military affairs. That neither the CDS, nor the DMA, whether manned by the same man or by different persons, is not what it was originally sought to be.

The confusion caused on these fronts, including those on the 'theatre commands', can wait -- and should wait -- at least until the threat from China, real and imaginary, has receded completely.

If nothing else, the armed forces cannot have multiple commands or worse still, confused commands, leading to avoidable institutional egos and personal ego clashes, too.

As re-deployments in the name of organising theatre commands is said to come with additional costs that can wait, as also new acclimatisation problems that are avoidable, too. In war-like situations, this is an advantage that the adversary has not asked for, but still may get.

In all this, the argument that the adversary is also going to lose money in an unfought stand-off of the Parakram kind does not hold. Whether he loses money or not, India is losing -- that too in Covid times, when the nation can ill-afford it.

All energies should thus be focussed on bringing this deadlock to a successful end, leaving structural discourses for the future.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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