India Launches Air Strikes against Militant Group over Pakistan Border

India hit back against militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on February 26 by launching pre-dawn air strikes targeting the militants’ training camp in Balakot, inside Pakistani territory.  The bombings undertaken by the Indian Air Force may lead to a response by the Pakistan government at a time tensions continue to escalate between the neighboring nuclear-armed rivals.

The two countries have engaged in three open wars, with a fourth undeclared and limited conflict occurring in 1999 in the Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, to which both countries lay claim.

But the air strikes into Pakistan mark the first known use of a conventional air strike by one nuclear-armed state into the territory of another.

The action undertaken by India is itself a response to a terror attack conducted in Kashmir earlier this month against Indian paramilitary police.  That attack – for which JeM claimed responsibility – resulted in 40 casualties and elicited a promise from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that a response would be forthcoming.  Modi is also aware of the political clock, with national elections due to be held in the coming months.  The impression of a strong, forceful response plays well for public consumption.

JeM has claimed responsibility for two other major attacks on India, the 2001 attack on India’s parliament and the January 2016 attack on the Pathankot Air Force station that resulted in the death of 18 Indian soldiers.

India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, claimed during a press briefing after the air strike that credible intelligence information concluded that JeM was readying another suicide terror attack against India, thus necessitating the preemptive strike.  India, he said, aimed to hit the camp where jihadis were being trained for the suicide attack, with the target having the added benefit of being isolated, thereby reducing the risk of civilian casualties.

The strikes by the IAF are the first conducted across the so-called line of control into Pakistan since the 1971 war between the two countries over East Pakistan’s separation from Islamabad that resulted in an independent Bangladesh.

To carry out the bombings, the IAF used its French-produced Mirage 2000H “Vajra” fighters.

Public reactions on both sides since the air strikes are noteworthy.  The Indian side is claiming to have killed hundreds of militants with zero civilian casualties.

Pakistan is pushing back on the claim, merely confirming that Indian fighters violated Pakistani airspace, dropped their payloads, and hit mostly vacant land, with only one person being injured.

The bombings may prove useful for both sides by allowing India to claim a victorious response and Pakistan to downplay the incursion.  India stressed that the bombings were a non-military preemptive action, not a direct state-on-state attack.  New Delhi had earlier claimed that JeM was given clearance by the Pakistani government to carry out attacks in India – something Islamabad has denied, instead pledging to bring JeM to heel if India provided it with actionable intelligence.

This ongoing Kabuki Theater has marked India-Pakistan relations for years.  India has always been the stronger of the two militarily, while Pakistan has given winks and nods (if not outright support) to jihadi terror groups as a form of asymmetric warfare to reduce the conventional disparity.  Notably, JeM has ties to Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Still, it is likely that some form of response from Pakistan will be forthcoming.

Pakistan’s National Security Council issued a statement claiming that the country would respond at a time and place of its own choosing.  This eerily resembles the statement issued by Modi following the JeM attack of February 14 at Pulwama, Kashmir, in which the prime minister stated that the security forces had been given freedom to decide when, where, and how to respond.

Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 – photo via U.S. Air Force

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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