Lessons from Pulwama: A Prognosis of Future Military Conflicts in South Asia

Author Name: Abdullah Rehman Butt       27 Feb 2021     Regional security/Region

The South Asian strategic landscape is mainly characterized by the fierce animosity between the two nuclear-armed nations, India and Pakistan. The strategic calculus of the region became even more complex with the introduction of nuclear weapons in the region. Though in Pakistan’s perspective, there is no space for a war between India and Pakistan because of their deterrence relationship based on nuclear weapons, however, India always tries to create a window for limited military conflict under a nuclear overhang. Consequently, the region has witnessed some intense military crises (Kargil crisis, military deployments in 2001 and 2008, Pulwama) which brought both states to the brink of war.

The most recent military crisis in South Asia arises on 26 February 2019 when the Indian Air Force jets violated the International border of Pakistan and conducted a so-called airstrike at Balakot in response to a suicide bombing that happened on 14 February 2019 in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Pakistan Air Force, in its response named Operation Swift Retort, successfully restored the conventional thresholds by targeting Indian military installations in Indian Occupied Kashmir and shot down two IAF's fighter jets on 27 February 2019. PAF’s carefully planned response not only projected its capability to engage targets across the LOC but also showcased its resolve to retaliate against every kind of aggression by India.

A careful analysis of the Pulwama crisis hints towards the emergence of new precedents in the pattern of military conflicts in South Asia. India responded to a sub-conventional false flag activity in the conventional domain in an unprecedented manner. For the first time, the international border was crossed by Indian Air Force since 1971, and for the first time, India used its air force to achieve political objectives. For the first time, India posed a threat of conventional missile strike in Pakistan, which could lead to misperceptions and further compounded the problems for crisis stability in the region.

The duration of the crisis remained short, while the tensions were high that put a lot of pressure on the military leadership of both the countries. Indian failed strike also put a question mark on the quality of leadership of Indian armed force. First of all, the Balakot strike was an abysmally planned strike that couldn’t yield their desired results. Secondly, they did not factor in the capability and resolve to respond by the Pakistan Air Force. Later on, the Indian military leadership even lost its credibility by making false claims about the damages they had inflicted and the loss of their Su-30 MKI in front of their nation. On the other hand, PAF vividly demonstrated its capability and responsibility towards national defense and the stability of the region and showed restraints in its counter strike mission, reaffirming its role as a potent as well as a responsible air force in the region. Hence, the conventional deterrence thresholds of Pakistan were tested at a new level against a conventionally superior adversary.

The pattern of future military conflicts in South Asia can be predicted in light of the lessons learned from the Balakot crisis and the recent developments in the military domain in the region. Firstly, India can again go for any misadventure in the name of punishing Pakistan for any sub conventional activity in India or in IOJK in order to achieve its domestic political objectives or to divert the attention of its masses from poor economic performance and other internal vulnerabilities. Secondly, The future conflicts would remain limited and the duration of the conflict would be short, in a result of which, the role of air power in any future military crises would be crucial because of its swift and decisive operational effects. Thirdly, there would be comparatively reduced reliance on the land forces and their mobilization in any future conflict in South Asia because of the higher cost and time involved. Fourthly, there would be an increased role of cyber and space capabilities in future conflicts and the concept of cross domain deterrence would be the key to minimize the chance of any conflict escalation. Lastly, Indian military modernization with the help of its western allies is pushing the region into an endless arms race that is negatively affecting the strategic stability of the region. India's acquisition of hypersonic weapons, ballistic missile defense system, precision strike capability, and anti-satellite weapons would put India in a strategically advantageous position, and it might think of a preemptive counter-force strike against Pakistan. This would not only be detrimental to the strategic stability of the region but the first strike stability would also increasingly come under stress in any future military conflict.

India’s regional hegemonic ambitions, its military modernization, and its strategic partnership with the US aimed at containing China are hugely tilting the strategic balance of the South Asian region into India’s favor. Indian access to information and modern military equipment, under various agreements with the western powers, would provide India with a decisive edge in any future military conflict with Pakistan. Despite its fragile economic conditions, Pakistan will have to chalk out a comprehensive strategy to offset Indian conventional superiority in order to keep its deterrence relationship effective with India. Pakistan also needs to consolidate its conventional capabilities to address growing conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis India and to befittingly respond to any future conventional threat. Moreover, Pakistan should also focus on the development of its cyber and space capabilities to meet its future warfare needs including advanced ISR and Network-Centric capabilities. Cooperation with friendly countries like China and Turkey would be the key in this regard.


Abdullah Rehman Butt is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). The article was first published in REGIONAL TIMES. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com

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