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Tensions between India and Pakistan have exploded as both countries claimed to down each others’ warplanes and a captured Indian pilot was paraded by Pakistan. It comes in the wake of Indian airstrikes targeting terrorists who are based in Pakistan and who are blamed for a February 14 attack that killed 37 Indian security forces.
The development of the battle over the skies of Kashmir and potential for further clashes risk not only a clash between nuclear-armed powers in South Asia but also have ramifications for tensions and conflicts in the Middle East. Of great importance is the contest between the weapons systems of the two countries. India has been going through major modernization efforts in its armed forces, at a price tag of up to $250 billion. Pakistan has also been seeking to upgrade its F-16s, some of which date back to the 1980s and require billions to bring up to the latest technology.
India’s military budget and its armed forces are far larger than Pakistan’s. But that doesn’t necessarily make them better or more capable in the kind of fight that has developed over Kashmir. India’s air force, estimated at some 750 aircraft, has aging MiG-21s from the Vietnam War era. Pakistan’s air force, smaller at around 400 aircraft, has what appear to be more advanced American F-16s. But Pakistan has faced stalled deals to acquire new F-16s, whereas India has been seeking numerous strategic upgrades to its armed forces. Indian media have speculated that the Indian Air Force might have used the SPICE bomb kit of Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The Week in India notes “the SPICE kit adds a sophisticated guidance system, consisting of inertial navigation, satellite guidance and electro-optical sensors for pinpoint accuracy, and control fins to a conventional unguided bomb.” It turns the bomb into a “sophisticated long-range munition.” Rafael also unveiled its new Rocks long-range air to surface missile at an Aero India show in Bangalore on February 20.
The conflict that developed between India and Pakistan began with the terrorist attack on February 14. Terrorists from Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) targeted Indian forces in the Kashmir region at Pulwana, 40 km from Srinigar. The terrorists struck at a convoy using a vehicle bomb. India vowed that it would retaliate. India and Pakistan have long had tensions over the existence of extremist jihadist groups in Pakistan. In 1999, a conflict developed along the Line of Control in Kashmir, called the Kargil war. In 2008, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai, murdering more than 100 people, including targeting the Jewish Chabad Nariman house. After the recent attack, Pakistan sought to deter an Indian response by warning against a strike on Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan warned on February 19 that there was no evidence linking Pakistan to the Pulwana attack.
For India, the stakes are high. The terrorists are able to use Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to strike at Indian units in Kashmir. But they may also operate from within Pakistan itself. According to reports in India, the Indian Air Force used its Mirage 2000 jets to strike at a terrorist cell in Balakot, 40km north of Abottabad. Abottabad is the site of the 2011 US raid to kill Osama Bin Laden who was living in a compound near a Pakistani military academy. According to reports, India used 12 jets in its raid on February 26 in the early hours before dawn. It took 19 minutes.
Pakistan and India tensions then grew on the day of February 26, resulting in another air duel that led to the downing of an Indian MiG-21. Indian media claimed India also shot down an F-16. There were disputed reports that a second Indian MiG was shot down. One fell inside Pakistan-controlled areas of Kashmir. Villagers attacked the pilot and he was eventually detained by Pakistan military forces. Now Pakistan and India appear to have sought to calm tensions. But there will be calls in India to get their pilot back and also retaliate for the humiliation.
Both countries have sought to downplay any losses. Pakistan seemed to indicate that the airstrike on Balakot, where terrorists are allegedly based, did not cause damage. Pakistan says it didn’t lose an F-16. An Indian helicopter also crashed in Kashmir, although. The cause is unclear. India claims it killed large numbers of militants in Balakot.
Other countries are watching closely. Iran has also accused Pakistan of sheltering extremists who attacked Iran on February 13. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince recently visited both India and Pakistan. In addition, Israel, Syria and Iran will be watching, because the kind of clashes developing over the skies of Kashmir have ramifications for the wider region. They involve the same challenges Israel faces. Israel must contend with terrorist cells that used foreign countries as bases. It has also used surgical strikes to hit at terrorists. Israel also has disputed territory on its borders, like India. In addition some of the warplanes involved and weapon systems match those being used by Middle Eastern countries. For instance both Israel and Pakistan have F-16s, and both Iran and India have MiG-29s. But there are also other weapon systems involved, such as radar and air defense and rocket technology that have ramifications for the kinds of conflicts that can develop in the Middle East.
The larger question is whether escalation will result. Western countries are surely scrambling to prevent that. No one wants a major war between India and Pakistan. But India wants to show that terrorists must not use Pakistani soil as bases to strike at it. Pakistan doesn’t want airstrikes inside its territory. Both countries face humiliation.
These are some of the same challenges Israel faces in its contest with Iran. For instance, Israel has warned Iran against using Syria to base its forces. It has warned against weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile Iran has sought to portray its presence in Syria as legitimate. A long distance separates Kashmir from the Golan, but similar challenges unite both regions and the tensions over the skies of each.
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