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Drone Strike Blasts Open a New Front in the Kashmir Dispute

A possible attack from Pakistan represents a new form of escalation.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A Pakistani soldier stands guard on a post near the Line of Control in Poonch district of Pakistani-administered Kashmir on April 26.
A Pakistani soldier stands guard on a post near the Line of Control in Poonch district of Pakistani-administered Kashmir on April 26. Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Late last week, in the small hours of the morning on Sunday, two unmanned aerial vehicles successfully detonated two improvised explosive devices at an Indian Air Force base in Jammu in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. No deaths, as of yet, have been reported. But some Indian Air Force personnel were apparently injured as a consequence of these attacks. And not surprisingly, given that the base is a mere handful of miles from the border with Pakistan, most observers believe Islamabad was involved—a suspicion that does seem justified given the recent development of Pakistan’s drone program.

The recent drone attacks were the first of their kind, even though Pakistani surveillance drones have, in the past, hovered around the border and even intruded into Indian-controlled territory in Jammu and Kashmir. The attacks represent both a continuation and a new form of escalation—namely, more direct confrontation rather than through proxies—in a conflict that has spanned decades.

Since the outbreak of an indigenous insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1989, Pakistan has pursued a proxy war against India using a range of jihadi militants who have wreaked havoc in the region. As recently as 2019, a Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, launched a brazen strike on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, killing more than 40 personnel. In the wake of the attack, India carried out its first airstrike across the India-Pakistan border since the 1971 war. Pakistan responded with an air attack of its own.

Late last week, in the small hours of the morning on Sunday, two unmanned aerial vehicles successfully detonated two improvised explosive devices at an Indian Air Force base in Jammu in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. No deaths, as of yet, have been reported. But some Indian Air Force personnel were apparently injured as a consequence of these attacks. And not surprisingly, given that the base is a mere handful of miles from the border with Pakistan, most observers believe Islamabad was involved—a suspicion that does seem justified given the recent development of Pakistan’s drone program.

The recent drone attacks were the first of their kind, even though Pakistani surveillance drones have, in the past, hovered around the border and even intruded into Indian-controlled territory in Jammu and Kashmir. The attacks represent both a continuation and a new form of escalation—namely, more direct confrontation rather than through proxies—in a conflict that has spanned decades.

Since the outbreak of an indigenous insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1989, Pakistan has pursued a proxy war against India using a range of jihadi militants who have wreaked havoc in the region. As recently as 2019, a Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, launched a brazen strike on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, killing more than 40 personnel. In the wake of the attack, India carried out its first airstrike across the India-Pakistan border since the 1971 war. Pakistan responded with an air attack of its own.

Despite understandable fears of escalation, including to the nuclear level, both sides managed to step away from the precipice. While a wider conflict was avoided, low-level attacks carried out by their respective armed forces rather than proxies across the volatile Line of Control, the de facto international border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, continued apace. Then, in late February of this year, most likely as a consequence of back-channel prodding by the United States, the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire there.

There have been no reports of any significant cease-fire violations, but if the drone attacks can be traced back to Pakistan, all bets are off.

For one, the drones pose a new, lethal threat to both Indian forward bases as well as Indian military forces deployed along the troubled border. Unless Indian forces manage to successfully intercept one or more of these intruding drones and can thereby demonstrate that they originated in Pakistan, Islamabad will be able to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability. At best, New Delhi, though aggrieved, will only be able to wag an accusing finger at its nettlesome adversary.

The drone strikes have also revealed an important gap in India’s defensive capabilities. At the moment, other than simply using small arms to shoot down the drones, India has no viable tactics at its command to stop these potentially deadly attacks. It could, of course, adopt an aggressive stance to punish and deter future attacks. However, to adopt such a strategy it would need to acquire new capabilities allowing it to offer a punitive response to any drone incursions, especially if they inflict fatalities, and without necessarily waiting for confirmation of a drone’s origin. The object of such an approach would be to inflict such high costs on the adversary that any benefits from the initial foray would be vastly outmatched.

This particular strategy, while tempting, is hardly free of potentially risky consequences. It could very easily lead to a spiraling escalation. Pakistani military commanders, fearing that the retaliatory attacks may be a prelude to a wider conflict, may have less incentive for restraint. Consequently, what may have begun as a limited probe designed to test India’s military readiness and capabilities could potentially lead to much broader conflict.

To avoid such an escalation, India might wish to avoid deterrence by punishment and pursue deterrence by denial instead. To that end, it would need to make significant investments in new air defense capabilities designed to shoot down drones the moment they intrude into Indian territory. Unfortunately, even though both India’s more powerful adversary, China, and Pakistan have been investing in military drone technology (and Islamabad has received a fair amount of drone tech from China), New Delhi has lagged in acquiring the requisite capabilities to tackle this emergent threat.

The drone attacks on the Jammu air base strongly suggest that, even though Pakistan may have reined in its proxy forces, a new front may be opening up in the conflict over Kashmir. To ensure that the recent cease-fire agreement, which opened the prospect of renewed negotiations to end the Kashmir dispute, does not vanish, India will need to devise an imaginative strategy to cope with what appears to be a looming threat.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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