Climbing the Escalation Ladder: India and the Balakot Crisis


Editor’s Note: This is an essay from “Policy Roundtable: The Future of South Asia” from from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.


On February 14 of this year, a suicide bomber drove a car loaded with explosives into a convoy of paramilitary personnel in the Pulwama district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The attack left 44 soldiers dead and around 70 injured. Jaish-e-Mohammad, a terrorist group operating out of Pakistan with the support of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, claimed responsibility for the attack. Founded in 2000, Jaish is responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, including attacks on Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly and the Indian national parliament in 2001, and, more recently, attacks on an airbase in Pathankot and an army base in Uri in 2016.

On Feb. 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force launched a retaliatory strike on a location identified as a Jaish training complex near the town of Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. While India had restricted previous reprisals to parts of Pakistani Kashmir, i.e., to disputed territories, this airstrike was the first to take place on Pakistani soil since the India-Pakistan War of 1971. The following day, Pakistan retaliated with an airstrike in Indian Kashmir that led to an air battle and the downing of an Indian Air Force MiG-21 on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, the de facto border between the two countries in Kashmir. The government of Pakistan released the pilot of the downed aircraft two days later, thus officially beginning the process of defusing the crisis.



This sequence of events is remarkable for a number of reasons, two of which matter from a strategic perspective. First, in launching airstrikes on Pakistani soil, India deviated from its traditional restraint in the face of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, visible most prominently in its lack of a military response to the 2008 Mumbai attack by another Pakistan-backed group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, that claimed 164 lives. Second, in seeking to defuse tensions following the air battle over Kashmir by releasing the Indian pilot, Pakistan deviated from its traditional policy of publicly manipulating the risk of nuclear confrontation to induce Indian restraint and external great power involvement, typically by the United States. As one analyst, drawing an analogy to the Cuban Missile Crisis, put it, “Pakistan may have just blinked.”

How significant are these departures and what are their strategic implications? Pakistan’s efforts at de-escalation are more easily explained than India’s actions. As Ashley Tellis argues, over the years successive U.S. presidents have grown increasingly worried that Islamabad’s inability (and unwillingness) to dismantle the terrorist groups operating from its soil threatens not just India but also American interests in Afghanistan. Washington’s disaffection culminated in the Trump administration’s unprecedented response in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, which was to publicly support India’s right to self-defense while intensely pressuring Pakistan behind the scenes to de-escalate. China, consistent with its stance toward such crises over the last two decades, and additionally concerned about the fate of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, maintained its distance and urged both sides to exercise restraint. Even compared to the 1999 Kargil War, when Pakistan was shocked by the combination of U.S. pressure and Chinese aloofness, Islamabad’s diplomatic options after Pulwama were severely limited.

In contrast to Pakistan, India’s behavior in the crisis requires some unpacking in order to draw out its strategic implications. Seen as an isolated incident, the Balakot strike might seem revolutionary. In the context of the India-Pakistan strategic dynamic over the last two decades, however, it appears more evolutionary.

The India-Pakistan Strategic Dynamic

Although India enjoys unambiguous conventional military superiority over Pakistan, this superiority is diminished by tactical considerations on the India-Pakistan border, as well as by India’s need to defend against a potential attack from China. Moreover, since the nuclearization of the subcontinent in the late 1980s, Pakistan has repeatedly threatened the deployment of nuclear weapons in crises with India as part of its “catalytic” nuclear posture, designed both to deter a major conventional attack by India and to draw the United States and other great powers into any military crisis on the subcontinent. This catalytic posture has allowed Pakistan to sponsor the insurgency in Indian Kashmir and terrorism in India more broadly with virtual impunity.

India’s tradition of restraint toward Pakistan is therefore not the result of a cultural predisposition, as some scholars have claimed, but rather a function of environmental and geopolitical factors, coupled with Pakistan’s manipulation of the risk of nuclear war. When this risk has seemed to ebb, Indian leaders have sought ways to punish Pakistan for its sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. As S. Paul Kapur notes, in the aftermath of the Kargil War, when Pakistan failed to make good on its nuclear threats, Indian civilian and military leaders began to realize that restraint was not their only option. The terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 thus led to a massive military mobilization on the border with Pakistan. Lessons learned from the incredibly slow pace of this mobilization led to further reforms in Indian military thought and practice, resulting in a limited war doctrine known as “Cold Start,” which envisioned rapid mobilization to capture and hold small amounts of Pakistani territory in retaliation for a major terrorist attack. Meanwhile, India developed an explicit nuclear doctrine resting on three pillars: credible minimum deterrence, no first use, and massive retaliation. Thus, in the event of a major terrorist attack, Cold Start would allow a limited land grab as retaliation, while India’s nuclear doctrine would deter Pakistan from escalating to the nuclear level. Unfortunately, when the time came to deploy the doctrine after the 2008 Mumbai attack, “India froze … and Pakistan took note.”

Pakistan’s own strategy evolved in response to India’s limited war doctrine. In 2011, Islamabad unveiled a solid-fueled, short-range ballistic missile, the Nasr, capable of carrying a tactical nuclear warhead and deployed explicitly to counter Indian armored thrusts into Pakistani territory. This development creates a credibility problem for India’s nuclear strategy — namely, if Pakistan were to attack Indian troops on Pakistani soil with a tactical nuclear weapon, would India actually retaliate by targeting Pakistani cities? Similar to the logic underlying the presumption of Pakistani non-escalation in response to a limited land grab by India, a strategic nuclear response to a tactical battlefield outcome appears disproportionate and not worth the material and reputational costs.

Consequently, in this post-Nasr world, India has two options in the nuclear domain. The first is to develop tactical nuclear weapons of its own, thus creating an appropriately calibrated response to Pakistan’s use of battlefield nuclear weapons. However, India faces significant resource constraints in developing the required number of tactical weapons and significant organizational constraints in developing the command and control mechanisms required to effectively deploy them militarily. The latter constraint, which Pakistan does not face, originates at least in part from India’s history of strong and dysfunctional civilian control of the military and nuclear weapons development. Moreover, an exchange of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield may still escalate to the strategic level, allowing Pakistan to retain the threat of nuclear war that has paralyzed Indian decision-makers in the past.

Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang highlight India’s second option, which is to shift the focus of massive retaliation from civilian to military targets. It would seem far more credible for India to threaten to wipe out Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities in response to the use of battlefield nuclear weapons than to hit Pakistani cities. The problem here is that complete success in a counterforce attack is virtually impossible, even in the case of a geographically smaller state such as Pakistan (which has additionally taken steps to disperse its nuclear arsenal and make it mobile). Moreover, if Pakistan is expecting such a response to its use of battlefield nuclear weapons, then it has an incentive to conduct a massive first strike instead. One way for India to address this challenge is to weaken its no-first-use principle and make room for a preemptive strike on Pakistan. Although Clary and Narang argue that top Indian decision-makers are flirting with this idea — and India’s defense minister recently seemed to publicly confirm this argument — it still raises the critical issues of whether Indian leaders can credibly commit to striking first (even with counterforce targeting), and if they can be completely successful in doing so.

Climbing the Escalation Ladder

India’s nuclear options are, thus, far from ideal, and risk courting even greater strategic instability than currently exists in South Asia. However, thinking of nuclear responses to Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons may be jumping a few steps too far ahead. Herman Kahn’s classic work on escalation, which details a 44-rung “ladder” of increasingly escalatory moves that countries in a crisis can undertake to demonstrate resolve, suggests that there are numerous non-nuclear steps that a country in India’s position may take before reaching the threshold where nuclear war is thinkable. This threshold is approximately one-fifth of the way up the ladder, whose uppermost rungs involve a nuclear war targeting civilian population centers. In between are actions grouped under categories of increasing severity such as intense crises, limited nuclear wars, exemplary nuclear attacks, and nuclear wars involving military targets. The history of India-Pakistan crises shows that both countries have consistently stayed below the threshold where nuclear war becomes thinkable, i.e., before crises become “intense.” Their repertoire of escalatory tactics — increased shelling on the Line of Control, covert operations across the Line of Control, diplomatic maneuvering, significant military mobilization, missile tests as shows of force — falls well within the range of what Kahn calls “subcrisis maneuvering” and “traditional crises.”

The escalation ladder is neither an ironclad framework nor a blueprint for crisis management. Rather, it is a heuristic device that can help one think through the options available to countries and, in particular, gauge escalation and de-escalation behaviors in a crisis or over multiple crises. In the India-Pakistan context, it suggests three important lessons. First, there are numerous escalatory steps available to both countries that have never been taken. Their words to each other and to external great powers notwithstanding, both countries’ actions have displayed considerable caution to keep escalation within the non-nuclear realm. Second, and relatedly, Islamabad’s rhetoric and fearmongering about nuclear war remains in the realm of cheap talk, as New Delhi discovered during the Kargil War and during the Balakot episode. While one need not assume this as a rule of thumb, it does suggest that there is room for India to operate without bringing nuclear war into the picture.

Third, and most importantly, it is precisely this room to maneuver that the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi exploited for the first time in the Balakot episode. In Kahn’s framework, the airstrike and ensuing air battle can be categorized as a “dramatic military confrontation,” or “a direct (‘eyeball to eyeball’) confrontation that appears to be a stark test of nerves, committal, resolve, or recklessness.” What’s important about this step is that it is the highest rung on Kahn’s ladder before nuclear war becomes thinkable. Until Balakot, neither India nor Pakistan had gone beyond “harassing acts of violence,” or illegal acts of violence carried out through clandestine channels. Balakot moved both countries one rung up the escalation ladder, which is both closer to making nuclear war possible but also very far from nuclear war itself.

It is in this sense that Balakot is more evolutionary than revolutionary. In finding greater room for non-nuclear escalation through precision airstrikes that New Delhi was careful to label as “non-military preemptive action,” India behaved exactly as a nuclear state demonstrating resolve to a nuclear adversary without courting nuclear war would. The puzzle is not so much why Modi chose this option but why previous prime ministers did not. Long before Balakot, various analysts and practitioners had listed precision strikes on terrorist camps as one of the few viable military options available to India in the event of a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack. For example, former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon went on the record as advocating precisely this action in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Menon himself offers a reason why previous Indian leaders may not have considered airstrikes a viable option. In 2008, the Indian leadership calculated that airstrikes would do little to diminish the organizational capabilities of terrorist groups in Pakistan, and would cause the international community to default to their standard response to an India-Pakistan crisis: “split the blame and credit 50:50 in the name of fairness or even-handedness.” The difference during Balakot was that world opinion — especially U.S. official opinion — had shifted. In 2016, when Indian special forces carried out a surgical strike on terrorist launchpads in Pakistani Kashmir in retaliation for a terrorist attack at Uri, various countries called for restraint but also exhorted Pakistan to curb terrorist activities originating in territories under its control. By February 2019, two years into the Trump presidency, the geopolitical space for greater escalatory action against Pakistan had further increased. The Balakot airstrike thus represents the conjunction of propitious international circumstances and imaginative coercive diplomacy by the Modi government.

Isolating Pakistan

Aside from military options, much of the policy analysis on India’s approach to Pakistan has emphasized the value of diplomatically isolating Pakistan or economically squeezing it through the international Financial Action Task Force. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider whether isolating Pakistan is possible and desirable. If India’s goal is to somehow induce Pakistan into giving up cross-border terrorism, the evidence since the late 1980s suggests that both military and non-military coercive measures have short-term effects at best. Pakistan’s geopolitical importance to major powers such as the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and now even Russia has ensured a steady supply of financial and military resources that is unlikely to abate in the near future. While world opinion may be marshalled against Pakistan as an exporter of global jihad, the major powers are unlikely to push a nuclear weapons state with Islamist domestic political factions and numerous terrorist groups operating in its territory too far.

Indeed India’s own security interests are unlikely to be served by a Pakistan that has been economically and diplomatically weakened to the point where the government’s domestic legitimacy is threatened. As research on partial democracies has shown, these types of situations are ripe for external conflict, as competing elite groups vie for power through increasingly nationalist appeals. A longstanding and bitter rival next door might serve as a convenient and tempting target for diversionary conflict in these circumstances. India’s challenge, therefore is to use economic punishment and diplomatic isolation in specific and targeted ways — not as a general long-term strategy for dealing with Pakistan, but as short-term components of coercive crisis diplomacy.

What Happens Next?

Has Balakot created a new normal, one that increases the risks of war — nuclear or conventional — on the subcontinent? The short answer is no.

Given that India’s airstrikes targeted “non-military” targets, and that numerous independent reports suggest they failed to hit them, the response is unlikely to deter terrorist groups and their paymasters in Pakistan. Pakistan’s fundamental incentive to rely on cross-border terrorism as a strategy to keep the Indian military tied down in Kashmir — both tactically and in terms of the military’s fraught relations with Kashmiri society — remains unchanged. Although India did move up the escalatory ladder by conducting the airstrikes, there is limited room for further action without entering the realm of “intense crises,” to use Kahn’s term. What Balakot has done is add one more item to the menu of non-nuclear options available to India when contemplating retaliation for a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack. The menu otherwise remains the same and will inform decision-making when the next major terrorist attack occurs. India and Pakistan are therefore no closer to nuclear war — an outcome both sides would strenuously wish to avoid — than they were before Balakot. They do, however, now live in a world where more forms of escalation short of major conventional war may be possible.

India for its part has crossed a psychological threshold. Whereas previous governments flirted with the idea of escalation or conducted it covertly, the Modi government, in its first term, publicly demonstrated greater resolve than its predecessors on at least three important occasions: the surgical strikes of 2016, the military standoff against China at Doklam in 2017, and at Balakot in 2019. In each case, the Indian military acted with unexpected boldness, taking the adversary by surprise and courting risk in a controlled manner. The evidence is mounting that Modi’s approach, at least in this realm of security policy, has overturned long-held Indian beliefs about the prudence of restraint and not pushing the limits of competitive risk-taking. The importance of Modi, and by corollary Trump’s policy toward Pakistan, also highlights the somewhat contingent set of circumstances that permitted the Balakot strikes. Given that the basic terms of the strategic interaction between India and Pakistan are unchanged, a different set of circumstances involving, for example, a less adventurous Indian prime minister and/or warmer relations between the United States and Pakistan would likely dampen any Indian desire to move up the escalation ladder in a future crisis.

Lessons from Balakot

Ultimately, any response to a future terrorist attack sponsored by Pakistan on Indian soil will have to include the careful weighing of the costs and benefits of coercion. In this regard, the actual circumstances of the Balakot strike offer important lessons for India. The strike did little to alter Pakistan’s fundamental strategic calculus about the utility of cross-border terrorism. While it succeeded in demonstrating Indian resolve, India was unable to dominate the escalation ladder at this level, as Pakistan launched its own airstrikes on “non-military targets” the very next day. India’s execution of the entire confrontation left much to be desired: Not only did the Indian Air Force lose an aircraft and have a pilot taken prisoner, it also inadvertently shot down a helicopter of its own in the midst of the air battle, killing six personnel and a civilian. After the airstrikes, Pakistan sought to inflict costs on India by closing down its airspace, an act that cost airlines around the world millions of dollars and hit India’s national carrier, Air India, especially hard.

Set against these costs, the airstrike had one major upside, which was to give Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party a boost in the run-up to India’s national elections that began six weeks after the crisis. It is unlikely that the airstrike was decisive in the election, and it is certainly not logically tenable that Modi ordered the strike with electoral gain in mind (it could have easily backfired). Yet, the political success of the decision opens up the domestic space necessary for Modi, or a future prime minister, to make a similar decision in a crisis. Pakistan, for its part, also enjoyed a domestic political win with the capture of an Indian pilot and the conciliatory move of returning him to India.

In this sense, Balakot followed in the path of the 2016 surgical strike — in both cases, the two governments had opposite accounts of events and yet were able to use the confrontation to either save face or increase domestic political support. This might be the closest approximation to a new normal in India-Pakistan relations, a change in what Kahn called the “agreed battle” or ongoing conflict between the two countries. Balakot certainly represents a change in the degree to which India is willing to escalate a crisis with Pakistan, but it does not signal a deeper shift in the South Asian strategic environment.



Rohan Mukherjee is an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

Image: Pakistan’s Armed Forces