With last week’s U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Congressional Democrats’ revolt against President Donald Trump’s state of emergency and Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee; you may have missed the news that the Indian Air Force launched airstrikes against targets in Pakistan.
This was quietly one of the dangerous crises of the post–Cold War era.
On February 26, Indian fighter jets attacked a terrorist training camp operated by the Pakistani-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The attack was a reprisal for an earlier suicide bombing in Kashmir on February 14 that killed over forty Indian paramilitary police.
The raid was the first instance since the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 that either of the two powers have used airpower against the other. It also marked the first time in history that a nuclear weapons state has conducted airstrikes against another nuclear weapons power.
There is a very good reason for that. Deploying air assets against another state signals a level of hostility that far exceeds cross border skirmishes. The ability of a state to field high-tech aircraft is often seen as a metric of sophistication, making air power a powerful symbol of national pride. It also worth noting that the Mirage 2000 jets used by the Indian Air Force in the raid are the same type of aircraft that deliver some of India’s airborne nuclear weapons. When a country is willing to go on the attack with tens of millions of dollars worth of airplanes and bombs, including aircraft that may or may not be carrying its nuclear weapons, it can trigger a spiral of escalation that can quickly get out of control.
That spiral was quickly triggered. Pakistan responded to India’s air-assault with artillery strikes and conducted airstrikes of its own. Both sides lost aircraft, with Pakistan claiming to have shot down two Indian jets and captured one of the pilots, while India claims to have downed a Pakistani jet.