The resumption of hostilities and growing inter-state tensions between India and Pakistan carry elevated risks of skirmishes in the Kashmir region, but also presents the aviation sector with growing operational and security threats.
- On 26 February, 12 Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000 fighter jets bombed suspected Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant camps near Balakot, a small town in Mansehra district, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. There were follow-up reports in India of more airstrikes on JeM camps in Muzaffarabad and Chakothi, both in Pakistan’s Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) region.
- The airstrikes were in retaliation for the 14 February JeM suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack on a convoy transporting paramilitary Central Reserve Police (CRP) personnel along the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, near Lethpora in Pulwama district, in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. A total of 46 CRP personnel were killed in the attack.
- Then on 27 February, the Pakistan government announced it had launched sorties into the disputed Kashmir region, where the fighter jets ‘engaged six targets’ in ‘Indian territory’. The Indian government said that the jets were turned away, while the Pakistani government said that the warplanes had bombed ‘open ground’ in the Rajouri area of Jammu and Kashmir. One Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 fighter jet was allegedly shot down in the Nowshera sector of Lam Valley, which is approximately 3 km inside Pakistani territory.
- Pakistan’s information ministry initially announced that the PAF shot down two IAF MIG-21 Bison jets inside Pakistani airspace, though this was likely not the case.
- Indian media stated that the IAF downed a PAF F-16 fighter jet, while other media claimed it was a Pakistan-made JF-17 warplane. Additional reports from India claimed that an IAF Mi-17 V-5 transport helicopter crashed near Srinagar’s Sheikh Ul-Alam International Airport (SXR). Details on this incident are unclear.
- The wreckage of one IAF aircraft was discovered in AJK, while a Pakistani aircraft was found on the Indian-side of the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border separating the two countries in the Kashmir region. Both the Indian and Pakistani governments reported that an IAF pilot was in the custody of Pakistani authorities.
Impact on civil aviation
- In response to this escalation, the civil aviation authorities (CAA) in India and Pakistan closed the airspace along their respective borders, forcing commercial aircraft to return to their airport of origin or divert to different air transit corridors.
- India temporarily closed airports in: Jammu, Srinagar and Leh, in Jammu and Kashmir state; Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh state; Amritsar, Pathankot, Adampur, Bathinda, and Ludhiana, in Punjab state; Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab states; Dharamshala, in Himachal Pradesh state; and Dehradun, in Uttarakhand state. Those airports, as of 1600 local time on 27 February, had resumed operations.
- In Pakistan, the CAA suspended all international and domestic flights from major airports in: the capital, Islamabad; Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Lahore, Multan, and Sialkot in Punjab province; Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; and Karachi in Sindh province. Those airports have also resumed operations.
- Border skirmishes along the LoC are a perpetual risk. However, these developments mark a rapid and stark escalation in the inter-state conflict risk since the 14 February JeM attack in Pulawa. There are similarities, however, to events that took place on 18 September 2016, when JeM militants attacked an Indian Army brigade headquarter in the town of Uri, Jammu and Kashmir state. Then on 29 September 2016, the IAF launched retaliatory surgical airstrikes on suspected militant positions in AJK. What ensued was a series of armed skirmishes and retaliatory artillery strikes along the LoC that persisted until around the end of May 2018, when a ceasefire was implemented.
- A key differentiator is that the current events are taking place against thebackdrop of upcoming Indian general elections, which will be held between April and May. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want to publicly maintain a strong stance against Pakistan. However, it is in the best interest of both nuclear-armed states to avoid further escalation, and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has called for ‘dialogue’ to end the hostility. The fact that Pakistan is holding an IAF pilot is considerable leverage for Islamabad, and the safe return of the aviator to India will be a significant confidence boost and a key primer to de-escalating the situation.
- Further skirmishes in the Kashmir region, particularly along the LoC, are likely; however, Khan’s appeal for dialogue bodes well for tempering the situation. Yet any miscalculation from either side will likely ramp up the conflict and terrorism risks.
A very credible concern will be retaliatory asymmetric attacks outside of the Kashmir region, mainly against Indian cities, by Pakistan militants or India-based supporters.
- The closure of Pakistan airspace and airports in both countries illustrates the impact on the civil aviation sector. India’s security readiness has been elevated, and business travellers can expect increased security checks at major transport hubs, government buildings and public places across the country.
- At this juncture, A2 Global advises foreign companies and their staff operating in India and Pakistan to closely monitor the situation through local and international media and review their corporate and personal contingency plans regarding the escalation of inter-state conflict activity, and the risk it poses to their personnel, assets and businesses.
- Companies are also advised to reconfirm flight bookings for travelling staff, and implement contingency measures to minimise the risk of disruption to business activities.
- Individuals are also advised to refrain from making any public or online commentary about these developments as it can be misconstrued as bias and incite attacks or demonstrations.