The Assassination of Qassem Soleimani — Lessons for India
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The Assassination of Qassem Soleimani — Lessons for India

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon, Indian Air Force

Image Attribute: The remains of a vehicle hit by missiles outside the Baghdad airport. The commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Major General Qassem Soleimani, was killed. / Source: Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office

Countries such as Israel and the United States have traditionally believed in the targeted killing of its enemies, be they in the form of spies or terrorists in nature. These nations have thus bestowed requisite authority for such killings on their executive heads. India, on the other hand, has lived for decades with terror elements operating from across the border with virtual impunity.

Our counter-terror campaign perforce was limited to ground operations within our territory. Besides the inability to do precise counter-terror targeting across borders for want of intelligence gathering and hard kill wherewithal, there was always the fear in the minds of the decision-makers, of escalating to an all-out war from a counter-terror strike. The January 3 MQ-9 Reaper attack by the United States Air Force (USAF) at Baghdad airport, statedly using upgraded Hellfire missiles, killing Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force and his aides, has lessons galore for political and military analysts alike.

Whilst the political and moral correctness of the Soleimani killing is a matter for a different discussion, the military lessons of the drone strike are very revealing. If the video footage doing the rounds in the social media is indeed a genuine one, the drone strike was militarily perfectly executed to take out a high-value target, with no collateral damage and no involvement of large scale air or ground military assets. The use of close in laser designation by friendly forces has well neighed a possibility, given the apparently high accuracy of the strike. The accompanying radio chatter of the video clip is revealing too, in terms of the lethality of the unmanned weapon system. The advent of hard kill drones such as the Predator and Reaper has indeed morphed the aerial targeting arena dramatically as we well know. India is in the midst of negotiating the purchase of MQ-9 Reapers initially for the Indian Navy and possibly follow ons for the other two services. Hellfire missiles are already on order with the Indian Air Force (IAF)'s Apache attack helicopters. Given the security scenario in our neighborhood, there is no gainsaying the importance of having this weapon system in the inventory of our army, navy and the air force. Why the deal for the Indian Navy is being negotiated by the Americans clearly have their own interests in mind, possibly to target international terrorists in the maritime domain around India. But India knows better... our main targets are of the like of Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim.

Whilst the deal with the Americans is being negotiated caution needs to be exercised to avoid tricky end-user agreements that stymie our targeting options. Despite imposing a hefty ten million dollar bounty on Hafiz Saeed and declaring him an international terrorist, the U.S. has not yet prioritized him as a target for neutralization. For India, his urgent killing is a political signal for greater strategic dominance in the war on terror. So let’s assume we work around the American penchant for protecting the vested interests of their erstwhile "Cold War" ally Pakistan, tailoring our tactical intelligence gathering network to obtain real-time intelligence on desired targets within Pakistan (and elsewhere in the neighborhood should it so warrant). India already has the signal intelligence capability in terms of our PHALCON AWACS, space assets and other ground and air sensors with our agencies and armed forces. These need to be optimized to facilitate timely hard intelligence on our intended terror targets. This would be a challenge given the existing lay of the land in terms of the international border, Line of Control (LoC) and the hard fact that human intelligence (HUMINT)  would be hard to obtain in most cases. That’s where the ingenuity would be called for to optimize our sensors and their triangulation capabilities.

The other important aspect is the fact that the deniability of a drone hard kill would be difficult in our context, tending to push such counter-terror missions into the realm of a hot shooting war. This, of course, would not be a desirable option, given that ideally, we would like to emulate the modus operandi of the Americans in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) or the Israelis in the Middle East. 

Having our strategic ally Israel on board would be highly desirable. The mistakes made earlier by our then leadership in not enlisting Israel’s assistance in neutralizing our adversary’s nuclear capability before the Kahuta reactor went critical in the eighties, cannot be allowed to be repeated. We need to train with Israel to carry out such counter-terror missions effectively. So the challenge in our context is to train for such missions realistically and tailor our mission within the operational parameters of our air war strategy. 

Given the uncanny political situation in our country, such high profile targeted attacks may not find the political sanction across the aisles in our Parliament (as indeed is being witnessed in the USA these days) Therefore it is imperative that we have a gutsy political leadership to go through with such missions. Peacetime counter-terror missions employing drones would be even more challenging in this context. Though it is not part of the brief as yet for the newly created Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the government may consider bringing counter-terror ops under his ambit, mainly so the equipment induction and operational training could be dovetailed in a truly tri-service manner. Drone warfare has come to stay. So whilst aiming for indigenous technology to bear fruit, India should exploit the windfall in terms of the expected Reaper acquisition from the U.S to build capabilities towards indigenization and an effective counter-terror campaign. Preemptive aerial targeting of national terror enemies has become an accepted norm in modern geopolitics. Having made a beginning with our Uri and Balakot strikes, it is high time India extended its capabilities to the realm of targeted drone kills.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India. 

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.