NEW DELHI: Quoting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, US Senator John McCain warned a gathering of Islamabad's elite on Saturday that India was
determined to strike terror camps in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir if the Zardari government did not act against jihadis of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and former ISI officers behind the Mumbai terror attack.
While the veracity of McCain's statement could not be verified, Indian armed forces are confident of their ability to launch swift cross-border "surgical strikes" if the leadership gives the green signal.
"Yes," is the unequivocal answer of the military brass, when asked whether they had the capability to take out the targets that have been a thorn in India's side for decades if the ongoing diplomatic "push" comes to military "shove".
Given "real-time intelligence", with exact coordinates about the terror camps, IAF fighter jets can swing into action with laser-guided bombs "within four hours" of a government go-ahead.
But even though Pakistan remains intransigent about moving against the people who planned the Mumbai carnage, matters are not expected to escalate to the military level as of now, especially with the US working overtime to prevent such an outcome.
The UPA government is keeping the military option against terror camps on the table as an indicator of its "firm intent" to get Pakistan to deliver this time. That was the message driven home by McCain, the Republican candidate who lost to Barack Obama in the US presidential sweepstakes, during his visit to Islamabad over the weekend.
"We certainly have the capability to destroy the camps but would need real-time intelligence about them with their exact coordinates," said a senior officer.
This will be crucial since intelligence reports, backed by surveillance and radio intercepts, are already showing "heightened activity" in many of the around 40 training and launching camps in Pakistan and PoK.
"The camps are largely makeshift in nature. The main clusters are in the Kotli-Muzaffarabad, Muridke, Karachi and Manshera belts. After the Mumbai attack, some are in the process of relocating, while others are emptying out," said a source.
"Consequently, though the process is already underway, it will take some time to identify the camps still housing militants. If the government gives the go-ahead, they will have to be kept under constant surveillance till the actual delivery of PGMs (precision-guided munitions) on them. Otherwise, the exercise will be reduced to just bombing empty jungles," he added.
With no American Predator-like armed drones to let loose 'Hellfire' missiles on targets (though some Indian UAVs of Israeli-origin have been
integrated with weapon platforms to deliver PGMs) India will have to bank on fighters like Sukhoi-30MKIs, Mirage-2000s and Jaguars.
For camps, "launching pads" and "staging areas" near the LoC, long-range artillery guns and the new 90-km range Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems can also come into play.
For that matter, even the 290-km BrahMos land-attack supersonic cruise missile can be used as a precision-strike weapon.
But the most likely option will be the fighters armed with laser-guided bombs. "The bombs, with different types of explosives, have an accuracy of under two metres," said a senior IAF officer.
IAF has several bases on the western front, which in any case maintain ORPs (operational readiness platforms) in the form of fighters ready to scramble round-the-clock, from which surgical strike operations can be mounted. Fighters like Sukhoi-30MKIs can, of course, operate from much further away since they have a cruising speed range of 3,200km, which can be virtually doubled with air-to-air refuelling by IL-78 tankers.
"But the military option has to be the last resort after everything else fails. If we exercise it, the decision will have to factor in various scenarios like a full-fledged war. Pakistan will not stay quiet. It will retaliate on other parts of the border," said a senior officer.