A typical IAF base is secured during peacetime by DSC personnel manning the peripheral watch towers and the important operational assets augmented with air-warrior guards comprising non-technical staff who are not engaged in active operational activities. DSC numbers need serious augmenting and forward bases should have a relatively younger lot. The limited Garud Commandos act as Quick-Reaction Force and take on larger real-time threats. While the Garud are better armed and better trained, they have other tasks and roles such as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) through Radar-bursting, and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). Garud units need to be increased to two from present one in forward bases.
The terrorists were spotted through aerial infrared imaging and Garuds directed to intercept them using live aerial images…
On January 02, 2016, six heavily-armed terrorists suspected to belong to Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), made a pre-dawn attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot. The terrorists were wearing Indian Army fatigues and rode a hijacked car belonging to the Superintendent of Punjab Police. Seven security forces personnel were martyred and 20 civilians injured before all six terrorists were finally killed in the gun battle on January 04, in an operation which was carried out jointly by the Indian Army, National Security Guards (NSG) and IAF’s Garud commandos.
The terrorists were apparently in India for at least 48 hours earlier and had studied the base layout and selected soft entry points. They perhaps had local assistance. The choice of early morning when security could be weak was a military-like decision. The airbase is located close to the Indo-Pak border and this strategically crucial area has a very dense Indian Army deployment. The terrorists managed to breach the outer wall of the Pathankot base through an entry point adjoining a village.
One terrorist was reportedly shot dead as he was climbing over the ten-foot, barbed wire-topped wall. Five other terrorists then entered the domestic area. Due to advance intelligence inputs, day and night airborne surveillance had been mounted and security greatly enhanced. Yet it took four days to neutralise the six Pakistani intruders. Was India caught napping? Has India not learned the lessons to tackle the blatant Pakistan sponsored terror which has been bleeding India for nearly 25 years? Are important strategic IAF forward bases such as Pathankot vulnerable to such attacks? Does the IAF have the ground infrastructure and troops to safeguard its bases? Many of these questions still call for answers.
There have been repeat attacks in the Udhampur-Gurdaspur section of India’s crucial strategic link to Jammu and Kashmir…
Attack on Pathankot Airbase
The Pathankot airbase is located barely 25 km as the crow-flies from the Pakistan border adjoining the strategic Shakargarh bulge. It is a typical fighter airbase spread over 2,000 acres. It also has a civil enclave of the Airport Authority of India since 2006, but no civil flights operate nowadays. The base is vital for tactical offensive operations and for logistic support to Jammu & Kashmir. MiG-21 Bison fighter jets and Mi-25/Mi-35 attack helicopters are based here. The base is defended by quick-reaction air-defence missiles and has surveillance radars. Its close proximity to the border and low reaction time had resulted in repeat air-attacks during 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars.
In 1965, Pakistani commandos even made a failed attempt to raid the airbase. The near North-South runway runs parallel to the international border. Pathankot town is to the North. A major water-canal cuts through operational area with significant aircraft assets on either side. Parts of this area are lined with thick vegetation. The airfield has near ten-foot high boundary wall with a barbed-wire fence and is laced with concrete watch towers manned by Defence Security Corps (DSC) personnel who mostly consist of ex-servicemen in age bracket of late 40s or 50s. The watch towers have outward facing searchlights for night-surveillance. The aircraft are dispersed in blast protected aircraft pens or sometimes parked on open tarmac. The domestic (residential) and operational areas are clearly separated and the operational area security is enhanced with extra fences and air-warrior guards. The airbase also has a unit of IAF Garud commandos to support high-value asset protection.
Because of the forewarning of the attack, the station was already on a high alert. High-value assets had fully armed extra air-warrior guards. Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) had already been deployed for aerial surveillance with night-vision sensors. The C-130J Special Operations aircraft and helicopters with Night-Vision capability were airborne. Garud commandos had taken vantage positions. The terrorists were spotted through aerial infrared imaging and Garuds directed to intercept them using live aerial images. The swift response kept the terrorists holed up in a limited area and prevented movement to aircraft operating area, bomb dump and bulk petroleum storage.
India seems to have a weak memory and often falls prey to its candlelight peace brigades…
Due to the coordinated efforts of the Army, NSG, local police and IAF, the terrorists were neutralised. 40 to 50 kg of ammunition was found on terrorists. Markings indicate made in Pakistan. The major casualties on the Indian side were among the unarmed Defence Security Corps (DSC) personnel in the DSC Mess. The bright side was that in spite of there being an extended battle with terrorists, the airbase remained operational and there was no loss of equipment.
Central intelligence agencies have detained at least two serving Air Force personnel at the Pathankot airbase as part of the investigation to find out if the terrorists who struck on January 02 received any local support. Call records of these two showed that they had been in touch with Ranjith KK, the sacked airman who was arrested from Bathinda on charges of spying for the ISI in December 2015. Both these men were using two mobile SIM cards. Earlier during questioning, Ranjith had said that he had some information on the possibility of the Pathankot airbase being targeted by terrorists.
Earlier Similar Attacks
There have been repeat attacks in the Udhampur-Gurdaspur section of India’s crucial strategic link to Jammu and Kashmir. On May 14, 2002, at least 32 persons, mostly members of families of Army personnel, were killed and over 60 wounded in the worst-ever militant attack in the Kaluchak Army cantonment in Jammu area. All five terrorists were shot. On March 21, 2015, two terrorists who attacked an Army camp in Samba on Jammu-Pathankot highway and were killed after a long gun battle.
On August 05, 2015, two LeT armed terrorists attacked a BSF convoy in Udhampur. One terrorist Mohammad Naved was caught alive and the other was killed. Both were Pakistani citizens. On July 27, 2015, three gunmen dressed in army uniforms opened fire on a bus and then attacked the Dina Nagar police station in Gurdaspur. Three civilians and four policemen, including a Superintendent of Police (SP) were killed and many others injured. All three attackers were killed in the operation, which lasted almost 12 hours.
Civil aviation went through some major disasters before they woke up to serious airport security…
Complicity of Pakistan-based organisations has been confirmed again with markings on shoes of slain, batteries, phone calls to Pakistani numbers on mobile phones and AK-47 rifles and other weapons recovered from the terrorists. Is it another attempt to thwart the improvement of relations between India and Pakistan after an impromptu visit by PM Modi to meet PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on the former’s journey back from Afghanistan? India faced Kargil after Lahore Bus Yatra by PM Vajpayee in 1999 and the Parliament attack after the failed Agra Summit in 2001.
After the Musharraf-Manmohan talks ran aground, we had the Mumbai serial train bombings in 2006 and again, the Mumbai Taj Mahal hotel terror-attack in 2008. It is well known that, in Pakistan, shots are called less by civil government and more by the Army and Islamic militants. All have interests in fostering a proxy low-intensity war, more so as the Pakistan Army still waits to avenge the humiliating defeat in 1971 and fulfil its desire to wrest Kashmir. The strategy is to bleed India through terror and keep threatening with low nuclear threshold.
The fact that an Army General is the National Security Advisor in Pakistan indicates their overall approach. India, on other hand, seems to have a weak memory and often falls prey to India’s candlelight peace brigades. Intelligence sources say the terrorists had JeM links who want to derail the peace process. Nawaz Sharif promised action against perpetuators to pacify a strong Indian public reaction.
Response – More Questions Than Answers
Pathankot has one of the highest concentrations of military personnel anywhere in India with nearly 40,000 troops. Imagine if instead of a forewarned airbase, they had targeted a civil market place and killed a few hundred? It appears that anti-terror operational control was initially with IAF’s fledgling Garud Commando force and later with NSG flown in from Delhi. Later, a few columns of the Army were inducted. Forces of the state government, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) were engaged.
Given the threat perception, more than 15 air stations are directed to adhere to shoot-at-sight if anyone tries to enter the premises…
Did a lack of inter-agency cooperation affect the security response? The local police chief called the airbase a ‘fortress’ that couldn’t be entered without a written request. Should the operation have been handed over to the battle-hardened locally-placed Army units immediately? Do we evolve a clear protocol region-by-region as to who would be the lead force? Was there a need for the AOC-in-C, Western Air Command to fly down and supervise an operation like this? Should not the Base Commander have taken full charge? Does the airfield security need a fresh look especially in border districts? Could we have used directional jammers to prevent use of cell phones by terrorists? Did we activate domestic area evacuation plan? Do we need to create a J&K-like grid in all border districts of Punjab to begin with? Was India once again found wanting for control and media access?
In the absence of regular formal media briefings, TV channels became free-for-all strategic analysts. Lack of formal information flow resulted in pre-mature declaration of victory. There is a need to institutionalise timely media-briefings for ‘Breaking News’ hungry TV media. The role of the Punjab police and possible links to drug smuggling-mafia are being questioned. How a terrorist risked sparing a police SP from killing is puzzling? Is it normal for a senior police officer to travel in a sensitive border district without security?
As the Army has done in J&K, should we not stop use of vehicle beacon lights in border districts? Is there a need to upgrade security of high value assets in border districts? A fully fenced and brightly lit border in plains is porous enough to allow intrusion with huge posse of arms? Has the BSF failed us? Did India fail to learn from many terror incidents in region? If India perceived as a soft state, what do we need to do about it? Is it too sensitive to ask about a large number of mosques which are sprawled around military cantonments and sometimes left alone due to vote-bank politics?