During the Regional Conference on Security held in Bangladesh in 2001, both Pakistani speakers Shirin Mazari, Director General, Institute of Strategic Studies and Lt Gen Javed Hassan, Commandant, National Defence College, propagated low intensity conflict, guerilla warfare and indirect intervention as more viable options of modern day war. Shirin was more vehement that low intensity conflict and unconventional means like guerilla warfare, psychological warfare, including the use of terror, economic warfare and indirect intervention in the territory of a rival state, were the more viable options to a conventional war, while also talking of the tool of subversion and sabotage as a manner of tactics short of direct all out military confrontation. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, later confirmed this as the state policy of Pakistan while deposing before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sabotage is as old as warfare and was extensively used during the two world wars. On January 11, 1917, Fiodore Wozniak, using an incendiary pencil, purportedly supplied by German sabotage agents, set fire to his own workbench at an ammunition assembly plant near Lyndhurst, New Jersey, causing massive fire, that destroyed half a million 3-inch explosive shells and destroyed the plant for an estimated at $17 million in damages. In February 1943, Norwegian saboteurs trained by British SOE blasted the heavy water facility inside a fortress in Vermonk, upsetting Hitler’s nuclear ambitions. One of the most successful SOE operation was Op ‘Jaywick’, in which agents disguised as Malay fishermen struck into Singapore Harbour and sunk 30,000 tons of Japanese shipping in September 1943. More recent forms of sabotage are the distribution of software for damaging specific systems. In 2000, an ex employee issued multiple radio commands to attack the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) controlled Sewage System in Queensland, Australia. 800,000 liters of raw sewage flowed in reverse, causing major spills. Grounds of Hyatt Regency Hotel submerged in sewage, marine life died, the creek water turned black, and there was unbearable stench continued for days.
Computer viruses have wreaked havoc worldwide, which again are a modern form of sabotage. While cyber attacks like ‘Stuxnet’ and ‘Ghostnet’ attract publicity, India suffers cyber arracks practically on daily basis. We are particularly vulnerable because bulk of the hardware, telecom equipment and in some cases even critical software is imported. The number of ‘bot’ infected computers is multiplying exponentially. We have little capability to test embedded capabilities. Some Chinese apps have been banned in India for cyber espionage but new ones are flooding in. Action against Huawei and ZTE is being taken abroad for similar reasons, but in India it is free for all. During the UPA II regime, the NSCS had issued advisory against their products but within three months the MHA opened the floodgates for these companies; ignorance or palms greased?
But coming to the basics of manual sabotage, it is the simplest yet most effective form of degrading the military potential of an adversary. The line between tampering, meddling, tinkering and even casualness, which actually could be deliberate sabotage, is extremely thin. It is this ambiguity which is generally overlooked, coupled with ease of selecting targets, including the periodicity that makes sabotage a very potent weapon. It can cause loss of precious lives, degrade capacity, raise anger, anguish and discord, in addition to considerable financial loss. It could be as innocuous as a bureaucrat of Ministry of Defence (MoD) not approving purchase of submarine batteries available in India for months, causing the submarine to run on batteries whose life expired 15 months ago, leading to an accident and the submarine written off.
Sabotage can also be grave act of treason from an innocuous fake story, like a purported army coup, which caused the Army’s Technical Support Division (TSD) to be shut down. With reference to the journo penning the fake story, General VK Singh, MoS (External Affairs) recently wrote “….. by splashing it across banner headlines, this was nothing short of treason, for the gentleman was willing to openly destroy the institution of the army to achieve personal objectives”. The journo in question, even though spoken in journalistic circles as living beyond his means, has not been prosecuted to-date because he is the bosom pal of a union minister. That was perhaps the reason the Ghaziabad Court would not file a case against him few years back.
VK Singh further goes on to say, “Even today, though six years have passed, there should be a detailed enquiry and the guilty brought to book. The age old saying that truth must always prevail is timeless. It’s a shame so many people who played games and falsified news, are even today not accountable. In the interest of our country’s future where fake news is such a major threat, it is imperative to take action at the very root of this evil especially when all the evidence is there in the public domain”. But will any action be taken even today despite the mafia links, because political parties lose no opportunity to keep the media on their side, good, bad or ugly. Or is he getting somewhat uneasy because after all the virulent talk past years, he is suddenly singing paeans about the Prime Minister.
In a public rally during February 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the train crash in Kanpur that killed 148 people in November 2016, a conspiracy from across the border (hinting at Pakistan). He said, “A rail accident happened in Kanpur and some people were arrested after that. The police found that it was a conspiracy hatched across the border.” Over the years, many probes in rail accidents / derailments have found sabotage, even as such acts, in addition to cross-border origin, could well be committed by rival indigenous political parties, given the quality of our politicians. Lives have little value in our country, as has been proved timelessly.
But talk of sabotage has not gone beyond train accidents. By December 2017, the Armed Forces had already lost 35 aircraft, killing 14 pilots since 2014-2015. Statistics in the media had also brought out that if figure since 2011 were taken, this would come to some 70 aircraft lost, killing over 80 people. Unfortunately, these figures are taken as routine. In May 2012, Defence Minister AK Anthony informed Rajya Sabha that over the past 40 years, India had lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft, saying, “482 MiG aircraft accidents took place till April 19, 2012”. He also revealed that these crashes led to the loss of precious lives of 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight persons from other services. The minister went on to state that the cause of the accidents were “both human error and technical defects”. A delegation of wives of pilots had also approached Anthony to retire the MiGs, following which the IAF Chief flew a MiG himself. An IAF pilot had also approached the Supreme Court to retire the MiGs – “flying coffins” but his plea was rejected.
The term “flying coffins” has re-emerged in wake of the Mirage-2000 crash on February 1, 2019, which snuffed out the lives of two young test pilots – Squadron Leader Sameer Abrol and Squadron Leader Siddharath Negi. The aircraft was under acceptance test flight after an upgrade program. Sources indicate that state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was involved in deliverance of the upgrade. This was the second or third acceptance sortie. Abrol and Negi, both alumni of the 40th Flight Test Course (FTC) from Air Force Test Pilots School, Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), IAF, Bengaluru, leave behind families and other test pilots who are still coming to terms with the terrible tragedy. While an inquiry is underway, there is host of contradictions in the media as to what really happened; from the aircraft accident before the take off, undercarriage falling off, to the fighter aircraft nose diving immediately after taking off.
The easiest part is to term it ‘pilot error’ or ‘technical failure’, without realizing how easy can be a deliberate act of sabotage of not tightening a bolt or loosen a screw. In wake of the Rafale offsets controversy of Anil Ambani versus HAL, HAL has been under fire, as should be rest of the other white elephantine governmental defence-industrial complex sucking on enormous amounts of tax-payers money without commensurate output. The Defence Minister herself has berated HAL. But then HAL has been overseen by Ministry of Defence all these years and was being hailed by former defence ministers and bureaucrats before the Rafale controversy erupted. Little wonder then that a poem doing rounds on the social media (purportedly written by Garima Abrol, wife of Squadron Leader of Sameer Abrol) includes the lines: “Never had he (Sameer) breathed so heavy, as for the last time, while the bureaucracy enjoyed its corrupt cheese and wine”. Not that the angst would make any difference to the hierarchy – will be soon forgotten, like always. One only wonders if the Mirage crash was ‘orchestrated’ to put HAL more in the crosshairs after news emerged of Anil Ambani’s RCom going for insolvency having raked in $100 billion from IPOs in recent years. This may not be the case but it can hardly be ruled out in totality.
Finally, is the fact that sabotage has never been taken seriously in our country, even as the Pakistani army which has never won a war is adept in the sub-conventional, intent on destabilizing India, and officials publically recommend sabotage as a preferred strategy. Never have the powers that be bothered about what funds are flowing in from across the borders to subvert jellied journalists, and for acts of sabotage. Will this ever change?