Homeland Security

Guts and Glory: All that went wrong with the Pathankot Operation
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 06 Jan , 2016

As the operations at the Pathankot Airbase wind down, it is but natural that they will now come under intense and thorough scrutiny, given the manner in which it played out and the disproportionate level of casualties incurred and time taken in neutralizing six terrorists. Both, the investigations by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) and the Air Force Court of Inquiry will not have the professional expertise to go into the actual conduct of the counter-terror operations and we are thus likely to find that lessons that emerged will neither be highlighted nor learnt. This is clear from the official attempts to give a positive spin to events. For example, Google Maps clearly indicates that the airport extends approximately 4 Kms by 3 Kms which makes the periphery 14 Kms and not 25 Kms as the Defence Minister has suggested.

Both, the investigations by the NIA and the Air Force Court of Inquiry will not have the professional expertise to go into the actual conduct of the counter-terror operations and we are thus likely to find that lessons that emerged will neither be highlighted nor learnt.

Clearly the Air Base is not the only high value target in Pathankot and whatever the credibility of the intelligence to just focus on that would have been a grave error, given that the information could easily have been an attempt at deception. To ensure relatively fool proof protection against any intrusion would have required nearly a battalion and a half to cover the 14 Km frontage. It is possible that such quantum of troops was not available and therefore chances of small group of militants being able to intrude without being detected were a distinct possibility. Therefore their inability to either reach the technical area without detection or destroy any of our air assets was certainly a feather in the cap of the Security Forces deployed.

That being said, this attack clearly highlights the deep flaws that have always existed in our national security architecture despite the unending series of terror attacks that have inflicted enormous casualties over the years. The political leadership of all parties has absolved themselves of the responsibility of ensuring security of the common man and has only selfishly ensured that their own protection and that of their kith and kin is attended to by gifting themselves larger and larger personal security details at the tax payers cost. For example, the utilization of personnel of the Special Ranger Groups from the National Security Guards (NSG) for personal protection of VIPs, the ubiquitous “Black Cat Commandos”, is neither authorized by the NSG Act nor a task that they were established to perform.  It is an issue that needs to be resolved at the earliest.

We need to be clear that the security of each Air Force station rests solely with the Station Commander of that base. In this he is assisted by the Station Security Officer who has under him elements from the Air Force Police, Defence Security Corps and, in some cases, Garud Commandos who provide the Quick Reaction Team for dealing with contingencies that may arise. It therefore stands to reason that in case a situation demands the provision of additional security resources to counter any unexpected or unforeseen threat, then these would be placed under the Station Security Officer who is best conversant to deploy them.

Instead of bringing in an Infantry Battalion with the requisite capability and giving it the task of protecting the air base, grand standing and theatrics were resorted to which undoubtedly led to a complete breakdown of the command and control channels.

Circumstances may arise where threat assessments require reinforcements being brought in which are beyond the professional capability of the Station Security Officer to handle. In such circumstances, ideally a unit with the capability to deal with likely threat is inducted and its commander then assumes responsibility for protection of a specific sector or an asset, orif necessary, the complete base. If that were to be the case, then all protective assets integral to the base would also be placed under his command and the Station Security Officer would assist him as required. In all of this he would be reporting to the Station Commander who continues to be responsible for the overall security of his base and all assets therein.

There can be little doubt that this was not the case in the present instance. Instead of bringing in an Infantry Battalion with the requisite capability and giving it the task of protecting the air base, grand standing and theatrics were resorted to which undoubtedly led to a complete breakdown of the command and control channels. Diffused authority adversely impacted the coordination and conduct of operations.One is in little doubt that whoever was responsible for the decision to induct elements of the Special Action Group of the NSG  and place the NSG in charge of the operation is wholly responsible for the subsequent confusion that occurred. Only this can explain as to why elements from the Army Special Forces inducted earlier, and the only ones with the requisite experience, training and organization were brushed aside on the arrival of the NSG.

The NSG is organized and trained to carry out counter terror intervention operations and not meant to provide a protective shield against a terror attack. Off course, the very fact that the NSG accepted a task for which they were neither trained nor equipped speaks poorly of their top hierarchy, which obviously wanted to corner the glory and must also take a part of the blame. While it is understandable that the Station Commander may have found his authority eroded because of the induction of forces working directly under the highest levels of the Central Government, the Air Force hierarchy has certainly not distinguished itself by its abrogation of responsibility.That the Air Force preferred assistance from the NSG instead of the Army clearly points to the utter lack of “jointness” within the Armed Forces. A situation further exacerbated due to the inability and unwillingness of the political leadership, through the years, of putting in place a Chief of Defence Staff with the requisite authority and staff.

…the Government needs to take a long and hard look at the criminal-drug- smuggling linkages and the reported involvement of politically influential persons in such trade.

It is increasingly clear that Mr. Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor, is being correctly seen as responsible for the fiasco by some analysts as without his approval the NSG could not have been inducted.  He appears to have forgotten that he is the Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and neither the de-facto Chief of Defence Staff nor the tactical commander in the field. This unhealthy practice of overseeing tactical operations first emerged during the Special Forces raid on terrorist camps on the Manipur- Myanmar border, though that interference in the chain of command could be justified to some extent since it involved a politically sensitive special operation. The present situation hardly required such unwarranted interference and has only resulted in avoidable confusion.

Finally, the Government needs to take a long and hard look at the criminal-drug- smuggling linkages and the reported involvement of politically influential persons in such trade. As long as these people can get away with their nefarious activities, the national security of this country will remain vulnerable as they are able to involve personnel from the security establishment in their activities. It is an undisputed fact that terrorists take full advantages of this criminal nexus to further their own aims. This certainly seems to have been the case here as well.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran. He is a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and a Senior Visiting Fellow with The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai.

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24 thoughts on “Guts and Glory: All that went wrong with the Pathankot Operation

  1. contd …….The NSG itself needs a relook – it’s nowhere a force as it is deemed to be. It’s a collection of troops sent on ERE (Extra Regimental Employment) from the Army for a period two to three years. It is filled with troops belonging to Haryana since it is considered to be a home posting. The officers posted to the NSG are just normal MS Branch postings. It’s basically a motley crew. The whole organization needs a revamp to make it a professional anti-terrorist organization. Well I guess we will rest our pens till the next shindig that blows up in our faces. Jai Hind.

  2. Well expressed views by Brig Sinha. Only the title could have been – “Guts and Gory – All went wrong with the Pathankot Operation”. Undoubtedly in military terms the operation at Pathankot was a complete mess. The whole issue smacked of amateurism amongst all the players in the field. The BSF is always a weak chink and link in the country’s defence. Millions have poured into India from Bangaldesh under the watchful eye of the BSF. Smuggling on the border cannot be done without the connivance of the Paramilitary force deployed there and the local police. This is a known fact. There is the intelligence Bureau which hangs around the border areas and is in the know of everything that goes on, but in its own fashion decides to remain detached from the main stream activities on the border. Its better they get on with their job more professionally rather than snooping on army units to sniff out imaginary coups that may spring forth. The investigation by the NIA is probably to save the NSAs skin, and whatever it brings out will never be implemented in India as was the Kargil committee report. Pathankot just goes on to show how ill prepared and ill organized India is in dealing with any kind of eventuality that may arise anytime. We didn’t learn our lessons after Mumbai and with the lapse of time Pathankot will also be brushed under the carpet and life in India will go on as usual till the next crisis. We have become a laughing stock in the world over the Pathankot issue. We want to be a regional power of sorts and we can’t even handle six terrorists. One Pakistani commentator rightly commented on TV that “ you couldn’t handle 6 terrorists in your country and you want to talk about deep pursuit into Pakistan”. Rather a shameful performance by the Government which thinks that it’s NSA is Cowboy Bob.
    Contd…….

  3. An article well written.What more can be added is troops available are more on adm duty then tacticle employemnt.We see RR,Army,NSG troops on roads performing menial task which they are not suppose to do.POLICE requires no mention as they are on decline in all respect their girth speaks volume………

  4. We had the unholy Neta – Babu nexus and now we have a bumbling cowboy in the NSA A Doval with his incompetence, bungling and interference as an unqualified and unauthorised person. He made it evident, he understood nothing of military or operational matters. Bypassing the two Chiefs of Army and Air Force to employ the NSG and hand over op command and control to it, was an unmitigated disaster to start with. As to why the service Chiefs did not offer him professional advice or in case it was not accepted, inform the Raksha Mantri
    of a brewing disaster. Responsible Ministers were prematurely patting Doval and Co for an unfinished op. The NSG Cdr in this case should have been the person reporting on t he completion(??) of ops. The PM needs to take to task his over zealous ‘Rambo”. The Neta- BSF-smuggler nexus has to be crushed or national security will always be a under threat. More importantly the Chain of Command for ops, particularly along IB must be clearly defined. Unprofessionals cannot interfere- its not like a flood relief op or a natural disaster where the Politician has to be seen directly supervising relief. This a serious threat to National Security.

  5. unless the politician , babu , criminal , gunda , smuggler , police nexus is broken the country will continue to bleed . good officers of both civil and police get sidelined . goons and criminals rise . the nation pays the price .The old colnial structures need to be dismantled .The NSG A special force being commanded by a IPS pot bellied pandu who is basically a adminstrative babu with no nexpierence of leading from the front makes a recipe for disaster

  6. The passage below from Brigadier Sahib’s paper above, is the crux of the problem as many terrorists are able to infiltrate across the border.

    (Finally, the Government needs to take a long and hard look at the criminal-drug- smuggling linkages and the reported involvement of politically influential persons in such trade. As long as these people can get away with their nefarious activities, the national security of this country will remain vulnerable as they are able to involve personnel from the security establishment in their activities. It is an undisputed fact that terrorists take full advantages of this criminal nexus to further their aims.)

    Thank you sir.

  7. If India had prior actionable intelligence and was well prepared, then the question is how did the fedayeen squad enter the base. If we were well prepared then clinically, with pin point accuracy each of the terrorist should have been eliminated en route. It should not have taken them nearly four days to finish the operation. Post the operation, the agencies are not clear whether any terrorist had escaped or was there a second group as indicated in the call intercepts? Instead of claiming credit (at times out of turn), politicians and security officials need to ponder where they fumbled and floundered?

  8. In retrospect a lot can be said but whatever was done, did not let-happen what the terrorist came for….the destruction of aircrafts and it’s installations. A lot of good men were lost in the element of surprise a terror strike or police faux-pas has and that’s what needs to be addressed in our context of fighting insurgency.
    The solution lies in the Service HQrs taking-over the entire insurgency & disaster relief operation along with associated organisation like the NSG/BSF/ITBP/CG/NDRF/NDME leaving Home Ministry to tackle Naxals, Law & Order which is now in total disarray. The Naxals are bidding their time to strike and then the entire attention of the Home Ministry will swing towards them. Disaster relief too is in shambles
    Let’s face it, the face of War and Disaster management has changed over three decades and insurgency, state-sponsored terror and aid-to-civil power is what the Military has been countering in the period. The reins of administration in one hand and operations in another is the cause of all the ills in most terror strikes and relief work. The Military is most competent and cost-effective organisation to handle both scenarios. Feathers will be ruffled among the babus, but the Nation has suffered enough nonsense after independence by dependence on bureaucracy. The table & chair job befits their profession, while the constabulary to the Police.

  9. In retrospect a lot can be said but whatever was done, did not let-happen what the terrorist came for….the destruction of aircrafts and it’s installations. A lot of good men were lost in the element of surprise a terror strike or police faux-pas has and that’s what needs to be addressed in our context of fighting insurgency.
    The solution lies in the Service HQrs taking-over the entire insurgency & disaster relief operation along with associated organisation like the NSG/BSF/ITBP/CG/NDRF/NDME leaving Home Ministry to tackle Naxals, Law & Order which is now in total disarray. The Naxals are bidding their time to strike and then the entire attention of the Home Ministry will swing towards them. Disaster relief too is in shambles
    Let’s face it, the face of War and Disaster management has changed over three decades and insurgency, state-sponsored terror and aid-to-civil power is what the Military has been countering in the period. The reins of administration in one hand and operations in another is the cause of all the ills in most terror strikes and relief work. The Military is most competent and coast-effective organisation to handle both scenarios. Feathers will be ruffled among the babus, but the Nation has suffered enough nonsense after independence by dependence on bureaucracy. The table & chair job befits their profession, while the constabulary to the Police.

  10. I will like to ask as to why AOC, Pathankot Air Base didn’t get the perimeter security beefed up when he was advised to shift his toys to another base?
    why Army and Air Chief meekly surrendered to the diktats of NSA? Why they didn’t put their foot down as professionals that local troops and Cdos are capable enough to handle the situation? Why they didn’t impose on NSA that GOC of a local Div or Bde Cdr will be the overall in-charge of operations.
    What concrete actions were taken by all security and Int agencies post Dina Nagar attack?
    Why no question has been raised on the role of BSF cdr in whole infiltration fiasco?
    what RM meant by ‘little mistakes’ and why HM jumped the gun and started thumping his chest when he had no role. What Subramanium Swamy meant by ‘only seven fatal cas’ and finally How PM will like to explain his silence and contradictory stance now vs while in opposition, is he now more bothered about his international image.

    Anti -terrorism operations can’t be run as a cottage Industry with all stake holders enjoying the booty without accountability.

    • What about the role of the Punjab Police and its SP? The fact that the operation went on for nearly four days is because of the lackadaisical attitude of the Punjab Police. The SP should have been grilled in the first instance as the operation was on going.

  11. The regretful state of the Indian military preparedness does not bode well for the current administration. Judging from the Mumbai episode, and given all the wind-bag speeches on national security by the Prim Minister, nothing will happen to prevent Pakistani Military from doing it again. The Pathankot incident is a wake up call. Pakistani military has tested it’s new military doctrine of threatening India with field nuclear weapons, should India retaliate for the Pakistani terrorism. They have succeeded in the bluff, leaving the Indian Prime Minister and his cabinets ministers to making excuses instead of responding. Indian leaders just don’t have the spine to hit back like Israel. Modi wants to build the biggest statute of Sardar Patel to show his commitment to national cause. Mr. Modi walking in the footsteps of Sardar Patel will be a bigger tribute than stone and mortars.

  12. Quite a decent analysis of the events that unfolded. It will be interesting to watch how the investigation unfolds.

    I am curious to find out how the Garuds performed through this fiasco(not too well I imagine). In recent years they seem to have spent a fair bit of money acquiring the latest and greatest equipment and weapons and posing for photos that regularly get published on social media.

    Perhaps they should spend a bit more time attached to Army units deployed in J&K and the North East to get some actual combat experience rather than just look ‘cool’ for the paparazzi.

  13. Very aptly put across sir. Could not agree more with you. As details are emerging now, there was a very high level security meeting in Delhi chaired by NSA and also attended by our COAS. Why did he not object to such a naive initiative of the NSA. An infantarian himself why did he not come up with the suggestions that a retd Brig is giving here. Is he professionally dumb? Let us face the fact that as long as we keep promoting mediocrity in the army we will keep having such mediocre and timid Chiefs. Time has come to rise above the turfs within the army. Let’s get out of the pro rata and gimmicks like command exit policies and only promote professionalism. Hope you buy this.

    By the way sir, this entire op was a grand demo of how police controls a counter terror op. Let’s disband the Army. God save us!

  14. Army is sore because they did not get the chance.

    This operation was a fine surgical precision opeartion which was to take longer. Army is broad sword, it is imprecise for operation inside an operating military base.

    So stop offering BS opinions.

  15. Once again, it was total chaos,
    Couldn’t see any proper chain of command and inter forces, or agency coordination. It seems everybody was jumping into action, overlapping of tasks,

    Pre atacks
    If there was Intel on potential threat, how could there was no renforcement. BSF, should have been full alert not only at border but border area town intel ops and better communication with security groups of sensible areas for example dsc. Fri her more security personal of the base should have been on high alert and ready for any threat. Dsc should have been renforced with airforce security guards, and garud commandos should be on high alert stand by.
    Local police should have shared the info. And more check points around high value infrastructure.
    could have saved the lives.

    During attack.

    Complete chaos, who was was doing g what, zero tactics , and badly équiped. Who called in NSG, while garud are there, police swat teams are qualified, and for bigger ops like combing , army infantry unites are better trained. I could see local police running here and there, some are taking action without any proper back ups. And dsc look like out of shape force,

    I beleive we need to work on inter service coordination, first. For example tire or circle system.
    Police should be there to control traffic to let in armed forces smoothly, secure civil areas, maintain
    a and order during operation, for example civilians movement, etc, so that no civilians should be around , one Iit will decrease the chances of any civilian casualties, second will smooth of the movement or armed forces and keep the secrecy.
    protective forces like dsc, should provide outer most circle, and adjoining area secuirty, and P, ease provide them good gear and kep on check their physical condition.

    first respond team like garud or other airforce guards take first action, and mean time swat teams and army infantry units should move in as quick as possible,

    Reached word limit, rest in part 2.

  16. There have been a spate of articles on the subject, mostly pointing to the incident as a botched operation. There is always a huge backlash in hindsight. Lack of coordination is quite a common after thought. There are some aspects of the incident that don’t add up. Firstly,why would national assets be guarded by the DSC, especially when they are so close to the border? While the airbase may not have been under threat all these decades, but the proximity to the border surely should be a consideration. Secondly, the SP’s abduction and subsequent use of his vehicle by the terrorists seems a far fetched coincidence.

    There are many actors and each one needs to be accountable whether it is the Police, Army, BSF or NSG. Has this been a failure at all levels? If so we need some introspection. I agree with the writer that tactical operations are best left to the executors. It may be a good idea to hand over the situation to one agency with the best possible control over the situation.

    One thing is clear though, everyone is waiting for orders and that brings to question the leadership and initiative at all levels. We need to trace what the Police, BSF, Army and Air Force did in this case? Handling of terror threats does need special forces and wasn’t the NSG was created or this? That is the impression the country has, that they are special troops for a purpose. Army does this role effectively in J and K, and is geared for it. However, it has not been used in Punjab and as such in the earlier Gurdaspur Terror attack.

    Definitely enquiry is necessary to improve the system, but will any heads roll?

    Nice analysis.

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