Special Commentary

Pathankot Attack: Airfield Ground Defence in Perspective

06 Jan, 2016    ·   4954

Gp Capt (Retd) PI Muralidharan examines various aspects of Passive Air Defence in light of the recent attack

The terrorist attack on IAF’s Pathankot airbase makes one recapitulate on the important - but at times ignored - aspects of Passive Air Defence/Ground Defence (PAD/GD) as it used to be called back in the day. The non-flying staff of an air base generally orchestrated the task, which was inevitable as the aviators would be preoccupied otherwise during conditions of war. An elaborate SOP existed as to how the PAD sectors would be manned, and how air raid warnings, bomb disposal, water/electricity management, casualty evacuation, etc. would be handled, and this was periodically exercised by the Station authorities and checked by the Directorate of Air Staff Inspections (DASI). The IAF surely has come some distance since, what with its own “Garud Commandos,” essentially raised to undertake Air Force-specific tasks including airfield security, commando operations within and outside the perimeter as also typical air warrior missions such as Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD), Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) and the like. What has however changed dramatically too is the threat spectrum. Though the IAF has had aerially inserted paratrooper threats during the ’65 and ‘71 wars (some of them being neutralised by valiant locals in Punjab and Haryana!), the nature of the terrorist threat as it unfolded in Pathankot this new years’ is a different kettle of fish indeed.

The nature of high value assets assembled at a fighter airbase especially, as indeed Pathankot is, needs no gainsaying. Besides the war machines themselves, there are other key installations including the runway, air traffic control, command and control centres, fuel storages, bomb dumps, missile sheds, high tech laboratories, specialist vehicles and the like which truly constitute national assets. The manpower (pilots, technicians, air traffic and other controllers and administrative and medical staff as also their families) of course is perhaps the most important strategic asset. All these are ensconced in a vast forested campus (which comes in handy from the camouflage point of view but is a nightmare for Ground Defence); a virtual military township comparable perhaps only to a large aircraft carrier militarily in terms of Vital Areas/Vital Points (Vas/VPs). The importance of Ground Defence understandably increases in a war situation as opposed to peace or no war-no peace scenario. During war situations normally the Territorial Army augments airfield security though this is invariably delayed and not effective. The luxury of getting regular army troops leave alone the National Security Guard (NSG) is a far cry in an operational scenario. An airbase has to learn to manage by itself to handle perimeter and airfield defence. Proactive military leadership on the ground as well as new assets such as the Garuds need to be optimised to deal with the evolving threat spectrum, especially from terrorists and other anti-national elements.

Command and Control

Much has been articulated in the media about the need for optimal command and control for undertaking such anti-terror operations in a military or urban environment. In this particular case, the media has reported that the AOC-in-C (Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief) of the Western Air Command was dispatched to oversee the operations at Pathankot. And of course as is clear now, the NSG was flown in from Manesar, Delhi. Doctrinally, this is the worst way to conduct a tactical-level military operation. The operational control and accountability HAS to be with the local Air Force Commander – this is precisely why he has been assigned as the AOC or Station Commander. Oversight from higher formations such as the Air Command or Air HQ is okay but there should definitely be no ‘back-seat driving’. Diffused or conflicting command and control can be highly detrimental to operational success. There have been cases in the past where local Commanders have been replaced midstream during war, even in the IAF. That is an option always available to a C-in-C or the Chief. But good higher-level leadership also means exhibiting faith in one’s subordinates. Spoon-feeding or micromanaging is NOT part of recommended military leadership ethos.

Need for Technology and Augmented Intelligence

The minute details of the anti-terror operation are not known yet and may not be known for some years. Media coverage has indicated the employment of attack helicopters and UAVs. This is good news indeed. All assets available locally, aerial and otherwise, need to be employed to neutralise the terrorist threat to installations and assets in quick time. Collateral damage aspects and other operational constraints need to be factored in. Depending on the behaviour of the terrorists and their weaponry, the local commander would have to employ the assets to achieve surveillance or hard kill objectives. Precautions such as control of media access, curbs on cell phone usage and evacuation or bunching of families and key personnel need to be planned for. The Air Force has SOPs for these for war situations, but perhaps it is prudent to work out new ones for this kind of anti-terrorist operations. Use of helicopters and UAVs for perimeter surveillance night and day, especially during high threat occasions, should be sine qua non.

For night operations, use of searchlights and flooding of underground structures may need consideration. The sky is the limit for what all could be done at an air base to bottle up and neutralise terrorist elements. As established earlier, good proactive local leadership and delegated operational effort would be key to ensuring that a handful of well-armed anti-national elements cannot hold a whole air base, and by extension, the whole nation, to ransom. Use of Direction Finding gear to zero in on local enemy agents and upgrade of local intelligence units such a Liaison Units and Special Bureaus of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) are other vital supportive anti-terror measures.

Evacuation Drills

Another important aspect in a terror attack scenario is evacuation of assets. The most important assets of course are the flying machines. Situation permitting, they could be flown out to nearby bases. Defence of other high value assets such as ammo dumps and fuel storage would need buttressing. Incoming fuel and key stores would need to be temporarily diverted perhaps. Station authorities can locally augment medical assistance or heavy-duty earth moving gear from local Army/Navy or civilian authorities. But all this needs careful factoring, as across the board evacuations may not be advisable. Calculated marshalling of assets and replenishments would be called for.

Exchange Ratios

The Pathankot event appears to have caused a comparatively higher degree of casualties to Indian personnel. But it must be understood that despite the best preparation, a terrorist strike extracts a heavy toll in the target area, be it on civilians or other soft targets. Recall the high attrition of American personnel and CIA operatives, especially where terrorists have employed suicide tactics. Only very highly trained defensive/offensive assets such as the SEALs or our own Para Commandos/MARCOs could neutralise such threats with minimal casualties. Another aspect that emerges in an airfield anti-terror operation is the uniqueness of an air base, especially a fighter base. Not only is it a "target-rich" territory, but also there would be several buildings, hangars and underground shelters to clear and protect - a combination of urban and military anti-terror operations, so to say. Of course the need to keep the media at bay and prevent undue pressure on local forces and increasing their vulnerabilities through real time coverage need not be over-emphasised. Timely media briefings at suitable locations need to be organised to cater to the requirements of public knowledge.

Political Over-Reaction?

One can understand how authorities at various levels choose to react in a complex democratic entity such as India. Recall the Kandahar fiasco and the much-touted delays whilst reacting to the Mumbai attack. So whilst the luxury of sending across NSG or the WAC C-in-C may be condoned in this case, the lack of coordination or tactical oversight if evident post the entire operation would provide learning value. The IAF of course would need its own soul-searching to address terror as a new threat paradigm. A while ago, in an article about the need to reprioritise the IAF’s role, this author had advocated the need to tailor India’s force structure to address terrorist threats to IAF installations. Perhaps Pathankot reinforces this belief in the urgency of this requirement. The need to enlist the help of local villagers and police in intelligence gathering and physical security cannot be over-emphasised. Having served two assignments at this key air base during the seventies and eighties (and having visited the base on private trips recently), the vulnerabilities of such a base to a coordinated terror strike are only too vivid in one’s 'retired' operational mind.