At the best of times, the security of our air bases leaves much to be desired. A barbed-wire fence and/ or a 10-foot wall with towers along the outer perimeter secures the domestic area, which has offices, barracks and messes. A second-tier security fence protects the technical area, where hangars, aircraft pens, control tower and runway are located. An air base is guarded by five to six platoons (60 men each) of the Defence Security Corps (DSC) comprised of 40 to 55-year-old retired armed forces personnel. DSC soldiers are, at best, suited for static guard duties. In addition to the DSC, an air base has two to three sections (10 men each) of IAF police to assist in manning the gates, and a platoon (30 men) of Garuds, the special forces of the IAF, but with training standards well below par. Over all, an air base has 1,500-2,000 airmen armed with basic weapons and little or no combat training.
Of these, non-technical personnel also do guard duty inside the perimeter and, when required, man the perimeter, too. There are no electronic sensors or CCTV cameras along the security fences, or night-vision devices. The outer perimeter has poorly maintained lighting, which was “non-functional” in sections at the Pathankot air base.
Intelligence and warning came in, in the early hours of January 1, under unusual circumstances. An off-duty SP of Gurdaspur, accompanied by two others, was carjacked by four terrorists close to the International Border (IB). The occupants were beaten, bound and dumped at two different places close to the air base. The SP reported the matter to the police, which disbelieved him initially but then investigated the case. A slain taxi driver and his damaged car were also recovered close to the area of the carjacking. The SP’s role is being investigated. Circumstances indicate that the ISI exploited drug smugglers and trapped the taxi driver and the SP, who were probably complicit in the drug trade. The terrorists may have planned to use the SP’s blue-beacon SUV for easy movement. The complicity of other rogue BSF and Punjab Police personnel involved in drug smuggling cannot be ruled out.
By the afternoon of January 1, security measures were in full swing at the air base, assessed as the most likely target, and Mamoon Cantt, another prospective target, where the 29 Infantry Division is located. The macro — and even micro — planning was done by NSA Ajit Doval, who chaired a conference attended by the chiefs of army and air staff and director, Intelligence Bureau. It was decided that the air base’s protection would be beefed up by the army and that a team of the NSG would be located there. The police had started general combing of the area but the public was not taken into confidence. Inexplicably, no lead agency was earmarked and no commander for command and control was specified. Surprisingly, this issue was not raised and there was no objection to the deployment of the NSG in a military area, even though two special forces teams of the army were already in location or on their way. The general officer commanding (GOC), 29 Infantry Division, the seniormost commander at Pathankot, was given no responsibility with respect to command and control.
By the evening of January 1, two army columns and two teams of special forces under Brigadier A.S. Bevli were in location at the air base, primarily tasked with protecting the technical area and vital assets. At 10 pm, 130 personnel of the NSG landed at the base. Another 80 personnel arrived at 2.30 am on January 2. Even at this stage, despite the multiple agencies involved — the IAF, army, NSG, Punjab Police and BSF — no lead agency was earmarked. All aircraft except some attack and surveillance helicopters were flown out.
The command and control of this multi-agency operation was resolved when the inspector general (IG), NSG, and Bevli had a tussle over the issue. It was decided by the army headquarters/ NSA that the IG, NSG, would coordinate the operations. He apparently set up an ad hoc command post but without proper staff and communications. This was a most unsatisfactory arrangement and had a telling effect on the conduct of the operation. Logically, the operation should have been under the command of the GOC, 29 Infantry Division.
The terrorists penetrated the air base from the west. No effort had been made to place additional troops on the perimeter, which at least one infantry battalion should have secured and patrolled. This was a glaring lapse. At 3.30 am on January 2, the terrorists struck at the DSC mess, where unarmed soldiers — despite the alert — were preparing breakfast. Five DSC personnel died in this initial surprise attack. One airman of the Garuds was also killed. The NSG reacted and managed to isolate the terrorists in the DSC/ airmen’s living quarters. Army columns and special forces teams continued to secure the technical area. By day time, the army special forces teams also joined the NSG. By the evening, four terrorists had been eliminated. The operation was declared virtually over. But the area was not combed properly — a command and control lapse. The NSG is not trained to comb a large area and additional army troops had to be brought in. The government announced the success of the operation — another lapse due to poor command and control. Around midday on January 3, terrorists who were lying doggo opened fire, much to the surprise of the NSG. The operation was over by January 5, though combing carried on.
The positive is that the critical assets of the IAF are safe — more due to the advanced warning than the security of the base per se. Imagine what would have happened if, without warning, six terrorists had penetrated the base with aircraft and helicopters parked in clusters in the open.
It is pertinent to highlight the lessons learnt. The IB around the Shakargarh Bulge from Samba to Dera Baba Nanak is extremely vulnerable. The BSF in this area needs to be enhanced with more manpower and electronic surveillance devices. The ISI-terrorist-drug cartel nexus has to be penetrated and broken by cracking down on the drug trade. Drug trade facilitators in the BSF and Punjab Police need to be identified and prosecuted. This operation, once again, highlights the need for better intelligence coordination between the Intelligence Bureau, BSF, police, army and IAF.
The basic security of air bases needs to be improved. Electronic surveillance and security devices need to be installed and better lighting ensured. Air base security battalions with six companies at par with the standards of infantry battalions must be raised at the earliest. Built-up areas must be cleared up to 1 km around air bases and military installations.
For counter-terrorist operations, a lead agency and a commander for single-point command and control must be earmarked. In this situation, the GOC, 29 Infantry Division, with 20,000 troops and two teams of special forces under him, was the most appropriate choice. The security of the air base should have been his responsibility, with the NSG, if required, under his command. Armed forces troops must never be placed under the command of the NSG or other police and paramilitary commanders. It has an adverse affect on morale. The NSA must refrain from micromanaging operations in military domains. Broad directives can be given but detailed planning should be left to the armed forces.
We clearly have not learnt lessons from 26/11, and repeated the same mistakes, albeit on a smaller scale. We may not get a third chance.