FEATURED | Pathankot : Air Base Ground Defence in Perspective
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FEATURED | Pathankot : Air Base Ground Defence in Perspective

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Indian Air Force

The recent terrorist attack on Indian Air Force's (IAF) 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 in our days. The task was generally orchestrated by the non- flying staff of an air base, which was inevitable as the aviators would be preoccupied otherwise during conditions of war. An elaborate standard operating procedures (SOP) existed as to how the PAD Sectors would be manned, 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 out by the Directorate of Air Staff Inspections (DASI)

FEATURED | Pathankot : Air Base Ground Defence in Perspective

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 65/71 wars (some of them being neutralized by our valiant locals in Punjab and Haryana!),but the nature of 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, we have other key installations including the runway, air traffic control, command and control centers, 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  administrative and medical staff as also their families) of course is also perhaps the most important strategic asset . All these ensconced in a vast “forested campus (which comes in handy from camouflage point of view but 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).

Image Attribute: USAF ABGD Manual : Areas where aircraft are most  vulnerable to enemy ground fire

Image Attribute: USAF ABGD Manual : Areas where aircraft are most 
vulnerable to enemy ground fire

The importance of  Ground  Defence understandably increases in a war situation as opposed to a peace or no war – no peace scenario. During war situations normally airfield security is augmented by the Territorial Army though this is invariably delayed and not effective. The luxury of getting regular army troops leave alone the National Security Guards (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 optimized to deal with the evolving threat spectrum, especially from terrorists and other anti- national elements.

Command and Control Aspects

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 the case in point one understands from the media that AOC-in-C of Western Air Command was dispatched to oversee the operations at Pathankot. And of course as clear now, the NSG was flown in from Manesar,Delhi. Doctrinally I think 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. That is why he has been put as the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) or Station Commander for.Oversight from higher formations such as the Air Command or Air HQ is okay but definitely not at all a "back- seat driving".Diffused or conflicting Command / 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 employment of attack helicopters and UAVs. This is good news indeed. All available assets locally, aerial and otherwise need to be employed to neutralize 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 behavior of the terrorists and their weaponry, the local commander would have to employ his assets to achieve surveillance or hard kill objectives. Precautions such as control of media access, curbs on cell phone use age and evacuation or bunching of families and key personnel need to be planned for. The Air Force has standard operating procedures (SOPs) for these for war situations, but maybe it is prudent to work out new ones for this kind of anti- terrorist operations. Use of HELI-borne assets and UAVs for perimeter surveillance night and day, especially during high threat occasions, should be sine qua non.

For night operations use of search lights and flooding of underground structures may need consideration. Sky is the limit for what all could be done at an air base to bottle up and neutralize terrorist elements. Like stated earlier good proactive local leadership and delegated operational effort would be key to ensuring that a handful of well armed ANEs 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 Drill

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 near by 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 marshaling of assets and replenishments would be called for.

Exchange Ratio

The Pathankot event appears to have caused a comparatively higher degree of casualties to our personnel. But one needs to understand that, besides 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 wherein suicide tactics have been employed by the terrorist elements. Only very highly trailed defensive /offensive assets such as the SEALS or our own Para Commandos/ MARCOS could neutralize 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 there would be several buildings , hangars and underground shelters to clear and protect through a combination of urban and military anti-terror operations so to say. Of course the need to keep media at bay and prevent undue pressures on local forces and increasing their vulnerabilities through real time coverage need not be over emphasized. Timely media briefings at suitable locations need to be organized to cater to serve 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 oversights 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 a article about the need to re-prioritize IAF’s role as missions ambit, this author had advocated the need to tailor our force structure to address terrorist threats to IAF installations. Perhaps Pathankot reinforces my belief in this urgent requirement. The need to enlist the help of local villagers and police in intelligence gathering and physical security cannot be overemphasized. 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!!

About The Author:
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting it tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and since post retirement he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.

Cite this Article:

Menon, Murli. "OPINION | Pathankot: Air Base Ground Defence in Perspective” IndraStra 002, no. 01 (2016): 0013. http://www.indrastra.com/2016/01/FEATURED-Pathankot-Air-Base-Ground-Defence-in-Persepctive-002-01-2016-0013.html. ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0020120160013/ INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652