Pathankot attack: A terror strike, some hard truths

At Pathankot, lessons unlearnt from 26/11, and mistakes repeated, albeit on a smaller scale

Written by H S Panag | Updated: January 11, 2016 3:43 pm
Pathankot attack, pathankot air base attack, pathankot terror attack, pathankot attack investigation, punjab sp car abduction, pathankot attack intel, pathankot attack NSG, pathankot attack army, india news, pathankot news, indian express column Pathankot attack: Security personnel at the Pathankot airbase during PM Narendra Modi’s visit, Saturday. Gurmeet Singh

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.

Also Read | Probing Pathankot: Around the airbase

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.

Watch video Pathankot Attack: The Rise Of Jaish-e-Muhammad

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.

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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.

Read: Two ‘intruders’ chased, turned out to be pigs

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.

Probing Pathankot: How wires got crossed in Delhi

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.

Read: Behind the Pathankot breach, 3 lights turned upward and airbase staffer detained

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.

 

The writer, a retired lieutenant general, was GOC-in-C of the Northern Command

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  1. H
    Hilarious
    Jan 11, 2016 at 5:39 am
    Let us once again introspect like every time we introspect after every debacle in every Olympics.
    Reply
    1. A
      Arjun Thapan
      Jan 11, 2016 at 2:17 am
      General Panag is dead right. His conclusions, and counsel are spot on. We have learnt no lessons from 26/11 and continue to operate in silos with basic principles forgotten. Lady Luck was on our side. She might well desert us the next time.
      Reply
      1. T
        TIHAEwale
        Jan 11, 2016 at 6:24 am
        Akalis are like DMK of TamilNadu both harbour criminal and Anti National elements and history has shown this time and gain. Drug trade facilitators in the BSF and Punjab Police need to be identified and prosecuted.
        Reply
        1. K
          K SHESHU
          Jan 11, 2016 at 4:36 am
          After each attack, much dissection and post-mortem takes place. All the experts -security or news analysts - pour heaps of advice with cogent arguement. The glaring lapses continue in one form or the other. Some other incident takes place somewhere else, and we will be back to square one again!
          Reply
          1. A
            Ajay Singh
            Jan 11, 2016 at 8:45 am
            Disappointing to see the usual turf war mentality in this article rather than focus on the issues. It seems many senior Army officers are overly conscious of their status but not sufficiently focused on developing the professional competence needed to rid the nation of cross border terrorism. It is well known that the terrorist always enjoys the element of surprise, since he can initiate his action at a time and place of his choosing. We were lucky to have some intel leads in this case and that - unlike 26/11 - they were acted upon promptly. It is in the nature of intelligence work that there may not always be an advance warning in the future. Therefore to rid ourselves of this menace we need to take the terrorists' sanctuaries out across the border with short and sharp special forces strikes (since anything more could escalate into a full scale war). The "20,000 army troops" the good general is so proud of hopefully also have some special forces men in their ranks who are trained to do this. Surely they are not there to reactively tackle terrorists all over India (that is what the NSG is trained to do) or do chowkidar duties at air bases (which is the DSC or Garuds' role) and whatever else the good general would like to deploy them for. The Pathankot attack and its neutralisation can be thought of as Phase I of the affair. Phase II is yet to come and it is what we need to now think about. I am not holding my breath for Nawaz Sharif to suddenly deliver the terror masterminds bound and gagged to us at Wagah against the wishes of the ISI. In a couple of weeks I hope we will not see a situation where once again - as after 26/11 - there will be nothing more than the usual slanging match across the border, we will bluster impotently against the stanis and threaten to cancel the talks ... as if the ISI cared whether we talk or not. I really hope that we will instead see some robust action to punish the JEM and their ISI sponsors on their ground. Then we will see if the Armed Forces have really learnt the lessons of 26/11 and provided the nations some options to deal with this and justify the expense and respect that the people of India lavish on them. Meanwhile the IAF had better replace the DSC (they can go home and enjoy OROP) with properly trained Garuds, repair the fences on their bases and weed out the traitors in its ranks who are happy to sell the nations secrets to the enemy for wine and women.
            Reply
            1. K
              kamalakanta
              Jan 12, 2016 at 4:36 pm
              "The NSA must refrain from micromanaging operations in military domains" Mr Doval is in vharge of dual duties 1. NSA, FM and Unfortunately supeme commander of our Army is not the President at the moment ( ) One more question, can not the fighter aircraft and helicopters in border area be placed under a concrete bunker ?
              Reply
              1. S
                S.Gonesh
                Jan 11, 2016 at 11:07 am
                Why is India so soft? Time and again the enemies of Hindustan have repeated their intentions to destroy Hindustan. And still the governments are behaving as small boys hiding behind mothers saris. Hindustan need an Emperor/Empress - new not dynasty style - covering 20 years. Also is needed more power for the Army. They are the protectors of Hindustan and so they must get the right to take on all anti-Hindus in the country. Also all criminal politicians must be driven out from the Parliaments.
                Reply
                1. P
                  Pawar RS
                  Jan 11, 2016 at 8:59 pm
                  Panag is just shooting wild. All 3 star generals are not necessarily worthy and the same stands for this pAAP supporter. He has left the Army for good and better his views are told to Kujliwal only and his pAAP !!
                  Reply
                  1. D
                    DA
                    Jan 11, 2016 at 8:08 am
                    I respect your views Sir, but an upright personage like yourself siding with the Army in the turf war seems a bit reflexive. I'd think we should be less doctrinaire, and allow for flexibility in this matter depending on the situation on the ground.
                    Reply
                    1. G
                      Girish
                      Jan 11, 2016 at 3:04 am
                      arre no, no! he's all wrong. modi bhagwan expressed satisfaction with the operation, no? then hang the Generals! what do they know of combat against modi bhagwan?
                      Reply
                      1. A
                        Aneesh Gupta
                        Jan 11, 2016 at 12:49 pm
                        And what about the 120 nukes that stan will let loose. Nagasaki and Hiroshima have still not recovered from their nuclear debacle. Its good to be hot headed in the gym, not on the battlefield or while policy-making. Jai Hind.
                        Reply
                        1. H
                          Harsh
                          Jan 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm
                          The purpose and aim was different in both the terrorist attack therefore it is wrong to say that we have not learn any lesson from past. It is correct that our response was lethargic but we have becomes successful to avoid any civilian casualties as site of action was staff residence area and thus, caution was very essential. The reason as we fail to stop them at border because they might have used the drug smuggling channel. As drug smuggling is a multinational issue, it should be tackled at that level. Basically, poverty is the main reason behind militancy or smuggling as it provides some money to poor and big business and power to rich and influential people. Unless and until as a society we do not reject the donations or funds coming in the form of charity or stop glorifying the donors, we will not able to curb the militancy or smuggling.
                          Reply
                          1. H
                            H.Balakrishnan
                            Jan 11, 2016 at 2:08 am
                            Sir, A query. If the NSA ended up doing a Brigade Commander's Task, who then was doing THE NSA's actual job ??? Point to ponder. Regards
                            Reply
                            1. H
                              H.Balakrishnan
                              Jan 11, 2016 at 1:06 pm
                              Regret to state that the COAS let down the Indian Army badly by agreeing to place the troops under the command of the NSG - A police force. Sad. I can't imagine Sam Bahadur ever agreeing to such a ic decision. If insisted upon, he would have put in his papers. Regret also to state that the Chiefs have forgotten the second line of the Chetwodian motto, these days. Sad. Regards
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                Madhav. Yvb
                                Jan 11, 2016 at 3:35 pm
                                Have some of the army people to try to break the security of airbases and other vital installations on a routine basis and fix the s.
                                Reply
                                1. J
                                  jagar
                                  Jan 11, 2016 at 12:44 pm
                                  You believe that 1998 fiction of atom bomb.Most scientists have termed it a damp squib.
                                  Reply
                                  1. K
                                    Krishnan
                                    Jan 11, 2016 at 8:02 am
                                    Excellent article. Pls also mark a copy to the govt and force commanders. I also think NSA should think developing viable counter response options (.i.e. limted surgical strikes and/or deniable counter strike against pak military infra using NDS/AW) in these situations instead of micro managing ops. At the end of the day, this is part of pak army's policy where they think limited repeated deniable strikes by "non state actors" would force India to negotiating table w/o precondition of terror and the nuclear umbrella would blunt Indian attempt to effect punishment with conventional force superiority. Only viable options for us to 1) develop overwhelming conventional superiority (basically cold start with lightning quick ops) and/or 2) Punish back with similar deniable attacks (we are already doing this to some extent) which bleeds their economy and keeps the country destabilized.
                                    Reply
                                    1. A
                                      ashok
                                      Jan 11, 2016 at 6:19 am
                                      Very touchy the men in fatigues tend to be. Where the national interest is involved, if NSG and police can work under an army comander, why not the converse ?
                                      Reply
                                      1. M
                                        Murthy
                                        Jan 11, 2016 at 1:48 am
                                        Complacency and inefficiency have often gone together in many aspects of governance in India . But, the price to be paid for that in the defence sector can be very very high. The author has done well to highlight the details, including the stages by which the attack proceeded.
                                        Reply
                                        1. S
                                          Suresh
                                          Jan 11, 2016 at 7:31 am
                                          Superb article, its sharp and precise like a military operation. In India, we never took the security issue of vital insutions and military ets seriously thinking that terror is something contained in JandK . if we walk around any military base in India, we can see the security is very lazy and some times, we can just walk inside the base without being checked. Having lived in an airforce base, I have sometimes wondered how easy it is to get in and out of a base. When every one talked about security, we generally thought about security around the gates where some jawans of the DSC were present. But even a good boundary wall with barbed wire fence will not ensure protection as terrorists may dig tunnel under it and try to get inside the base because the fidayeens only want to enter the base and they never go back. This is what we repeatedly fail to understand. All the bases must be cleared of excess growth of vegetation and the site around the bases should be secured by clearing all shops and establishments which some time abutt the walls of military bases. This is gross negligence. Every point mentioned in this article need to be given serious consideration for us to secure our borders and defence establishments.
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Asit Nag
                                            Jan 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm
                                            This is an excellent analysis by a person who is much more knowledgeable than the average columnists and journalists who are feeling up the media and print media with their expert views. The flaws and mistakes that may have taken place are not new and may have taken place in earlier operations also. The tragedy with us is that due to certain limitations in the system the command and control of any particular operation may or may not go by the book. The remedy to this is to lay down a strict operational procedure which everyone including the political leadership should agree not to tamper with particularly at the time of starting an operation. If operations follow set procedures, the question of lack of coordination between different agencies will not arise. Secondly, public and media briefing should be done from a single point so that no contradictory statements and situation reports get into circulation Given the fact that an entire Infantry Division was available in the vicinity of the airbase and there was prior intelligence report, it is strange that the terrorists could gain entry inside the base and put up a long fight. It is no consolation that civilian lives and our ets were saved. Some serious and independent review needs to be undertaken. . Let us hope the lessons learnt from Pathankot are rectified and implemented in future operations.
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