During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Pakistan went ahead with a bold and unconventional plan to neutralise the Indian airbases close to the international border. At around 2 am on September 6, around 180 commandos of Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) were airdropped by three C-130s near the Indian airbases of Adampur, Pathankot and Halwara. The plan was that after destroying fighter aircraft and putting these bases out of action, the commandos would ex-filtrate back to Pakistan through the numerous rivulets and nallas that dot the area in Punjab.
The plan failed miserably. Over the next two days, 136 SSG commandos were taken prisoner by the military, police and the civilians, 22 were killed in encounters with security forces and the rest escaped to Pakistan. But the Indian Air Force (IAF) was worried about the security of the Pathankot airbase and moved its fighters out to Palam and Ambala. These squadrons returned to Pathankot after 24 hours. In a rather unusual move, the IAF used its own Hunter and Mystere fighters inside the Halwara and Adampur airbases to destroy the high raven grass (sarkanda) growth where Pakistani commandos, they thought, could still be hiding.
The recent Pathankot terror strike shows that things haven’t changed much in half a century. The airbases can still be infiltrated easily and the raven grass growth can hide infiltrators. The only difference was that this time, the IAF did not fly its aircraft and helicopters out of the Pathankot airbase.
Pathankot is currently in the spotlight but when it comes to security, the situation is no different for IAF’s 54 major airbases. After Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar ordered a review of the security of defence installations, the IAF set up a committee to study the measures needed to plug the gaps. The committee has finalised its recommendations but the major challenges of securing an airbase are well known.
Most airbases are now located inside highly populated areas, or rather, the civilian population has moved closer to the airbases. The gazette notification of no construction within a certain distance of the airbase, varying from 100 to 900 metres, is followed only in breach. For example, the Jammu airbase has a Pir Baba mazaar jutting into it — in fact, the airbase’s boundary wall has been made around the mazaar — which remains a security hazard. In other cases, there are old settlements, roads and grazing areas inside the airbases that pose a security challenge.
Coupled with this is the challenge of the perimeter of an airbase — Pathankot’s is 24 km, Dindigul’s is 45 km. Most airbases now have boundary walls and fences — usually lit — but not every yard of these walls is monitored 24×7. The sentry posts at these boundary walls are 300-400 metres apart. Electronic surveillance and monitoring mechanisms have come into vogue but are still not employed across all airbases.
This means that the quantum of resources required to secure the perimeter boundary are huge, and rarely available with the IAF. The primary security duty is done by the platoons of the Defence Security Corps (DSC) – made of retired army soldiers – and airmen guards. The DSC platoons are always in short supply and made available according to priority – an airbase in Kashmir, say, Srinagar or Awantipur, will have a bigger claim than an airbase in Nagpur.
The airmen guards are the technical staff of the IAF who have another primary role – maintaining the aircraft and supporting air operations. The secondary duty of guarding the airbase is an additional responsibility which can’t be done at the cost of their primary tasks. Even their numbers and availability is limited. IAF’s Garuda commandos are available in some airbases but they are not deployed for regular guard duties.
The gap between the requirement and availability is bridged by prioritising the vulnerable areas within the airbase: the technical area where all the aircraft and other assets are kept. DSC and airmen guards are always placed there. Additional security in case of an emergency at certain sensitive airbases is provided by Quick Reaction Teams of the Territorial Army units or Border Security Force, if available close by. The station commander of the airbase also ties up with the local civil police and neighbouring army units, who carry out reconnaissance, familiarisation and mock deployment exercises every few months.
Many suggestions have been made after the Pathankot terror attack. One of them includes re-raising of Air Forward Defence Battalions by the army, which secured the airbases during the 1971 war. They were later merged to form regular infantry battalions. With the army committed in counterinsurgency duties in J&K and the northeast, and raising a new Strike Corps for China border, it can hardly spare any troops for the Air Forward Defence Battalions. The question of command and control of these troops is also going to be a tricky issue, which is why the IAF does not seem too keen on requisitioning the central armed police forces, such as the CISF, for airbase security.
Use of electronic surveillance and monitoring equipment at airbases is bound to see an uptick in coming months. But the question remains if that is enough to deter suicidal jihadis like those who attacked Pathankot. The biggest challenge, however, is of clearing the vicinity of the airbases of illegal construction and settlements. Local governments are unlikely to cooperate in any such initiative.
Even if all the measures are instituted, no one can guarantee all airbases have been made 100 per cent secure. But perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The IAF has to do all it can to improve the security of its airbases.