ALL THE Air Force Stations within the Western Air Command were put on “wartime alert” at about 3 pm on January 1. According to sources, in view of the serious situation, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Air Marshal S P Dev — the senior most officer in the command — reached Pathankot air base within an hour of the alert.
The decision to rush him to Pathankot was taken following a “concrete” input that terrorists could try to infiltrate a military installation, most likely an IAF station.
With Dev overseeing the operations, the station was, in technical language, on a “Ground Defence and Passive Area Defence (GDPAD)” plan, also called a red alert, which meant that all the uniformed military men rushed to their designated defence positions — some within 30 minutes, others within an hour, with their weapons.
National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval also chaired a meeting in the Capital to take stock of the situation. But the failure of the NSA and other senior security functionaries to gauge the extent of the preparedness with which the terrorists had come as well as their failure to deal with the developing situation with more planning resulted in operations dragging on for over three days.
A senior government functionary admitted that the fact that three senior functionaries — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar — made their lack of awareness about the ground situation public through social media, only reinforced the government’s ineptness.
“It seems they were either misled or jumped the gun. But there is no doubt that it made us look silly, especially since the operation has still not ended,” said a senior functionary.
Sources said the air base has about 2,000 IAF personnel to guard and administer the technical installations and equipment that includes Mig-21 aircraft, Mi-35 attack helicopters, besides others.
The Quick Response Teams (QRTs) were activated with medium machine guns and a “airborne command post” was established to communicate with the three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that began the surveillance of the 24- km periphery of the station. According to IAF officials, the terrorists were targeting the technical area of the station which houses the Mig-21 fighters and Mi-35 attack choppers squadron.
“At about 3.30 am on Saturday, one of the aerial platforms detected the movement of dots and the first QRT was sent to investigate and check that the dots were terrorists and not cattle or our own people,” said an IAF official.
The terrorists rushed to the DSC mess at around 4.30 am. Sources said the DSC men who lost their lives had just returned from guard duty.
While an airborne command post monitored the movement of the terrorists within the station, all radio communication within the IAF base was constantly monitored by the Western Air Command headquartered in New Delhi. The electronic surveillance was stepped up in the hangar area and along the vital areas within the station radius.
According to an official who has served at Pathankot, the station, with its 2,500-odd population including civilians, is guarded by a 10-feet high wall along with a two-feet tall barbed wire fence. While DSC personnel protect the peripheral wall, the vital areas are guarded by a mix of airmen and DSC personnel, who change guard every two hours.
According to official sources, the entry point of the terrorists has not been ascertained yet, as “no breach in the wall has so far been observed”. “There is a possibility that it may be detected after the operation is over,” the official said.
While four terrorists were killed by Saturday evening, the other two, detected later, were at a distance of about a kilometre from the technical area and hangars.