December 31, 1999
As the hijack drama of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 is being pla-yed outat Kandahar airport, it has clearly emerged that India’s capability tointervene beyond its borders is woefully inadequate. In the present era ofstrategic uncertainty, where nation-states are confronted with complexcha-llenges and asymmetric threats on a regular basis, it is an inescapablyessential requirement for a regional power with India’s responsibilities andaspirations to develop the ability to intervene internationally to safeguardnational security interests.
There are undoubtedly great risks in launching such rescue operations. Thechances of success can never be better than fifty-fifty. Perhaps the realreason for India not having exercised the military rescue option, theprimary option under such circumstances, is that India lacks the militarycapability to plan and execute the type of operation that the situationdemands. Since the operation involved overflying either Pakistan’s or Iran’sairspace to reach Kandahar, the willing cooperation of these countries wasnecessary.
However, given our relations with Pakistan, it was unlikely to beforthcoming. Iran too may have chosen to turn down an Indian request topermit military aircraft to overfly its territory for an operation inAfghanistan. That le-ft India with the option of mounting an operation fromone of the Central Asi-an Republics, that is, Tajikistan, Uzbeki-stan orTurkmenistan. Though these co-untries support the anti-Taliban NorthernAlliance, it is doubtful whether they would permit India to use theirairbases for a military operaion in Afghanistan. Last, but not the least,the Indian task force would have Kandahar’s air and ground defences tocontend with.
If the Taliban government had not coperated, a forced military operationwould have had to be launched with one or more Special Forces battalions(para commandos) being para-drop-ped or landed to seize the airfield andneutralise the ground threat. The crack anti-hijack squad of the NationalSecurity Guard (NSG) could then storm the aircraft and eliminate thehijackers as per previously rehearsed assault procedures. Throughout theoperation, the Indian Air Force (IAF) would need to maintain fighteraircraft on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) on station above the airport to ensureair defence against the ramshackle Taliban air force. As Kand-ahar is beyond the range of IAF fighter aircraft, reliance may have had tobe pl-aced entirely on shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles of the airdefence artillery. On the successful completion of the operation, asufficiently large number of transport aircraft like IL-76 would be requiredto land and fly away the ho-stages and the assaulting troops and then beescorted safely out of Afghan airspace back to the mounting base.
It does not need to be emphasised that the success of a rescue operationhinges on the availability of accurate intelligence and speedydecision-making as time is of the essence. The reality is India simply doesnot have a transborder capability to put an operation of this magnitudetogether under adverse military conditions. But an interventionistcapability needs to be urgently created as similar situations are likely tooccur with greater frequency in the coming century. It may one day benecessary to extricate the staff of an Indian embassy or an ambassador takenhos-tage. It may even be necessary to eliminate militant organisations suchas LTTE or the Aceh rebels who may choose to clandestinely operate fromIndia’s island territories in the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep andMinicoy groups of islands.
The minimum essential requirem-ent is to be able to launch a Special For-cesbattalion group into action, with the necessary strategic airlift, airdefence and intelligence acquisition capability, within 24 hours of theoccurrence of an incident in the Southern Asian region, on land and at sea.
Ideally, the capability should be to be able to plan and implement abrigade-group size intervention operation at short notice. Such a capabilitycan and must be gradually built up. It has been said about men and womenthat the wishbone can never replace the backbone. It is equally true ofnations.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies andAnalyses, New Delhi
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