Fighting at the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot has come to an end, leaving in its wake a contentious debate on what went wrong, and why. This is exactly as it should be. Improving the security of our republic demands that hard questions be asked, and answered. First, there is the question of just how six men, carrying tens of kilograms of ammunition and explosives, succeeded in entering an airbase protected by high concrete walls, topped with barbed wire. The base’s perimeter had no electronic counter-infiltration equipment. It relied, instead, on the ageing personnel of the Defence Security Corps (DSC), recruited from retired army personnel. The ease with which the perimeter was breached clearly calls for an independent review of security arrangements at other defence facilities. Second, even though dozens of military facilities housing over 50,000 trained troops are located in Pathankot, there was no area-wide emergency-response plan to deal with attacks. Thus, the reaction to intelligence warnings was ad hoc, with just 50-odd troops and 150 National Security Guard personnel given the task of defending against an attack that could have taken place at multiple military facilities scattered across many square kilometres. Finally, neither the police, responsible for the streets, nor the DSC, tasked with base security, had received specialist counter-fidayeen training. Local police personnel, like their counterparts across the country, do not even have the chance to attend a firing range once a year.
It is imperative that a serious debate take place on these issues — not because it may embarrass ministers and high officials, who rushed to declare victory before the fighting was done, but because the cost of failure could have been unacceptably high. If the terrorists, located by air force helicopters and interdicted by DSC personnel, had the few minutes to move just another couple of hundred metres before detection, the damage could have been far greater, and India could even have found itself pushed into a confrontation.
Luck, as much as some good management and courage, averted a larger disaster at Pathankot — but national security is too serious a matter to rely on the gambler’s gods. In coming weeks, the government must be compelled to give a full account of just what went wrong, and Parliament must push for it to produce a clear roadmap to address the deficits that are revealed. From Operation Bluestar to the Kargil War, and from the 1993 Mumbai bombings to 26/11, governments have glossed over failures of equipment, procedure and leadership, in order to shield high officials from accountability. The results are before us. This government came to power at the Centre promising to take national security seriously. Telling Indians the truth is the necessary first step.