The audacious pre-dawn raid on Saturday by Pakistan-based terrorists is a wakeup call for Indian military strategists. The security apparatus failed on three basic counts – intelligence gathering, perimeter security and mop-up operations. Indian forces have been struggling to deal with the rising number of suicide attacks on military installations along its border with Pakistan. The pertinent question is whether such attacks can be pre-empted or defeated without suffering huge casualties.
In the raid, at least half a dozen terrorists believed to be affiliated to Pakistan based terror groups entered the Pathankot airbase and killed seven officers before being neutralised.
“It would be unrealistic to assume that there will not be causalities in such attacks,” former deputy chief of army Lieutenant General (Retd.) R K Sawhney told Rajya Sabha TV.
However, the haste to give the ‘all clear’ in Pathankot operation even before the area was properly sanitised is reminiscent of the mistakes committed by Indian authorities 13 years ago in Tanda, Jammu & Kashmir. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar congratulated the forces on Sunday evening. However, Home Minister deleted his tweets the next day as presence of two more terrorists inside the base was confirmed and 4 NSG commandos were injured in fresh clashes.
Pathankot airbase is some 25 kilometers from Pakistan border and thirty kilometers south west to Dina Nagar Police Station in Gurdaspur that was attacked by terrorists in July last year.
The sprawling air base is spread in over 2000 acre land and has a 24 kilometer long, 11 feet tall perimeter wall, topped by barbed wire. The outer wall which is guarded round the clock is the primary perimeter security structure of the sensitive base that is home to India’s ageing Mig 21 fighters and Mi 35 attack helicopters, the possible target of attackers. Terrorists are believed to have scaled up the wall in two groups of four and two members to attack the base.
“The question is how they were allowed to cross the border and hide in that area and then penetrate that well established sanitized area,” security affairs expert and a former major general in Indian army,” Afsir Karim told Rajya Sabha TV.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar who visited the base on Tuesday also defended the deployment of over 150 NSG commandos at the base in anticipation of an attack on the base as it has over 10,000 civilians and the elite anti-terror force was better equipped to handle the operation.
But the massive security cordon, presence of NSG commandos and advance warning of over 14 hours failed to prevent the attack on the base due to intelligence failure coupled with lax perimeter security.
Pathankot attack is an embarrassing reminder of the lapses made by Indian Army and its leadership in Tanda, near Akhnoor in Jammu & Kashmir 13 years ago. The unprecedented and sensational attack by three terrorists on Electrical and Mechanical Engineer’s Battalion of Indian Army’s Nagrota based 16th Corps on July 22, 2003 and serious lapses in the combing operation nearly wiped out the entire top leadership of Indian army’s northern command including then northern army commander Lieutenant General Hari Prasad and TPS Brar, then GOC of the 16th Corps.
Investigations in to the Tanda attack later revealed that the entire top leadership of northern army had reached the site for taking stock of the situation after being given ‘all clear’ by the local army units. The incident almost proved calamitous as the third terrorist was alive and hiding in the thick grass inside the camp completely undetected despite combing operation conducted by local army units.
The lone surviving terrorist who was hiding inside the Tanda camp attacked senior army officers when they were taking stock of the situation. He killed Brigadier V K Govil, the in charge of EME battalion based at Tanda and wounded then northern Army Commander Lieutenant-General Hari Prasad, Lt. General TPS Brar, then commander of Indian Army’s the 16th Corps.
Three other top officers with key responsibilities in the insurgency hit state also sustained injuries. Major General TK Sapru, General Officer Commanding of the Akhnoor based 10 Division sustained grenade injuries while another Major General D Khanna and Brigadier Baldev Singh were also injured.
The sensational attack on Tanda camp prompted then defence minister George Fernandes to assure both the houses of Parliament that any security lapses by the army would be severely dealt with and new strategies would be developed to thwart such attacks.
Then army chief, General NC Vij, also put restrictions on senior army officers travelling together in the insurgency hit areas of the state to prevent high profile causalities.
But the events in last three years, including the latest Pathankot attack and attacks on Indian Army’s offensive units located in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, reveal Indian military’s perimeter security strategy needs an urgent overhaul.
“We don’t seem to learn any lessons from past, over the years they seem to be forgotten and not implemented in proper sense,” says Afsir Karim who has written several books on insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir and South Asia.
“There are volumes and volumes of orders and instructions and discussions but the implementation is extremely poor on the ground even today. And that is our problem that we’ve to solve,” Afsir Karim told Rajya Sabha TV while commenting on the effectiveness of the measures in the wake of Tanda Camp attack in July 2003.
“Our system is to show off and put maximum number of people in front like 100 policemen doing this or that. This is an absurd way of dealing with terrorist attacks,” says Afsir Karim.
Security experts also advocate use of concealed sentries or snipers in and around sensitive military bases to protect them.
“All our security that is apparent actually helps the terrorist to either evade them or attack them. In any country where terrorists are being fought the main security is always concealed. Terrorists never know which side they are being attacked from or combed off,” added Afsir Karim.
Lieutenant General (Retd.) R K Sawhney advocates use of latest electronic surveillance equipments including night vision devices and thermal imagers to prevent any breach of perimeter security.
Another stark example of the country’s defence apparatus’ inability to improve its perimeter security and prevent terror attacks on its bases was the attack on a unit of 16 Cavalry, the oldest cavalry unit of Indian army, in Samba in J&K on September 26, 2013.
Three heavily armed terrorists first stormed the Hira Nagar police station in Kathua district and killed 4 policemen and a shop keeper at around 7 in the morning. The terrorists then hijacked a truck to reach the nearby town of Samba. They took more than one hour to reach the Samba camp but the authorities at the camp were completely unprepared. The attackers got off the truck two kilometres ahead of the army camp and marched on foot to avoid detection. They shot the lone sentry manning the gate as soon as they reached the camp.
Most of the young officers of the unit were at a gun cleaning exercise after a drill and were totally surprised by the terrorists when they attacked the camp in the morning. Lt. Col Bikramjeet Singh, the second in command of the unit was killed as he tried to rush to guard room to fetch some weapons.
In an unusual move, a surprised commanding officer Col. Avin Uthaiya jumped off on a tank and tried to run down a terrorist. But another terrorist shot at Col. Uthaiya and seriously wounded him and the injured CO had to be evacuated.
A young captain also fired two tank shells on a building inside the camp where the attackers were hiding but was restrained by other officers as the building caught fire and there were apprehensions of collateral damage.
Three more soldiers were killed in the attack that showed how unprepared Indian army’s offensive units located along the Pakistan border are to deal with suicide attacks.
Only a detailed investigation could fix the responsibility for the blunders committed by the concerned agencies, including Punjab Police, that eventually resulted in the highly sensational attack on Pathankot base and claimed seven lives at the start of the year. The event also overshadowed the bold peace initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan. But the Pathankot attack can also serve as a wakeup call for the country’s security establishment to rise up to the threat.