Pathankot Terror Attack Analysis

The attack

On New Year’s Day, India woke up to the news of terrorists having infiltrated the Pathankot Air Force Base.

It started with the Superintendent of Police, Gurdaspur, informing his superiors that his car had been hijacked by unknown persons, possibly terrorists, and that he was kidnapped along with a friend and driver. By the time senior officials of Punjab Police reacted to the news and informed the Centre of a possible attack, it was afternoon. The Centre then informed the Commandant of the Pathankot Airbase of the possible threat and by the late afternoon, telecom towers tracked calls being made from the base to Pakistan, thereby confirming the presence of terrorists inside the base.

The local security staff then invoked measures to first evacuate foreign military personnel located at the base and simultaneously initiated counter measures to secure assets at the base including aircraft, ammunition depot, radar installations, ATC area and technical area within the base.

The central government, simultaneously, decided to bring in the NSG from Delhi and also sought help of local army units to provide around 40-50 armed personnel to provide back-up to NSG. It took over four days to completely neutralize the terrorists, while the process of sanitizing the area is still on six days later with more explosives being discovered.

Government declares Pathankot operation a success

Really? It is amazing to see the Home Minister and Defence Minister claim that the operation was a success, in that the security forces were able to contain the terrorists to a limited area and ensure that there was no major damage to our strategic assets. While that may well be true, and all credit to the security forces on the ground, the entire handling of the operation smacks of total lack of clarity and control, right from the CCS and down to the various security agencies that were involved.

On government’s part, several unanswered questions come up both at the Centre and state level.

Government intelligence agencies ‘knew’ about Pathankot threat

If that were the case, why and how did six terrorists easily enter the airbase without detection and remained there undetected for more than 12 hours before an attack was launched? This raises several questions about the availability of intelligence, the actionable aspect of that intelligence, the analysis of that information and the transfer process of that information to the concerned security forces on the ground for counter measures.

No lessons seem to have been learnt since 26/11, when poor coordination between security agencies only extended the ordeal that Mumbai had to go through and at terrible cost. The inept handling and multitude of security agencies only raises further questions than answers. Compare this with the US response after 9/11, along with clearly defined SOPs on inter-agency command and coordination.

Why was the army not deployed?

Pathankot is a strategic location as it guards the chicken’s neck area that connects J&K with rest of India and therefore, over 50,000 army personnel are stationed there in combat mode. Therefore, it is surprising that the central government, under advise from NSA Ajit Doval, decided to bring in the NSG from Delhi rather than request the army stationed there to be immediately deployed.

The army has been in active combat mode fighting terrorists in J&K and was therefore fully geared to be inserted into the airbase and take on the terrorists, at least until the NSG arrived to support them. What actually transpired was the reverse. The army was belatedly involved and that, too, in small numbers to support the NSG. The time lost was crucial.

The NSG is better geared to intervene in small spaces with a small, but highly equipped force. The airbase is over 1200 hectares of land and the entire NSG force in the country would not be sufficient to sanitize the area in a short time. The army had all the resources to achieve the same. Policy miscalculation.

Why was DSC deployed to provide perimeter security to a vital installation?

The DSC falls under the Home Ministry and mostly comprises retired military personnel and are used to maintain basic entry-level checks and perimeter security to defence formations. Most of the personnel are aged and not suited for active physical duty. They are neither adequately trained for any kind of emergency nor equipped to handle situations like terrorist attacks.

So why was a force like DSC entrusted to guard a vital and strategic location like an air base when we know that the possibility of a terrorist infiltration is very real? The situation is the same across most military formations. The objective is not to demean the role of DSC personnel but to accept that as a force they are completely unsuited to offer credible perimeter security.

Why were drones not immediately deployed?

It has taken over four days to neutralize six terrorists who were hiding in mostly open areas (as most of the airbase is open space). Why was sufficient number of drones with thermal imaging capability not deployed in large numbers to undertake grid-wise sanitization? Television coverage showed an IAF’s Russian chopper hovering over the base, but that raises two questions. First, was the chopper able to use thermal imaging to detect the terrorists? If yes, then why did it take so long to neutralize them? If no, then why was the chopper deployed and not drones in large numbers.

Between J&K and Punjab, the army and air force has enough drones available for aerial surveillance, so the question is what held back the government from deploying these assets in large numbers. Some drones may have been deployed, belatedly, but obviously they were inadequate given the long time we took to detect and neutralize the infiltrators.

Finally, the suspect role of the SP Gurdaspur

While it’s too early to jump to any conclusion on the role of SP Salwinder Singh, it is very apparent that his version of events raises several questions and highlights several inconsistencies that merit further investigation.

Punjab is a state that is deeply affected by drugs and alcohol. It is a well-known fact that the narcotics comes from Pakistan and given the high level of security presence, it is not possible to run this business without active connivance of the state police, bureaucrats and politicians. While the state government will deny this vehemently, it also fears that deep interrogation of the SP could open a can of worms, something both the state and central government will shy away from since the state elections are due in Punjab.

So what next for India?

The government will wait for the high decibel media coverage to shift its attention to the next TRP raising event, committees will be announced to investigate the attack, the BSF will raise their list of equipment required and soon all will be back to normal. Isn’t that how India has responded since 26/11?

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Timeline: Major Attacks on Indian Army