What India needs to learn from the Pathankot air base attack

January 8, 2016

A security personnel stands guard on a building at the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot in Punjab, January 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/Files

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Though the bullets have stopped flying at Pathankot air base, the fog is yet to dissipate. What’s discernible is that it was an act of terror controlled by mission handlers in Pakistan. On the night of Dec. 31, four or five men hijacked the vehicle of the police superintendent of Gurdaspur, Punjab. Surprisingly, they didn’t kill the officer and other passengers. The police officer called up his superiors and warned them.

The Indian Air Force base at Pathankot has a 24 km perimeter with tall grass growing inside the premises. Defence Security Corps, an establishment primarily manned by retired armed forces personnel, provides the base security. Notwithstanding that our forces thwarted the designs of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, there are reasons to reflect on the way the operation was conducted.

Army soldiers stand guard near the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot in Punjab, January 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/Files

To begin with, even after the police officer’s warning, the Punjab Police response was amateurish. The situation called for the highest level of threat warning being issued immediately and standard operating procedures fully implemented. Intelligence sharing was embarrassing, slowing the response in New Delhi, with the National Security Adviser calling for a conference only on Jan. 2.

The deployment of the National Security Guard (NSG) has been widely debated. The NSG is not trained to flush out terrorists from dense undergrowth. A total of nine army columns were also inducted, while a column of army special forces was flown in. It’s common knowledge in informed circles that our special forces are superior and operate in insurgency-hit areas to keep their skills honed. The column remained unutilised.

The command and control setup at ground zero was a debatable issue. The Western Air Command Chief being in overall command is all right, but the coordination of operations at the base with its mix of DSC, Punjab Police, NSG, IAF’s Garud Commandos, nine infantry columns and special forces definitely requires an experienced commander. Further, the nature of the task involved clearing a large area rather than a hostage situation. While a senior NSG officer was deputed, the local brigade commander or divisional commander would have been better suited for the task.

Security personnel place a barricade on a road outside the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot in Punjab, January 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/Files

The NSA has come under flak, but in the absence of both the home and defence ministers, it must be acknowledged that he took charge and moved the requisite elements swiftly. Definitely, some decisions would be debated, and that of the NSG controlling operations in military areas is best never repeated.

Old and retired DSC personnel are not the right “material” to fight hardcore terrorists. The Indian Air Force requires a fitter, more motivated and trained force. Punjab Police, of course, needs to go back to its drawing board.

Information dissemination through the media remained tardy, and even contradictory at times. While during the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, we foolishly allowed live coverage, over here we deferred releases to a point that speculation became rife and pseudo strategists spewed their own stories. Even the police superintendent gave statements to the media.

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