Air Power Against Terror and Insurgency

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 4 Sep- Oct 2017
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
The role that air power can play in counter insurgency and anti terror operations
Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM (Retd)
Thursday, October 12, 2017

Pakistan exported terrorism has been causing loss of innocent lives in Jammu and Kashmir for decades. After the Pakistan based militant-attack on the Indian Army Brigade Headquarters at Uri on 18 September, the public opinion across India was to strike hard and teach Pakistan a lesson. Indian Army backed by the political leadership decided to hit the Pakistan Army and the terrorists at their home. Eleven days after the Uri attack, Special Force Commandos of 4 and 9 Para crossed the LoC on the night of 29th and 30th September 2016 for punitive ‘surgical strikes’ into Pakistan. They destroyed terrorist staging camps killing many terrorists. The strike was pre-emptive and based on intelligence inputs that militants were planning fresh terror attacks against India.

India also suffers the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency covering nearly 180 districts in 9 states. Insurgents claim support of the poorest of the rural population, especially the Adivasis. They frequently target police and government workers in what they say is a fight for improved land rights and more jobs. It is unclear whether the controlling seven-member politburo operates from jungles or from urban hideouts. Targeting leadership could result in maximum dividend. Since 2009, India initiated a nationwide ‘Integrated Action Plan’ for coordinated operations against Naxals. This plan includes grass-root economic development, and simultaneous increased special police funding for better containment of Naxalite influence. Naxals have managed some major attacks. On 06 April 2010 Naxal militants killed 76 paramilitary personnel in Dantewada district. More recently on 24 April 2017, 25 CRPF jawans were killed in Sukma, Chhattisgarh.While the Army and Police forces have been bearing the brunt of war against terror, air power has some inherent advantages that can greatly accelerate success and also reduce own casualties. The ability to gather real-time intelligence, short-notice response, precision-attack with low collateral damage, close air-support for police and army operations and casualty evacuation are some of them. Use of air power is often seen as an escalation dynamic and thus there is reluctance by political powers to use it. 

Air Power Against ISIS

US-led coalition launched offensive air operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on 08 August 2014. Air Power ensured halt of ISIS advance towards Baghdad, and Mosul was retaken after over a year of battle. ISIS fighters tended to blend with civil population. Intelligence operations thus assumed paramount importance. Targets of fleeting opportunity had to be engaged. Finding and confirming targets was a big challenge. Fighter missions using Special Recce pods were flown. Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched by US Navy. Fighter aircraft strikes dropped precision-guided munitions (PGMs). There was increasing use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets had a big role to play despite most targets being mobile. Operations against unorganized forces have peculiarities. There was the advantage of asymmetry of airpower. Airborne assets allow better intelligence. Targeting leadership and attacking training camps and concentration areas helps. Forcing leadership to be on the move and dispersal of forces gives collateral advantage. Air power cannot kill ideology but can weaken it considerably. However, in the absence of a clearly defined targetable Centre of Gravity, there is a need to reassess cost of using US$ 80 million aircraft to bomb non-state actors or to knocking out single pick-up trucks by dropping ordnance worth 10 or 20 times the value of the target. Tomahawk cruise missiles cost about $1.5 million each.

Air Campaign in Afghanistan

A coalition of 40 countries have been running a war in Afghanistan to dismantle al-Qaeda and other militant groups. As an aftermath of September 11 Attacks, USA decided to go after terror groups with full force. On 7 October 2001 was launched ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. Insurgents from the Taliban and Haqqani Network, among others were waging asymmetric warfare, guerilla raids and ambushes in the countryside, and suicide attacks against urban targets. On 1 May 2011, US Navy seals killed Osama bin Laden through an air raid into Pakistan. In February 2015, ISIL-K deputy commander Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim was killed in a U.S. drone strike. His successor met the same fate a month later. US air strikes have targeted Pak backed militias in the Tora Bora region bordering Pakistan, and Baluchistan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. By July 2016 the terrorist numbers had reduced to approximately 1,500, with 70% of the fighters coming from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). U.S. forces have conducted more than 1,000 air strikes in Afghanistan in 2016. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been 460 airstrikes against terrorists (with drone strikes alone killing more than 200 militants). On 13 April 2017, in the Nangarhar airstrike 94 militants, including 4 commanders were killed by a GBU-43 MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) that was dropped on a tunnel complex in Achin District by a Lockheed MC-130.

Air Power in Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN)

Air power can play an important role in COIN and is capable of a wide range of operations. These include transportation in support of combatants and civilians, including casualty evacuations; Intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance; Psychological operations through leaflet drops, loudspeakers, and radio broadcasts; and air-to-ground attack against ‘soft’ targets. Air power provides a high-visibility response option. It has its risks and challenges too. One of the best ways of using air power is to provide low-profile long-term assistance to the ground forces. Sometimes it becomes mandatory to use offensive air power against well armed insurgents as is the case by Israel against Hezbollah rockets attacks or by Americans in Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. Insurgents faced with superior firepower will generally adapt by avoiding overt concentrations of force and will tend to melt away into the local populace when threatened. This disbursement itself can be considered a success. Use of air power often hastens the end, however long term success has to be achieved on the ground. Offensive air power has many strengths but its employment in COIN must be carefully assessed lest it undermines the effects being sought.


Indian Air Force (IAF) had used Toofani jets in 1956 for COIN ops in Nagaland and Vampires in North East Frontier Agency (Now Arunachal Pradesh) in 1960. In 1966 Hunters and Toofani fighters were used against insurgents in Manipur. IAF helicopters are routinely carrying out COIN operations during UN Peace Keeping missions in the African sub-continent. On 4 June 1987, in a bid to provide relief in the Jaffna peninsula, IAF mounted Operation Poomalai. Five Antonov An-32 aircraft under Mirage-2000 fighter cover flew over Jaffna to airdrop 25 tons of supplies. IAF later deployed one squadron of An-32, two Mil Mi-8 units, one squadron of Mil Mi-24s and a unit of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters in Sri Lanka. India used air power in Sri Lanka against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in 1989. 

Air Power to Counter Terror in Kashmir

After embarrassing defeats in various Indo-Pak wars, since 1989, Pakistan has been running a low-intensity proxy war in Kashmir through a stated policy of inflicting a thousand cuts on India. The Kargil incursions and the war, attack on Indian Parliament in 2001, 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Pathankot airfield attack and the more recent Uri attack (September 2016) again tested India’s resolve to hit back. While Indian Army and J&K Police and other para military forces are fighting insurgency, air power can be harnessed for better and faster results against terror. UAVs for intelligence gathering, and terrorist and battle tracking. Armed helicopters to support a terror battle by using as air observation posts and also to fire against terrorists using helicopter mounted machine guns. Helicopter mounted Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) can track terrorist movements at night.

Targets Across Line of Control (LoC)

Ever since Pakistan went nuclear in 1998, it has often used that card to deter India from a large scale reprisal. India made a small but clear beginning through the surgical strikes. Options now need to be expanded. Since World War II history is replete with air-supported special operations. Pakistani response to the first surgical strike was meek and defensive. Air is the best medium for punitive strikes against targets across LoC. Over the years, Indian Army and intelligence agencies have mapped the entire area across LoC. There are terrorist training and assembly areas around 15-20 kilometers deep, which are like small army camps. The forward terror launch pads are smaller clusters of hutments. There are communication nodes and towers across LoC which are used by Pak handlers to remain in touch with their operatives while moving inside India. IAF’s surveillance systems on the Su-30 MKI and Jaguar aircraft can cover large areas across the border without crossing the LoC. These missions must become a routine. Pak Army bunkers and gun positions are important targets.  

Air Power for Surgical Strikes

IAF has platforms and stand-off weapons to carry out surgical strikes. By now the militant congregation points before final push into India are well known. Special missions are normally flown at night as during day operations aircraft are more vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and some IR man-portable systems. Enemy territory stretch is normally flown at ultra-low level using Night Vision Devices. Pre-emptive jamming or SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) is required. Mission can also have air defence escorts, combat air patrol for LZ/DZ security, and fire support for helicopter operations. Fighters can be part of the package and provide additional strike capability with greater standoff, hard-target kill capability, and larger area suppression weapons.

Guided missiles on helicopters have ranges up to 5 km. The Mil Mi-25/35 attack helicopters should be used in operations south-west of the Pir Pinjal mountain range. Laser Guide Bombs (LGB) and missiles can be launched from 8-10 kilometers by fighter aircraft. Helicopters can be used for troop insertion. They can also plan retrieval back. C-130J has low-level night penetration ability and can para drop troops for a larger operation. FLIR targeting pods will support hitting by night. Active Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) pods must support operations and also chaff/flares will act as passive ECM. Airborne radio jammers can be used to jam enemy communications and help create chaos. Smaller aircraft like the BAe Hawk Mk 132 may be used for rocket and gun strikes up to 15 km deep. Airborne platforms must also be used for post-strike enemy damage assessment. IAF will also provide logistical support to Indian Army for re-enforcements to support simultaneous ground operations across LoC. IAF can greatly support sanitization of the air space during pure army surgical strikes. Element of surprise will have a premium. Indian Army and IAF need to regularly practice specifically modeled exercises at training areas in Central India. Decoy strikes and diversionary air activity in Punjab and Rajasthan sectors could divert attention away from the LoC. Once India feels reassured after successful stand-off air strikes, the incursions can be deeper. One day IAF will also be able to use the BrahMos cruise missiles. IAF’s new acquisition Dassault Rafale aircraft has been hitting ISIS targets undertaking strikes and also been flying intelligence gathering missions carrying the Reco NG recce pod. Air operations may be backed by AEW&C cover. Initial aim would also be to demoralize the terror propagating leadership through high losses. Leaders like Saeed Hafiz must one day be targeted through air strikes or captured by our special forces through an airborne operation.

Escalation Dynamics

India needs to make the intent clear. India’s targets should be restricted to terrorist infrastructure. Yet India should be ready to give a bloody nose in case of a counter strike. Indian Armed Forces would have to be kept armed and ready to cater for the escalation matrix. The counter to the counter has to be much stronger. Pakistan’s bluff of a nuclear response to Indian surgical strikes has to be called. Both India and Pakistan have nearly 100 nuclear weapons but India has an edge in delivery means. If Pakistan is making tactical nuclear weapons then India too will have Nirbhay missile with a nuclear warhead. Pakistani nuclear threshold relates to huge territorial gains by India and that is not likely to be crossed by surgical strikes. China has over a 100 billion dollar trade with India and it is growing exponentially. With shrinking European economies China cannot antagonize India by taking an active side in short surgical air strikes.  

Air power for anti-Naxal Ops.

Currently National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) and IAF Searcher II and Heron UAVs are already being used for day and night reconnaissance and surveillance. A full unit of Mi-17s is deployed for day and night ops for troop insertion, extraction, casualty evacuation, and logistics support. The helicopters have armour plating. They carry armed gunmen to retaliate in self defence. The next level of escalation would be use of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters to target larger concentration of naxals. The Rudra (Weapon System Integrated ALH) equipped with FLIR and Thermal Imaging Sights could also be used. In due course IAF will get the indigenous LCH and the much more versatile Apache attack helicopters. Positioning them will also act as a deterrent for a mass scale attack by the militants. The third level of escalation could mean use of the BAE Hawk Mk 132 with guns or rockets. Jungles of Chhattisgarh provide protection for insurgents and restrict the ability of air power for interdiction operations but a large amassed force can be a good target from the air. Consequently, insurgents’ freedom of movement and ability to concentrate firepower become more limited. This thinning of insurgents enables government control. Once this control is established the non-military functions critical to the ultimate success of the campaign, such as rebuilding the infrastructure, economy and standard of living, can be carried out. Defensive Close Air Support (CAS) can protect own ground forces through armed aerial patrols and search and destroy attacks. Air Power has also been used world-wide for targeted killing or capture of insurgent leaders. Ideological insurgencies normally revolve around a small number of leaders whose loss may collapse the movement. IAF’s heavy lift Mil Mi-26 helicopters can move large reinforcements and critical large equipment in special contingencies. These will one day be replaced by the Boeing CH-47F Chinook helicopters. The UAV fleet will one day be augmented by the US Guardian drones, and indigenous Rustam, AURA and other combat UAVs.

India has used offensive air power against insurgents in the past. Political assessment and will power are required. Air power is the best means today to perform special operations, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, covert ops, hostage rescue, high-value target hunting or neutralization among others.

Military Affairs