The Pathankot Air Base Terrorist Attack

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2016
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Pathankot Revisited
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Friday, February 19, 2016

Luck, military skill, ‘Me-First’ bravery and…intelligence - They all combined to overcome what could have been Armageddon. Let’s  for once forego vicious criticism…Let’s instead , celebrate what we did right; review with critical skill and detachment what needs improvement…Brave men lost their lives for the Idea of India; let’s not revile them; denigrate their sacrifice. Instead, let us salute their deeds and sacrifices generously…

Pathankot, Punjab, is an ancient city once part of the princely state of Nurpur. A prosperous Shiwalik foothills timber-and-stone-quarry centre and a District HQ since 2011, the green city stands strait-jacketed by the Ravi and Beas Rivers and their tributaries; Ujh and Chakki and is intersected by lush, riverine, often forested undulating terrain.  Called Paithan in Mughal times, it was ruled from antiquity till the 17th century by Pathania Rajputs; a Tomar clan of Chandravanshi Rajputs claiming descent from Mahabharata brave-heart Arjuna. Pathankot has a Shiv temple on the Beas River, 25 kms away near Mirthal, from where Alexander the Great turned back for Greece in 325 BCE. Pathankot thus has military historicity in its genes - reflected today not just in its strategic connectivity to Punjab/J&K/HP but equally in its historic Air Base and ace Mamun Army Garrison manned by cutting-edge troops of all disciplines. It was from Pathankot Air Base that, at 5:19 PM on 01 Sep 1965 after Air Chief (now MIAF) Arjan Singh, DFC had ordered retaliation at Chhamb, that a 22 aircraft strike mission took off. That bold strike by the IAF in the gathering darkness took Pakistan by shock and, along with resolute ground action, helped forestall their march to Akhnoor…The rest, as they say is history…

This is one reason why the post-terror-strike ignominy that has befallen Pathankot in general and the Air Base in particular is hard to countenance. On detached analysis, the cacophony of abject failure seems strangely warped and distorted, more so because most critics have pre-judged the terror attack without any idea of the damning possibilities had things really gone awry. Had the terrorists succeeded in taking out some aircraft (the MiG-21 variant the Air Base holds costs around Rs 15 crores each and the Mi-35 Attack Helicopter many crores more), radars, the ATC; had they detonated the on-site fuel/ ammunition depots, the ancient city of two lakhs would have been pulverized with the resultant detonation of high-grade explosives and projectiles that (in the case of ammunition) would have continued blasting over days as had accidentally occurred at Kaluchak, J&K, 75 kms away in 1976 when an Army Ammunition Depot had caught fire and ammunition kept detonating for days. Analysts will also do well to remember that when the Kiamari, Karachi Oil Farm was targeted by Indian Navy Missile Boats during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the resultant fuel fires could not be controlled for days on end.

None of that gigantic scale of catastrophe(s) happened because, errors and omissions aside, the terrorists failed to do anything substantial other than shedding the blood of brave-heart uniformed men who fought for the Idea of India as best they could. Yes, for six terrorists shot, we suffered seven dead (a Garud Commando; an NSG officer and 5 DSC personnel) and had 8 IAF and 13 NSG personnel wounded; some seriously. Undoubtedly, a heavy price was paid but this sacrifice was still far lesser than if the terrorists had carried out carnage or the above acts or arson – or taken military personnel/families hostage from among the over 3000 present and massacred those trapped by them. Critics who ignore this strategic gain and, instead, focus on tactical level glitches and loss of brave-hearts display both insensitivity and ignorance.

The Air Base and Terrorist Ingress

To understand what happened, it is necessary to first describe the broad layout of the Air Base. Circumscribed by 11 foot walls with concertina coils and shaded boundary lights  with isolated stands of Eucalyptus and hemmed in by dense civil population all round, the base has to its west, the Pakistani border 30 crow-flight kms away and the NW-SE running Jammu NH 1-A skirting the Base to the north along with Pathankot city. Shaped like a tick-mark, the spine of the 1440 acre Base houses the NNE-SSW oriented runway and much of the Administrative/Domestic Area. The key Technical Area housing the aircraft is located in the toe of the tick-mark, with some technical facilities located in the centre of the Base. A NW-SE aligned canal from the Ravi system splits the Base, separating the two Technical Areas and skirting the runway from the west. It enters/exits the walled perimeter through iron grills. The two terrorist groups are presumed to have entered the Air Base just NW (two terrorists) and west of the canal, the group of four.

It is  known by now that the group of four used a taxi for entry, later executed the driver, switched over to a Punjab Police SP’s car, using its blue beacon to travel unhindered to within a kilometer of the Base, the SP and companions being dumped en route. What is also relevant is that their companions had preceded them inside the Domestic Area of the Base and were chatting with handlers and family, hidden in the high grass as they awaited arrival of their peers laden with heavy back-packs of ammunition,  IED’s, booby traps, assorted grenades, standard weapons, a 2 inch Mortar, satellite GPS-aided cell phones.

How We Reacted…

Reports suggest that in a ‘first’ for India, we knew 24 hours before that a terrorist attack was imminent; knew that the Air Base was the target. NSA Ajit Doval, a decorated-for-bravery (KC) IPS officer of the 1968 IPS batch (Kerala cadre) with wide-ranging exposure to terror took key decisions at a 01 Jan meeting chaired at 1500 hrs by him with the three Chiefs and the heads of the intelligence agencies present. The key decision taken was that the NSG was to fly in with the IAF and Army in support roles.  Forewarned earlier, 160 ‘Buster’ wall busting and Glock/Tavor rifle equipped NSG personnel of 51 SAG (Army) led by Maj Gen Dushyant Singh, IG (Ops) took off at 1500 hrs on 01 Jan along with a Bomb Disposal Squad under FBI trained brave-heart Sapper, Lt Col EK Niranjan, minus his major bomb disposal equipment. The NSG figure on 2/3 Jan built up to 300, with the 13 SRG (Paramilitary) and the K-9 Sniffer Dog squad also joining the action.

Even as the NSG was departing, command of Operation Dhangu Suraksha at Pathankot Air Base under its AOC, Air Cmde JS Dhamoon was given to Commander 51 Infantry Brigade, Brig AS Belvi in whose operational area the Base fell. With the NSG arriving later at night, command shifted to the IG (Ops) Gen Dushyant with 11 JAK RIF under its CO and Team I PARA SF now coming under NSG command and tasked for the Technical Area, the balance responsibility being with the NSG/Garuds/DSC. On 2 Jan, the C-in-C WAC arrived as did DG NSG and a DIG each from BSF and Punjab Police.

A word about the IAF Garuds is warranted. Formed in 2004 after the Army defeated a  terrorist attack on Awantipura Air Base in J&K in 2001, the IAF raised the Garuds as a  Commando Force trained in SF techniques, Combat Search and Rescue, Reconnaissance, Offensive Missions, Counter Insurgency Operations; handling terror-threats to airfields and DM. A ‘Flight’ of 100 odd Garuds was present at the Air Base along with 3-4 Platoons of DSC and some IAF Police for watch-and-ward duties.

What Happened at the Air Base…

Entering the Base on the early morning of 1 Jan 2016 through an unlit part of the perimeter using a nylon rope/eucalyptus tree combination, the four terrorists joined their peers hidden in a different part of the Base. The terrorists, their entry picked up by IAF drone/helicopter mounted thermal imagers remained hidden undetected in thick elephant grass and broken terrain for long hours.

Given their handler’s clearance at 0330 hours on 2 January, they stormed the DSC Langar, killing five DSC men including brave-heart Sep Jagdish Chand who, unarmed, fearlessly chased and shot a terrorist with the terrorist’s rifle before falling.

Later, they moved 400 metres towards the Technical Area till brave-heart Garud Corporal Gursewak Singh stopped them from proceeding further into the key area, dying in that exchange of fire.

By 2 January evening 4 terrorists had died and six of our men, including Commonwealth Games Shooting Medalist, Subedar Fateh Singh. On 3 Jan morning, the balance two terrorists made their presence felt and reinforcements rushed in. That afternoon, death came to brave-heart Lt Col EK Niranjan too. 11 JAK RIF had shot two terrorists at the same spot. With terrorists hiding explosives in body cavities, Niranjan, the NSG Bomb Disposal Chief carefully checked out the first body, clearing its further disposal. The second body however had a booby trap hinged to the terrorist’s jacket zipper as had happened at Paris.

In pushing this body closer for inspection, the booby trap got activated. Sensing something amiss, Niranjan screamed a warning and flung himself on the body to shield the others from the inevitable blast…His injuries were fatal; with five of his team also getting wounded but his act saved the lives of the other troops around. “Sahib volunteered for the mission out of turn and led from the front” was all his grieved but proud men could say to his wife.

The encounters continued till the 5th terrorist was killed that day with the 6th reported killed at 1615 hours on 5 January. Detailed screening revealed 29 carefully planted booby traps, each potentially lethal. Of the 6 JeM terrorists shot, one was by Sepoy Jagdish Chand, three by 11 JAK RIF and two by a NSG/BMP combine, the BMP’s coming from Mamun Garrison.

Reactions Abroad and in India

Christine Fair, author of the amazingly coherent denouncement - Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War calls the attack “a manifestation of Pakistan’s national security strategy to pursue its revisionist agenda against India” and few can fault this hypothesis. Myra MacDonald, veteran South Asia watcher who has authored a book on Siachen, Heights of Madness, suggests that “the assault at Pathankot was followed by an attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.” And is not just a manifestation of Pakistan’s “persistent strategic blindness” but also a well choreographed “looseness in command and control that gives plausible deniability to the Pakistani Army” when such high-value attacks take place. Domestic criticism has been savage and linear, with Kolkata’s The Telegraph op-ed, Martyr’s Rites heading the pack with a display of insensitivity, tunnel vision and opacity rarely displayed in print media.

The Way Ahead

Even as a subdued pat on the back is warranted for gaining strategic victory over the Pathankot terror perpetrators and their handlers, it is good to recall that RM Parrikar has clearly stated that “gaps exist” which must be attended to before Pakistan mounts its next such high value attack. Focused intelligence and its supporting/enabling systems, BSF Border Management; the Drug nexus, ace, sensor driven perimeter security, the DSC, a binding SOP for handling crisis with experienced “first responders” available in situ, making available the right respondents for the right jobs, making up critical deficiencies in warlike equipment, better Inter-Service coordination when terror strikes, setting up pragmatic command and control systems, accepting that casualties will always take place when terror strikes and honouring, not denigrating such losses of brave men, joint training, war-gaming and rehearsals, thinking through and thinking ahead are all areas of improvement that now need institutionalization. The time to start is now.