Faced with the third and most potent attempt of a coup d’état in November 1988 (earlier ones being 1980 and 1983), Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom appealed personally and though the Maldivian ambassador to the UN for military assistance from several countries, including India, the US, Britain, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and some other Asian countries. Sri Lanka put 85 commandos on standby at Ratmalana air base, Colombo and Malaysia alerted its navy. US Marines at Diego Garcia too were placed on alert but the Reagan administration chose to work with Britain to help coordinate a response from India. The attempted coup was the handiwork of a group of Maldivian’s led by businessman Abdullah Luthufi and assisted by some 80-200 mercenaries from Sri Lanka’s Tamil insurgent group People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) who infiltrated the Maldivian capital of Malé. The mercenaries quickly gained control of the capital, including major government buildings, airport, port and television and radio stations. However, President Gayoom managed to escape capture and took refuge in Maldives National Security Service headquarters.
India responded with alacrity under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – same day as President Gayoom requested intervention. Under codename Op ‘Cactus’, the operation commenced with elements of 50 (I) Parachute Brigade Group airlifted in IL-76 aircraft OUT OF AREA CONTINGENCIES Need to Fine Tune Response Lt Gen. PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC FORCE PROJECTION 14-17-Gen Katoch_14_19_ BEING A FLY GIRL.qxd 5/22/2016 11:27 AM Page 1 ex Agra on night of November 3, 1988, flying non-stop over 2,000 kms, landing over Male’s International airport at Hulhule. Additional Indian troops were transported by air and by sea from Cochin and IAF Mirages were deployed over Malé as a show of force. Indian troops had arrived within nine hours of President Gayoom making the appeal to India. The airfield was quickly secured, Male was reached in commandeered boats, President Gayoom rescued and control of the capital restored within hours. Some mercenaries hijacked a freighter, fleeing towards Sri Lanka with 27 hostages but were intercepted by INS Godavari and INS Betwa off the Sri Lanka coast and captured. Those mercenaries unable to make it to the hijacked freighter were rounded up and handed over to Maldivian security forces. 19 people reportedly died in the fighting, mostly mercenaries and two hostages killed by the mercenaries. Most of the 1600 odd Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldives after order was restored. Some 150 troops stayed on for a year in Maldives on request of President Gayoom. A landmark in responding to out of area contingency (OOAC) had been achieved by India that attracted international accolades. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went on record to say, “Thank God for India: President Gayoom’s government has been saved. We could not have assembled and dispatched a force from here in good time to help him”. India had demonstrated that it could execute a combined services operation in an efficient and timely manner.
The above operation is a model often cited for India’s increasing role as a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). But let us examine if there are lessons to be drawn from this OOAC mission to Maldives, considering what went on behind the scenes. First, Maldives will always remain an OOAC task for India. With its location 600 km off the southwest coast of India and 750 km southwest of Sri Lanka, its geostrategic value lies in the fact that it sits astride three of the most important SLOCs through which most of India’s trade and oil requirements pass. Yet, when India was required to respond to President Gayoom’s appeal, there were no maps of Maldives available. The Director R&AW could sheepishly produce only a ‘tourist’ map of Maldives. It is on this map that Operation ‘Cactus’ was mounted. Second, little information was available about the geography of the target area and the deployment areas of the mercenaries and Maldivian rebels. Third, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had originally assigned the task to the National Security Guard (NSG). The NSG was raised in 1984, following Operation ‘Blue Star’ and the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, as a specialised counter terrorism force. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been so impressed by witnessing live a massive anti-hijack exercise by the NSG conducted without prior warnings to airlines that he directed that the then IG (Ops) NSG, Maj. Gen. Naresh Kumar (on deputation from the Army) be awarded a PVSM. The Army raised objections saying General Naresh Kumar already was recipient of PVSM and there was no precedent of awarding a second PVSM, but naturally directions of the PM prevailed; General Naresh Kumar remains the only recipient of a PVSM and Bar to date. But getting back to the task allotted to NSG for rescuing President Gayoom and restoring order in the Maldivian capital Male, the intrepid General Naresh Kumar pointed out the following to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: One, in absence of concrete information, aircraft carrying NSG personnel may not be able to land at Hulhule airfield if fired upon from ground by mercenaries; two, India would lose precious time in case a second force was required to be launched with NSG having travelled over 2000 kms and unable to land, and; third, it would be best to allot the task instead of NSG to the Parachute Brigade whose troops could undertake parachute drops at Hulhule if landing aircraft was not possible.
That is how the task for rescuing President Gayoom and restoring order in Male was shifted from the NSG to the Army. What could have gone wrong? The NSG could have travelled all the way and turned back from Hulhule encountering ground fire. By the time a second force was launched, the mercenaries could have consolidated and reinforced having been alerted by the unsuccessful intervention, making it much more difficult for a second force. As for the Army troops approaching Hulhule, the mercenaries could have held and fired from the airstrip, cratered it or simply blocked the runway with a vehicle or another temporary obstacle, denying aircraft landings. In such eventuality, the blind drop of parachute troops could have landed part of the troops into the sea. Concurrent to Op ‘Cactus’ were the ongoing operations of the IPKF in Sri Lanka launched in 1987 under Op ‘Pawan’. Troops in IPKF were slightly better off in not being launched on tourist maps but were surprised to discover that maps with the Sri Lankan Army were far superior than those issued to IPKF units in terms of physical details and accuracy. Drop zones chosen of the map adjacent to jetties in case of LTTE resistance were found to be highly unsuitable on ground. Ironically, maps continue to be the bane of Indian security forces as updating of maps of areas even within India is some three decades behind schedule.
Intelligence is vital for any operation particularly OOACs where these are to be conducted on unchartered foreign territory. Last minute intelligence inputs coming in would hardly suffice, as was in the above case of Maldives. Intelligence building has to be a continuous process coordinating all source intelligence. The lack of coordination between our multiple intelligence agencies is no secret and all efforts for bringing them under parliamentary oversight have been in vain. Why we have continuously suffered dearth of intelligence is best described by former Joint Director IB, MK Dhar in his book ‘Open Secrets – India’s Intelligence Unveiled’ published in 2005 wherein he wrote that irrespective of which government was in power, the compete intelligence set up was focused on how to do down the opposition parties. HUMINT will continue to be the heart, soul and brain of intelligence in 21st century conflict situations. It is the HUMINT factor that has enhanced the asymmetric advantage of our adversaries, placing us at serious disadvantage while facing non-traditional threats. Reliance on TECHINT alone is wholly inadequate albeit it was convenient for past governments to obfuscate lack of a coherent intelligence strategy and mismatched inter-agency synergy and functioning. Within the country, while media encourages the citizen journalist concept, the establishment has no such concept – the feasibility of ‘billion eyes on the ground’ has never been explored. A country like Maldives with some 70,000 foreign employees has thousands of Indians; some 29,000 Indians live and work in the Maldives, many in the tourism sector, and almost 22,000 of them live in Male, who could be a continuous source of information gathering. As per media reports of last year, the NSA is refurbishing the intelligence set up by broadening the manpower base pan-India for intelligence operatives and young well educated youth are volunteering to join up. However, considering the established fact that nearly 80 per centof information sought is available as open sources intelligence (OSINT), the vast Indian diaspora abroad too must be selectively optimised for information gathering.
In terms of synergising intelligence, the national information grid (NATGRID) appears still hiccupping and the national counterterrorism centre (NCTC) has not even taken off. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), though mandated to operate transborder sources has not been permitted to do so over the past decade plus. Whether the present government would permit the DIA to do so also remains a question mark. Lack of HUMINT contributes to our inability to strategise and cope with irregular and asymmetric threats including assessing upcoming OOACs. Additionally, the DIA is the central repository for all intelligence inputs pertaining to the three Services including Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) however; we are yet to integrate the aspects of topography with the DIA. Within the existing setup, adequate resources in terms of remote sensing, ELINT payloads and cartography are not available to produce high quality fused data. Therefore, we have not been able to capitalise on geographical intelligence (GEOINT). HUMINT, TECHINT, GEOINT together with signal intelligence (SIGINT), all source intelligence, duly integrated with modern surveillance technology and processing capacity greatly enhances situational awareness, assists the decision support system and leads to better decision-making. A vital requirement also is to monitor the cyberspace, which is a gigantic task. What we need is a complete surveillance system that would capture mobile communications data, including Wi-Fi, all broadband internet traffic, and any data transmitted over 3G in seamless manner that would not be detected or visible to the subscriber.
Another vital void that India has been facing is penetrative intelligence capabilities which advanced armies have achieved by covertly deploying Special Forces strategically, duly integrated with intelligence agencies, on politico-military missions. Their tasks include continuous surveillance of areas of strategic intelligence, perception management and shaping the environment in favour of own country. Ironically, India’s Special Forces employment abroad has largely been limited to IPKF operations in Sri Lanka and UN missions. One of the major reasons for this is that R&AW considers such operations as their exclusive domain. This is why our experiments with organisations like the LTTE and EROS were dismal failures. Not deploying our Special Forces strategically in covert fashion has been to our strategic disadvantage. Such deployment would contribute immensely towards success of OOAC missions.
In the current set up, HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) is operationally tasked to undertake OOACs. In fact, this is the only operational responsibility of HQ IDS under existing arrangement of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) being a rotational appointment. Both the K Subrahmanyam headed Kargil Review Committee and the follow up Group of Ministers Reports had recommended the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) but this has not been implemented. Instead, the Naresh Chandra Committee on national security that submitted its report in May 2012 recommended a permanent Chairman of COSC. Manoj Joshi, member of this committee later disclosed that MoD did not want CDS because they thought that the Defence Secretary and his IAS colleagues will be “somehow diminished”. In absence of a CDS, synergy within the military will remain a misnomer. Presently, the Services neither have compatible communication sets nor common data structures, symbology, interoperable protocols and the like. Dedicated strategic communications are necessary for OOACs. Capacity building in terms of C4I2SR is moving at excruciatingly slow pace, particularly at the inter-service level. All this adversely affects execution of OOAC missions where jointness is vital.
Together with logistics, preparation and training of task forces for each OOAC mission are essential. HQ IDS does have contingency plans worked out but the quantum of forces, equipment and resources have common base from within the military. Therefore, preparation and training has to be that much continuous ensuring to the extent possible that certain percentage of troops for particular mission can form part of the task force when execution becomes necessary. This would not only need a CDS but also an institutionalised set up within HQ IDS to: continuously assess and review OOAC tasks; refine the execution of individual missions taking into account the resources, means of insertion and extraction, communications and logistics, security; and, organise periodic training at required levels.
India’s role abroad in disaster relief has been praised internationally including when responding to the 2004 tsunami disaster. Latter required coordination at the national and international levels, including between MEA, MOD, HQ IDS, multiple ministries, departments and aid agencies – all coordinated through the Crisis Committee and periodic meetings at the interim national command post. However, disaster relief is only one part of OOACs that India faces. With the centre of gravity of future conflict veering towards the Indian Ocean Region, India’s volatile neighbourhood and the rising scourge of terrorism coupled with our adversaries waging asymmetric war on us, many more contingencies may be in the offing. We need to therefore prepare much more for future OOACs taking into consideration the issues discussed above.
The Author is a Special Forces veteran of the Indian Army.