There are very few countries in the contemporary world who can state with equanimity that either terrorists or extremist/radical groups do not pose a threat to their infrastructure or population. Radical groups, by their audacious and attention grabbing actions are looking for recognition and acknowledgement, especially by the media and through them the world at large. The more audacious the attack the more the effect and as a corollary, attacks against security forces/ establishments really boost their ego no end.
A military base, especially an Air Force base offers limitless possibilities to the enterprising attacker/infiltrator. Faced with soft targets of immense value, the destruction of which will reverberate not only in the corridors of power but will have national impact, a potential aggressor could cause irreparable damage. Because of a certain predictable layout and the presence of high value assets, an attack on an air base would offer far greater returns to the enemy than possibly any other military target. Thus this article will confine itself to considering the defence of an air base, whether in tranquil conditions or in a hostile environment.
An air base is a beehive of activity which, even in peacetime conditions commences its routine pre-dawn and continues through the day and well into the night. The highly sophisticated aeroplanes, fighters, transport or helicopters, not to mention radars and communication networks, which populate the base, are replete with state-of-the-art systems which need care and attention. The platforms themselves, while geared to foray into enemy territory and face a myriad range of anti-aircraft weapons, have to use their speed, agility and on-board systems to avoid being shot down. But to do this one has to compromise on the heavy armour plating that exists on a tank or a ship and therefore aeroplanes are constructed with light composite and metal alloys, offering themselves as soft-skin targets. So while their speed and agility keeps them safe in the skies, parked on ground they are sitting ducks. In 1921, Italian General Giulio Douhet had made a scathing statement when he said, “It is easier and more effective to destroy the enemy’s aerial power by destroying his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air”. The statement had great meaning, highlighting the fact that the imperious effect of air power can most certainly be calamitously reduced because of its vulnerability on ground.
While the aeroplane itself is a key target and its destruction on ground could have strategic consequences, similar effects could also be created by causing destruction and disability to the engineering and support services on which a sophisticated aerial machine will naturally be dependent upon. From bulk petroleum installations (BPIs) to hangars, sensitive laboratories and critical communication centres, all provide huge opportunities and targets to an attacking element.
Counter air operations (CAO), while undertaken at the operational level of war, have deep strategic impact because of the sheer all pervasive effect of air power in the conduct of war. Since the initial advent of the aeroplane in the battle arena it became evident that control of the third dimension was the key to victory. Through the last century this factor has not only proven true but has enhanced its aura such that without air power, no victory can be achieved. Thus, to cripple an adversary’s air power is a major task that is given to the armed forces of a country as they go into war.
As the forward air bases became vulnerable to not only aerial attacks but also came under the increasing length of the long range artillery footprint, it has become necessary to avoid maintaining high value assets in situ. The progressive enhancement in platform performance, the facility of in-flight refuelling to extend their range and availability of early warning of approaching raids through constantly improving systems have permitted aeroplanes, both fighters and transports, to be placed well back from the borders.
But this was because of hard lessons learnt over the years and at some cost to an unfortunate victim. Probably the most classic example of an effective counter air operation was during the North African campaign in WW II. The destruction of over 400 aircraft on ground decimated almost 70 percent of the air power capability of the Luftwaffe in North Africa at that point in time. The mission was executed by inserting the British Special Air Services (SAS) to clandestinely plant explosives on the loosely protected aircraft, parked in open tarmacs. In another instance, displaying stand-off capability, the Vietcong destroyed 20 USAF aeroplanes with mortar shelling at Bien Hoa AFB, South Vietnam. The unparalleled surprise attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in 1941 not only broke the backbone of the American Pacific Fleet, it also wreaked havoc on the aeroplanes parked in open tarmacs at Hickam Field AFB. Counter air strikes accounted for numerous aircraft of the Egyptian Air Force, parked in open tarmacs, being destroyed by the Israelis in 1967 and nearer home, in a terrorist strike on the Sri Lankan airbase of Katunayake, valuable transport and fighter assets were destroyed on the tarmac.
Air Base Attack
An air base attack could be for the purposes of capture to create an air-head or it could be for the purpose of creating damage and destruction. The former is likely to be undertaken only in conditions of total war and the necessity to leapfrog the forces. While the concept still exists, its contemporary execution is most unlikely, especially in the sub-continental scenario. Additionally, capture of an airfield, highly populated and armed, will require a large force to be air landed/ dropped to achieve success.
Crippling attacks, as has been demonstrated, can be executed by a handful of well trained men. The expanse of an air base, the large swaths of dark areas, especially close to tarmacs and runways, offers huge scope to an attacker in a penetration mission. Thus, it is more likely than not, that an enemy may want to be as unobtrusive as possible, infiltrate the minimum number of attackers as is necessary for the mission and expect a favourable impact through the destruction of valuable assets on the base. The other advantage of using minimalist attackers is that it does not need a declaration of war for perpetrating destruction on the base. Terrorism has raised its ugly head and small teams of jihadis / extremists are willing to lay down their lives in the execution of terrorist tasks which, while having caused the desired damage, brings to prominence their identity. So, rather than a full blown attack, even during hostilities, an air base must guard against small, well trained and committed groups of attackers, who could strike during peace or in wartime.
The Defence of the Air Base
Intelligence: While a small group of attackers would rely on the element of surprise to achieve success, more often than not intelligence inputs are available on the presence of undesirable elements in the vicinity. Because of the vulnerability of an air base and its accessibility, close liaison with the local civil administration and police forces with regular meetings are an absolute necessity. The import and consequences of an attack on an air base must be fully understood by the local administration.
There was a time when air bases were located 10-20 miles from a nearby city, which not only afforded privacy but kept the population safe from likely air crashes. However, the growing population, the need for these people to find employment and growth of industry has pushed urbanisation almost to the perimeters of air bases, flouting security and safety norms in many cases. This has complicated the issue of securing air base access and intelligence gathering in the vicinity of the airbase. HUMINT will play a major part in such cases with regular CCTV analysis by the local police also playing a significant role.
Check List: While this may seem insignificant at first glance, there is probably no other foolproof system than a check-list for reference. Under stress, the human brain is likely to miss out on possible key issues which can be overcome by reference to a check-list. While every Commander has to develop check-list specific to his base and environment, a rough template may guide him to cover any possible lacuna. Some important issues that need to be addressed in the check-list are represented below:
- Threat Levels: Lay down specific threat levels that the base could experience (say, Level Alpha / Bravo / Charlie, etc) with correlation to intelligence inputs.
- Objectives: These would comprise issues such as ‘Unhampered air operations’, ‘Uninterrupted support services for air operations’ (like security of bulk petroleum installations, air traffic services, radar operations, communication networks), ‘High security for C2 nodes and Ops Rooms’, ‘Tiered defence mechanism’ (effective day and night), ‘Quick Reaction Team’ (composition / equipment & weapons / mobility, etc), ‘Augmentation of forces in contingent conditions’.
- Intelligence: Create an effective intelligence network in the area of influence / interest that may affect the air base.
- C2 Centres: To be effective and exercise control, the airbase must be geographically demarcated in sectors, each sector having accessibility and its organic defence mechanism. This would enable concentration of force on any infiltrating element in that sector as well as isolating and insulating it from the rest of the base. Delegated command and control as also delegated decision making should be clearly laid down and is an absolute necessity.
- Dispersal of Assets: Assets on an air base must be well dispersed to prevent collateral damage. High value assets must be given further protection, like hardened shelters, point defence security, etc.
- Security: The essence of air base defence is the security apparatus that is set up by the Commander. A base has to be able to defend itself with its organic elements and manpower. Because of the geographical spread of an air base, a Commander must follow two basic principles of war, that of ‘Unity of Effort’ and ‘Economy of Force’, to be effective. He must remember that he has to fight his own battle and augmentation or assistance is just a bonus. The security apparatus is discussed in succeeding paragraphs.
Security Apparatus: Intimate knowledge of the geography of the air base and its surrounding areas is a must for every Commander. He must survey his base in detail so that in an emergent situation he knows where to direct the effort. In an air base attack, it will finally be his appreciation of the threat, knowledge of his assets, the training he has imparted to the personnel and his equipment, which will all focus towards countering the threat. Terrorism having spread globally, the level of threat to an air base becomes automatically enhanced. Thus, the awareness of the threat and regular training in air base defence is imperative to keep the machinery well oiled and effective. It must be remembered that active ground defence is not an “emergency function” but rather a continuous and on-going operation.
Identifying and discussing each item of the security apparatus is a subject by itself and this will not be undertaken here. A quick overview of the items involved will offer the perspective and the range of issues involved.
- Perimeter Fencing: Two tiered barbed wire fencing is a necessity with the third tier around units established with high value assets.
- Access Control: Both for vehicles (gates / pillar barrier / tyre-shredders, etc) and personnel (IDs / bio-metric systems / swipe cards), not only at gates but also while entering units / sections. The human element (most susceptible) must be eliminated as far as possible and all access should be electronically controlled.
- Guard Dogs: Trained guard dogs must be patrolled on a random selection of routes and times, through the base and along the perimeter.
- CCTV: This versatile and extensively used surveillance equipment can be extremely effective along the perimeter of an air base. Planned and strategically positioned at various places on the perimeter fence, it goes a long way in ensuring security. It goes without saying that all buildings, aircraft shelters, tarmacs and access areas should be covered by CCTVs.
- Surveillance Drones: Extensive policing work is being done by surveillance drones the world over. Equipped with both day and night sensors, random patrolling (no fixed pattern) of the perimeter and surrounding areas would be an effective surveillance technique.
- Quick Reaction Team (QRT): A QRT designed for air base defence actually performs a specialised task. It is not merely to do lip service, using its presence as a deterrence (as the IAF does), but has to be trained to address a specific nature of threat which could employ different methods of attack / destruction.
- QRT Equipment: As the first line of defence when the perimeter is breached and an air base infiltrated, the QRT has to have effective mobility with the vehicle providing partial armour protection, in case the QRT comes under direct fire as they approach the infiltrators. Bullet proof vests and NVGs are a necessity and the team must be equipped with suitable weapons with night sights. The QRT must be on a secure communication network which would give them uninterrupted dialogue with the Ops Room control and shorten the coordination and decision matrix. Needless to say, every transmission by the QRT has to have a GPS identification location which would show up on the electronic map of the air base in the Ops Room.
- Training: As mentioned earlier, QRT is a specialised job with specialised skill requirements and versatility in execution. This cannot be done by the run-of-the-mill airmen on the base. Thus specialised training and skilling has to be imparted. It is also essential to put the air base through regular training drills of simulated air base attacks so that the awareness of the population of the base is raised and their response in a crisis is not stilted.
Case for a Special Base Defence / Response Force for the IAF
The widely distributed air bases in the vast geographical expanse of the Indian hinterland has increased their vulnerability. Undesirable elements, jihadis, extremists, terrorists, are all looking at opportunities to undertake operations which will sensationalise the act. Operating in small motivated teams they can pose a major threat to an air base and high value assets housed therein. In the present day security environment, ad hoc measures to provide air base defence can well nigh ring the death knell for an air base. The criticality of the assets and their vulnerability may have been understood but the specialisation required when an actual air base attack takes place is still not taken seriously. It is a known fact that the Commander at the field level is most concerned about the security of his base whereas the higher organisations that are to provide him the support do not share the same emotional empathy. Having learnt bitter lessons, the RAF Regiment was created on 1st Feb 1942 and the US Army Air Force followed soon thereafter with an Airbase Security Battalion, which became the USAF Air Police Forces in 1947 and finally the Khobar Tower bombing by terrorists in Saudi Arabia in 1996 prompted the USAF to create the 820th Security Forces Group, entirely dedicated to Air Base Ground Defence (ABGD).
It is my personal opinion that the IAF needs to create a new force, in fact a dedicated force specialised and trained in air base defence. Every base must have a dedicated team which should exist at a base for 5 years before they are considered for rotation. While the establishment of a cadre may not be necessary, the specific role of this force must be defined (Doctrine ?) and their establishment created.
History has proved that air bases are vulnerable to attacks by Special Forces, extremists or terrorist groups and the effect of a successful attack can be catastrophic, with strategic consequences. If this be so, then the turbulent security environment in our country and air base defence should be a cause for concern for the IAF top brass. The IAF is in a state of transformation and acquisition of big ticket items with hefty price tags actually place a heavy burden to keep them safe and secure. Air base defence is no more a thing of “Quarterly Exercise” to iron out procedures and check the sirens. The threat is real. The necessity of a dedicated force to combat this threat at all times cannot be wished away. It is time for the IAF to give a serious thought to raising a dedicated Base Defence / Response Force and train and equip them to be effective in their role.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.