The infiltration of terrorists and the attack at Pathankot airfield brought out the deepest fears I harboured while I was in the service. As front line pilots, we spent our lives in the secure sanctum of air bases, cocooned from the hustle and bustle of the daily life of the ordinary citizen.
As in the case of any military establishment, the airbases were always protected – initially by low four feet walls (yes, actually!), then graduated to barbed wire fencing, first one then two tiers, topped by concertina barbed rolls and finally ten feet high walls supplemented by the barbed wire fences. What a dramatic change in five decades! The reason was that the seemingly indestructible structure of secure military establishments was progressively being put to the test by the enemy through covert operations.
One remembers, with nostalgia, the Orderly Officer/ Duty Officer duties that were (and still are) an inherent part of the charter that one was expected to fulfil and how we went around in the middle of the night (especially choosing un-earthly hours) to catch the snoozing DSC guard.
With air bases being located away from cities and population (up to the ‘80s or so) being relatively sparse, thickly wooded areas and brush provided a natural camouflage to the base and kept it shielded from prying eyes. Wildlife, in the form of nilgai, deer, wild boar, and even leopards (not to mention the elephants in the East) abounded in the vicinity.
The quiet peaceful environment, other than the flying hours, eminently suited their habitat and provided them with a natural sanctuary. However, they excelled in digging tunnels under the barbed wire fence to access the base or sometimes just broke through to enter. Over the years, broken perimeter fencing was a recurring issue. The Garrison Engineer (GE) would invariably be pulled up but it would take interminably long to repair the breach. We were lucky. Times were favourable.
Covert operations, to access information from military installations, are as old as the military itself. While in earlier times it was to progressively build up a database and then target the infirmities to degrade the enemy in times of war, the situation today is no more passive in its approach and methodology.
The influx of money, sophisticated arms and other weapons and finally, the radicalisation of dissatisfied youth, has proliferated and emboldened a host of terrorists who are willing to lay down their lives in their search for “Valhalla – in the arms of 72 virgins”. While creating mayhem and bloodshed in crowded areas, targeting the masses has had the desired effect, the spectre of the catastrophic effect that similar attacks on high-value assets can send a chill down anyone’s spine. The escalation is a natural progression.
Notwithstanding the bluster and macho goings-on in military establishments, they have inherent susceptibility to external attack during their routine peacetime operations. The false sense of security enjoyed three decades ago, is history. The need of the hour is alertness. And of the three services, perhaps the Air Force is the most vulnerable. Huge airfield areas with perimeter lengths anything between 25- 35 km, housing the most sophisticated and high-value military assets, airbases have come into the sights of the terrorists.
Pathankot was a wake-up call and the IAF has since begun a systematic and concerted programme to protect its assets. Passive systems like boundary walls/ fencing, which retain their potential are being supplemented by sensor-based active systems.
CCTV and motion sensors are providing the necessary inputs to the Quick Reaction Teams (QRT) and the introduction of ‘drone patrol’ is under serious consideration. There is an urgent need to ensure perimeter roads are well maintained for the QRT to rapidly reach a breached zone. I would propose the IAF seriously consider establishing the equivalent of the RAF Regiment which undergoes specialised training, is equipped specific to the task and forms a dedicated sub-organisation for protection of military installations. These specially trained units will be in addition to the Defence Security Corps (DSC) which is tasked for basic installation defence.
High stakes are involved. The targets are soft and there is decided concern. Airbase and installation defence needs to be specialised with troops trained alongside Special Forces to understand their warfare and be prepared. Use of technology to enable detection is an absolute necessity. The IAF needs to explore the possibility of creating a cadre dedicated to this task considering the far-flung IAF bases and installations across the country. Alternatively, bifurcate the Garud force into offensive and defensive elements, the latter dedicated to base/ installation protection.
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.